ON the night of February 10, 1964, Graham Clark was a 19-year-old seaman with his naval career and, so he thought, the best years of his life ahead of him. But that night the Voyager, the 3,500 tonne destroyer on which he was serving, was accidentally sliced in half by the aircraft carrier Melbourne during a routine exercise off the New South Wales Coast. In what was Australia's worst peacetime naval disaster, 82 men lost their lives. Graham Clark, who had been on watch, was thrown into the oil-drenched waters, beneath the cutter one minute, then pushed at high speed beneath the aircraft carrier the next.By the time he was pulled out, unconscious and clinging to the ballast tank of a lifeboat, from the debris and the darkness, his life was changed forever. Mr Clark had only broken an ankle, suffered while trying to free himself from the wreckage. He was given a week's survival leave and then a desk job. But inside was damage and a hurt that never went away. ''I kept having these dreams where water was lapping my face.'' he says. He was discharged from the Navy on compassionate grounds and since then Mr Clark, now a 48-year-old Brisbane invalid, says he has had just five happy days. May 13 was the sixth. That was the day the Federal Government announced it would not appeal against a precedent-setting A$650,000 (HK$3.5 million) compensation payment awarded to Mr Clark last year. It did so as a result of a Victoria Supreme Court ruing last month that the Government could not rely on the statute of limitations in opposing the claim. The Government announced it would admit liability in 19 other Voyager cases and begin negotiations on compensation with 75 more in which it did not admit liability. A week later Brian Rowe, a 22-year-old officer's cook on the Voyager when the disaster took place, received around A$500,000 from the Government - the first settlement from the mediation scheme. Almost three decades after the disaster, Mr Clark, Mr Rowe and their comrades have won their fight for justice. But for many, the nightmare will go on forever. ''I have nightmares all the time,'' Mr Rowe says. ''My wife has been smashed in the face, has black eyes and I've had my fingers in her mouth trying to rip it open . . . all in my sleep.'' Mr Rowe, who had serious back injuries and lungs filled with seawater and oil by the time he was rescued, says he had given up hope of surviving. This 51-year-old, from Moura in Queensland, was discharged from the Navy in 1966, drove taxis, then moved north where he worked as a cook and a clerk. He began his compensation action in 1985 and says he and the other survivors are now a team. But although he hopes to use his money to rebuild his life, he says it can never compensate for his suffering - in particular, the extra suffering caused by the Government's refusal to admit liability and insistence on dragging the fight through the courts for more than a decade. Graham Clark, too, is bitter: ''We are like mongrel dogs. We have been kicked in the head so many times we begin to think it's normal.'' Peter Roberts, who was 19 and on his first sea voyage when the ship went down, still has recurring nightmares and has even broken his wife Christine's nose during one of them. He says he won't rest until everyone's compensation is final: ''It's like a car accident in which the driver is found culpable but only the front seat passengers receive compensation. What I want to know is what about the boys in the back seat - we were all in it together.'' The Voyager survivors believe they owe their victory to Australia's new Attorney-General, Michael Lavarch, the country's youngest-ever Cabinet member, who kept his promise to end the Government's rearguard action against the compensation actions. He met them within weeks of taking office last month and promised action. He has said a special sum would be allocated in the next financial year's budget to meet the multi-million dollar claims. After the decision not to appeal, Mr Clark's win was announced in court by the Government's lawyer, the survivors toasted Mr Lavarch with a special six litre bottle of Cabernet their lawyer, Jim Taylor, had kept for years in anticipation of that day. Forthat lawyer, too, it was a big win. The sinking of the Voyager is a mystery that has never been fully explained. The Royal Commission which investigated after the disaster found the destroyer had turned inexplicably to port, into the aircraft carrier's path. No blame was attributed to the Melbourne's officers, but its captain, John Robertson, was transferred to shore duties and resigned soon after. Five years after the Voyager sank, the Melbourne was involved in an almost-identical collision with the USS Frank E. Evans in the South China Sea. Voyager survivor Peter Roberts, by then on the HMAS Parramatta saw that tragedy. ''I was on HMAS Parramattalooking for survivors among the debris and it was just devastating . . . the similarities between the two . . . I just couldn't believe it could happen again.'' In 1970 he was discharged from the Navy as ''below Naval psychological standards'' and has suffered panic attacks and post-traumatic stress since then. ''If they had just settled all the claims eight or nine years ago when the Navy first claimed responsibility for the whole thing it would have cost them, and the taxpayers of Australia, so much less in unnecessary court costs and also prevented the blokes from going through everything over and over again,'' he says. Graham Clark, whose win paved the way for the others, has been warned by his doctor to expect a psychological let-down that could last for months. ''They say the brain can't readjust to the fact that it's all over and you are left with this void. The onething that's been driving you is gone,'' he says. ''This is not a cure. It stays with you for the rest of your life.''