Department of the Environment

Archived media releases and speeches

The Hon Tony Burke MP

Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities

'Lost' Australian World War Two shipwreck now protected under Australian Law

Media release
25 April 2013

Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke, today declared the World War Two Merchant Navy vessel the MV Limerick, sunk off the east coast of Australia on 26 April 1943, as a protected historic shipwreck.

Mr Burke said the discovery of the remains of the MV Limerick in September last year brought an end to an enduring mystery of Australia and New Zealand's shared maritime heritage.

The Limerick was off the coast of Ballina heading towards Brisbane when it was torpedoed by the Japanese submarine I-177. Survivors reported that the ship immediately caught fire and subsequently sunk at 6.03am.

Two of its crew, New Zealand merchant seaman Fourth Engineer William Rush of Haveloch aged 30 and Australian merchant seaman Third Officer John Willmott of New South Wales aged 26, went down with the ship. The remaining 70 crew members were rescued after eight and half hours clinging to rafts or life boats.

The shipwreck site of the Limerick is a dramatic symbol of the dangers faced by the Merchant Navy. The same Japanese submarine that sunk the Limerick, less than one month later sunk the AHS Centaur.

This declaration ensures that any actions that may result in damage, interference, removal or destruction of the shipwreck site of the MV Limerick and its associated relics, are now illegal.

“The last moments of the Limerick are well known but it has taken nearly 70 years for the confirmation of the location and identity of the shipwreck site,’’ Mr Burke said.

“The ship and her crew put themselves in danger to protect us, it’s only right that we now protect the shipwreck of the Limerick forever.

“In making the declaration the Australian government recognises and acknowledges the exceptional heritage significance of the shipwreck of the MV Limerick and is ensuring its legacy is protected forever under Australian law.”

Between 1939 and 1943 the MV Limerick undertook numerous military missions, carrying munitions, food, equipment and personnel between New Zealand, Australia, North America and the Middle East.

During World War Two Australian and New Zealand’s merchant vessels were commissioned into naval service as hospital ships, supply ships and armed merchant cruisers and played a vital role in supporting and supplying Australian troops. 

“Australia’s merchant seamen paid a high price in keeping vital supplies moving,” Mr Burke said.

“It is estimated that the overall fatality rate among seamen members of the Seaman Union of Australia during World War Two was 8.5 per cent, a rate higher than that sustained by Australia’s fighting services. 

“The shipwreck of the Limerick is a tangible link to actions of Australian and New Zealand merchant seamen and for two, their last resting place.  The shipwreck is also a significant physical representation of Australia and New Zealand’s shared maritime military history and an important chapter in the ANZAC story.”

For more information on the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976  and images of the MV Limerick go to  http://www.environment.gov.au/heritage/shipwrecks/index.html