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



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