Northern Territory Government

Roll of Honour

GUNN, Ralph Eugene

Peary and British Motorist

The tanker British Motorist on fire and sinking. Right is USS Peary sinking by the stern.


Ralph Eugene Gunn, Metalsmith 1st Class (271-97-72), was born in California. He enlisted on 11 October 1939 in Los Angeles. On 30 November 1939 he sailed on the USS Rigel to USS Henderson for duty and subsequently served on Paul Jones from 21 January 1940 to July 1941. Gunn transferred to the Naval Hospital Canacao PI on 8 July 1941 and then to the Peary on 14 December 1941. He was survived by his wife Bessie Wilson Gunn of 2915 Sunset Place, Los Angeles, California.

The Peary had endured a dramatic voyage to Australia in December 1941, after sustaining damage in a bombing attack on the Cavite Navy Yard in the Philippines. The crew camouflaged the ship with green paint borrowed from the Army, and took refuge during daylight by anchoring close to the islands and covering the ship with palm fronds. Many of the Peary’s crew contracted malaria on this journey and eight men eventually died from the disease. They were attacked on 26 and 27 December, but avoided damage by violent manoeuvring. The Peary arrived in Darwin on 3 January.

In January the Peary was operating on anti-submarine patrol, convoy and escort missions; while escorting troops from Darwin to Timor, the ship was again attacked. They returned to Darwin, refuelled and set off again with the cruiser USS Houston. A fruitless submarine chase exhausted the Peary’s fuel, and she returned to Darwin in the early hours of 19 February.

The Peary was hit early in the bombing of Darwin, and appears to have sunk within 40 minutes. The fifth bomb to hit the Peary caused the fatal damage that sent her to the bottom and it was said to be the last bomb dropped that day on the harbour. The Peary’s machine guns continued to fire at the Japanese planes even as she sank. Eighty-eight officers and men, including Captain Bermingham, were killed; twenty of the fifty-seven survivors were wounded.

In December 1942 the Peary was awarded one battle star for service in World War II.

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