1st Lieutenant George Leo Cantello
75th Commemoration Speech – Lt Cantello Reserve – 8 June 2017
By Steven Carruthers
A Theatre of War
Few Australians are aware of the extent of the Australian East Coast sea war by Japanese submarines that sank 21 ships, attacked a further 19 vessels, and shelled the cities of Sydney and Newcastle. This vicious submarine campaign from May 1942 to July 1943 claimed the lives of 671 men and women, including 27-year-old 1st Lieutenant George Leo Cantello who lost his life in the defence of Sydney on the night of the Sydney bombardment.
Shortly after midnight on 8 June 1942, the Japanese submarine I-24, which had taken part in the midget submarine attack in Sydney a week earlier, surfaced 5.9 nautical miles (11,000 metres) off Long Point, Malabar, the nearest land. Steering north east along the coast, the submarine fired 10 high explosive shells into the most densely populated suburbs of Sydney. The shelling lasted 4 minutes with the last round fired about 16 minutes after midnight.
Shore bombardment by Japanese submarines against military targets was reasonably common throughout the Pacific War, especially seaplane bases and fuel depots on Midway, Johnston, Palmyra (Pal-mara) and the Hawaiian Islands, and along the west coast of America. Historians can only speculate that their target in Sydney was the Qantas Empire Flying Boat base at Rose Bay. However, there were several instances of bombarding civilian areas in order to disturb morale. In his book titled Sunk, Mochitjura Hashimoto, one of the few submarine Commanding Officers to survive the war, devotes a chapter to submarine bombardments.
After outlining the limitations on bombardment and the “inevitable errors” in the process of aiming and ranging the deck gun on an unsteady platform, he goes on to say: “Therefore it was quite useless to aim for a small target, and the usual practice was to plaster a particular area with the idea of frightening the populace.”
According to the ship’s log of the heavy cruiser USS Chicago, the target of the surprise midget submarine raid a week earlier, sea conditions were the worst the captain had experienced in the week following the Sydney attack. I-24 sailed up the coast firing its 5.5” gun on a rolling sea.
Only three shells exploded causing minor damage to buildings, roads and power lines with no serious casualties. The nearest shell fell 400 metres short of the Rose Bay flying boat base, with the others plastering the suburbs of Bondi, Woollahra and Rose Bay.
The shelling initially caused panic and confusion among the civil population; a reaction similar to the shelling of Goleta, located north-east of Los Angeles on America’s west coast, on 3 February 1942 when a Japanese submarine surfaced and fired 24 shells into one of the largest oilfields in the Western Hemisphere at that time. It was the first enemy fire on mainland America since the British in 1812.
Although there was only minor damage, the bombardment was widely reported across the country by news agencies, which caused 10s of thousands of Americans to flee inland. With the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor only two months earlier, many feared the Japanese fleet was just over the horizon and an invasion was imminent.
The attack, and the hysteria that followed, was used as justification for the Roosevelt government’s internment of Japanese–Americans – most of them US citizens – which began a week later.
The Japanese expected a similar reaction following the shelling of the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney. However, the military authorities played down the effectiveness of the bombardment and newspaper and wireless reports were heavily censured. While many Sydneysiders feared the bombardments were a prelude to a Japanese invasion, for the most part, they stayed put, although many sent their children to the safety of family and friends living inland.
Some people simply rolled over in bed, cursing the authorities for another practice firing by coastal guns and navy ships lying off the coast.
In mid-1942, the military defence of Sydney was coordinated from an underground bunker in the heart of Sydney, between Circular Quay and the Public Library in Macquarie Street, which now forms part of the City Circle Railway. It was the nerve centre of the controls for the Army, Air Force and Navy to defend Sydney, and was manned by Australian and American defence personnel. The Command Centre was connected to radar and weather stations, airfields and airports, army and volunteer air observer reporting posts, air raid sirens, blackout controls, the lot. A huge table carried a map of the New South Wales coast and adjoining areas, on which was plotted movements of aircraft and shipping. But the command centre was unprepared for an enemy attack from the sea.
According to the Operations Record Book, at 0043 hundred hours the Command Centre advised that an enemy submarine was shelling Sydney and a red alert was issued. The bunker ordered the 41st Pursuit squadron at Bankstown aerodrome, Sydney’s only air defence, into the air to retaliate; but the only pilot on base was the Squadron Commander, First Lieutenant George Cantello, who was killed when his fighter aircraft crashed to the ground soon after take-off.
I can only imagine what was going through Lt Cantello’s mind as he rushed to his fighter aircraft parked on the tarmac, flying into a black sky to confront an enemy of unknown force or type. He had no idea what he would face, and he was alone. His courage and sacrifice to defend Sydney is equal to those pilots who tried to get into the air to confront overwhelming numbers of enemy aircraft over Pearl Harbor 7 months earlier.
Lieutenant Cantello’s actions and subsequent sacrifice is not recorded in the official history and his story would have been lost but for Mr John Jewell, who witnessed the crash as a young boy. Over the years, Mr Jewell tried to interest the authorities in the incident and in the early 1980s the United States Consul in Sydney initiated an inquiry. The investigation involved the United States Air Force Historical Center, the American Battle Monuments Commission, the Washington National Records Center, and surviving members of the 41st Fighter Squadron.
In 1988, the citizens of Bankstown unveiled this memorial as part of a Bicentennial Project to honour Lt Cantello’s sacrifice and named this substantial public reserve in his honour, the Lieutenant Cantello Reserve.
Today, we remember Lt George Cantello as a hero.
Lest we forget!
Newcastle Herald (8 June 2017) – http://www.theherald.com.au/story/4699784/newcastle-under-fire-photos-video/?cs=305
7 News (1 June 2017) – https://www.facebook.com/7newssydney/videos/1686134761410650/
Newcastle Herald – Gallery; 1942 Submarine Attack – Newcastle Herald
Sydney Morning Herald: Golfers face extra handicap with 70-year-old bomb threat to fairway – (13 Jan 2013) – http://www.theherald.com.au/story/1229672/gallery-1942-submarine-attack/