Seventy-two years ago John Gregson saved a young man's life when his ship was torpedoed.

The rescue happened on August 12, 1942, and yesterday, exactly 72 years later, Mr Gregson was re-presented with the award which he gained for his act of bravery.

Mr Gregson was awarded the Albert Medal, later replaced by the George Cross by the Queen, for his bravery and heroism in rescuing the injured young man after the torpedo holed the ship.

The George Cross is the highest gallantry award available to civilians and comes second only to the Victoria Cross.

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Mr Gregson joined the Merchant Navy aged 16 and was 18 when his ship, part of a convoy to Malta, was torpedoed one evening.

"I was knocked unconscious but wasn't seriously injured. I was the sight-setter on a 14-inch gun on the stern of the ship. The torpedo hit us more or less on the stern. The ship burst into flames, when I came around there was no way to get along the deck so I had to go over the side."

The jump was about 6m, Mr Gregson estimated, but entering the water did not hurt.

"It was a case of survival. When I came around, most of the people had gone. There was one of the gun crew pinned under a raft with a broken leg. There was one other chap with me who lifted the raft off him to get him over the side.

"I swam with him. They said I saved his life, but I was saving my own at the time so I don't really take much credit for it."

John Gregson, pictured with his parents Dorothy and Tom, after being presented with his Albert Medal in 1943. Photo / Supplied
John Gregson, pictured with his parents Dorothy and Tom, after being presented with his Albert Medal in 1943. Photo / Supplied

Mr Gregson said he swam about three-quarters of a mile.

I kept mine. I said it was given to me by the King so I will keep it, thank you very much.John Gregson, former seaman Then he and the injured man were picked up by a destroyer.

"We rejoined what was left of the convoy and made it to Malta. We were about 100 miles from Malta when we were torpedoed. The convoy was originally 14 ships. Nine of them were sunk and only five of them got to Malta."

Mr Gregson said if the remainder of the convoy had not made it to the Mediterranean island, Malta would have had to surrender.

This event was the second time in six months that Mr Gregson had been torpedoed. He was awarded the Albert Medal in February, 1943, by King George. Mr Gregson spent most of his working life on the seas and moved to New Zealand in 1952.

He was a pilot for ships entering Tauranga Harbour for many years. In 1971, the Queen decided to make the Albert Medal obsolete and allow holders to have it replaced with the George Cross. Mr Gregson said it took authorities about seven years to find him in New Zealand and when he was asked to trade his Albert Medal for a George Cross, he refused. "I kept mine. I said it was given to me by the King so I will keep it, thank you very much."

Mr Gregson is one of about 30 recipients of the George Cross or the Victoria Cross living today.

The George Cross (replaced the Albert Medal)

• First introduced in 1940 by George VI.
• The civilian equivalent of the Victoria Cross.
• For civilians, the George Cross is the highest award for bravery that can be earned.
• Only military personnel can win the Victoria Cross, however, they can also be awarded the George Cross for courageous acts carried out away from the enemy, such as defusing an unexploded bomb.