Unsung WWII hero may be honoured
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.
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.