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The Pacific


Interview with Tommy Sorley

Tommy Sorley was born in 1923 in Glasgow, Scotland. In 1943 he was aboard the Royal Navy Ship HMS Quail that struck a mine off the Italian Coast. He was one of the very few survivors of that blast.

He was later reassigned to HMS Quilliam and was a gunner aboard her when they were sent to Melbourne in late 1944 to prepare to join the American Fleet in the Pacific. He was on duty off the coast of Hiroshima, when they were provided with some new protective clothing, which they didn't realise at the time was to protect them from the nuclear fallout from the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Tommy recalls that because Japanese did not surrender after Hiroshima the Americans dropped the bomb on Nagasaki. After that the Japanese surrendered. Had they not (according to Tommy), every large Japanese City (including Tokyo) would have had a nuclear bomb dropped on it.

Like many UK service people, Tommy later immigrated to New Zealand where he resides at the Ranfurly Veterans Home and Hospital.

Read on for Tommy's account of his time in the war. 

Tommy: My name is Tommy, my nationality is Scottish and I sailed in The Pacific during the Second World War, especially off the coast of Japan where I was witness to the Hiroshima atom bomb on August 6th, 1945. 

I'm now 86 and I was 18 when I entered the Royal Navy in 1942. My time in the service spanned from 21st September 1942 - 25th August 1946 so I was in the services for nearly four years.    

If we go back, I finished off my training in East Africa and as soon as I completed my training I was placed on the British destroyer, HMS Quail. We ended some more training there and we moved up the Red Sea through the Suez Canal. 

On the East coast of Italy is a port called Bari, the year was 1943. We went out at sea at night time on duty and unbeknown to us, there were magnetic mines in the entrance to Bari harbour. So we were coming out of the harbour when all of a sudden, the ship went up ... then it was all gone and most of us too. 

I was blown up and unconscious but when I hit the water I seemed to come to my senses a bit. The Adriatic sea was littered with ship debris and bodies, it was deadly. The ship had gone, all the crew had gone. 

Then HMS Quilliam (the sister ship) came and picked me up and I remember I was bleeding from head to toe, and naked of course. I don't remember getting to hospital as I lost consciousness and woke up in there. I lost all my teeth in the blast. I do recall the doctor speaking in broken English as he called me 'Tomateo'. 

I was fortunate enough to survive.  I don't know how I survived. Even in the hospital the doctors said it was amazing that I survived. There were five to seven others who survived out of 250 men onboard the ship.

Some New Zealand boys who were on board the ship were killed, so I went to pay my respects to their families when I came here. I told them what really happened - I thought they would want to know. One family was in Dunedin and the other one was in the Waitakere area.  I looked up their addresses and went to visit them to tell them I was with their sons before they were killed in action to tell them the details and what happened. They asked me and I told them. All those people gone... 

We went back through the Suez Canal and did a stint in the Indian Ocean and came round into the Pacific. We were clad in highly sophisticated clothing ... I didn't know why. The commanding officer came over the intercom to let the crew know what was going on and he said if the Japanese do not surrender, every (this is true) last town in Japan will be atom bombed, destroyed completely, including the capital, Tokyo. 

I look back with reflection and I was only a youngster then and that's a bloody war for you. We heard the commander officer saying they have decided to surrender, unconditional surrender, and it was the best day of my life. 

When we left there, we went to a place called San Diego - it's the best naval base I've ever been to in my life. We got a big welcome by the people there, as the war had ended. I thought that was wonderful. 

We then left San Diego for Panama Canal, which was a wonderful experience. So on we went ... they call it the lock system as it's made up of fresh-water lakes. 

Have you heard of the Bermuda triangle where many ships and planes have been lost? Well, we were all aware of what the Bermuda triangle meant for many ships and planes, and sailors are superstitious (although I'm not), so we did get a bit scared about what might happen to us. I thought I was fortunate enough to survive the Quail but I might not be so lucky here. 

An older sailor (he was probably only in his 30s but as we were so young, he seemed much older to me then) told me not to be shaken, as he knew what I was thinking. But we were relived when the officer said, "I have decided I'm not going through, I'm going to skip it from Panama to Bermuda". Even to this day, I still can't believe to this day how many ships and planes went missing. As far as I can ascertain, nobody nor science has ever found out why.  What was it like resuming normal life after almost four years in the war?

Tommy:  It took me a long time to settle down. A terrible long time to settle down - I was all at sea. See, on the ship, especially small ships, you're all one big family. One big family all together in action.  It was a long time ago.  

Aside from my sea family, my family back in Scotland was Roman Catholic. My older sister Ellen was a hard woman. When the navy took me away it was the best thing that could have happened to me. Ellen took over from my mother because my mother suffered from cancer back then and my father was a boozer - not the best of fathers. But everyone's mother is the best, I must say that.

Ellen said to me, "The sooner you leave this family, the better. You're nothing but an embarrassment". I was always in trouble. I left and I never went back again.  What's it like living here at Ranfurly House? 

Tommy: Wonderful people here, I'm very happy and contented here. I like it here. Most of us have something in common. I play bowls, practise Thai Chi and play soccer (if I hadn't gone to war I would have turned professional at seventeen). And we have dances here too. I like my booze and my smokes (that was my treat back then on the ship too). 

I look back and I think, it must have happened to me. I can't believe I've just disclosed this all to you today but you're here to listen to my story. I'm happy I've spoken to somebody about it, to get it out of my system - I feel better for it and I won't apologise for my crying. 

I look at my life now - I'm here today and could be gone tomorrow. I've come so close to death before that I'm prepared. I've come a whole cycle and more; I'm not afraid.

I haven't disclosed any of this for a long time. I've never fully spoken about it before and I'll never tell my story again.