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Earthquake medals for Royal Navy Veterans

21 March 2017
Two Royal Navy veterans of The Battle of the River Plate, who served in HMS Ajax & Exeter before the outbreak of the Second World War, have received a very special medal in recognition of their assistance 78 years ago to the people of Chile.

Frank Burton (98) and Basil Trott (97) were serving with the Royal Navy’s South America squadron in January 1939, when an 8.3 magnitude earthquake struck the Chillán and Concepcion regions of Chile.

Both ships sailed directly to assist the Chilean authorities and at Talcahuano, the port of Concepcion, they confronted a scene of total devastation and immediately began their rescue efforts; clearing streets, pulling down unstable buildings and ferrying survivors back up to Valparaiso.

The earthquake killed up to 30,000 people, injuring many more, and recorded as the single deadliest earthquake ever to hit Chile. 

As a token of our upmost gratitude and their selfless duty in assisting the people of my country, I am pleased to award these medals to these two brave men.

His Excellency Rolando Drago Rodriguez

There to present ‘The City of Concepcion Earthquake Medal’ at a ceremony in Cambridge was the Ambassador for Chile in London, His Excellency Rolando Drago Rodriguez.

“As a token of our upmost gratitude and their selfless duty in assisting the people of my country, I am pleased to award these medals to these two brave men.

“It demonstrates the strong and lasting bonds of friendship between our nations.”

When the earthquake struck both Frank (HMS Ajax) and Basil (HMS Exeter) had been enjoying a rest period from their busy squadron-patrolling programme in Valparaiso.

Basil particularly remembers how he knew something was not right. “I had a pint of beer in front of me and all of a sudden it decided it didn’t want to stand still. 

“It wobbled and jumped about all over the table, I thought ‘good gracious’ what’s happening.”

A Royal Marines Bugler went around the streets, recalling everyone from HMS Exeter and Ajax back onboard and get ready to sail 250 miles south to Concepcion to assist and help with evacuations.

“We picked up hundreds of British and Chilean women and children and took them back to Valparaiso.

“It was a bit awkward at first on HMS Exeter. We’d been used to stripping off completely at the bathroom basins to have a wash, only now to find a female alongside you.”

“Chile struck medals for the crews but these were never issued; the most likely reason being the War, and ships never returned to the country,” said Malcolm Collis, Archivist of the HMS Ajax and River Plate Veterans Association.

I recently uncovered spare medals in the archives and set about establishing who had missed out - Frank & Basil.

“The Association wrote to the Chilean Embassy and to our delight, the Ambassador offered to present the medals, 78 years after the event.

“Two of our other surviving veterans had received theirs in the early 1990’s and one of them, Jim London HMS Exeter aged 98, was also present at the ceremony.”

Both veterans were clearly thrilled to receive their long forgotten medals and proud of their help to the people of Chile so many years ago.

“We’d only been in Concepcion a few weeks before and it was all we could do to repay our friends and their warm hospitality they afforded us then,” said Frank Burton.

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