LAST Sunday a chilly, bright and blustery day in Sydney, seafarers, their families and associates gathered at the Rookwood Necropolis for the 56th annual commemoration at the Merchant Navy Memorial and Columbarium.

In his opening remarks, Merchant Navy War Memorial Fund chairman David Field drew attention to the plight of modern seafarers during the pandemic period while also paying tribute to the seafarers who served during the two world wars.

“It’s been two years now since we’ve been able to be in this very special place to honour the memory of Australian merchant navy mariners who gave their lives in service of their country in World War I and World War II and give thanks to those who weren’t able to return to their families,” Mr Field said.

“And also, in this day and age to give thanks to the present-day merchant navy mariners, many of whom have suffered so much during the pandemic.”

Mr Field related the story of the master of an 80,000-tonne liquid gas tanker who had been effectively stuck onboard since July, unable to see his family for more than eight months.

“It is estimated that 100,000 odd merchant seafarers are stranded across the world. That brings me to express a heartfelt welcome to Sister Mary Leahy OAM, Reverend Un Tay, and Chaplain John Kewa,” Mr Field said.

“I, like you, am aware of the enormous and extraordinary effort that the three of you and your organisation have made to make the lot of the seafarer a little more bearable in this time.”

Sister Mary Leahy speaks at the Merchant Navy War Memorial; Image: Ian Ackerman/DCN

Sister Mary, in her address, spoke about the importance and permanence of such commemorations over the years.

“The essence of why we’re here hasn’t changed and will never change, and it’s the essence of paying respect to those we owe so much to merchant seafarers who lost their lives during the wars,” she said.

“And also paying respect to the many seafarers who have sat here with us and stood here with us, or family members, those we love and knew personally, the essence will go on no matter what changes seem to happen around us.”

The gest of honour, Commander Michael Oborn CSN, RAN, Commander Shore Force, delivered the  2021 Merchant Navy Address.

Commander Oborn, in his address quoted Psalm 107, which reads: They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; These see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.

“This verse from psalm 107 speaks, for me, to the fear and trepidation held by mariners over 2000 years ago. As in those days, the pitted themselves against the elements at sea in ships we nowadays would not deem worthy of being a ship,” Commander Oborn said.

“The life of a mariner will always be different. It is a calling that not all can answer, while today time, technology has changed parts of our understanding of being a mariner, there are still many elements of a mariner’s life that were in the psalmist’s time. Things like leaving your family, journeying to foreign lands, carrying precious cargo or precious people and embarking on special tasks or missions.

Commander Michael Oborn, Commander Shore Force; Photo: Ian Ackerman/DCN

“And of course, only a mariner knows what it’s like to see the sun rise and fall over the ocean with no land in sight, and only a mariner knows the strength and peril of the sea.

“Today as we gather humbly and solemnly to remember, we remember the mariners from the merchant navy in World Wars one and two, who paid the ultimate sacrifice. We commemorate, as mariners, the loss of loved ones, of mates, of shipmates, those that served at sea and lost their lives in service of our country.”

Commander Oborn said: “The fighting fleets of our navy the ground fleets of our army would have been helpless had it not been for the steady stream of personnel, equipment and supplies of every character brought into combat areas by the ships of our merchant navy.

“Those who served under the red ensign, fought to maintain freedom for many generations to come. To those brave members of a merchant navy, we owe more than 70 years of peace, liberty and our material prosperity. We owe them more than we can ever repay. All that their family and descendants ask is recognition in our national story. We who are gathered here keep alive that memory of those that did their duty never grew old, and never will.

“Our presence today indicates we are also mindful of those who have served and are still serving in the Australian merchant navy, Merchant navies around the world and navies around the world.

Commander Oborn ended his address by saying: “We remember their steadfastness, their bravery, and their sacrifice with humility and gratitude.

“They are not forgotten in Australia, the land they loved. And they should never be forgotten. Lest we forget.”

Commander Oborn’s address was followed by the Last Post and a minute’s silence that concluded with eight bells.

Subsequently, wreaths were laid at the memorial.

Laying a wreath at the Merchant Navy Memorial at Rookwood Necropolis on 11 April 2021; Photo: Ian Ackerman/DCN