As the Last Post was played the group of 20 stood silent in the RSA’s club rooms close to the ocean at Nikao on the very day 80 years ago when the first British merchant ship was sunk by a German submarine just one hour after World War Two was declared.
When the SS Athenia was torpedoed 98 civilian passengers and 19 crew were killed – many died in the engine room where the torpedo hit and the sinking was eventually condemned as a war crime.
Representatives from the police, the New Zealand Navy and other services attended the remembrance service for lost mariners held in the RSA’s Pioneer Lounge and then adjourned for a traditional seafarer’s “tot of rum”, followed by tea and cakes on the lounge deck.
92-year-old Philip Thomson, an ex-pat New Zealander, was the eldest person person to attend – a veteran of the merchant navy who was on the first tugboat that tried unsuccessfully to tow the Wahine away from the reef at the entrance to Wellington harbour in April 1968.
He remembers with clarity the moment the wind caught the helpless interisland ferry and the tow line parted.
The ship ended up aground on Barrett Reef, capsized and sank with the loss of 53 lives.
Lindsay Brebner was also there – he first discovered the Cook Islands as an engineer on the New Zealand-Cook Islands ship Moana Roa in the 1960s.
His merchant navy career led to his settling in Rarotonga 20 years ago with his wife Kathy who was also in attendance yesterday.
The Royal New Zealand Navy was represented by Lieutenant Commander Kerry Driver, the Cook Islands’ maritime surveillance advisor and Chief Petty Officer Tamatoa Short, technical advisor to the Cook Islands Police.
Turi Mataiapo Maria Henderson, was also there to support the RSA and to be part of the day of remembrance for those who lost their lives at sea.
Also in attendance was David Thorpe, a New Zealand tourist on holiday – a worker at the Port of Lyttelton – who saw the notice for the Remembrance Day in the Cook Islands News and decided to attend.
His brother is the current head of the New Zealand Maritime Workers Union.
RSA vice-president Denis Dwane read out a short account of the merchant navy’s role in the two World Wars and other conflicts and spoke of the 15,000 merchant seamen who lost their lives in World War One.
The toll was even higher in World War Two where the Allies lost 4700 merchant ships with the loss of 33,370 lives onboard convoy vessels that were sunk.
He also reminded those gathered of the high price the Germans paid, with around 28,000 submariners killed – 75 per cent of all sailors who served in U-boats.
Dwane finished his address by reflecting on the fact that the Cook Islands is a maritime nation whose development through history is significantly attributed to men of the sea.