By Dominique Tassell
A naval mystery going back 80 years has been solved, with Slade School student Thomas Welsby Clark identified as the only sailor to be recovered from Australia’s worst maritime disaster.
Able Seaman (AB) Thomas Welsby Clark attended Slade School from 1934 to 1937, where he was a prefect and school swimming captain.
He can be found on the honour board, listed as Tom Clark, which is now kept in the museum at Warwick Christian College.
He is also featured in the school magazines, described in the 1934 magazine’s section on football as “light and inexperienced, but has the style of a footballer. Should do well next season.”
He is also listed as being involved in athletics that year, getting a mention for the 100 yards under 15s championship.
He is featured in the swimming section for his performances in breaststroke and freestyle.
There was no magazine in 1935, however, AB Clark is featured in the 1936 magazine.
He was awarded the miniature shooting cup that year, and listed as a prefect or head of Barnes House.
He is included in the cricket team photo and listed as being on the First XI for football, as well as being involved in various athletic events.
He was the captain of the swimming team in 1936, winning the open championship and Scott McLeod Cup as well as a number of races in the school competition.
AB Clark was also on the life saving team, securing 14 of 18 points awarded to the team and receiving colours for this achievement, and on the shooting team.
He was also listed as being promoted from Cadet to Lance Corporal in the Cadet Corps in 1936.
AB Clark was again listed as swimming captain in the 1937 magazine, and awarded the title of swimming champion.
The life saving team and shooting team performed extremely well this year, of which AB Clark was again involved.
He was also awarded a medallion for meritorious performances in athletics.
He once again won the open championships and Scott McLeod Cup for swimming, creating a record for open backstroke that had been in place for 12 years.
AB Clark is listed as “the mainstay of the team” in the swimming section. He was the only member of the team in 1937 to receive his colours.
DNA evidence was used to identify AB Clark, who was the only sailor recovered from the Australian warship HMAS Sydney (II) which sunk off the coast of Western Australia during World War II on November 19, 1941.
All 645 men on board perished at sea after the warship battled the disguised German merchant raider HSK Kormoran. This included six Royal Australian Air Force members, eight Royal Navy personnel, and four civilian canteen staff. Eighty-two officers and sailors were also killed.
Ab Clark’s remains were found near Christmas Island almost three months later, and it is believed he was the only sailor to make it to a lifeboat.
He was 21 years old and had worked as an accountant prior to joining the navy, reportedly to join one of his two older brothers who was already enlisted.
He briefly enlisted in the Army Reserve as a private in the Queensland Cameron Highlanders.
AB Clark reportedly did his submarine detector training in Sydney on the HMAS Rushcutter, before serving as an ordinary seaman on the anti-submarine training ship HMAS St. Giles.
He was promoted to acting able seaman in July 1941, and then underwent a further short period of training on HMAS Cerberus.
He then joined HMAS Sydney in August 1941.
Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Defence Personnel Andrew Gee said the formal identification was a significant development in Sydney’s story and a historic moment for Australia.
“To finally learn Tom’s name, rank, service number and home town, 80 years after he was lost, is truly remarkable,” Mr Gee said.
“It says a lot about Australia that, despite the decades that have passed, our nation is still working so hard to identify those lost in war and ensuring we honour the sacred commitment to remember them.
“I know this is a terribly sad time for Tom’s family. Like his brave shipmates, he died defending Australia, our values and way of life. His family should be immensely proud.
“The Office of Australian War Graves has agreed that next year Tom’s grave in Geraldton War Cemetery will be marked by a new headstone bearing his name. He will be ‘unknown’ no longer.”
Chief of Navy Vice Admiral Mike Noonan said AB Clark was just 21 when he died and was representative of the many young lives lost in the battle.
“Of Sydney’s total complement of 645 men, no one survived. This included six Royal Australian Air Force members, eight Royal Navy personnel and four civilian canteen staff. Eighty-two officers and sailors were killed in Kormoran,” Vice Admiral Noonan said.
“We revere the service and sacrifice of all who perished.
“Solving this World War II case involved specialists in DNA analysis, forensic pathology and dentistry, ballistics, anthropology, archaeology and naval history. I commend the combined effort spearheaded by the Sea Power Centre to confirm AB Clark’s identity.
“The Australian Federal Police National DNA Program for Unidentified and Missing Persons was instrumental, as were the Australian National University, Australian War Memorial, University of Adelaide and University of Sydney, not to mention Able Seaman Thomas Clark’s family.
“His long voyage is complete, may he Rest in Peace.”
Retired academic Leigh Lehane was surprised and saddened to learn her Uncle Tom was the unknown sailor.
“To be quite honest it was a bit upsetting,” Dr Lehane said.
However, she said, establishing the truth was important.
“I am so grateful for the many, many people – well over a hundred – who helped ascertain the truth about his identity,” Dr Lehane said.
AB Clark’s grave in Geraldton War Cemetery will be marked next year by a new headstone which will bear his name.