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John Thomas Humphries (1903–1987)

by David Stevens

This article was published:

John Thomas Humphries (1903-1987), sailor, was born on 26 October 1903 at Sebastopol, Victoria, first surviving child of John Thomas Humphries, a miner who later served in the Australian Imperial Force, and his wife Susannah, née Thomas, both Victorian born. Educated at Redan State and Ballarat Technical schools, he entered the Royal Australian Navy on 18 July 1918 as a boy, 2nd class, listing his trade as messenger. He spent fourteen months in the training ship HMAS Tingira before moving into the sea-going fleet, signing on for a seven-year engagement at the end of his training.

Promoted to petty officer in 1928, Humphries left the navy on 25 October that year and settled in Brisbane. He served briefly with the Commonwealth Lighthouse Service, then trained as a diver on the Grey Street Bridge foundations, later performing similar work on the Story Bridge and receiving high praise for his skills and courage. In 1938 he enrolled in the Royal Australian Fleet Reserve. Mobilised on 4 September 1939, he joined the armed merchant cruiser HMS Kanimbla. In August 1941 Kanimbla was sent to Bandar Shapur, Iran, as part of a combined Allied force. Eight enemy merchant vessels were sheltering in the port, and to avoid capture their crews attempted to scuttle them. One vessel, the 15 000-ton Hohenfels, sank in 48 ft (15 m) of water. On board was a vital cargo of 7000 tons of ilmenite sand, used for case-hardening steel.

Although Humphries was not trained as a naval diver, his expertise was called upon. For five weeks he dived for up to three hours at a time and, despite working in total darkness, he completed the repairs that allowed Hohenfels to be refloated and towed to a British port. On twelve occasions he descended into the flooded engine-room to shut bilge suction valves. This required him to go down three long ladders, thence forward along the entire length of the engine-room and then down two short ladders to the tunnels under the bunker. At least 120 ft (37 m) of air pipe and rope were required, with the constant risk of the lines becoming fouled. Because there was no telephone communication, as soon as Humphries descended the first ladder he was out of contact with his attendants, with no hope of assistance should something go wrong.

Humphries was quoted as saying, `It was a job to be done, and I did it’, and claimed that the greatest incentive to complete the task was the thought of seeing again his (then de facto) wife and daughters. For his `skill and undaunted devotion to duty in hazardous diving operations’ he was awarded the George Medal, the only such award made to an Australian rating during the war. He was also granted the non-substantive rank of diver, 1st class. On 2 February 1942 at the Albert Street Methodist Church, Brisbane, he married Vera Staines, née Shead, a divorcee. In December he was posted to the Brisbane shore establishment HMAS Moreton. Demobilised on 29 May 1946, he later worked as a watchman. He died on 23 August 1987 at the Repatriation General Hospital, Greenslopes, and was cremated; his wife and their two daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • G. H. Gill, Royal Australian Navy 1942-1945 (1968)
  • series A6770, item Humphries J T (National Archives of Australia)
  • PR88/ 194 (Australian War Memorial)
  • Humphries biography file (Naval History Section, Department of Defence, Canberra).

Citation details

David Stevens, 'Humphries, John Thomas (1903–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 20 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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