2 May 2023

Canberra’s last surviving veteran of WWII naval battle remembered by daughter for his unwavering optimism

| Travis Radford
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elderly man and woman

Derek Holyoake (right) and his partner of 46 years, Valda Crowder, retired to Queanbeyan together. Photo: Supplied.

Derek Holyoake was believed to be the last surviving Canberra veteran of the Battle of the Coral Sea and one of the last surviving Rats of Tobruk before he died in February (2023) aged 98.

His life and nearly 13 years of service in the Royal Australian Navy will be honoured d at a commemorative dinner for the 81st anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea (4 to 8 May 1942).

Daughter Terrie Stanhope says she will remember him for his dry sense of humour and never losing his optimism despite witnessing “atrocities” after he joined the Navy at 16.

“He wanted people to know the stories … to let people who what it was like, but also there was that good side to it,” she says.

“It was a hellish, terrible time, but what can come out of it is also the positivity of camaraderie.

“As much as he’d been through, he was still a really happy man.”

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Some of Derek’s many stories from his time on the HMAS Hobart included supporting the North Africa campaign and relieving troops from Tobruk, serving in Malayan and Singapore waters and later in the Battle of the Coral Sea and the Battle of the Solomon Islands before later serving on the Rockhampton, Australia’s first aircraft carrier HMAS Sydney and in Korea in the early 1950s.

The dinner, to be held on the same day as a public service at the Australian-American Memorial, will mark the 81st anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea, when Japanese forces attempted to capture islands on Australia’s northern doorstep to use as military bases.

Australian and US forces, which included the HMAS Hobart, prevented the capture of the locations which would have severed lines of communication between the two nations.

Derek and the Hobart made it through the Battle of the Coral Sea unscathed, but their luck ran out a little over a year later when a Japanese torpedo struck the Hobart.

Thirteen officers and sailors were killed, and another seven were injured, but Derek and the rest of the crew made it to the safety of Vanuatu on the damaged ship.

Terrie says she spent a lot of time listening to these stories but could not understand them in the same way as fellow veterans.

“I went to school in the 1950s and 1960s [and] it wasn’t taught to the children back then,” she says.

“It’s very confronting, especially when you’re sitting with a man with tears in his eyes.”

men wearing motorcycle jackets

Derek Holyoake (front row, three from the left) was a long-time member of Canberra’s Usual Suspects motorcycle club and regularly rode his motorbikes until age 94. Photo: Supplied.

But more than his years of service in the Navy, Terrie remembers the veteran for being a father to her after her biological father died when she was only 10 years old, something she shared in common with Derek, who had also lost a parent at the same age when his British migrant mother was admitted to hospital and unexpectedly died, leaving him and his two siblings orphaned.

“For many years it was hard to say ‘dad’. I still called him Derek, but I went from cards [saying], ‘like a father to me’ to birthday cards with ‘dad,'” she says.

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Derek left the Navy in 1953 and worked in Victoria for a number of years before he retired to Queanbeyan with his partner, Valda Crowder.

“When he got to Canberra, he loved it because he had the War Memorial, did the wreath-laying, went to all the events,” Terrie says.

Derek could also regularly be seen riding around the capital on one of his eight bikes, including his Vespa 300, until age 94.

A free public service will be held at 11 am on Friday, 5 May, at Canberra’s Australian-American Memorial to honour the 81st Anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea. The ticketed commemorative dinner paying tribute to Derek Holyoake’s life and service will be held at 6 pm on the same day. Visit this page for more information or to register.

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Peter Graves4:11 pm 03 May 23

I note the reference to Mr Holyoake – who served all his time in the RAN – as being a Rat of Tobruk. I thought that tag applied only to the besieged soldiers: “For a soldier to be recognised by this Association as a Rat of Tobruk, there needs to be evidence that he served at Tobruk during the Siege.”

The RAN’s history of Hobart (1) recorded that “She routinely ferried troops to where they were most needed in support of the campaign in the Western Desert and took part in shore bombardments of both Tobruk and Bardia during October and November 1941. “

Certainly Hobart supported allied troops at Tobruk – the siege started on 10 April 1941 and finished on 7 December 1941.

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