Merchant Navy Veteran Honoured

Department of Defence

In February 1943, 16-year-old Don Kennedy from Manly, NSW, jumped on board the Norwegian tanker MT Seirstad and cruised out of Sydney Harbour.

It was the start of a short but perilous career in the Merchant Navy. He spent the first 17 months at sea helping transport oil and fuel to allied tanks, ships and planes fighting in World War 2 (WW2).

After being promoted to assistant gunner, then gunner, Mr Kennedy left the ship and later joined the US Army Transport Corps ship, USAT Point San Pedro, on route to New Guinea, providing ammunition and provisions for Australian forces.

Almost 81 years later to the day, Mr Kennedy attended a small ceremony at the United States Consulate General in Sydney, where he was awarded one of the highest honours given by the United States Congress: the Merchant Mariners of WW2 Congressional Gold Medal.

The Congressional Gold Medal honours those whose dedication, heroism and public service have created a lasting impact on American history.

Only a handful of people have received this medal, and of the 184 over the past 224 years, only 14 have been non-US citizens. Mr Kennedy joins an impressive list of recipients including Nelson Mandela, Saint Pope John Paul II, Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama.

Despite earning 12 campaign medals from four countries, an Order of Australia Medal for 50 years of volunteering, and now the Congressional Gold Medal, Mr Kennedy remains characteristically modest, taking this latest recognition in his stride.

"I'm not a hero, and I'm not just being humble. For me, the definition of a hero risks their lives to save someone, like running into a burning building. I was just doing a job," he said.

Albeit a job often fraught with danger and under constant threat of attack from enemy submarines, sea mines and aircraft.

'Tankards were very vulnerable. At night-time I'd think about what could happen, as there was only a quarter of an inch between you and the sea.'

Mr Kennedy remembers a time when he thought his number might have been up.

"I was in the south but I was still scared, I'm not ashamed to admit it," he said.

"Tankards were very vulnerable. At night-time I'd think about what could happen, as there was only a quarter of an inch between you and the sea."

Most merchant ships weren't armed or protected while at sea, meaning chances of survival if hit by a torpedo or aircraft fire were poor.

"I'd heard stories of sailors taking a torpedo hit to the side of the ship, and others broken in two. Then you were really in trouble; if you were in the water, you were a goner," Mr Kennedy said.

About 185,000 seamen, including 40,000 men from India, China and other countries, served in the Merchant Navy during WW2, with more than 30,000 losing their lives - proportionally more than in any armed force.

Fortunately for Mr Kennedy he made it back to Australia, and after the war he was issued a discharge from the US Army.

He continued to serve his country by joining the Australian Army Reserve, and today he is the patron of the Forestville RSL sub-Branch and deputy coordinator of the Merchant Navy Chapter.

Forestville RSL sub-Branch president Bob Lunnon has known Mr Kennedy for 12 years and said he was always happy to educate and inspire younger generations.

"Even at 97 he is still available to do presentations on request, to visit schools and to address meetings," Mr Lunnon said.

"Don's speeches are so memorable, and he doesn't use notes, plus his humour always comes through. He's sincere, genuine, caring, humorous, inclusive and so family orientated. He's also a historian and he's happy to share his stories."

Mr Kennedy said he enjoyed going to local schools and talking about Anzac Day, "about our veterans and honouring those serving and those who lost their lives".

He is also always proud to march on Anzac Day in Sydney, and this year is no exception.

"I'll be riding in the Landrover at the head of the World War 2 Navy contingent this year. It's always an honour to be there. Give me a wave," Mr Kennedy said.

And, he'll have one more medal pinned onto his uniform this year.

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