Frank McGovern turned 100 years old in 2019; his journey to that milestone defies all logic.
On February 28, 1942, off Java, the Japanese navy slammed 4 torpedoes into Australian cruiser, HMAS Perth (D29), aboard which McGovern served as a 22 year old gunner/able seaman. Captain Hector Waller gave the order to abandon ship after the second torpedo struck.
McGovern jumped in the water and slid towards the propeller.
“I could see the phosphorous in the water. A huge blade going around, and then another one. And I was dragged in towards it. I thought, ‘well, this is it’. I said my last prayer. I was turned over and over as though in a giant washing machine. And then shot out and almost came completely out of the water gasping for air of course”.
Somewhere in the ship’s hold, McGovern’s brother Vincent was not as fortunate, drowning with the other 352 crew lost with the Perth. Of the 328 to survive, McGovern is the last one alive today. That jarring event would traumatically scar anyone’s psyche. McGovern’s catastrophic shipwreck experience was merely the opening act for the tortuous abusive treatment he would be subjected to as a POW, under the Japanese Tojo government. Over the next 3.5 grueling years, his multiple physical and emotional injuries would include a broken back, which still plagues him.
After the HMAS Perth (D29) sinking, McGovern was captured and sent as slave labor on the Burma-Siam railway, a work detail where thousands died from starvation, disease, physical abuse and exhaustion. Just over a year later, he was crammed aboard one of the infamous hell ships bound for Japan, only to experience the horror of being torpedoed a second time. Miraculously surviving, he was recaptured and sent to Japan where he would experience the incendiary firebombing of the Allies as the war closed in on Japan.
During one bombing raid, he was blown into a crater where a large beam of wood landed on his leg, breaking it. Despite his personal injuries, he described the loss of colleague POWs in that raid as being the most cruel and painful experiences to live through. He was taken to a hospital where Japanese doctors were murdering prisoners unable to walk and taking their blood for transfusions to Japanese soldiers. McGovern found the strength to drag himself past the guards with his broken leg.
In 2019 he was presented with the medal of the Order of Australia by the new Governor of NSW, Margaret Beazley. The citation reads for work as founder of the HMAS Perth Association and HMAS Perth Prisoner of War Association. McGovern has served 15 years as secretary for both associations. As a long-serving member of the Coogee-Randwick-Clovelly sub-branch of the RSL, he also received the medal for services to veterans and their families.
McGovern is as modest as he is unassuming. Beneath his kind gentle eyes, lies the legacy of a man tested by the worst of human cruelty; his stoic countenance neither boasts nor bears malice towards his former captors. He credits much of his inner peace to a devotion to the Virgin Mary. For all he has experienced, there are few alive today who could match McGovern’s stature. Darrell Hegarty and Lyle Phillips, secretary and president respectively of the HMAS Perth National Association Inc. were instrumental in allowing me to make contact with Mr. Mc Govern who, despite continued war related health issues, readily agreed to receive the Log Book. (Visit https://www.hmasperth.asn.au/ )
I am indeed fortunate to have family in the NSW area in the persons of Brian Stewart (husband to my niece Joanna) and Michael Devaux (cousin) who facilitated the Book’s Australia logistics.
On 23 July 2018, in a simple but deeply profound encounter, Devaux visited McGovern and witnessed his signature.
On 9 January 2019, Devaux accompanied my sister, Susan Henry, on a second visit to McGovern, sharing some of Henry’s famous homemade coconut cookies.