STORIES of Stoker John James Bray, the Eaglehawk man aboard Australia’s first submarine, have been passed down through his family for generations.
Loved ones have gone to their graves not knowing what became of him, or the 34 other crew members aboard HMAS AE1.
Stoker Bray’s descendants wished their elders had lived long enough to learn of the wreck’s discovery off the coast of the Duke of York Islands in Papua New Guinea.
After 103 years of mystery, the family finally has closure.
The remains of AE1 were found last month during a fresh search for the vessel.
Stoker Bray’s great-niece, Faye Frewin, said her grandmother spoke of ‘Uncle Jack’ often.
“I really felt like I knew him,” the Bendigo woman said.
“She always wanted to know what happened to him… you wish you could tell them.”
For Rochester-based Jeff Bray, one of Stoker Bray’s great-nephews, seeing vision of the AE1 in more than 300 metres of water was a moment of realisation.
“This is real. Up until then, it was just a story,” he said.
Some of the tales Jeff had heard about Stoker Bray ventured into the realm of the paranormal.
One night, before anyone knew the AE1 had gone missing, Stoker Bray’s family heard three loud knocks on the door of their Eaglehawk home.
“Grandma said, ‘That was Jack,’” Jeff said.
But many of the particulars passed down throughout the years were corroborated by historical documents.
A letter penned by Stoker Bray aboard the AE1 to his ‘dear sister, mother and all’ back home on July 27, 1914, showed him to be an ambitious young man.
“I shall have a medal yet before I leave the service,” he wrote.
He was engaged to marry a British nurse, Jessie Smith, whom he met while he was on loan to the Royal Navy in the UK.
Both Stoker Bray’s handwriting, and hers, have been preserved in their correspondence with family members in Australia.
Stoker Bray enlisted in the Navy on May 7, 1912, in the hopes of serving his country and seeing the world, documents from the family state.
He was then 21 years of age.
HMAS AE1 disappeared on September 14, 1914, with three officers and 32 sailors aboard.
It was last seen patrolling the coast of New Britain, Papua New Guinea.
Jeff’s 27-year-old son, Matt Bray, said it was a privilege to have a relative who was such a significant part of Australian history.
He too had learned of the mystery surrounding the fate of the AE1 crew, including Stoker Bray, as he was growing up.
For Rob Bray, Jeff’s brother and another of Stoker Bray’s great-nephews, the sacrifices families involved in the Royal Australian Navy make to serve their country are both part of his history and his day-to-day reality.
One in seven of the children attending the Nowra Christian School, of which he is the principal, are from Defence families.
“The Navy family is a very close family,” Rob said.
He was impressed by the effort that had gone into attaining closure for some of the very first members of Australia’s Navy family, more than 100 years later.
An original portrait of Stoker Bray was displayed at Nowra Christian School for three weeks last year as part of a travelling exhibition called War at Sea: The Navy In World War I.
The mystery surrounding the fate of the AE1 was among the topics covered in the display.
The vessel was one of many firsts: Australia’s first submarine, the first Allied submarine loss in First World War, and the first loss for the Royal Australian Navy.
Australian War Memorial director Brendan Nelson described finding AE1 as one of the most significant and practically meaningful events of Australia's commemoration of the First World War.
“When the AE1 went missing in 1914 it had a profound impact on our young nation,” Mr Nelson said.
“This discovery will assist the Australian public to further understand the story of the men who served in AE1 and commemorate their loss and sacrifice in a meaningful and fitting way.
“I know that the descendants of the crew will feel comfort in knowing the final resting place of their family members is now known and will be protected.”
Defence Minister Marise Payne last month said the Australian Government would work with the Papua New Guinean Government ‘to consider a lasting commemoration and recognition of the crew of AE1 and to preserve the site’.
Rob said his father, who passed away about five years ago, would often talk about Stoker Bray.
“He would have been very excited to have been alive when the discovery was made," he said.
Each of the descendants learned the AE1 had been found in different ways.
Rob received word from the Defence Transition Mentor based at the school.
Both Faye and Jeff were told by family members.
“I was doing the Christmas shopping,” Faye said.
The federal government last month said efforts were being made to contact the descendants of the crew.
Faye, Jeff and Rob each said they would be keen to attend a memorial service if one was organised, even if it took them beyond Australia’s shores.