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Johnston, Eric Eugene (1933–1997)

by Paul A. Rosenzweig

This article was published online in 2022

Eric Eugene Johnston (1933–1997), naval officer and administrator of the Northern Territory, was born on 29 July 1933 at Shanghai, China, only child of Queensland-born merchant navy officer Victor Vivian Johnston and his Spanish-born wife Eugénie Margerita Maria Federica, née Laurez, a governess. In 1935 Eric accompanied his parents to Australia. At the outbreak of World War II the family was living at Largs Bay, South Australia, where his father was based as an employee of the Adelaide Steamship Co. Ltd. As a lieutenant, Royal Australian Naval Reserve (Sea-Going), Victor died in November 1941 when the sloop HMAS Parramatta was sunk in the Mediterranean.

Johnston moved to Frankston, Victoria, where his mother worked in the local post office and he attended Frankston High School. On 28 January 1947 he entered the Royal Australian Naval College, Flinders Naval Depot, Westernport, Victoria. Graduating in 1950, he progressed through the junior officer ranks while training at sea and ashore, with the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) at home (1951–53) and with the Royal Navy in Britain (1951 and 1953–55). On 9 July 1955 at the Isle of Portland, United Kingdom, he married Yolande Huguette Bovis, a French national resident in Dorset. Following a brief posting to the destroyer HMAS Tobruk (1955–56) as a lieutenant (1955), he completed courses in Sydney (1956 and 1959) and at Plymouth (1957), England, to qualify as a specialist atomic (later nuclear), biological, and chemical defence (ABCD and NBCD), and damage control officer, after which he remained in Britain (1957–59) as first lieutenant and an instructor at the ABCD School. He was first lieutenant of the RAN’s training ship HMAS Swan (1959–61) and then a divisional officer at the Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, England (1962–64), during which time he was promoted to lieutenant commander (1963).

Back in Australia, Johnston served as first lieutenant and fleet NBCD officer in the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne (1964–66), which on three occasions escorted the troopship HMAS Sydney in the operational area of the Vietnam War. His subsequent posting, as executive officer of the destroyer HMAS Vendetta, terminated with his promotion to commander in December 1967. A short period with the Trials Team at the Gunnery Instructional Centre in Sydney preceded twelve months (from April 1968) as executive officer of the recruit training establishment HMAS Leeuwin, Fremantle, Western Australia. In May 1969 he returned to Vendetta as commanding officer. His commanding officer, Commodore (Sir) James Ramsay, assessed him as ‘a remarkable character … fat and jovial, fit and gregarious, forceful and exuberant, dedicated and loyal—a complete extrovert’ (NAA A3978). Between September that year and March 1970, Vendetta was attached to the United States Navy’s Seventh fleet, providing naval gunfire support to land forces in Vietnam. Johnston was appointed OBE (1970) and awarded a commendation by the American commander-in-chief, Pacific.

In June 1970 Johnston left Vendetta and later that year attended the naval command course at the United States Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island. Between 1971 and 1973 he performed staff duties at Navy Office, Canberra. Having divorced Yolande in 1969, on 4 December 1971, at the Chapel of St George the Martyr at HMAS Watson in Sydney, he married Joan Hall, née Holland, a teaching aide with the state Department of Education.

Johnston’s long association with the Northern Territory began in December 1973 when he was promoted to captain and appointed naval officer commanding North Australia Area, and commanding officer of HMAS Melville in Darwin. Late on Christmas Eve in 1974 he was at Naval Headquarters when Cyclone Tracy struck: the building ‘began to disintegrate’ (Johnston 1987, 3), briefly trapping him. For his leading role in organising the navy’s part in the relief operation that followed he was appointed AM (Military Division) in 1975. He later reflected that this effort ‘cemented a bond between the citizens of Darwin and the members of the Royal Australian Navy which will never ever be weakened’ (1987, 12). Further senior appointments followed as commanding officer of the guided missile destroyer HMAS Perth (May 1976-January 1978), and in the Department of Defence, Canberra, with the strategic and international policy division (1978–79) and as director of public information (1979–80). He was promoted to commodore on 27 July 1979.

On 1 July 1978 the Northern Territory had been granted self-government. Johnston was appointed its administrator on 1 January 1981, resigning from the navy the previous day. He recalled that when offered the position ‘Joan and I had our minds made up in seconds’ (1988, 6). His appointment came at a time of rapid political and economic change as the fledgling government sought to assert the territory’s functional equivalence to the States. He succeeded the last of the Commonwealth administrators who had overseen the Northern Territory on behalf of the Federal government, and was the first vice-regal administrator, representing the governor-general. This sometimes put him in an awkward position when relations between Canberra and Darwin were strained, but he consistently avoided public comment on contentious matters.

Johnston saw his role as bringing to the attention of the Northern Territory government and the Opposition the aspirations of Territorians in this still formative era. He and Joan travelled extensively to listen to their views: Senator Grant Tambling doubted ‘that there is anybody in the Northern Territory who has travelled as widely, as extensively or as meaningfully’ (Aust. Senate 1989, 4090). In 1987 Johnston was appointed AO (General Division) and made an honorary doctor of laws by the University of Queensland.

As administrator, Johnston was readily recognisable in his commodore’s white uniform, but he took equal pleasure in wearing khaki as the first honorary colonel of the North West Mobile Force. Physically and socially he was a larger than life character who seamlessly adopted the mantle of premier Territorian. In a respectful allusion to his presence and former association with the United States Navy, Johnston was given the epithet ‘Big E,’ a colloquial name for the massive USS Enterprise.

After completing his second term as administrator on 1 July 1989, and having served through the tenures of four chief ministers, the Johnstons retired to the Darwin suburb of Nightcliff. He died in Darwin Private Hospital of cancer on 26 February 1997 and was cremated, survived by his wife and two stepchildren. Joan was awarded an OAM in 2000. A portrait of Johnston by Harold Thomas hangs in Parliament House, Darwin. He is commemorated by the annual Eric Johnston Lecture, a Northern Territory Legislative Assembly electorate, and a Palmerston suburb.

Research edited by Stephen Wilks

Select Bibliography

  • Abjorensen, Norman. ‘The Day Darwin Disappeared.’ Canberra Times, 3 December 1994, 49–50
  • Australia. Senate. Parliamentary Debates, 15 June 1989, 4090
  • Everingham, Paul. ‘Gifted Leader Had Faith in Top End.’ Australian, 3 March 1997, 13
  • Johnston, Eric Eugene. ‘At the Governor-General’s Pleasure.’ Menzies School of Health Research Oration, Darwin, 1988
  • Johnston, Eric Eugene. ‘Operation Navy Help: Disaster Operations by the Royal Australian Navy post-Cyclone Tracy.’ First Eric Johnston Lecture, 7 July 1986. Northern Territory Library Service, Occasional Papers no. 5, Darwin, 1987
  • National Archives of Australia. A3978, JOHNSTON E E
  • National Archives of Australia. A6769, JOHNSTON E E
  • Northern Territory. Parliament. Tabled Paper, 3108, 27 February 1997
  • Rosenzweig, Paul. ‘Johnston. Eric Eugene.’ In Northern Territory Dictionary of Biography: Revised Edition, edited by David Carment, Christine Edward, Barbara James, Robyn Maynard, Alan Powell, and Helen J. Wilson, 175–77. Darwin: Charles Darwin University Press, 2008
  • Rosenzweig, Paul. ‘The Role of the RAN and Captain Eric Johnston in the Recovery of Darwin, 1974–75.’ Sabretache 27, no. 4 (December 1986): 30–32

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Citation details

Paul A. Rosenzweig, 'Johnston, Eric Eugene (1933–1997)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/johnston-eric-eugene-32121/text39691, published online 2022, accessed online 8 December 2022.

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