Justice for Grafton's drowned cubs

The nine caskets waiting burial side by side at South Grafton Cemetery - from camera, Bobby, John, Graeme, Billy, Brian, Dale, Sono, Toby & Ray (Daily Examiner)
The nine caskets waiting burial side by side at South Grafton Cemetery - from camera, Bobby, John, Graeme, Billy, Brian, Dale, Sono, Toby & Ray (Daily Examiner)

Peter Langston is a freelance writer who has been coming for holidays to the Lower Clarence for 30 years. His wife, Susan, grew up on a dairy farm on Woodford Island in the 1960s and was convinced Susan Island was named after her. As a child she used to call its name as she crossed the Bendy Bridge in the family's old black Wolsley. Every shopping trip she begged her WWII ex-Commando father to take her Susan Island but he always said it was too dangerous. She never knew why...

STANDING on the levee at Memorial Park on a recent grey July day, the Clarence looked threatening but back in December, 1943, in sunshine and warmth, it was an exciting place for 28 cub scouts, aged from eight to ten years.

They pushed off the shore of Susan Island on a small boat after a grand day with mates. Within a half hour, 13 were dead, the remainder fighting for their lives.

That Saturday - two weeks before a war Christmas in 1943 - the 1st Grafton Scout Troop was to have Christmas parties in different groupings on Susan Island, a long, reasonably narrow island in the Clarence River, between Grafton and South Grafton.

The main group of boy scouts were engaged with scout master Ian Malcolm, while the younger group of cub scouts were enjoying fun activities like treasure hunts with their leader, 17- year-old Charlie Penn, who was a King's Scout and had won every honour possible for his age in the scouting movement and was highly regarded in the general community.

About 4pm, two scouting friends of Penn - Rex Oxenford and Jimmy Doust - swam across the Clarence from Oxenford's grandfather's place to Susan Island, to fulfil a promise to Penn and assist in bringing the cub scouts back across the Clarence in a punt owned by Oxenford's grandfather's company. The larger scout floodboat was unavailable, having been found to be unseaworthy due to vandalism the night before.

The majority of the cubs had come across the Clarence with Penn that morning. The punt was wooden, with a shallow draft. It was 4.9m long, about 1m wide at either end and slightly wider at the centre. The punt had no propulsion but oars and carried a passenger cargo of young boys wearing back packs and most wore leather shoes.

The vast majority either could not swim or were hardly competent to tread water. Oxenford suggested two trips but Penn felt confident they could make one, as the water was calm, despite an approaching storm from the south-west.

This proved true until the boat escaped the lee of the wind caused by the large trees on Susan Island and the water became choppy and the strength of the wind apparent. Penn had his oarsmen, Oxenford and Doust, point the craft into the approaching waves, but the craft was sluggish under the load and its freeboard was only three inches. (Freeboard is the distance from the water line on a boat up to the top of the side. It should have been seven inches.) Penn ordered Doust and Oxenford into the water to get behind the boat and push with their considerable leg power.

Two things happened almost in unison.

Some of the younger boys panicked at the sight of the older scouts going over the side and moved to one side as a larger wave broke over the boat and swamped it. In the ensuing panic, the boat capsized, throwing the remaining 29 boys into the water.

Bowlers at the nearby green, including police inspector BH Baxter, heard screams but it took a few minutes to realise the boys were in trouble and not skylarking. They then raised the alarm, rushing to the shore and launching any craft they could find, borrow or even steal. Constable Anderson raised another rescue group from around the Crown Hotel. Meanwhile, the cubs turned to their older Scouts and splashed or dog paddled to them in any way they could, five and six clinging to them and sinking them to the channel floor. There were many heroes that afternoon but none more than Oxenford and Doust, who were in the water for more than 45 minutes effecting rescues and performing resuscitations on rescue boats, and Penn, who carried on despite near drowning.

Fifteen boys were saved but 13 drowned, the last of them dragged from the water by grappling hooks until the head count was reconciled at 10pm.

Be prepared

Charlie Penn was still in hospital when the coroner, TH Brooke, opened his inquiry at 10am on February 1, 1944.

Rex Oxenford and Jimmy Doust had been hidden from the press by scouts around the district, including Yamba.

Evidence was tendered by Ian Malcolm, many of the parents, the police, doctors and the survivors. A senior NSW scout official, JL Murrell, had been prepared and represented the scout movement's interests and the Maritime Services Board was represented by solicitor Mr Alvarez. He told the inquiry the boat was too small to come under the jurisdiction of the board.

The boat's owner, Oxenford's grandfather, told the inquiry the group had travelled onto the water with too little freeboard. Murrell praised Malcolm and pointed to his achievements in business and scouting.

A Coroner's role, by its nature, is to gather evidence of effect, explore and identify its probable cause and then determine responsibility. Brooke determined the deaths were "a tragedy which seemed to be a combination of a number of circumstances", which included the damage to the scout floodboat, the inexperience of Penn with the punt in those conditions and the sudden squall or freshening of the wind, in combination with the ebbing tide. Penn, Oxenford and Doust were commended, quite rightly, for their actions in saving the 15 cub scouts and their actions toward the rest.

The coroner presented his findings a little more than 24 hours later. Thirteen dead bodies, still settling into cold earth in cemeteries either side of the Clarence were given only a day's justice and not one person allocated the responsibility for their deaths.

Those boys were dying while Ian Malcolm and other adult scouting officials, parents and townspeople were on Susan Island taking part in a ceremony.

The three Scouts supervising were brave without question but they had only boys' experiences to call on in their decision making. Men should have been supervising.

The boat was inadequate for the task, there were no floatation devices (yes, they did exist in 1943) and the cubs were dressed inappropriately. The activity itself was deadly dangerous in the light of so few being competent swimmers.

On Christmas Eve, almost two weeks after the accident, the city council discussed for the first time the need to establish a community baths so that children could be taught to swim. It took more than 10 years of argument before a location could finally be agreed upon.

Be prepared.

Today, in Memorial Park above the Clarence on the Prince St levee, a small stone memorial, no higher than a 10- year-old boy, looks out across the Clarence, toward Susan Island and the scene of that devastating afternoon.

Their names are hard to read. More wrangling goes on over responsibility for caring for their memory, here and at their grave sites.

While Scouts Australia cannot be expected to raise a hand after all this time, perhaps, as an act of goodwill, it could take on the task of maintaining the graves and certainly that little stone marker.

They should "Be Prepared", even if after the event. Those little blokes missed out on most of life's footsteps because no one worried enough to keep them safe. As they screamed, their silent shouts for help sunk into the darkness, they would have sacrificed anything for an outstretched hand. On a hillside in South Grafton recently, I stood with kangaroos and cried with the nine little blokes up there; up in the fresh air and a bloody long way above the Clarence shoreline. They and their friends across the river should never be forgotten. Cheers Bobby, John, Graeme, Billy, Brian, Dale, Sono, Toby, Ray, Bobby, Keith, Cec and Eddie. Is it only strangers who still care?

Topics:  cubs grafton

OPINION: Bees kill more people than sharks

Bees are up there for killing machines, says editor David Kirkpatrick

Should we have nets for bees?

WATCH: Junior Queen gets silver screen royal treatment

2008 Junior Jacaranda Queen candidates Elora Vest, Rachael Houlahan and Melista King are just a few of the girls who came together to share their stories and be a part of  the new documentary Jaca Girls.

A right royal look at the Junior Jacaranda Queen competition

YOU DECIDE: Should this be our Cover Image this week?

This picture of a shoe from James Spartacus had the most likes for The Daily Examiner's Cover Image photo this week.

Picture of shoe receives most likes for Cover Image

Local Partners

WATCH: Junior Queen gets silver screen royal treatment

NEW documentary explores the festival's 20-year-old quest as former candidates share their stories and experiences.

Tea party with the 'Queen'

TRADITION: 1955 Jacaranda Queen Stella Wilson sits with reigning 2015 Jacaranda Queen Charlotte White at last year's Jacaranda Afternoon Tea.

Meet the royal patyu in style

Making steps for 'Blacky' in Walk 4 Brain Cancer

Grafton locals are doing a Walk 4 Brain Cancer in Sydney for Robert Black.

Team Blacky aims to better $5000 to battle brain cancer.

Sound of Music star to compere An Afternoon at the Proms

This photo provided by Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment shows, from left, Chairmian Carr, as Liesl, Nicholas Hammond, as Friedrich, Heather Menzies, as Louisa, Duane Chase, as Kurt, Angela Cartwright, as Brigitta, Debbie Turner, as Marta, Kym Karath, as Gretl, and Christopher Plummer, as Captain Von Trapp, in a scene from the film, \"The Sound of Music.\" The 1965 Oscar-winning film adaptation of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical \"The Sound of Music\" is celebrating its 50th birthday in 2015. To honor the milestone, 20th Century Fox is releasing a five-disc Blu-ray/DVD/Digital HD collector's edition, the soundtrack is being re-released, the film will be screened at the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood later this month and to over 500 movie theaters in April. (AP Photo/Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment)

Saraton's rich history of stage and screen honoured in musical tribu

Kristie doesn't mind being the third wheel in Survivor final

Kristie Bennett in a scene from Australian Survivor.

SOLO player will take on Survivor's power couple Lee and El tonight.

Scary hoping Posh and Sporty will re-join The Spice Girls

Mel B

Mel B hoping Victoria Beckham, Mel C will re-join The Spice Girls

REVIEW: Michael McIntyre has Brisbane in stitches

Michael McIntyre in a scene from his TV series Michael McIntyre's Comedy Roadshow.

BRITISH comedian is in the country on his Happy and Glorious Tour.

Cliff Richard doesn't need Rod Stewart's help with legal bills

Sir Cliff Richard

"'Don't worry, I'm loaded. I won't keep you to it.' "

Bindi Irwin named in MAXIM HOT 100 list

Wildlife Warrior named among Australia's most beautiful women

Look at me! Kath and Kim home up for sale

Kath and Kim from the iconic Aussie TV series.

'Crack open the Baileys and grab a box of BBQ Shapes'

Hinterland horse stud passed in for $8.25 million

UNREAL: This Maleny estate is incredible.

12-bedroom hinterland horse stud still available

Hit songwriter's Noosa mansion on market

SPECIAL PLACE: The Cintamani estate is going to tender, marketed by Tom Offermann Real Estate.

Is this Queensland's best property?

Kiwi siblings snap up Dotcom mansion for $32.5m

The new toy company owners of the Coatesville mansion want replace any controversy with positivity and fun. Photo / Barfoot and Thompson

The trio paid $32.5 million for the property in June

New $200 million development will create 580 jobs

Cassie And Josh with baby Alfie and daughter Andee. They have bought at new Lennox Head development Epiq.

Majority of new positions will be given to Northern Rivers locals

Cherrabah's mega resort plans axed

PLANS for a massive development at Cherrabah have been scrapped.