Douglas John Sanderson was born on 06 May 1942 at Marrickville, NSW. He enlisted in the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) on 26 October 1959 for nine years. His first draft was to HMAS Cerberus (Flinders Naval Depot) at Crib Point, south of Melbourne, where he began his Basic Training. As a Recruit Seaman he would have completed physical training and rifle drill, then seamanship subjects and damage control & firefighting, with career selection prior to specialist training.

  On 31 January 1960, Sanderson was drafted to HMAS Watson, a depot located on Sydney Harbour’s South Head, where he commenced training as an Underwater Control operator. This involved sonar vectoring of submarines and torpedo tracking, among other things. On 24 April 1960 Sanderson was rated Ordinary Seaman with a short posting to the anti-submarine frigate HMAS Quickmatch for work experience returning to Watson where he completed his exams. It appears that Sanderson received above average marks with his abilities graded superior.

Sanderson was drafted to Quickmatch several times during the first half of 1961 to gain experience with returns to Watson for additional technical training; he was then rated Able Seaman on 26 September 1961. His next posting was to the River Class destroyer/escort HMAS Paramatta until March 1963. Returning to Watson for a specialist course on 03 May 1963, he was promoted Acting Leading Seaman. This was followed by a draft to the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne. Sanderson’s promotion indicates commitment to his to work with consistent superior grades.

In 1963 the RAN was building-up its fleet of Westland Wessex anti-submarine helicopters and there was a demand for Underwater Control operators to work the high-tech ‘dunking sonar’ the Wessex helicopters were equipped with. Given Sanderson’s high standing and superior abilities he selected for transfer to the Fleet Air Arm as a Wessex U/C operator. This led to a posting to HMAS Albatross the RAN Air Station at Nowra (RANAS Nowra) on 06 January 1964, where he began his Westland Wessex sonar system conversion course at NAS Nowra.

His initial training was in classroom situations, then progressing to exercises with 725 Squadron, a training squadron equipped with the Wessex, for practical experience superimposed on further training at Watson. The next step was the Operational Flying School (OFS) helicopter course which involved lengthy day and night-time exercises, bringing aircrew personnel up to front-line standard. Having passed the OFS course on 07 August 1964 Sanderson was rated Leading Airman Underwater Control. Some details on his papers are not recorded, but it seems he joined 817 Squadron, the front-line Wessex unit, which embarked on HMAS Melbourne in August 1964.

In August the Wessex helicopters searched for HMS Trump, a submarine that was sending out distress signals. Trump was soon found and grenades dropped to have it surface; it was then discovered the submarine had snagged an adrift indicator buoy, and was not in danger.

Sanderson was promoted A/POAUC on 05 August 1966. When Melbourne was not at sea 817 Squadron disembarked to NAS Nowra. 05 April 1967 Sanderson was prompted Acting Petty Officer Aircrewman and confirmed six months later – a key step in his aviation career.  

On 05 June 1968 Sanderson was tasked to fly in Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopter N9-881 to Beecroft Peninsula to clear the Navy’s rifle range there prior to a practise shoot.  It was a routine task conducted many times before, but was to end in tragedy. After dropping one passenger on the range the aircraft flew a low impromptu pass over him, before hitting a small mound nearby. It then broke up when it struck the ground a second time, and the wreckage plunged over the cliff into the sea some 90 metres below.

POACM D.J. Sanderson, SAR Diver NAM R.K. Smith and LEUT (P) P.C. Ward all lost their lives in this tragic event.

Compiled by Kim Dunstan from the following References:
National Archives of Australia
725 Squadron History
723 Squadron History
NLA Trove