The story of the Duntroon cadet drownings on Lake George.

johnboy 26 February 2009 22

Earlier this week in a thread about hang gliding over Lake George Imhotep posted a link to what can best be described as a ballad to the five RMC cadets who drowned on the lake in 1956.

“How the hell does anyone drown on Lake George” you all cry, everyone does when the story gets related. While I was aware that they’d drowned the details had always been hazy. I’m reproducing the poem by Chaplain Jim Cosgrove for archival purposes. (If anyone objects they should contact me on

    On a Sunday in July in the year of 56,
    On a lake that’s known for beauty and for danger
    There came a group of men with some sailing craft to fix –
    For some that evening death would be no stranger

    When the College sought to broaden the horizon of her men,
    To become less insular and more diverse
    They could not then foresee that most tragic moment when,
    The blessing of their sailing turned to curse

    Staff Cadet Noble made request for a visit to the lake,
    To help maintain the College Sailing craft
    To carry out this mission seven others he did take,
    While on the truck they probably joked and laughed

    There was Pritchard, Gosling, Ford, Colquhoun and Jorgensen,
    Also Reilly and Alizzie shared the ride
    They were in the prime of youth, they were strong and healthy men
    As sailors though just Noble qualified.

    Though the water was quite cold there was little wind about
    The surface of the lake was fairly calm
    Colquhoun and Jorgensen rigged a VJ and sailed out
    There was no sense this task could end in harm

    They were sailing close to shore, just a little distance out
    And as they turned the craft the boat capsized
    From their icy water plunge they were seen to get about
    The future peril not yet realized

    These two continued sailing while the others worked their chores
    And then work stopped for lunch at 2pm
    They called them in from sailing and were seen to turn for shore
    By meal’s end though they had not joined with them.

    For these two had come to trouble, now a greater distance out,
    Both clinging to the hull their boat upturned
    Their returning to the clubhouse had never come about
    To sail against the wind they’d never learned.

    On shore their friends proceeded to sail out to make a rescue
    In an engineer assault craft from the fleet
    But on reaching these two fellows their attempt could not continue
    As their boat collapsed when fate dislodged a seat.

    Now five were in the water and some tried to swim for shore,
    On land they searched for motor boats in vain
    They grabbed an older VJ and with wood to use as oars
    A rescue mission set out once again

    They paddled through the icy waves and came across a swimmer,
    Near exhausted and affected by the cold
    They slung him ‘cross the cockpit and with daylight growing dimmer
    They found two others clinging to a hull

    With these two dragged aboard there were now five on the boat
    And only three were conscious furthermore
    With the overloaded VJ trying hard to stay afloat
    They turned around to paddle back to shore

    There was no sign of the others and the going very slow,
    To make it worse a head wind came with night
    Alone Alizzi waited there was no way he could know
    That tragedy was just beyond his sight

    Alizzi started paddling just as the truck returned
    To take the party back home to their quarters
    His paddling back to shore was the way the drivers learned
    That seven men were stranded on these waters

    He sent the drivers searching for a phone at nearby farms
    And said that he would wait till help arrived
    They still were unaware of the gravity of harm
    That faced their colleagues struggling for their lives

    The driver was not able to locate a telephone
    And returned to RMC in failing light
    The army DUKW was readied but the headwind now had grown
    And the tiny boat was blown into the night

    On board they saw the truck driving off o’er Geary’s Gap
    As the offshore wind now blew them further out
    To add to their despair Colquhoun was in a flap,
    Deliriously he tried to thrash about

    On shore Alizzi waited but when no one had returned,
    He thought it best to start back on his own
    He caught a lift which took him back to college where he learned
    The DUKWs had left but all else was unknown

    On the lake the dark descended and they huddled on the boat,
    They tried to keep her pointed to the waves
    The VJ took on water and was barely now afloat,
    Each minute stole their hope of being saved.

    Their hopes of rescue raised when at last they saw the lights
    As the army DUKW patrolled along the beach
    The 50 metre range of their lights searched through the night
    But the drowning men were well beyond their reach

    It seemed that all the elements conspired against their task,
    A moonless night, a strong wind, driving spray
    They knew not where to search – there was no one there to ask,
    Concern was quickly turning to dismay.

    Just then a large wave crashed against the boat and it capsized,
    Colquhoun and Jorgensen were seen no more
    Just three men now were clinging to the VJ on its side,
    And death still had not finished with its score

    Another wave crashed down and these three were swept asunder,
    It seemed that fate had finished its attack
    Lake George would keep poor Reilly’s body hidden deep down under,
    Two months would pass before it gave him back

    But somehow in the wash Ford and Gosling found the strength
    To grasp as drowning men their little boat
    And that is where they stayed till the Army Dukw at length
    Chanced to find them – close to death but still afloat.

    After four cold freezing hours these two men had now been saved,
    Their task of rescue tragically unfilled
    For five cadets this lake was this evening now their grave,
    Five future leaders accidentally killed

    When the college finally learned of this elemental slaughter
    They joined the searching party to a man
    Till 3am they toiled on the shore and chest deep water,
    And started back as soon as day began

    They toiled all through the morn but it wasn’t till 3 when
    A chopper brought a little bit of closure
    Still wearing a life jacket they’d located Jorgensen,
    Autopsy found he died from cold exposure.

    They dragged the lake with hooks, and planes flew searching low,
    They waded through the shoreline and the marsh
    No matter how they tried Lake George would not let go,
    The waiting and not knowing cruelly harsh

    When Reilly was discovered on the thirteenth of September ,
    Colquhoun and Noble’s bodies were nearby
    The next day they retrieved Pritchard, the last remaining member
    Of this fateful group all much too young to die.

    Hindsight is a precious gift, if only they had known
    The wind would push them to the other shore
    An even greater irony – the winds of time have blown,
    In Lake George there’s no water any more.

The idea of letting guys into a boat who didn’t know how to sail into the wind makes this former sailing instructor’s blood run cold, and the lack of communications seems almost surreal in this day and age.

For the non war-nerds a DUKW is an amphibious truck.

I’d have thought some of our local playwrights could do something pretty powerful with this.

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22 Responses to The story of the Duntroon cadet drownings on Lake George.
alizzia alizzia 5:54 pm 01 Dec 15

Danman, my father (Frank) is the Alizzi referred to in the poem. There is no barbed wire here. It’s just cold and waves and wind sinking their little VJ skiffs, one after another. My father remarked that as 1st and 2nd year RMC cadets they were mere kids – no older than 19, some as young as 17. The water was 34 degrees Fahrenheit, just above freezing. As the story goes:

An two cadets sail out around 2:30 pm and their boat overturns a half mile from shore.

Three cadets go to their rescue,but their boat also sinks. Sadly all five in the water at this time eventually perish. Included in this group is the RMC swim champion. Although all are wearing life jackets, even he is unable to swim to shore. Due to a surreal tidal motion they are drifting toward the center of Lake George.

Another two go out, their boat capsizes too.

The last man standing (my Dad) goes out, paddling with his bare hands. The RMC truck to pick them up arrives at the Lake (its now 4:30pm). If the truck driver sees no one to pick up by the shoreline, his orders are to return empty handed. Dad hears the truck, scrambles his boat around in the opposite direction and paddles to shore. He tells the truck driver to raise the alarm whilst he stays by the shoreline, expecting the truck to bring back help, but it’s not coming anytime soon.

With no rescue in sight and in pitch-black darkness, miraculously he hails a passing car. They reach RMC at 7pm. He arrives to find the rescue team leaving for the Lake, and he returns with them. The RMC rescue effort does not arrive at Lake George until 7:50pm. They pick up 2 two survivors. The remaining 5 are found later, drowned.

Taken from Canberra Times 21 September 1956 reporting on the Coroner’s findings:

“The remaining cadet, Alizzi, had launched another V-J and was paddling it out.When the truck arrived to take the cadets back to the college, Allizi went back and told the driver what had happened. If Allizi had not returned to the shore to bring help, Gosling and Ford would also have perished, said the Coroner in his finding.”

wottaway wottaway 9:29 pm 05 Mar 10

Between 1952-56 Lake George was full to lapping the old road.From school in Goulburn,our bus would stop about halfway along the lake so we could have a BBQ on our way to football matches in Canberra.The day this happened,an Army despatch rider came to our school to give our Headmaster this news,and from memory,the cadets should not have been on the lake.I can still remember what a terrible winters’ day that was in Goulburn.

PBO PBO 9:08 am 27 Feb 09

They found a crashed plane in Lake George once a quite a few years ago when it dried up and there was also a young fellow years ago water skiing on it who found the submerged barbed wire from the fence with his ankles.

Devil_n_Disquiz Devil_n_Disquiz 8:56 am 27 Feb 09

Very interesting thread indeed. The lake has only ever had a little water over on the eastern side as long as I have been in Canberra (2001). I have always been interested to hear from people who have actually seen water in the thing.

The lake in NZ that appears to rise and fall, is Lake Wakatipu at Queenstown. But as has already been mentioned, the likelihood of a connection between the two is … unlikely.

This from wikipedia

Lake Wakatipu is an inland lake (finger lake) in the South Island of New Zealand. It is in the southwest corner of Otago Region, near its boundary with Southland.

With a length of 80 kilometres, it is New Zealand’s longest lake, and, at 291 km², its third largest. It is at an altitude of 310 metres, towards the southern end of the Southern Alps. The general topography is a reversed “N” shape. The Dart River flows into the northern end, the lake then runs south for 30 kilometres before turning abruptly to the east. Twenty kilometres further along, it turns sharply to the south, reaching its southern end 30 kilometres further south, near Kingston.

The lake is drained by the Kawarau River, which flows out from the lake’s Frankton Arm, 8km east of Queenstown. Queenstown is on the northern shore of the lake close to eastern end of its middle section. The lake is very deep, its floor being as low as 100 metres below sea level. It has a seiche of period 26.7 minutes which, in Queenstown Bay, causes the water level to rise and fall some 200 millimetres.

Spam Box Spam Box 8:31 am 27 Feb 09

That’s one of the most interesting threads and comments I’ve read on a blog in a long time.

Nicely done JB and commenters alike

BerraBoy68 BerraBoy68 6:58 am 27 Feb 09

Thanks for posting that JB. I’ve always waned to know what happened to these guys. I’m particularly disturbed by the line “To sail against the wind they’d never learned”. As an ex-sailor, I believe allowing inexperienced people to go sailing by themselves is simply inexcusable.

deye deye 10:42 pm 26 Feb 09

I’m surprised that they didn’t go with the wind to the other side if they couldn’t go into the wind. Would have made for a long walk though.

Jivrashia Jivrashia 10:08 pm 26 Feb 09

The last time I remember seeing the water of Lake George was before I was a teenager, so that would be 20 years or more ago (as a lot of rioters have already pointed out).

Can’t wait to see it fill up again so that I can oversee the lake from the viewing centre and say:
“By George!! It’s a LAKE!!”

old canberran old canberran 9:51 pm 26 Feb 09

It’s been full and empty several times in my lifetime and there have been many theories about its mysterious behaviour. There’s a geological fault line which runs through Gunning, right through the centre of Canberra almost along Northbourne Avenue. Over the years there have been numerous earth tremors of varying strength and usually when ever one occurs the lake usually either fills or empties. Some tremors have been so strong that books and things have fallen off shelves especially around Downer, Watson, Dickson and Braddon.
One theory is that there’s a huge sub-terranian cavern under the lake bed and the water empties and fills through a fissure. The cadets’ drownings had a big impact on the residents at the time because Canberra’s population was quite small then at around 25,000 and the cadets were pretty well known in the sporting arenas with teams in most of the various competitions going at the time.

imhotep imhotep 9:33 pm 26 Feb 09</url?
(The Miocene period started 23 million years ago. It is a very old lake.)

And I agree, it is a creepy place.


frank2112 frank2112 9:14 pm 26 Feb 09

In the 1960’s my father used to fish in lake George. There’s a fishing rod out there somewhere that went overboard. I haven’t seen water up to the road for about 20 years either. Always looks creepy at night though.

shiny flu shiny flu 8:51 pm 26 Feb 09

This is what I learnt in Geography (teacher also had a doctorate in Geo)…

Underneath the lake lies on an old fault line (hence the steep hills) that moved and caused the lake to fill. Beneath the soil is a fair amount of limestone that the water table is able to penetrate also creating small caverns/caves under the surface. The lake can ‘drain’ and ‘fill’ quickly because it spreads over such a large area where often evaporation and condensation can occur in the same area over/around the lake; producing the quick filling and draining seen in the past. Alternatively winds can affect the movement of water to give the appearance that water has ‘drained’. Also much more simply the lake can fill without rain simply because it may have rained further upstream.

Another theory is that the limestone bedrock influences the lake levels, either preventing water from sinking into the water table or allowing it to drain. The mysterious disappearances when people have been out fishing could be due to large caverns in the limestone collapsing causing a small hole where the soaked earth could quite easily envelope a small boat. At the time my teacher said that it was quite difficult to prove limestone caves collapsing as they’re deep underground with no access to them.

This is what I know from common sense:
How on earth can a lake in Australia be connected to a lake in NZ by 2300km of caves, deep enough to pass under the ocean whilst also containing fresh water and not draining water tables in Australia and NZ??? Err yes, aliens did come down to earth and we all need a stress test.

Clown Killer Clown Killer 8:51 pm 26 Feb 09

Near the end of the Pleistocene the lake was so full that it would occasionally flow through Geary’s Gap. The interesting thing about the sediments is that they form a geomorphological record of the last 300ky or so. As this part of the world hasn’t been subject to glaciations over that time the landscape hasn’t been wiped clean by ice sheets. From the perspective of trying to understand Palaeo-climates it’s quite and interesting place.

And for the record. It’s not in any way ‘attached’ or paired or linked with another water body anywhere else, it’s just Lake George.

Beserk Keyboard Warrior Beserk Keyboard Warrior 8:49 pm 26 Feb 09

There have been 13 drownings on Lake George since the late 19th century.

I’ve always wondered what the story was with those cadets. Pity the information came in the form of a painfully Bec Cartwright style poem.

Deckard Deckard 8:37 pm 26 Feb 09

I remember that it had water up to the road at about the time I got my licence – so about 20 years ago.

imhotep imhotep 8:26 pm 26 Feb 09

bigfeet said :

” Will it ever fill again or has there been drainage and other work to prevent it filling again?”

There’s no reason the lake won’t ‘fill’ again, although full is now about 7 metres depth. The last time it overflowed was about 19-26,000 years ago.

At one stage in the late 1800s there was (reportedly) a little cruise boat for day trips on the lake and two boarding houses for tourists. There was even a plan to build the nation’s Capital on the shore of the lake.

But it will always break hearts. A series of very wet years may fill it, but it will quickly dry up. The lake’s catchment area (795sq/km) is just too small for the size of the lake (155sq/km).

The lake is virtually a huge, silted up, evaporation pond. There is thought to be up to 130 metres of sediment in the lake, between 10-15 million years old.

Ags Ags 8:13 pm 26 Feb 09

I heard the lake was joined to another in NZ as well. Apparently it can fill up in a few days without rain. I have been a Canberran for over 20 years and have not seen it yet. Does anyone know of any documents to support this?

bigfeet bigfeet 8:04 pm 26 Feb 09

Thanks Granny, I have complete faith in your vibe.

(and I never want to use “Granny” and “vibe” in the same sentence again)

Granny Granny 7:42 pm 26 Feb 09

The lake will fill again, young bigfoot! It’s just a feeling I have. It’s the vibe.

bigfeet bigfeet 7:37 pm 26 Feb 09

When was the last time it was actually full of water? Will it ever fill again or has there been drainage and other work to prevent it filling again?

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