The navy adventures of Katoomba-born Gary Oakley are recalled in the $12m high-tech Australian National Maritime Museum’s exhibition Action Stations.

Always a submariner: Katoomba-born naval officer, Gary Oakley, recalls his experiences under the sea.

Always a submariner: Katoomba-born naval officer, Gary Oakley, recalls his experiences under the sea.

It was sauces not submarines that interested Katoomba-born, Indigenous man, Gary Oakley, whose dream was to be a pastry chef at the swish Medlow Bath hotel the Hydro Majestic in the 1970s. But when his parents moved to the central west where job opportunities were scarce, he turned his attentions to the Navy, hoping to become a cook.

All at sea: Gary Oakley's early days on the HMAS Ovens. His story is told in Action Stations which opened late last year at the Maritime Museum.

All at sea: Gary Oakley's early days on the HMAS Ovens. His story is told in Action Stations which opened late last year at the Maritime Museum.

“There wasn’t much happening in Canowindra. After my 12 months [traineeship] with the navy, they said we don’t have bakers anymore and you’re too smart to be a cook, so I ended up an electrical mechanic.”

Mr Oakley said he was able to travel to places “you only read about” and be paid for it. Now those memories are recalled in the Australian National Maritime Museum’s latest high tech $12m attraction Action Stations. 

Mr Oakley joined the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) as a junior recruit in 1969 and after twelve months with HMAS Leeuwin went on to serve on the Duchess, Sydney, Perth, Stewart, Stalwart and on the submarines Oxley and Ovens. His striking story includes the nearly fatal flooding of one of those subs.

“I was trapped in a compartment that was flooding… We were coming to the surface. A piece of pipe had burst. If it had filled up anymore we would have gone backwards and I wouldn’t be here to talk about it.” 

Being a submariner was mentally tough – “a very hard and dangerous occupation with a very high attrition rate,” he said. Early on he learnt “you must trust each other, if you are to survive”.

Now 62 and an Indigenous historian with the air force, Mr Oakley refers to the Australian Defence Force as the nation’s “first equal opportunity employer” because they ignored edicts in World War II not to hire Indigenous recruits. 

He was “really proud” to tell his story in the Sydney display to shine a light for Indigenous recruits, many of whom had a long tradition of service.

“Indigenous Australians don’t get much credit for it [their war efforts], even after the First World War they disappeared because they didn’t get to march, so people had a skewed perception of Indigenous service, same as the Second World War. We’ve been in the uniform for over 100 years for this country and it’s about time people took notice.”

Kevin Sumption, the museum’s CEO, said they were working hard to ensure that the museum remained “relevant”. For the touch-screen generation this meant bringing Australia’s maritime past to life through interactive exhibits. Visitors can walk onto three ex-Navy vessels and see what it is like to be on board a warship during operations. Action Stations is the biggest public initiative the museum has undertaken at the Darling Harbour museum since it opened in 1991. 

Young recruit: Gary Oakley was able to travel to places “you only read about” and be paid for it.

Young recruit: Gary Oakley was able to travel to places “you only read about” and be paid for it.

The new Action Stations exhibit at the Maritime Museum. Photo: MediaServicesAP.

The new Action Stations exhibit at the Maritime Museum. Photo: MediaServicesAP.