War veteran recalls naval service days

By Michael Roberts | posted on August 13, 2020

WORLD War II veteran Bertram Hastie turns 97 next month, but you wouldn’t have guessed it.

The spritely nonagenarian is as sharp as a tack and still remembers vivid details of his time spent at sea serving in the Australian navy during history’s deadliest military conflict.

Mr Hastie was just 18 when the news came through in September 1939 that Britain had declared war on Germany.

In those days there was a strong expectation for young men to sign up with the armed forces when duty called, according to Mr Hastie.

And even more so when your father was a Gallipoli veteran from World War I.

“I came from a strong naval background on my mother’s side and my father fought in the army in the First World War,” Mr Hastie told The Weekender.

“I went into the navy at 18 and was sent to the Flinders Naval Depot in Victoria for initial training at HMAS Cerberus.”

After three months of training, Mr Hastie qualified as an ordinary seaman and was given two weeks leave to return home to family before being drafted.

His return to WA came with a slight hiccup however.

On the way back to Perth, Mr Hastie contracted mumps and was placed in a private South Fremantle hospital away from him fellow seamen.

This chain of events was the start of a huge mix up where he was incorrectly labelled a deserter.

The day after the young seaman got a train back to Victoria, naval police stopped by his Perth home to check on Mr Hastie’s whereabouts and told his parents he was a runaway.

Even though Mr Hastie’s father knew his son wasn’t a deserter, it caused a big stir in the family.

“Mum said the impact on my father was beyond belief,” Mr Hastie said.

“He was a Gallipoli veteran. You couldn’t have insulted him anymore than to call his son a deserter. He would have disowned me.

“Dad wrote to the Prime Minster and talked to the naval authorities and told them to get their facts right. The navy must have gone away and had to re-think it all because I was obviously still serving.

“They must have lost track of me once I went into a private hospital. I was totally unaware about it. But after the war Mum told me.”

Blissfully unaware of the debacle, Mr Hastie was drafted to an armed merchant cruiser, HMAS Westralia, which was used to escort convoys in the Pacific and Indian oceans.

At that time of the war, Australian merchant ships on the east coast were being targeted by Japanese submarines in an effort to disrupt supply lines.

Many were sunk.

Determined to help out, Mr Hastie transferred to a branch of the navy specifically tasked with defending those important merchant ships.

Mr Hastie then spent the rest of the war as a seaman gunner on armoured merchant ships, sailing the lengths of the Indian Ocean to the likes of India, Sri Lanka and Mauritius.

Luckily, the young seaman never had to fight off a Japanese submarine attack, but he says the ship wouldn’t have stood much of a chance anyway.

“I thought at the time you can be involved in the defence of these ships, but in reality we couldn’t do anything,” Mr Hastie said.

“If we were hit by a torpedo that would have been it.”

This week marks 75 years since the official end of World War II and Mr Hastie is one of only a small handful of local veterans still able to share their unique story in person.

The Albany RSL is hosting a commemorative service this Sunday, August 16 at 2pm at the Albany War Memorial on York Street to mark the special occasion.

With poor weather forecast, the service may be held inside St John’s Anglican Church.