Sunday, October 28, 2012

Remembering Tracy and Maj.Gen. Stretton

"The Major General who led the recovery effort after Cyclone Tracey has died.
Retired Major General Alan Stretton flew to Darwin in 1974 to head the relief effort after the city was destroyed. Under his leadership, 36,000 people were evacuated and essential services were restored.
Major General Stretton passed away on Friday night at age 90.
Historian Peter Forrest says Major General Stretton has left a lasting legacy.
"He of course will be always remembered in Darwin as the man who took command of the immediate post cyclone phase, those first five or six days," he said. "I think he did a great job in focusing the mind of the nation on what Darwin's situation really was.
"He was able to use all of his authority and connections to focus the entire resources of the nation onto Darwin's situation and its needs and I think he was just about uniquely placed to do that."

Former Australian of the Year, Major General Alan Stretton led the relief effort after Cyclone Tracy devastated the city of Darwin in 1974. Born in Melbourne, Stretton joined the Army in 1940 and saw active service in the Pacific, Korea, Malaya and Vietnam where he was was the Australian Army chief of staff during that conflict. In 1974 Stretton was appointed Director-General of the newly formed Natural Disasters Organisation, which coordinated Commonwealth Government disaster relief.

I can vouch for Major General Stretton's role in the relief organisation for the City of Darwin. We were about to sit down in the staff dining room for our first Christmas lunch on Christmas Day 1974 at the new Woden Valley Hospital in Canberra when our medical superintendent, Dr "Nobby" Elvin walked in and announced that Darwin had been devastated by a massive cyclone. The Bureau of Meteorology's official estimates suggested that Tracy's wind gusts had reached 240 km/h (150 mph).

After a few words to key staff to organise a relief surgical team to fly into Darwin he walked over to me and handed me his master keys for the hospital and told me to go to the hospital's vast Stores area, open it up and give the relief team anything they needed. We had that team equipped with emergency supplies for an emergency surgical team on a RAAF C130 Hercules and winging off to Darwin that evening.  They landed in Darwin early the next day - first relief flight on the ground on a hastily cleared airfield. I had wanted to go too but Dr Elvin said to me - "They need surgical help right now, we'll send in the Pysch team later!"

Twenty days later I flew into Darwin with a "social support" team and this is what we saw on approach to the airfield:

Devastation brought by Cyclone Tracy upon the Northern Territory city of Darwin.
Courtesy – National Archives of Australia A6135, K29/1/75/16

The extent of the devastation was so severe that Stretton would only allow non-military personnel to remain "on-the-ground" for no more than ten days.

Ten days later we flew out to Adelaide with an evacuation load of women and children. Over 36,000 people were evacuated by air and sea.


The Elephant's Child said...

I remember Cyclone Tracey. RIP Major General Stretton. You did a tremendous job, and were a much more worthy recipient of Australian of the Year than a sportman. (Personal gripe there).

JohnD said...

He was the Very Model of a Modern Major-General! A true soldier and a great Australian.