reviewed by Roxanne Bodsworth
On the evening of 10 February 1964, the HMAS Melbourne, sailing at nearly full speed, cut the HMAS Voyager in half. In eight and a half minutes, the bow of the ship had sunk and a few hours later, the stern. 82 people died at the scene, another 30 died later from injuries sustained.
In this day and age of media saturation, the news of such a collision between two navy vessels would, no doubt, elicit some sympathy for the families of those who died and a vague concern for the survivors. A more overt response might be astonishment, to ask how such an event could have occurred. Who made the mistakes? Where does the responsibility lie? And, of course, how much did the vessels cost and who will foot the bill for repairs?
None of these questions are answered in this book. Those are matters of concern for official inquiries and the historical tomes. Instead, 'Voices from Voyager' is a straightforward rendering of the stories of twenty survivors, plus two who died. It's when reading about these individuals, with hopes, dreams, families who care, that it suddenly becomes so much more real. And horrific.
Yet the great horror is not in hearing about a mate plummeting into the gaping darkness, or being turned upside down in the ship's hull and then having to find a way out in total darkness climbing among bodies and fittings that have been torn loose and flung about. It's not in having to choose between joining those singing as they await certain death or still trying to climb upwards, nor in trying to tear open escape hatches that have been painted over and sealed shut, nor in being so close to the hull of the speeding HMAS Melbourne that the skin is ripped away by the barnacles on its side. The great horror is in learning that the official response to this trauma was to give the men one week's "survivors' leave" and order them never to speak about the events again.
Instead of being allowed to grieve, to support each other, to share their experiences and by so doing make some sense of it all, instead of being offered counselling and guidance, the survivors were required by the navy to keep their silence. Except that there was no silence inside. They never stopped hearing the sounds of metal being torn apart, the screams and cries of men going down, and the singing. Those who survived were resilient, inventive, and clear-headed enough to find a way out of a vessel that was sinking very rapidly. Some of them were able to help others; one even turned back inside to do just that. Yet surviving beyond the crisis became a new test in itself. Some managed to pull themselves together and build a life but others are, as Evans describes it, still shipwrecked.
Here, they finally get to tell their stories. And the beauty of the book is in the way that Evans has allowed this to happen without any sense of invasive questioning or prodding for the more sensational detail. Each story is written up with great respect and compassion, giving as much or as little information as the survivor has offered. Sometimes it's the gaps in the narrative that speak most profoundly.
Evans began her writing career when she took up the challenge to write a story about Vietnam Veterans for the Wangaratta Public Radio. The response to the radio show was overwhelming and led to her writing a trilogy about the Australian Defence Forces in Vietnam, beginning with Trauma, Tears and Time. By the time Evans had finished the first book, she had been adopted by the Vietnam Veterans and could not walk away. Nor did she want to.
She is now a chaplain and Vice Commander of the Veterans of the Vietnam War and the Veterans Coalition of Australia. She has travelled to Vietnam twice where she conducted a dawn service at Long Tan for their tour group, and to the United States where she addressed a conference of American veterans of the Vietnam War.
Evans has spent years building the confidence and trust of men who have been severely traumatised by their experiences and finding a way to tell their stories without them feeling more exposed. This reputation as a writer of integrity, and a woman of great care and compassion, allowed her to interview the survivors of Voyager who had largely maintained the silence imposed upon them. One said, "I've spent thirty years trying to block out what happened that night… I don't want to remember it anymore."
Books on historical events often get weighed down with details and facts and analysis. This one avoids all of that and, despite the difficulty of the subject matter, it is easy to read. In fact, it's hard to put down. There is a danger in such collections that the narratives could become repetitive but Evans skilfully avoids this; each man's account is treated as an individual experience occasionally intersecting with another's. This book is not a description and explanation of the events of that night; for that I had to do other research. It is a collection of the personal stories of the men and, finally, the focus is on them - where it should always have been. They have found a voice now and it can only be hoped that this will, in some small way, help to liberate them from their memories.