Neville Bede Cavanagh of Willawarrin escaped from a watery grave when a Japanese ship carrying mostly British prisoners of war was sunk by an American submarine. In October 2017 the wreck of the Lisbon Maru was located and a debate has since ensued as to whether it should be kept as a war grave.
On October 8, 1942 the British War Office was investigating a statement from the Japanese that an American submarine had sunk a transport ship, carrying 1,800 British and Australian prisoners to Japan.
Immediately fears were held in Australia for missing loved ones, however in December that year it was established that no Australians were aboard the torpedoed prison ship, the Lisbon Maru. As it transpired however, there were several Australians among the 1,800 prisoners on the ship including Neville Cavanagh, who lived to tell the tale.
Neville Bede Cavanagh was born on January 13, 1920, a son of Ernest and Mary Cavanagh of Mungay Creek, north west of Kempsey. On July 17, 1940 he enlisted in the militia and joined the 4th Infantry Training Battalion. He gave his occupation as shop assistant. Neville found the arduous training aggravated an old injury to his foot and in February 1941, he received a discharge on compassionate grounds to return to his family on the Macleay.
According to his son, Shane, Neville could see war with Japan looming and still wanted to do his bit. Later that year, he saw an advertisement in the Sydney Morning Herald for men with previous military service for positions in the Commonwealth Naval Dockyard Police-Guard section. He was selected and enlisted on July 9, 1941, being seconded to the Royal Naval Dockyard Police in Hong Kong.
Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Hong Kong. Outnumbered four to one and lacking air defence, the British Commonwealth defenders abandoned the mainland and fell back to the island. After putting up a brave fight, by Christmas Day the defenders realised resistance would be futile and surrendered.
On September 25, 1942, the Japanese picked 1,816 prisoners of war to be sent to Japan on the Lisbon Maru. Among them was Neville Cavanagh. His family had heard nothing of him since the fall of Hong Kong and it would be another year before they learned he was alive and a prisoner of war in Japan.
In a letter published in the Macleay Argus on November 16, 1945, Neville recalled the hopelessly cramped and unsanitary conditions on board.
The ship carried no warning signs that she was carrying prisoners of war and on October 1 the Lisbon Maru was torpedoed by the American submarine Grouper and began to slowly sink.
Japanese ships arrived to take off the Japanese soldiers on board but initially made no efforts to rescue the prisoners who were in the holds with the covers battened down. Some of the prisoners eventually managed to break out, but it was only when their plight was noticed by Chinese civilians on nearby islands that the Japanese relented and began rescuing them. On reaching Shanghai on October 5, it was found that 843 men out of the 1,816 prisoners of war had perished.
In October 1943, Neville's family learned he was being held in Osaka, Japan. He was to spend three years and eight months as a prisoner of war there. Neville said that there were three other Australians besides himself who were on the Lisbon Maru, one of whom drowned when she sank. He estimated that out of the 1,000 survivors of the sinking, only about three hundred were alive at the end of the war.
On January 17, 1946, Neville and other local servicemen were welcomed home at a function at Willawarrin. He married local girl Freda McCudden and the couple made their home in Adelaide, South Australia. Neville passed away in 1960 aged only 40 years, still suffering from the effects of brutal treatment as a prisoner of war. He is buried at East Kempsey and is commemorated on the Willawarrin War Memorial.
Story researched and written by Phil Lee, Macleay Historical Society President.