Siblings Bill and Beryl have been lost for nearly 80 years. The discovery of a WWII shipwreck was a game-changer

When the sunken wreck of a ship torpedoed by the Japanese 80 years ago was found in Bass Strait, not only did it reassure Bill Stewart that he knew his father’s final resting place, but it led to a moving reunion with his long-lost sister.

Mr Stewart and Beryl Johnson were orphaned when their father died on board the SS Iron Crown after being attacked around 100 kilometers off the south coast of Victoria in June 1942.

Frank Stewart, 64, was among 38 people who died.

“It was a shock, I no longer had a father or mother. I was 11 then,” said Bill Stewart.

As their mother had died years earlier, Bill and his sister Beryl were both sent to an orphanage while their father was at sea.

But when they were both orphaned, Mr Stewart was sent to a boys’ home in Adelaide and his sister was adopted, as it was believed at the time that adoptees needed a ‘clean break’ with all the remaining relatives.

The World War II ore carrier SS Iron Crown was sunk by a Japanese submarine in 1942.(Provided: Maritime Museum of South Australia)

Mr Stewart, now 91, is still visibly upset when he remembers the day he had to say goodbye to his sister.

Mr Stewart eventually moved to Sydney and started life there, while Ms Johnson remained in Adelaide.

But neither sibling has ever given up hope of ever being reunited.

“We were both looking for each other but got no help from the orphanage,” Mr Stewart said.

Ms Johnson said she was also struggling.

“I couldn’t find any details of Bill’s whereabouts or where he went, I tried for years,” she said.

“I gave up and started to think maybe he was dead, but in my head I always thought that one day we would meet again.”

The Turning Memorial Event

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CSIRO Vision of the Submerged Iron Crown

The turning point came when the wreckage of the SS Iron Crown was discovered by the Hobart-based research vessel CSIRO Investigator in April 2019, and a memorial was held for the descendants of those who died on board.

“More than 50 descendants of Iron Crown’s crew gathered for the memorial event at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne on Merchant Navy Day,” said Emily Jateff, of the Australian National Maritime Museum.

Mr Stewart was put in touch with Kylie Watson, a distant relative who had attended the memorial, who also happened to be an amateur searcher for people looking for missing family members.

Two elderly people are holding hands and talking at a table.
After nearly 80 years apart, Beryl and Bill now talk to each other on the phone every morning.(Provided)

She immediately started looking for Ms Johnson and even dug up old newspaper clippings to get an idea of ​​where she might live.

When all the evidence pointed to Adelaide, they contacted local newspapers and sent out a notice to anyone who knew the whereabouts of Beryl Johnson, formerly Beryl Stewart, to come forward.

“I cried when I heard Billy was alive,” Ms Johnson said.

“It was an amazing voice that I never thought I would hear again.

“I have my life back now, which was once full of longing and longing.”

An old man and a woman pose for a photo together.
Bill and Beryl now call each other every day.(Provided)

“That’s not usually what happens when you find wreckage”

The couple have spoken every day since they were reunited last year when Mr Stewart visited Adelaide.

“I couldn’t get into Bill’s arms fast enough, we just hugged and couldn’t let go,” Ms Johnson said.

“I love him very much, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s been a miracle that we found each other after almost 80 years.”

They both say their reunion gave their lives a whole new meaning.

Maritime Museum Chief Scientist Emily Jateff smiling outside the Shrine of Remembrance
Ms Jateff said it was an “incredible” resolution.(ABC News: Gemma Hall)

“It’s not what usually happens when you find wreckage, but I’m very happy about it,” Ms Jateff said.

Mr Stewart and Ms Johnson said they would continue to call each other at 8am every day and planned to spend Christmas together surrounded by family.

“I hope we can continue to love each other and be there for each other for as long as we can,” Ms Johnson said.

“Now that Bill is back in my life, I just don’t want it to end.”

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