Our Disappearing Heroes

HMNZS Achilles

A special guest post for American Catholic by commenter Don the Kiwi.

Last week I attended the funeral of my wife’s uncle, James William Foy. Jim was born on 21st. January 1926, and died on the 24th, September 2009, aged 83.   Jim died of bowel cancer, which was diagnosed too late for it to be operable, several months previously.  Though he was raised  Catholic, like some of his generation his war experiences tended to dilute the importance of our Faith to him, and though he had a crucifix, and pictures of the Sacred Heart  and of Our Lady in his home, he hadn’t practised his faith for many years.

The funeral service was conducted at the Matamata funeral director’s ‘chapel.’ It was a very secular affair, and the only part remotely religious was the recitation of The Lord’s Prayer toward the end of the service. Jim had joined the RNZ Navy as soon as he left school, and after his training, was posted to HMNZS Achilles (a light cruiser, of the 1939  Battle of the River Plate fame) in 1944. Part way through the service, which was attended by a number of aged war veterans – friends of his from the local RSA (Returned Services Assn.) – an old shipmate of Jim’s named James Craig, rose and walked to the rostrum. These are his words, as best as I can recall them.

“I met Jimmy Foy when he joined the Achilles in 1944. We had come from the same town, Hamilton, even though I hadn’t met him before, me being a bit older than him. He was 18 years old when he joined the ship’s company. We saw a bit of action in the Indian Ocean, then went up to Manus Island where we joined the Americans at their base there.

One day we were attacked by the Japanese (air force), and they did a bit of damage. So we decided to give the Japs a bit of a belting. So a few days later about 12 large warships, and smaller destroyers and so on, sailed for two days, the 600 miles to Truk atoll from where the Japanese attack had come. We started the bombardment just on daylight. I took the port gun (pom-pom AA ) and Jim took the starboard gun. If we weren’t shooting up at aircraft, we were shooting down at surface craft. This went on for four hours without a break .Then we broke off the engagement to turn back to Manus. As we were turning, we fired the last salvo from the rear turret. As the last rounds were fired, the force of the recoil sheared the bolts and rivets holding the turret, and ripped up the deck and fell into below decks, where the four prop shafts were.

The Achilles had four propeller shafts which were held by large teak (timber) bearings to eliminate flex. These bearing had to be greased every day or so.
Because Jim and I were only small, we were the grease monkeys to crawl along the shafts to grease them. With all the rubbish from the rear turret collapse we couldn’t get in to clear the mess or grease the bearings. Three of the four shafts seized, so we were only running on one prop. As the rest of the fleet steamed away at around 15 knots, we were left behind struggling along at about three knots.

It took us ten days to get back to Manus. Every day we were crapping ourselves that the Japs might find us – we were a sitting duck – but thank God, they never found us.
When we got back to Manus where the Americans had a floating dock, we had to wait for several days because there was an American ship being repaired. So the day arrived when the American ship was floated out of the dock, and the dock surfaced to manoeuvre for us to enter it. At that moment, the Japs attacked us, and thinking the floating dock was an aircraft carrier, they attacked it and almost cut it in two. It was amazing to see how the American engineers fixed it. They worked day and night, and they joined the two good ends of the dock, instead of trying to repair where it had been split. In only five days, we were able to enter the dock, and three weeks later we were back in action.

That’s just one of the actions we saw together on the Achilles – there were plenty more. Anyway that’s how Jimmy and I became such good mates.
Thank you.”

I thought the action to which he was referring was Operation Hail Stone – the American attack on Truk atoll on the 16th. – 17th.  February 1944, which came to be called “the Japanese Pearl Harbour”, such was the destruction wrought in the massive surprise attack, which was timed to eliminate the risk of attack on the American fleet which was about to invade and recapture Eniwitok atoll from Japanese occupation. With Truk incapacitated to the extent that it did not present a major problem, the Pacific war by-passed it, but it remained an active base, re-supplied by the Japanese, but only a shadow of its previous strength.

But the action could not have been Operation Hail Stone that Achilles took part in, because that was a solely American action, and besides, the Achilles was back in Portsmouth, England at the time, being repaired from heavy damage and refitted. Also, at that time, the Japanese still occupied Manus Island.

So with further research, I discovered that this attack Jim Craig spoke of was Operation Inmate, and carried out by the British Pacific fleet known as Task Force 57 and conducting joint operations with the Americans, in April 1945. Jim must have joined Achilles in Portsmouth in 1944 where he would have met Jim Craig . I believe Jim Craig was on Achilles at the Battle of the River Plate. All these actions, and HMNZS Achilles have interesting stories on Wikipedia, along with the two other NZ light cruisers, HMNZS Gambia, and HMNZS Leander.

There was a rather humorous end to the funeral service – one which Jim Foy would have enjoyed – in fact he had set it up.

(To appreciate this, you will need to go to     www.youtube.com/ and search–Stihl Chainsaw Commercial–New Zealand  and watch the commercial.)

Jim’s son Gary came to the rostrum and spoke of Jim’s final days. The day Jim died, Gary told us, he, his sister and mother were at Jim’s bedside. In the early afternoon, Jim woke up and spoke briefly with them. Then he called Gary over and said, “Look after your mother, son……..And you can have my chainsaw.” He died a couple of hours later. The funny thing was, Jim never had a chainsaw – he just loved that TV commercial. Gary did go out and buy a second hand chainsaw, showed it to us all at the service. When Jim’s casket was lowered into the grave, the chainsaw was with it.

This special piece of Kiwi humour presented by Jim on his deathbed demonstrates the indomitable spirit of the man, and those men of that generation. Jim always had a smile and a  joke, and had a generous nature. May God have mercy on him.

James William Foy,  Requiescat in Pace.

PS. There is a website which sets out the New Zealand history and involvement in WW 2. This is a chapter on the Achilles.    www.nzetc.org/tm/scholarly/tei-WH2Navy-c24.html

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