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A life of firsts

John Reardon

Able Seaman John Reardon was born 9 February 1891, and was the fourth son of Edward Charles Reardon and Catherine McMillan Norton of Kaikōura. Edward was a seaman and John’s maternal grandfather was a whaler.

John was one of the first two New Zealanders to serve on a submarine, and, sadly, the first New Zealander to die in active service in World War One, on 14 September 1914.

John attended Kaikōura School until his middle primary years, leaving after completing Standard Three. He would have been aged around 11 years old. John worked in the district until he was 16 years old, and then joined the crew of HMS Pioneer, incentivised by the offer of £250 for five years’ service. The Pioneer was one of two warships owned by the British Admiralty that patrolled Australasian waters. John spent a few years on board, and was involved in the rescue of 226 people marooned in Dusky Sound after the liner Waikare struck rocks in 1909.

In 1913, John enlisted with the newly-established Royal Australian Navy, and volunteered for service in one of Australia’s first two submarines, which were nearing completion in Britain. He underwent submarine training and sailed to England to join the first submarine, HMAS AE1, for its delivery voyage to Australia. With a crew of 35, and John the only New Zealander, the submarine was launched on 22 March 1913. After 83 days at sea, it completed the longest sea voyage by any submarine.

Last known image of HMAS AE1, 9 September 1914 with Yarra and Australia in the background.
Last known image of HMAS AE1, 9 September 1914 with Yarra and Australia in the background.

John wrote to his aunt on 17 August 1914 from the AE1, now based in Sydney. War had been declared on 5 August and John wrote that they might be going to German New Guinea to take possession of Samoa, and that he may see active service.

John was one of the first two New Zealanders to serve on a submarine, and, sadly, the first New Zealander to die in active service in World War One, on 14 September 1914.

HMAS AE1 in Portsmouth Harbour, England circa 1914.


HMAS AE1 in Portsmouth Harbour, England circa 1914.


On 14 September 1914, the AE1 went missing while patrolling off the coast of Duke of York Island. It was spotted from Duke Island at 3:30pm, but when it had not returned to harbour at 8.00pm, the alarm was raised. Several searches were made for the submarine – one as recently as 2007 – but no traces have ever been found and the cause of loss has never been established. A plaque commemorating the lost sailors aboard AE1 was unveiled in Sydney on 14 September 2011, 97 years after the submarine’s disappearance.

Update: Since the launch of this website the survey ship Fugro Equator discovered the remains of the submarine HMAS AE1 near the Duke of York Islands, East New Britain province, Papua New Guinea. Located in December 2017 the AE1 is reported to be well preserved and in one piece.

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