'I want him home'

These days, Jan Braund is a 73-year-old grandmother with white hair and a deep laugh, but in 1959, when she was just 18 and still known by her maiden name of Jan Cameron, she turned up to enrol in a carpentry course at what is now Sydney's University of Technology.

When she reached the front of the queue and stated her name, the course instructor, a man she had never met, asked, "Janice Lee Cameron?" When she nodded, he said something she never expected to hear: "I buried your father."

Until that moment, Braund had believed what her family had been told: that in January 1943, and just before her second birthday, her father Percy Cameron had been killed when his ship, HMAS Patricia Cam, was bombed off the coast of the Northern Territory. Official records state the Royal Australian Navy stoker was lost at sea.

Despite being startled by this new claim, Braund says she was too young and busy with life to pursue it further. She only seriously started trying to find out what had happened to her father when she read an account of the sinking of the Patricia Cam, written in 1983 by one of the survivors, John Leggoe. Leggoe had joined the Patricia Cam as an officer just before she sailed from Darwin on her last voyage.

By the time Braund began her search she had lost contact with the course instructor who could have answered so many of her questions. In the years since, Braund has endured false leads, dashed hopes and a disheartening lack of official help. But it now appears an unlikely discovery on a remote island, close to where the Patricia Cam sank, may give her the answer she has chased for so long.

In July last year, archaeologist Mike Hermes was combing a beach on the very edge of Australia, with other members of a group called Past Masters, a network of specialists that includes anthropologists, archaeologists and geomorphologists, formed in 2012 to delve into Australia's past.

Hermes was part of a team exploring Marchinbar Island, a formidable streak of sandstone at the tip of the Wessel Islands chain off the north-eastern Arnhem Land coast. It is hard country, frequented by crocodiles and cyclones. On its escarpments, the Yolngu Aboriginal people, who once lived there, recorded their history on the rock faces.

On the expedition's last day, the team walked to a long beach known by the Yolngu as Mitjianguru, "the place of the boat". After exploring all day in the stinging heat, they decided to head back to their boat, where they were staying. And that was when Hermes, hunting for clues above the high-water mark, saw something. It was a piece of wood that dwarfed the flotsam around it - just under two metres in length and in a distinctive L-shape, lying on its side. Bolt holes and three intact bolts meant it was no ordinary piece of driftwood.

"I like to think it had been lying there perhaps for 50 years, just waiting for someone to come along and work out what it was," Hermes says. Back on board the boat, Past Master co-founder Mike Owen, a white-bearded, straight-talking heritage consultant with a 30-year relationship with the Yolngu and a knack for nautical history, was certain Hermes had found a boat's knee - a form of bracing used in ships and boats. It is often cut as a single piece from trees where the trunk and a large branch meet. And on Marchinbar, ringed by fearsome currents and reefs, if this was a boat's knee, then it almost certainly came from a shipwreck.

The Wessel Islands are little known to most Australians. But they were first recorded on a Dutch map almost 400 years ago, and are mentioned in some of the most riveting chapters of Australian history. "These islands are like an encyclopedia," says traditional owner Terry Yumbulul. "It's a never-ending story of lives and journeys."

It was here that Captain Matthew Flinders came ashore on the Wessel Islands in 1803 and met the Yolngu people, whom he named "the Australians". Also back then, hundreds of Macassans were arriving each year from what is now present-day Indonesia, to fish for trepang, and befriend or clash with the Aboriginal people they encountered.

Before the Macassans, there were the Bayini, the mysterious peoples who appear in Yolngu tales, though no one knows exactly who they were. Perhaps even the Portuguese visited long ago wearing their armour, as Yolngu oral history tells of visitors wearing "mirror". Pearlers and Vietnamese refugee boats have landed here and in World War II, the Wessels were part of the frontline guarding northern Australia from attack.

As Mike Owen pondered where the boat's knee might have come from, one name sprang to mind - HMAS Patricia Cam, a wooden supply vessel that had been sunk by a Japanese floatplane about 13 kilometres west of where the knee came ashore. Owen began researching the ship's fate.

He read John Leggoe's book, Trying to be Sailors, and was amazed by how his story differed from the official version on one key point: as well as the four men who died in the bombing, Leggoe wrote that two other men - Jan Braund's father Percy and a Yolngu passenger - had died later on an island and been buried there.

"It struck me that there was something obviously wrong," Owen says. "You can't be lost at sea and buried on an island at the same time."

Mystified, he examined a photo on the Royal Australian Navy's own website - a black-and-white aerial photo of the survivors' life raft on a small beach, their SOS message scraped in the sand. And there, well above the translucent sea, among the storm-battered shrubs, a dark smudge in the sand caught his eye.

He enlarged the photo, studied it, and enlarged it again. "And then I called in my wife and said, 'Could I be right about this?'" It seemed obvious to him that he was looking at grave sites, which were marked by a paddle stuck in the ground, just as Leggoe had described in his account. But could finding graves - which officially didn't exist - really be that simple? "People look, but they don't always see," Owen says.

Owen and Past Masters co-founder Ian McIntosh then set off to do what they say should have been done years ago - they tried to find the beach where the graves might be. With only Leggoe's description to help him, Owen began meticulously comparing the image on the Navy's website with Google Earth maps of the area. Leggoe wrote that the raft he and the other survivors were on came ashore somewhere beyond the strait that separates Marchinbar from Guluwuru Island. It didn't take Owen long to find a beach that exactly matched that description and the cove shown in the 70-year-old photo. "There aren't many places you could bump ashore south of that strait," he says. "It's not the dark side of the moon."

Built in 1940 on the NSW central coast to haul coal, the Patricia Cam soon joined the war effort, ferrying food and fuel to a string of isolated coast-watching stations on the islands off Arnhem Land. It was hazardous work - Darwin had been bombed only a year earlier and Japanese bombers were a constant threat. Its 19-man crew were from all over Australia, "a magnificent bunch clad only in brief shorts and tanned like bronze statues", Leggoe wrote.

On that last trip, they made several stops before picking up five Yolngu passengers, whose preternatural navigating skills were welcomed in the poorly-charted waters. The sixth passenger was Reverend Leonard Kentish, head of the Territory's Methodist mission stations, "a big, cheery man" with a hearing aid who was travelling between islands.

From there they made for Cape Wessel, at the very tip of Marchinbar, overlooking the warm vastness of the Arafura Sea. But they never made it that far.

With no radar or escort, ships like the Patricia Cam were easy prey for Japanese bombers, which cut their engines and were difficult to see as they dived with the sun behind them. The first bomb that hit the Patricia Cam exploded in the hold just after noon on January 22, 1943. The ship sank within a minute; one sailor went down with her. A second bomb killed another sailor and two of the Yolngu passengers. After strafing those left in the water, the Japanese floatplane landed on the water nearby. "One of the crew, wearing a leather flying jacket and a bright-green silk scarf, leapt out on to the float, beckoned towards us and called for someone to swim over," recalled Leggoe. "No one accepted the invitation." The plane taxied to where Reverend Kentish was treading water, his hearing aid lost in the chaos, and ordered him at gunpoint to swim over. According to Leggoe's book, "He was given something from a flask and bundled into the plane, which took off and disappeared to the north." He's believed to be the only Australian ever taken prisoner-of-war in home waters.

The concussed men left in the water included Percy Cameron, who was badly hurt. Two of the crew drifted away holding onto wreckage and were never seen again. (Nine years later, an Aboriginal man reported he'd found a body, some weeks after the Patricia Cam was attacked, in a beach cave on Valencia Island, some 320km west of Marchinbar. A search was mounted and human remains clad in scraps of a uniform and life jacket were retrieved by the RAAF.)

The rest clung to the life raft, which was swept south by a current. After 15 hours in the water, they managed to propel themselves onto an uninhabited islet off Guluwuru. The men stumbled onto the beach and collapsed.

When they woke hours later, 24-year-old Percy Cameron was dead. His companions dug a grave in the burning heat using a paddle and their hands. "Sadly we scraped the sand over him with our hands and then carried rocks to put on top of the grave," wrote Leggoe. A paddle was used to mark the spot. The next day, one of the Yolngu men died and was buried near Cameron. (The Past Masters have sent word to the Yolngu man's family, saying his grave may soon be found.)

Soon afterwards, some Wessel Islanders, who had seen a fire that the survivors had lit, arrived in canoes, said Leggoe, "all smiles and anxious to help. 'We have come,' they said simply, 'to look after you.' " Two Yolngu paddled south to get help, while others guided the Patricia Cam's captain, Alexander Meldrum, to Marchinbar's radar base, an excruciating 57km walk for the bare-footed Meldrum over rocky terrain.

"They were unsung heroes," says traditional owner Yumbulul of those Yolngu men. "That togetherness of black and white Australians, whatever their colour or creed, should be remembered." An RAAF reconnaissance plane dropped supplies, and on January 29, HMAS Kuru picked up the survivors.

Leonard Kentish's story had no such happy ending. After the war, his wife, with no official news of his fate, asked Australian newspapers to publicise her search for information on her husband's whereabouts. It was discovered he had been executed by his Japanese captors several months after he was taken; his remains were retrieved by Australian authorities and buried in Ambon War Cemetery in Indonesia.

When Reverend Kentish disappeared, his oldest child was just six. Noel, now 78, became a Methodist minister like his father. He remembers "a very tall man, who put me on his shoulders and carried me through banana plantations ... I remember touching the leaves as we passed by."

Of her lost father, Jan Braund has pieced together her own sketchy portrait over the years. He was a gifted footballer and pastry cook who brought home boxes of leftover cakes and pies, and slipped out his bedroom window while living with his mother to box in amateur fights. She doesn't know much else. Cameron's family didn't keep in contact after his death, and Braund's mother, Nancy, who was only 22 when Percy was killed, wouldn't speak of him. "I would get out his medals and the photos and sit there with her," says Braund. "But no, there was nothing to be said." When Nancy died at just 41, she'd never even told her daughter where she and Percy first met.

Among the few photos Braund has of her father is one of her parents' wedding. Nancy is laughing, her bouquet filled with lilies. She carries a white horseshoe for luck. Percy leans towards her, confetti on his shoulders, smiling at the camera. In another, sent from Darwin, he is tanned and grinning, his head newly shaved to beat the tropical heat.

Says Jan's uncle, Terry Lee, who was 13 when Percy was posted north: "They all went off to war like babes in the woods. I don't think it even entered Percy's head that he might not come back."

Percy Cameron's name is listed on a war memorial in Plymouth in the UK to Commonwealth sailors with no known graves, and at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, where Braund was overcome with emotion when she visited and saw his name: "It finally made him seem real."

Throughout her life, whenever she had the chance, Braund would knock on official doors, inspired by Leggoe's book, and her own inexplicable feeling that her father wanted to be found.

"I have talked and talked and talked," Braund says. "But they didn't get on with the job." A black folder on the table in front of her bulges with correspondence. One letter dated from 1995 from the Department of Veterans' Affairs is typical of the response she's had: "According to our records, Stoker Cameron has no known grave." She does not feel she's been deliberately misled, but often feels fobbed off.

"Sometimes a little old lady in the suburbs gets a pat on the head and told, 'There, there dear, don't worry about it, everything will be all right.' And I kept on thinking, 'At your peril, mate,' " says Braund.

And, she wonders, if they didn't want to listen to her, "Why wouldn't they listen to John Leggoe, who was there?" Australia has gone to great lengths to identify and repatriate the remains of its own from far-off battlefields and Braund hopes the Navy will do the same for her father. (The Department of Defence has not provided a comment to Good Weekend as this article goes to press.)

"Without the Past Masters, my father's story would still be a no-go zone," says Braund. No one has yet travelled to the unnamed islet where it's believed the raft from the Patricia Cam came ashore, though McIntosh and the Past Masters team are hoping to raise enough money for the journey there, and perhaps search for the wreck itself. There are many discoveries they want to explore, including analysing the boat's knee to see if its timber came from the forests around where the Patricia Cam was built.

Casting new light on the ship's fate is the result of the Past Masters' collaborative ethos, says Ian McIntosh. "We pool the expertise of everyone and by casting such a wide net, we're making all sorts of discoveries."

Jan Braund is now hoping her father's story is finally about to get a proper ending. "I want him home," she says. In a letter written to her in 1993, the late John Leggoe wrote of her father's hard-working nature and his bravery in the chaos of the attack.

"He made a dash for the only gun in an effort to return fire, but the ship sank under him before he could get any shots away," Leggoe wrote. "I can assure you that your father was a man of whom you can be very proud."

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