Remembering the Wild One

June 1, 2012 by Henry Benjamin
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Shortly after midnight on this day 70 years ago, a Japanese midget submarine fired a torpedo towards the USS Chicago, a heavy cruiser moored on Sydney Harbour.

The torpedo passed under its target and slamming into the retaining wall at Garden Island sending the  converted ferry HMAS Kuttabul out of the water and sinking it. On board were 21 sleeping sailors….including John Samuel Asher for whom Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins recited the Av Horachamim prayer at a memorial event yesterday.


John Samuel Asher

Warwick Abadee

More than 300 people were on board a vessel which cruised slowly to the spot where the Kuttabul  met its fate. Among them was 92-year-old John Belfer who has clear memories of Asher from his native Adelaide where the two teenagers grew up. He told J-Wire: “I remember him from Shul and he was called the Wild One”.

Asher was a stoker in the Royal Australian Navy and was awaiting deployment. The “HMAS Kuttabul” was being used as dormitory vessel for sailors awaiting posting.

President of the NSW Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women, Warwick Abadee placed a poppy in a wreath in the name of Asher. He told J-Wire: “The Japanese mother submarine had surfaced outside the Heads and had on board a demountable seaplane. They made reconnaissance flight over the harbour and spotted the Chicago. They sent three midget submarines in at nighttime to attack it but miscalculated the draught of the warship and the Kuttabul became their victim.”

President of the Federation of Jewish ex-Servicemen and Women Wesley Browne joined others in casting a wreath into the harbour at the place where the Kuttabul was sunk.

In June 1942, shortly after the sinking of the Kattabul, another Japanese submarine shelled Sydney and Newcastle. This time their target was the Harbour Bridge and their motive was not to necessarily kill but to create disquiet. Ernest Hirsch was a 35-yr-old electrical engineer who had fled Nazi Germany. One of the Japanese shells tore through the wall of his Rose Bay flat at the corner of Manion Avenue and Iluka Street passing through the room in which his mother was sleeping and came to rest on the stairwell without exploding. Other shells landed in Bradley Avenue, , 9 Bunyula Rd and 68 Streathfield Rd in Bellevue Hill and at 67 Balfour Rd, Rose Bay, 1 Simpson St, Bondi and Olola Avenue Vaucluse. None exploded. The only shell which did explode hit 33 Plumer Rd in Rose Bay causing only a slight injury.

John Belfer and Wesley Browne

Abadee told J-Wire: “At that time, property values in the Eastern Suburbs plummeted. No-one knew what lay ahead.”

The 21 sailors who died on the Kuttabul were the only fatalities resulting from an attack on Sydney.

John Samuel Asher has been dutifully remembered…and there remains no trace today of his family.

John Asher is buried in Adelaide.

Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins



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2 Responses to “Remembering the Wild One”
  1. Gary says:

    A fantastic effort Henry Benjamin. Thank you for giving a voice to Stoker John ASHER. A Jewish boy who died in the service of his country and who I proudly call, one of Australia’s sons. Your community can be proud of the service rendered by your veterans. Whilst people like you, John Belfer, Wesley BROWNE and Warwick ABADEE draw breath, John ASHER will always have a ‘family’ to represent him, despite the fact that you are not related by blood. And Rabbi Jeffrey KAMINS can take a bow ….. what a wonderful representative of your Jewish faith. I hope that you all decide to come back in 2017 for the 75th Anniversary. Yours gratefully, Gary Traynor. Project Manager. Kuttabul Commemoration Project.

  2. Klee says:

    Thankyou from Adelaide for your excellent coverage of this special event.
    Neither John Samuel Asher nor Graham Asher had descendants.
    Sincere thanks to Warwick Abadee, Wesley Browne and Rabbi Kamins for their role in the memorial service and John Belfer for recording his memories. This event highlights the important place of JEWISH remembrance services for our Jewish servicemen and servicewomen. Considering the current discussion of multiculturalism in relation to Gallipoli centenary events and ANZAC services, our Jewish chaplains should have a place in any commemoration of conflicts where Jews served or gave their lives for Australia. From the Adelaide congregation alone, 10 men lost their lives in Australian military service including two in Gallipoli – our minyan in shemayim – and in addition, Greg Sher who was schooled here, died in Afghanistan. They are buried in cemeteries all over the world, no two in the same place. Many, many more served, suffered or were prisoners of war. And it is moving and appropriate that they are commemorated with Jewish memorial prayers at appropriate times like this.

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