Hero up for Victoria Cross

THE Northern Rivers may get a second Victoria Cross hero with a Lismore man on a select list of World War I and II servicemen being considered for the honour.

The review of past acts of gallantry and valour puts Lismore-born Lieutenant Commander Francis Edward Smith in a group that also includes Private John Simpson Kirkpatrick – who became a folk hero collecting the wounded with a donkey on the battlefield of Gallipoli.

It also puts him among a handful of people being considered for what could be the Royal Australian Navy’s first Victoria Cross – the nation’s highest military honour.

Lieutenant Commander Francis Edward Smith was First Lieutenant on the Grimsby class sloop HMAS Yarra, sunk by the Japanese in the Java Sea while escorting a convoy from Indonesia to Fremantle on March 4, 1942.

Yarra was heavily out-gunned in the battle. She faced three Japanese heavy cruisers, Atago, Takao and Maya, each sporting 10 eight-inch guns next to Yarra’s three four-inch guns.

The Japanese had greater range and power on their guns and their ships. The Australians had no chance and they knew it.

However, instead of running, the Yarra’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Robert William Rankin – also listed among those being considered for a Victoria Cross – ordered the convoy to scatter while Yarra laid down a smoke screen and tried to distract the enemy to give the ships enough time to escape.

The effort failed. All ships in the convoy were sunk, but that wasn’t for a lack of effort on behalf of the Yarra’s crew. They continued firing on the Japanese cruisers even as the sloop burned and listed from repeated hits.

Lt Cmdr Rankin eventually ordered the crew to abandon ship, but was killed minutes later when a salvo of eight-inch shells hit the bridge.

Even then, with her commander gone and the sloop all but destroyed, Yarra kept on fighting.

Leading Seaman Ron Taylor, also now being considered for a Victoria Cross, was on Yarra’s last remaining gun and continued pouring fire at the heavy cruisers until he too was killed.

There are few details of Lt Cmdr Smith’s role in the battle, but as a senior officer it would have been substantial. We know he went down with the ship and had been highly praised as Officer of Quarters for the No. 3 gun, which was knocked out by the Japanese before Leading Seaman Taylor’s No. 2 gun.

Beyond that, we know he was born in Lismore to Margaret and Frank Smith in 1908 or 1909. He was an engineer by trade and, at the time of his death, aged 33, lived in the (then) working class suburb of Coorparoo in inner Brisbane, where he lived with his wife Vivienne.

Page MP Janelle Saffin said she had asked her staff to start searching for more details about Lt Cmdr Smith, and hoped others might come forward with information about him.

Ms Saffin said it was good to see efforts to recognise some of Australia’s unsung heroes.

“People have talked about them for years, I think it’s great,” she said.

“When I read one of them was from Lismore, obviously I was really excited about that.”

Lismore RSL sub-branch member and military history buff Bob Mowle said Lt Cmdr Smith’s Victoria Cross, if he were awarded one, would be the region’s second.

The first went to Private Patrick (Paddy) Joseph Bugden of Tatham.

Mr Mowle said he had not heard of Lt Cmdr Smith before, but would be checking records to find details on him.

Lismore RSL sub branch honorary secretary Wilson McLelland said he had also not heard of Lt Cmdr Smith and the local connection had not been mentioned during a sub branch meeting on Saturday, even though the review was discussed.

“If we got someone from Lismore (receiving a Victoria Cross), that would be fantastic for the area,” he said.

Parliamentary Secretary for Defence David Feeney said the independent Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal would look into each of the 13 servicemen’s stories.

“I am also pleased to announce that as part of this Inquiry, the Tribunal will receive submissions from interested members of the public for other Defence Force members who may also be worthy of appropriate recognition for an act of gallantry or valour,” he said.

“However, it is important that these submissions are supported by appropriate documentation, not just anecdotal evidence.”

Submissions to the Inquiry will close on 30 June 2011. The full terms of reference for the inquiry and guidance on how to make a submission is available at www.defence-honours-tribunal.gov.au.

Up for honours

1. Gunner Albert Neil (Neale) Cleary – Army

2. Midshipman Robert Ian Davies – Navy

3. Leading Cook Francis Bassett Emms – Navy

4. Lieutenant David John Hamer – Navy

5. Private John Simpson Kirkpatrick – Army

6. Lieutenant Commander Robert William Rankin – Navy

7. Able Seaman Dalmorton Joseph Owendale Rudd – Navy

8. Ordinary Seaman Edward Sheean – Navy

9. Leading Aircrewman Noel Ervin Shipp – Navy

10. Lieutenant Commander Francis Edward Smith – Navy

11. Lieutenant Commander Henry Hugh Gordon Dacre Stoker – Navy

12. Leading Seaman Ronald Taylor – Navy

13. Captain Hector Macdonald Laws Waller – Navy

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