Sailor's Secret Taken To A Watery Grave
Sydney Morning Herald
Friday April 25, 2008
WHEN Robert John Kennedy went to his grave with the other 644 crew of HMAS Sydney in November 1941 he took with him the key to a secret which was to remain hidden from his family for more than 60 years.Before leaving Fremantle for the ship's final, fateful voyage, the stoker second class and his fiancee, Marie Keseling, conceived a child.When the German raider Kormoran brought his life to a premature end, Kennedy was unaware that he had become a father for the first time, and his family back in Sydney was not told. Ms Keseling's family, concerned about the social stigma that attached itself to any woman who had a child out of wedlock, regardless of the circumstances, kept the pregnancy a secret."We knew Robert had a fiancee, but we only ever saw pictures," Robert Kennedy's brother John said. "We never knew that he had a child." Two-and-a-half years later the young mother contracted severe rheumatic fever and had an extended stay in hospital.While she was there her family decided without Ms Kesler's permission to put the young child, Dorothy May Keseling, up for adoption. Dorothy May Keseling became Heather Carina McLean and for many years her connection to the Sydney's fateful voyage was lost."My parents didn't tell me I was adopted until I was 23," Heather Larke, nee McLean, said yesterday. "It was just what you did in those days - if you were adopted you became their child and that was it."It took another remarkable discovery - that of the rusting wreck of the Sydney - to bring the family together for the first time. With the re-emergence of the vessel, the Australian navy set up a support service for the relatives and friends who wanted to attend yesterday's official memorial service.It was during a brief phone call about the church service that Ms Larke learned of her long lost kin. "I registered as the daughter of one of the HMAS Sydney sailors and I just asked if there were any other family members. The lady on the other end of the line said, 'Yes, there's his brother' - and my heart skipped a beat."The conversation set in motion a chain of events that culminated in an emotional reunion at yesterday's HMAS Sydney national memorial service.Through a series of phone calls and emails, the Kennedy family arranged to meet Ms Larke on the steps of St Andrew's Cathedral, beside a navy honour guard."It was incredible - today I met my father's family for the first time," Ms Larke said. "It was incredibly emotional. I feel as if my father is here, as if my sons finally know who my grandfather is. "My parents met in Western Australia and so I had always thought that's where my father was from. I must have tried just about every Kennedy in the West Australian white pages, but I never found them."The members of the Kennedy family were equally emotional. "It's like Bob has come back, like I'm meeting my uncle for the first time," Ms Larke's cousin, and Herald journalist, Les Kennedy, said. "Until three weeks ago we didn't even know she existed - it's incredible."John Kennedy said he knew Ms Larke was his long-lost relative the moment he saw her. "It was just an incredibly happy and emotional moment," he said. "I can still remember the last time I saw my brother. He was decked out in his full navy gear and had his rig slung over his back. "He was such an amazing presence in my life - I was completely wrapped up in him and to have Heather in our lives after all this time is amazing. "It's a wonderful, happy ending to a tragic story."