Navy service spans three generations

Department of Defence

When HMAS Brisbane II passed under Tower Bridge in London, Able Seaman Leslie Birch realised his dream to see the world.

The year was 1977 and Brisbane was in the United Kingdom for Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee Fleet Review.

It had been a busy year for the ship, having returned from a deployment to Exercise Rim of the Pacific 77 in Hawaii in February.

“The welcome in London was fantastic. Thousands of people lined the banks of the Thames to cheer on our arrival. It was a moment I’ll never forget,” Mr Birch said.

Mr Birch was encouraged to join the Navy with a friend in 1974 and became an underwater weapons specialist. He wanted to see the world and knew Navy would give him that chance.

He also knew his father, a Navy veteran himself, would sign his papers. Able Seaman Albert Birch was a rating in the gunnery branch during World War 2. Like many who served, he rarely spoke to his son about his wartime service.

Mr Birch Jr. served in several vessels during his 12-year career, including HMA Ships Ibis, the Attack-class patrol boat Bayonet, Tobruk II, Kimbla and the training ship Jervis Bay.

“As a dibbie I took an interest in using the boatswain’s call and spent hours practising,” Mr Birch said.

Before long, his practice paid off. On one occasion he was perfecting his ‘hands to dinner’ pipe while on watch on the ship’s port bridge wing. The call is notoriously long and technically difficult. The commanding officer burst onto the bridge and asked the officer of the watch, “Who made that last pipe? It is the best I’ve ever heard”.

While on board Tobruk II he visited Tonga for disaster relief in 1982.

Tropical Cyclone Isaac struck in early March and was the worst storm in Tonga’s history.

While in Tonga, Mr Birch met his future wife. They had two daughters, one of whom would carry on the family’s proud service in the Navy.

Able Seaman Suliana Kami, a maritime personnel officer, grew up in Australia and Tonga.

Ironically, it was a Navy disaster relief mission to Tonga a generation later that galvanised Able Seaman Kami’s desire to join the Navy.

“In 2018 I experienced the aftermath of Cyclone Gita in Tonga firsthand,” Able Seaman Kami said.

“Australia was the first country that arrived with aid. It was a proud moment seeing the Australian Aid boxes being delivered to the community.

“I got to really experience for myself how the Navy serves communities, and I realised that was the job for me. I applied when I returned to Australia.”

In addition to the three generations of sailors on her father’s side of the family, she has three current serving members on her mother’s side.

Since joining in 2021, Able Seaman Kami has had some interesting experiences.

In addition to working on Operation Aged Care Assist, she was involved in welcoming the Crown Prince of Tonga to Fleet Headquarters, being the voice of sailors as a panellist at Sea Power Conference 2023 and an extra on NCIS-Sydney.

Recently she led her favourite NRL team – the Brisbane Broncos – onto the field for the team’s 2024 Anzac Round game. She is currently posted as a maritime personnel operator on board HMAS Choules.

Able Seaman Kami wears her family’s record of service as a badge of honour, and is aware of her own contribution.

“I knew my dad would be proud to see someone carry on the Navy legacy on his side,” she said.

“And as a single parent I wanted to ensure I would leave a legacy and show my son that being in service to others can be a rewarding experience.”

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