The following articles relate to the Service of Small Ships Section, as published in the Association newsletter, The Small Ships News.
Vernon Francis Kite enlisted in the Australian Navy which being short of vessels at the time transferred him to Small Ships. He was employed as Greaser on S-85 SS Masaya a WWI vintage destroyer ( formerly USS Dale DD-290) first christened in 1920. Late in March 1943 the Masaya was enroute to Oro Bay to pick up soldiers, occasionally escorted by a P-38 fighter providing air cover. About 6 miles from Oro Bay they were entertained by a flight of 18 enemy dive-bombers and 40 fighters sweeping into attack the Army installations ashore. Six bombs were dropped with three direct hits to the stern and three near misses. There were 11 fatalities among the crew, whilst the survivors were taken to Oro Bay. Vernon was transported to the 13th Base Hospital Townsville before being discharged, surviving another 46 years.
Below: Vernon with brothers George and Luke.
Fred was a Junior Apprentice at Walsh Bay in ‘43 and sailed on several vessels. With the most amazing clarity Fred recalls his first day on S-141 Mulcra and to hear it would have you in tears of laughter. Fred’s next ship was S-20 Two Freddies a fifty foot, wooden hulled fishing vessel which took him to Woodlark, Kiriwina and Goodenough Islands. Whilst on the Two Freddies, Fred encountered cyclonic weather. After two days of big seas and hours at the wheel he took a break behind the wheelhouse and sat next to the mast. By chance the halyard was loose and he started playing with it, wrapping it around his wrist. Next minute she rolled to Port and after hitting the bulwark Fred went overboard. The halyard saved his life as the next big wave threw him back on the deck. They next found a reef big enough to get inside of and there the Two Freddies sat for a few days till the storm had passed.
Fred Richards at Dawn Service, Martin Place
John Brown was a Junior Apprentice at Walsh Bay in 1943, Serving on various Small Ships until Discharged in 1945 and then Serving with the Australian Navy for 21 years. Recently John recalled being sent from Brisbane on the S-140 Katoora to attempt tow on a Small Ships vessel that was aground in Byron Bay. When John arrived in Byron Bay the Tassie III had already sunk at the jetty.
A quick internet search reveals the vessel was S-77 Tassie MBL III, 120t steel motor ship now a popular site for scuba diving. The Tassie III encountered rough weather and entered Byron Bay to anchor on 8th June 1945, carrying 80t of condemned ammunition. Overnight the ship dragged anchor and was beached. On 9th June she re-floated on the high tide and was washed against the old Byron Bay swimming pool. As the weather became rougher the ship collided with the jetty where the hull was breached. On the morning of 10th June the Tassie III was a wreck.
According to the Byron Bay Historical Society, it was approximately five weeks after the sinking that a local boy found a flare bomb that had been cargo on the Tassie III. He was in his backyard with eleven other children when they threw a match into the bomb container. The explosion killed him and injured all the other children, nine of whom were taken to Lismore Hospital.
John Brown Tassie MBL III wrecked at Byron Bay
Before joining Small Ships, Member Don Campbell sailed on a few vessels. Don joined the M.V Macdhui as Deck-boy at 15 years of age on 23rd December 1937, his uncle James Campbell was the Chief Officer. Don left the Macdhui during 1941 as Ordinary Seaman. He then served on the Moa Moa for about 5 months (before she was acquired by Small Ships Section) rising to Able Seaman. Don’s next ship Caradale broke away from a convoy heading north to arrive in Sydney on 31st May 1942, the same night that Japanese Midget Subs attacked Sydney Harbour. The following day Don re-joined the M.V Macdhui and left for Townsville with a load of aviation fuel and ammunition amongst other supplies. From Townsville they carried a couple of hundred Australian troops to Port Moresby, arriving 15th June. On the 17th June members of the 39th Battalion were unloading aviation fuel from the hold when a Zero flew overhead, followed by 18 Japanese bombers and fighters. M.V Macdhui took a direct hit mid-ship which killed four crew members. The resulting fire was extinguished by Don and the Chief Officer. They returned to the wharf to continue unloading fuel.
M.V. Macdhui on fire
The next day the same Japanese bombers returned, to inflict four direct hits. One went down number 3 hatch, the next on the gun crew aft. Don was in the gun crew and the explosion knocked him out. Shortly after the bombers left the area, the fires became fierce and the Captain ordered the crew to abandon ship.
Sometime later Don awoke on the number 5 hatch, in silence, lifeboats gone, the ship on fire and taking a list. After climbing on the poop deck Don found the Steward badly wounded. Don called from the deck to a RAAF launch that was circling the M.V Macdhui and the RAAF officers conveyed Don and the Steward back to their camp.
Bombing of M.V. Macdhui
The bombing of the Macdhui was filmed by Australian photographer Damien Parer. If you have read Forgotten Fleet 2 you may know that Damien’s cousin Ray Parer served with the Small Ships Section. Ray had previously served with the Royal Flying Corps in the Great War.
After a spell in the RAAF camp, Don began the trip back to Townsville on the Swartenhondt. The Captain of which tried to send the passengers below, which caused ‘a hell of a blue’, and they remained on deck all the way.
After returning to New Guinea on a few more vessels including the troopship Duntroon and the hospital ship Manunda, Don signed a contract at the Grace Building Sydney with the U.S. Army. An experienced crew was required for a large concrete ship, USAT C. W. Pasley; which had just returned from New Guinea loaded with deceased. By the time she was cleaned, dry docked and loaded, the war was almost over.
Don sailed Charles W. Pasley to Borneo then the Philippines before leaving Palawan loaded with 4,500t of bombs returning to the U.S. via Japan. Heading through the China Sea, C. W. Pasley was hit by a typhoon. With the rudder lost, the propeller shaft bent and the ship rolling to 45 degrees in 300km winds, the bombs began to break loose in the hatches. The ship was abandoned, and recovered weeks later for repair. Don never made it to the U.S. and returned home January 1947.
Memories of S-11 Kelton
Committee Member David Lloyd recently interviewed Eddy Knox, Australian Army veteran of 19 AUST L OF C AREA SIGS. Ed remembers being transported by Small Ships Section with five other members of his unit from Madang to Lae on the deck of S-11 Kelton. The Kelton was a 51’ wooden trawler; Ed recalls being told to meet the S-11 at midnight in rough weather, sailing to Finschaffen for refuelling on the small, wooden, green boat; then onto Lae to reunite with his unit. Ed also recalls the black cat with six kittens roaming the deck of the Kelton.
Ray was a member of the North Bondi Surf Club who joined Small Ships at age 16 in April 1943. Ray’s father was a boy sailor in the Royal Navy Australia Squadron in 1910 Serving in the Great War and again in World War II, before being discharged from HMAS Perth.
Several members of the North Bondi Surf Club joined Small Ships including Sidney Middleton who Ray met on the northern tip of Oro Bay. Sid was on a Higgins boat which was used as an air crash boat as it was faster than anything the Air Force had available.
Whilst operating a tug boat around Hollandia, Ray met with another mate from the Surf Club, Peter McClean who was on the S-141 Mulcra as Greaser.
Whilst in Hollandia Ray met yet another mate from the Surf Club who seemed to have privileged duties. Bluey was ‘all dressed up’ and Ray asked him if he was on a tug-boat. “No”, says Bluey, “I’m the Lifeguard on the nurse’s beach!”
During 1943 Ray also met our esteemed late Treasurer PAT CURTIS M.B.E. on the beach at Milne Bay. Pat was working as Steward on S-188 Mactan, operating as an Army Officers’ Recreation Vessel.
Ray has fond memories of the Small Ships vessels, particularly the schooner S-6 Argosy Lemal and the ketches S-58 Harold, S-62 Hilda Norling and S-63 Jane Moorhead which he describes as “a beautiful sea boat”. After joining the Jane Moorhead in Oro Bay, Ray sailed to Morobe and Tambu Bay supplying ammunition to the troops in battle, then returned to Milne Bay to put her on dry-dock for overhaul. Years later Ray was amazed to see the Jane Moorhead on her side, sinking in Homebush Bay.
During Ray’s time on Jane Moorhead the cook was Peter Dyez. Peter was a former Lieutenant in the French Foreign Legion, one of ten Legionnaires who had stolen a yacht in Indochina and fled to New Caledonia to avoid Japanese Forces. Upon arrival in New Caledonia they were arrested for desertion. After contemplating the seriousness of their situation, they escaped prison, stole another boat and sailed to Townsville where the authorities did not know what to do with them; so they joined the Small Ships Section!
Ray’s first Small Ship S-41 Timoshenko was a 50’ wooden trawler that saw a lot of action in New Guinea. After the capture of Hollandia Ray recalls Timoshenko travelling up the Fly River with ANGAU Officers who were headed for the jungle. Their mission was to travel overland back towards Hollandia looking for hundreds of Japanese troops who had fled inland, possibly trying to reach Dutch New Guinea. Neither the Japanese nor any trace of them was found. The fate of these troops became a great mystery to the Army and the local population.
Lae Harbour after capture
After some time in hospital with malaria, Ray Young also Served on S-57 Marjorie Jean, S-141 Mulcra, S-64 Leprena, several tug-boats and finally a Fast Supply Boat. The FS-B was used to deliver supplies and then to deliver stretcher cases to hospital ships USNS Mercy, USS Faith, USS Hope and USS Comfort.
1945 Ray began working with a new crew, performing the gruesome task of looking for crashed aircraft. After the war Ray worked on tug-boats in Sydney and returned to the surf at Bondi. While working for Applied Chemicals in 1978 Ray was assigned to fix an automatic cooling system on USS Enterprise, resulting in his first trip by helicopter!
We were deeply saddened recently to learn of the passing of Bernie O’Brien on 25th December. Bernie was a strong supporter of our Association, also serving as Vice-President of the RSL Merchant Navy sub-Branch for many years. Those who knew Bernie miss him dearly. I have been blessed to know Bernie as a friend and many others share this appreciation. Throughout the hardships of life Bernie maintained a kindness, sincerity, generosity and loving nature. He is an inspiration to us all. We extend our deepest sympathies to Bernie’s family and remember them in our prayers.
A Service Celebrating the Life of Bernard O’Brien was held on 7th January at Woronora Cemetery. It was the most beautiful service I have ever attended; Tributes were given by Don Kennedy, President of Merchant Navy RSL sub-Branch and David Raymond, Post Commander of the American Legion. Sister Mary Leahy O.A.M. also contributed to the service which was officiated by Father Phillip Slattery.
Bernie first sailed with the Norwegian Merchant Marine as Deckhand. Soon after at 17 years of age, he joined the Fingal. Fingal left Sydney on 5th May 1943, torpedoed the same day off Nambucca Heads by Japanese submarine I-180. Of 31 crew members, 19 survivors were picked up by the destroyer U.S.S. Patterson (which had been acting as escort) and conveyed to Newcastle.
Upon return to Sydney, Bernie was told by the Norwegian Consul that he did not have any ships available. Bernie attended the Manpower Office in Martin Place (which occupied a tent in the middle of the road) requesting afternoon shift in a Munitions Factory so that his days would be free to look for another ship. The Manpower Officer advised Bernie to attend No.10 Walsh Bay where the U.S. Army immediately signed him up as A.B. despite his formidable qualifications as Deckhand. That was November 1943 and it was not until January 1947 that Bernie was discharged as First Officer.
Bernie’s Small Ships career was extraordinary. His first ship was S-126 Esther Johnson, a steam schooner built in 1923 of which Bernie held fond memories. Beginning March 1944 his next assignment was Cook/Deckhand on S-135 Lorrina, steel hulled, single screw motor coaster; pride of the Small Ships fleet.
From June 1944 Bernie served as A.B. on FS-12B Wangary; 62’ fast supply boat, until November when he was appointed to S-185 Kia Ora as Deckhand/Cook. Kia Ora was a wooden trawler, 41’2” long, with a one man wheelhouse and bunk. She was used to transport crews between ships at Finschaffen and Dreger Harbour.
January 1945 Bernie was assigned as A.B. to S-145 Wortanna; iron hulled, twin screw, motor lighter, the oldest ship in the Small Ships Section built 1876.
During March 1945 Bernie was assigned to S-233 Kimbriki; 45’ wooden tug boat, sailing to Hollandia as Deckhand.
Three months later Bernie sailed on S-339 Matonga as A.B. Matonga was an A.T.S. vessel with several Small Ships men in crew.
October 1945 Bernie served as Second Officer on S-1037, FS-258; steel freighter built in Brooklyn NY which sailed to Japan.
Almost four months later in January 1946 Bernie joined LT-784 as First Officer. LT-784 was an A.T.S. steam tug, the largest ocean going tug available to the U.S. Army at the time.
June 1946 Bernie was assigned as First Officer to S-707 Anaroo, FS-14A; 112’ fast supply boat. Captain Cecil Abbot had a crew of Americans who had decided that as the war was over, they would not work; preferring to take flying lessons at Clark Air Base. Bernie reminded the crew of their duties, resulting in all requesting discharge. After writing the transfers Bernie recruited the Filipino crew he had previously served with on the Large Tug. FS-14A was fitted with two new engines, repainted and attached to the Red Cross. Bernie’s daily duties were to escort the Red Cross ladies between Dewey Boulevard and Corregidor, until the Australian Government requested the return of civilians from Philippines and Japan.
Bernie was repatriated to Sydney on passenger /cargo vessel Hwa Lien, along with 474 Jewish migrants who had escaped Europe and hidden in China during the war.
Clarrie first joined the Merchant Navy at 14 years of age. Whilst sailing on MV Coorabie during 1942 the ship was acquired by U.S. Army and Clarrie was employed to crew her to Sydney. Upon arrival First Mate Bill Webster was recruited by Small Ships to assume command of a ketch and he asked Clarrie to join him as A.B.
The ketch was built in 1912 and in 1937 modified to become Leprena; soon after she was nicknamed ‘Leapin’ Lena’ due to frequent rolling. S-64 Leprena was in dry-dock for several weeks before sailing from Sydney to Townsville loaded with medical supplies. Sailing on to Milne Bay Leprena arrived just after a failed Japanese invasion attempt and was welcomed by Japanese Bombers.
At 106’ long the Leprena was suited to carrying logs from a river on East Cape to Gili Gili for the construction of wharves. During the early actions at Buna, Leprena would visit the front lines every few days with ammunition and supplies, returning with wounded to a hospital near Oro Bay. Clarrie continued to serve on Leprena after Buna was taken, carrying supplies to various islands and ports.
Clarries next ship was S-131 Huanui, an 84’ wooden schooner from New Zealand; soon after he was reunited with Captain Webster on steel cargo steamer S-146 Maiwara.
Next assignment was to sail S-136 Noora back to Sydney to have a new engine fitted; then Clarrie was sent to Newcastle to crew a new ship called ST-68 and commenced towing barges to New Guinea. Later Clarrie was appointed to S-58 (CS-3) Harold as A.B. (Repair Crew) for a few weeks before flying to Sydney for a two week break.
Clarrie was next assigned to OL-1 as Bosun and has fond recollections of Arthur Morgan who was her Captain from August 1943 until July 1944. Arthur had previously served as Chief Instructor at the Apprentice Seamanship School at Walsh Bay. OL-1 was performing salvage work, when on a trip to New Guinea Clarrie went down with malaria and was left behind on Thursday Island. After several weeks Clarrie sailed as working passenger on a Liberty Ship to Brisbane then again back to New Guinea.
Clarrie was then assigned to LT-645. The large tug towed many damaged ships through the wreck strewn waters of Philippines and beyond. Clarrie recalls being at sea when the A-bomb dropped on Japan and was discharged February 1946.
Late Member Ralph Andrews was operating the fishing trawler Willyama Two in Eden NSW during WWII, when visiting Naval Officers ordered him to Sydney. After learning his ship had been impressed by the Government and handed to the U.S. Army, Ralph was asked to Skipper the trawler north carrying Army supplies. He responded by joining Small Ships Section on 4th July 1942.
After re-fitting S-51 Shangri La, Ralph sailed her to Port Moresby and was soon reappointed as Skipper of S-20 Two Freddies. In the months prior to the Battle of Buna the Small Ships were often endangered by navigational hazards, enemy action and ‘friendly fire’; fortunately Ralph survived all three.
One morning Two Freddies was carrying over one hundred troops near Oro Bay when she became of interest to a flight of six Japanese aircraft. Ralph headed for the beach to let the men run for cover and the “machine-guns were putting up a good show”. One plane was hit; as Two Freddies landed ashore the damaged plane crashed into the water and the other planes left the area.
Another misty morning the troops at Porlock Harbour must have mistaken Two Freddies for a Japanese cruiser, as they bravely defended with a single-shot, half-inch, anti-tank rifle.
After contracting tropical conditions including ulcers and malaria Ralph was forced to leave the Two Freddies. Whilst waiting for a flight to Queensland for medical treatment he was approached by Lieutenant Laddie Reday . Laddie asked Ralph to have a look at a damaged vessel that could be repaired if he could sail her to Townsville.
The S-62 Hilda Norling was a wooden two masted ketch that had been attacked by Japanese planes near the village of Sebaga. Skipper Norm Oddy had turned her into the beach where the crew managed to get ashore whilst being machine-gunned. Two of the crew were killed and the rest wounded.
More than two weeks later Skipper Alan Reynolds left Milne Bay in S-139 Melinga to salvage the Hilda Norling. I guess he was optimistic that day; it was Christmas and only two days before had lost his ship S-l53 Eva when she was strafed and set afire by U.S. Motor Torpedo Boats at Cape Sudest.
Alan arrived in Milne Bay with Hilda Norling in tow on 20th January 1943. Her main engine was still running, however the diesel that pulled the anchor had a valve rocker shot away, there was no stove, most of the deckhouse was wrecked, the mast splintered by bullets, all the tanks had holes in them and everything that could be removed had been removed.
Ralph inspected the vessel, later reporting to Laddie that she was not seaworthy and should be towed to Townsville; also giving Laddie a list of items that would be required to get the ship moving. Ralph received a reply, ”You and eight others here at Milne Bay are medically unfit. There are no supplies to re-fit the ship, not even a coil of rope. All of you and the ship are expendable. If you can get her to Townsville, good. If not, too bad.”
After scrounging around Ralph and his crew found rope, canvas, two machine guns and kerosene lamps. Other crews were very sympathetic and gave what they could. Ralph also stole a life boat compass which was his only navigational instrument for the trip. They made it to Port Moresby at 4 Knots, arriving just in time for an air-raid. Ralph was ordered away from the wharf and was unable to find all his crew before leaving the harbour. After the raid the crew returned and orders were received to sail for Townsville with an escort, however the escort vessel disappeared into the horizon.
Ralph had to set a course of around 120 miles by dead reckoning to find his way to Bramble Cay and the passage to Thursday Island. The Army was hospitable on the island, giving the crew rations of tinned peas and selling Ralph a case of gin; however the hospital was overly hospitable and would not discharge the mate. The rest of the crew had to steal him out of a window that evening, complete with hospital pyjamas.
S-62 Hilda Norling eventually arrived in Cairns where the crew generated plenty of interest, especially from the Port Doctor who sent the lot to Gordonvale Hospital.
After returning to Sydney by train Ralph was retained by Small Ships as Executive Maintenance & Supply, Serving until 15th May 1945.
Jim was 16 years old in 1941 and attended Navy League Cadets at Milsons Point Sydney for two Saturdays. During seamanship training the boys were required to row a boat around Sydney Harbour, however parental permission was required for this activity. On the second Saturday afternoon an Officer dressed in his finest whites and gold braids addressed the boys as follows, “We need sixty boys to go to sea on Monday, and remember, if you’re big enough, you’re old enough! If you are big enough to get a woman in the ‘family way’ you are a man. Go home and get your parents’ permission.”
Jim went home and asked his mother for permission to go to sea, who told him to ask his father. Dad said, “If mum said so, OK.” Jim still believes that his parents thought he was going rowing on Sydney Harbour. On the Monday Jim departed in the engine room of RMS Queen Elizabeth, carrying Australian troops to Port Tufic and returned to Australia carrying Prisoners of War.
After Jim’s third voyage to Port Tufic the Queen Elizabeth transported 8,000 Prisoners of War to San Francisco arriving 19th March 1942. Arriving in San Francisco the Queen Elizabeth was greeted by U.S.A.F. Fighter Planes who were swooping under the Golden Gate Bridge. RMS Queen Elizabeth later returned to Sydney with 15,000 U.S. Troops.
Richard, Jim and Jack on leave in Sydney 1942.
Jim sailed again on the Queen Elizabeth to Port Tufic; then transported prisoners to New York City before returning with another 15,000 U.S. Troops to Sydney. During this voyage ‘the Lizzy’ was anchored in Rio and taking oil from a tanker. Rio was a neutral port and enemy ships were also at anchor. The crew had been instructed not to allow any part of their body to extend outside the confines of the vessel. One non- compliant young crew member was seen ‘hanging out’ of a porthole, apparently taking in the view. A South African Army Guard was standing in the oil recess with Jim on the Queen Elizabeth and instructed the young crew member to get inside the ship. The guard fired at the crew member, the projectile missed and the ricochet killed a Brazilian crew member of the oil tanker.
On a subsequent voyage the ‘Lizzy’ was in need of maintenance and during this time dry-dock in Singapore was unavailable. The nearest available dry-dock was in Canada where the crew suffered from bitter winter temperatures. The Canadian Red Cross assisted the crew with clothing and supplies during their stay at Esquimalt, while Canadian school children assisted with cleaning the vessel.
After repairs and fumigation RMS Queen Elizabeth sailed to Scotland where Jim was discharged in 1943. Travelling by train to England Jim commenced his journey home as First Class Passenger on RMMV Stirling Castle from Liverpool.
On the way to Sydney the Stirling Castle anchored in Durban where Jim and others took opportunity to visit the local attractions.
The preferred method of transport in Durban was by rickshaw. Jim and his friends kept the same rickshaw employed everywhere they went, and anywhere they went the cost was the same, ’two-bob’. The rickshaw was pulled by an African in ceremonial dress that would ‘whinny’ like a horse at every intersection.
Jim arrived in Sydney after mid-1943, still aged 17 years and was told “Why don’t you join the Yanks?”
“What’s the Yanks?” replied Jim and soon after made his way down to Walsh Bay.
Jim was employed by U.S. Army Transportation Corps on 10th September 1943 as Trimmer. Within the week he was assigned to S-142 Pulganbah, a steel coal burner of 225’ which had already seen action in New Guinea.
Whilst passing Sydney Heads on Jim’s second voyage to New Guinea, the crew of Pulganbah saw an Australian aircraft make a crash landing on the sea. The Captain gave orders to rescue the crew of the plane which was accomplished without much difficulty. The aviators were taken to the galley for a shot of rum and while this was occurring the Captain gave orders to ‘save the plane’.
The Able Seaman (Don Campbell) placed a strap around the fuselage and began to winch the plane from the water. The aviators returned to the deck and saw what was going on. They started screaming at the crew to ‘Let her go, let her go.” Jim looked over the bow of Pulganbah and could clearly see two brightly coloured bombs on the belly of the plane. As the plane moved in the sling the bombs were hitting against the side of the Pulganbah and Jim took cover. The plane was released to the ocean and the Captain decided the plane must be sunk, as it was a danger to shipping. Two U.S. Army Gunners aboard Pulganbah fired twice at the aircraft, missing both times. Jim thought the first round would have landed in Wollongong! The Captain hollered, “Knock it off, we might need a few of them when we get up North” and subsequently called for the RAN to attend and sink the plane.
Jim recalls running the Pulganbah ashore to pick up around 30 wounded Australian Troops who had made their way from the Kokoda Track. Jim recalls the soldiers marching towards the coast carrying each other, a memory he will never forget. Pulganbah used her own anchor winches to get off the shore and was completely suitable for the task, conveying the troops to hospital in Milne Bay. During March 1944 Jim was discharged from Pulganbah and enjoyed leave until he was assigned to S-153 Wannon, steel hulled coal burner of 167’. Upon arrival in New Guinea Jim was transferred to S-146 Maiwara.
Maiwara was a single screw cargo steamer that supplied troops in New Guinea, Bougainville and New Britain. After approximately four months aboard Maiwara Jim was transferred in Sydney, discharged and re-employed the very next day as Fireman.
During November 1944 Jim joined S-151 Erina for five weeks before being transferred to S-96 Coweambah, a wooden coal burner of 82’ built in 1919. Approximately six months later Coweambah departed Milne Bay heading for Sydney under-tow. A new cook had joined Coweambah in Milne Bay who stayed in his bunk for four days, during which period the crew survived on onion sandwiches. On 10th June 1945 Coweamah anchored near South West Rocks on the mid-North coast of NSW. Coweambah had been under-tow and her Captain was aboard the towing vessel. After midnight the crew of Coweambah realised that their tow-vessel had departed, with their Captain!
Approximately 0300 the winds increased to gale force and the anchor would not hold. Jim was in the engine room putting on a pitch when the sea came through the door. In Jim’s words; ‘Thinking the ship was upside-down I started to swim down to look for the door to the deck. Then the ship gave a lurch and I was thrown through the opposite door into the sea, luckily not hitting the bulkhead.’
‘I was fully clothed, my stokehold boots undone and I promptly kicked them off. Dungaree pants were the next to go. Try as I may I couldn’t pull my big roll-neck sweater over my head because the sea was rolling and dumping me. The sea was so bad I didn’t know if I was headed out to sea or into shore. The ship’s boat was floating upside down on the lee of the ship. I swam to it and straddled it. Then I saw a big wave approaching from the weather side right over the top of the ship. I called to the crew sheltering on the lee side, “Look out!” Then I realised I was next for this wave, so I stood and jumped towards the ship to avoid being crushed by the lifeboat when the wave hit. When I came to the surface I found a lifejacket that I put on. It was then that the Engineer, one-armed Arthur Salt, threw a Gladstone bag which I knew contained his life’s savings, some thousands of pounds. He called out, “Look after that Jim.” I swam to try to get his bag, but it was so buoyant the wind just blew it ahead of me. The bag was never seen by any of the crew again.’
Jim could hear a crew member yelling “Help me please, help me please” and believes it was the cook George Michalitsis who did not survive.
One crew member was Jimmy Ford who had a hold of the galley door jamb. The door was held by a cabin-hook which was dislodged by a wave and the door slammed breaking eight of his fingers.
The five crew on-deck all abandoned ship. They were separated by the waves which over a period of thirty minutes tumbled them towards the shore. In Jim’s words; ‘I was tossed by the waves and dumped on the beach.Then I was sucked back out and washed back in again. This time I grabbed a big pig-face vine that was hanging over a bank of sand and was able to hang on as the wave receded. I pulled myself up with the help of the vine and got beyond the reach of the waves. At this point I began to see the other fellows on the beach and I went to help them.’ Jimmy Ford lay unconscious on the beach and required assistance.
Crew member Eric Thrower called out, “Jimmy, I got your wallet!” and gave Jim back his wallet complete with 30 quid and the St Christopher coin inside. Eric had kept Jim’s wallet tucked in his belt all the way to shore. Some fisherman came to the rescue and took the crew back across the river where the Ambulance was waiting to take all six survivors to the Macleay Hospital. The survivors were Ian Cripps, Arthur Salt, James Gadd, Keith Roals, Eric Thrower and James Ford. Jim lives close by to South West Rocks and for years after the foundering of the Coweambah old fisherman would tell Jim that wet notes were coming in ‘all the time’.
Two months after being washed from Coweambah, Jim joined USAT C W Pasley as Fireman, later promoted to Oiler. Pasley was the first concrete ship to sail into Port Phillip Bay, affectionately known as the ‘stone frigate’. Weighing 7,000 tons with a displacement of 11,000 tons Pasley had transported the bodies of American servicemen killed on the Northern battle fronts to Australia for transfer to American soil and burial. After the ship had been cleaned she sailed to Borneo then to the Philippines.
In the Philippines USAT C W Pasley was loaded with 4,500 tons of bombs for return to the U.S. via Japan. After leaving Palawan, Pasley was hit by a typhoon in the China Sea. Jim was in the engine room and a message from the bridge declared that the rudder was not working. Those in the engine room could clearly see the apparatus that operated the rudder and assured the bridge it was working just fine. After a few minutes another call came through, “There’s something wrong with the rudder.” After several calls the Engineer replied, “It might be a good idea if you have a look at the rudder.” Upon inspection it was revealed that there was no rudder, it was gone.
Jim could hear the bombs rolling in the hold and hitting against the bulkhead. He was in the engine room with Oswald King and they could see that the ship was rolling to 45 degrees. A U.S Navy vessel was nearby and advised the crew to abandon ship. After jumping ship in winds of 300 km/hr., Jim boarded a lifeboat with Australian crew member George Jones and several Filipino crew members. George was on the tiller and the Filipinos on the oars began to pray. George waved the rudder handle and said, “You better row and forget that business!”
When they reached another vessel the Captain cut their lifeboats lose with most of their gear still on board. After several weeks on Okinawa the crew were advised that aircraft had spotted the C W Pasley floating in the China Sea.
The crew returned to the ship on rubber dinghies. After boarding Pasley it became evident that this ship was built to withstand the typhoon. All the holds were dry and only one leak had occurred through the stern gland.
C W Pasley was towed to Yokohama for repairs. Whilst in Japan, Jim had the opportunity to buy a camera with which he took many photos and it was good buy, as Jim still has the camera in working order today. The crew of the Pasley were transferred in November 1946. Jim was flown from Japan to Brisbane, discharged in Sydney on 12th January 1947.
U.S. Troops in post-war Japan
Member Frank Finch joined his first ship in April 1942, Norwegian oil tanker MT Falkefjell at 15 years of age. After sailing around the world MT Falkefjell returned to Sydney in October 1942, by which time Frank had grown used to the Norwegian appreciation for fish at almost every meal. Frank would serve on another five Norwegian vessels before the end of the war, and sailed a total of ninety-six ships before he retired in April 1988.
Despite his knowledge of the attacks on shipping in Australian waters during 1942, Frank joined MT Norfold as Galley Boy and sailed from Sydney to San Pedro twice. Amongst the crew were other Australians including two D.E.M.S. Navy gunners. Captain Grandt told Frank that during the first months of the war he had been torpedoed by a German U-Boat whose Commander was a childhood school friend.
As MT Norfold steamed towards the NSW coast with 8,000 tons of oil, a radio message warned them to be alert. Just a few miles from their course, approximately 90 miles off Newcastle the Liberty Ship Lydia M. Child’s was torpedoed. By this time many Australian and Allied ships had been sunk by enemy action and Frank was relieved to be home. Frank signed off the Norfold in April 1943 with many of the crew including his Norwegian friends Ollie and Sven.
Frank’s friend Ollie was planning to marry an Australian girl, however the week before the big day he and Sven were ordered by the Norwegian Consulate to join SS Fingal. On 5th May 1943 SS Fingal was torpedoed off Nambucca Heads. Sven and eleven others were killed. Amongst the 19 crew rescued by U.S.S. Patterson were Ollie Holm, Bernie O’Brien and John Bird. Incidentally John Bird is the only living survivor of the Fingal and enjoying life in Cooktown. John recently managed to cure himself of arthritis, which impressed me greatly and I expect that he will be enjoying life for many years to come!
Frank joined Small Ships Section during May 1943, initially serving in Townsville on (S-27) S.S. Mongana. After making two trips along the coast to Cairns, Frank was appointed to S-93 Volunteer. This wooden single-screw tugboat was built in 1888 and in Frank’s words, “Way passed her working days.” With a crew of four Volunteer sailed from Cairns for Milne Bay with no radio, four old life jackets and a ten foot dinghy. The voyage began early on a Sunday morning with a 50 ton bitumen barge in tow, at a speed of 2-3 knots.
S-27 Mongana (Built 1905) Wooden hulled, steam coaster.
By mid-afternoon Sunday, Volunteer had sailed around 20 miles when she encountered the Australian Army 20th Brigade amphibious landing exercises at Ellis Beach, which was something like “all hell breaking loose”. The Volunteer was directed to anchor. The old Captain was nervous and told Frank to row ashore, find a telephone and seek instruction on what to do next! Frank rowed and searched, but could not find a phone anywhere. He then saw something of note; the Volunteer steaming back towards Cairns! Frank jumped and waved “like a Red Indian Chief doing a bloody war dance” before finally sitting on the beach to relax and consider his fate.
Frank decided to row back to Cairns, however along the way he encountered American troops with their girlfriends having a beach party. They American’s invited Frank to stay with them and promised to return him to Cairns that night. They took turns taking the girls for a row in Frank’s dinghy and boarded trucks for Cairns late in the afternoon. Frank had to ‘rough it’ that night with the U.S. troops at their camp in The Grand Hotel.
Back in Cairns the nervous Norwegian Skipper and the old engineer had been replaced by younger men, Australians John Browne and Ray Roberts, both 22 years of age. Again Volunteer departed Cairns with a much lighter 17 ton ply-wood barge, island hopping all the way to Thursday Island. After a week on T.I. Volunteer sailed up the North-East channel to the Gulf of Papua. The first island stop was Cocoanut Island followed by Darnley Island. Early one morning Volunteer departed Darnley Island heading up the channel for Port Moresby; all was smooth sailing until the tail shaft to the propeller broke.
Approximately one hour past Bramble Cay the crew gathered to discuss the situation. It was soon realised that someone was required to row over 20 miles back to the Coastwatchers on Darnley Island. Four matches were produced; two were broken short and drawn by Captain John Browne and A.B. Frederick Finch. The peak of Darnley Island was just showing as a tiny dot on the horizon.
Frank and Jack left Volunteer around 1130 with the dinghy full of provisions and took turns rowing for around sixteen hours. Their hands burned, blistered and bled; there was no choice but to keep rowing. Finally reaching Darnley Island in the dark, Frank helped Jack pull the dinghy to high ground and both slept. In the morning they were able to see the signal station and set off to find the Coastwatchers who sent a message to Thursday Island. Shortly after 0800 a message was received advising the seamen to be ready at midday for a flight by Catalina. At 1700 another message arrived advising that a ship would pick them up the next day. Several days and misunderstandings later, they were still stranded on Darnley Island.
Frank and Jack began to enjoy the island life, spending time fishing, swimming, making friends and learning local customs. Frank refers to this period as his “war without tears’ and ‘life in paradise’. Another reality soon arrived in the form of Navy Minesweeper U.S.S. YMS-48. The crew stayed at Darnley overnight and departed the following morning, which was the only time during the war that U.S. Forces landed on Darnley Island.
A huge feast was held for the crew and the stranded sailors, including song and dance where Frank performed in the front line of dancers. It was an unforgettable occasion for the visitors. More than 70 years later Frank can still remember the songs and dance moves he learned in the Torres Strait. U.S.S. YMS-48 returned Frank and Jack to T.I. while another U.S. Navy vessel towed Volunteer.
After repairs were made Volunteer left T.I. and arrived at Port Moresby after dark. The Captain decided to sail up and down the coast in heavy rain until morning, unfortunately there was also a heavy South-East current. The next day Volunteer came alongside a U.S. sub-chaser and asked for directions to Port Moresby. The directions led straight to Kapa Kapa where a Missionary informed the crew that if they waited two days, an Australian Army Vessel was due and could escort them up the coast. The A.W.T. vessel arrived and when the Sergeant was told which course they had followed coming in to anchor he exploded, “You came right over a bloody mine field! Lucky your little tug has a very shallow draft!”
At Hood Bay S-93 Volunteer picked up a native pilot to assist with navigation on the trip down to Milne Bay. The pilot chewed betel-nut whilst sitting on the wheelhouse and spat the juice into the wind, which was inclined to return the spray into Frank’s face while he was at the wheel. Frank was pleased to set the native ashore. Shortly after Jack was very pleased to deliver Volunteer to the Small Ships Base at Waga Waga, Milne Bay as he had been suffering from malaria and it was time for the Captain to take leave in Australia. Frank remained on Volunteer in Milne Bay and soon after celebrating his 17th Birthday received orders to join S-150 Corrimal. One of the bigger ‘small ships’ Corrimal was a steel freighter of 230’, with twenty-two crew members, freezer room and ice-cream machine; Frank was impressed.
Corrimal returned Frank to Sydney in December 1943 for Discharge. During the journey from Milne Bay, Frank was assigned to the 12 to 4 watch and his watch mate was Alwyn Allport. Alwyn served with Small Ships until November 1944, later becoming an Assistant Secretary for the Seamen’s Union of Australia and serving on Australian merchant ships until retirement in 1989.
Another shipmate on Corrimal was a young Englishman around Frank’s age called Bill Sparks. Frank had previously sailed with Bill’s brother Dave on a Norwegian vessel. Bill was on his way to Sydney for leave and was killed in a raid on S-135 Lorinna at Cape Gloucester only months later.
After Discharge Frank returned to the Atlantic convoys on Norwegian vessels, and ended the war again serving U.S. Army Transportation Corps on U.S.A.H.S. EMILY H M WEDER and U.S.A.H.S. DOGWOOD from August till October 1945.
More than 40 years of sea-time later, Frank retired from his last ship, ST Ampol Sarel.
Rather than leave the boats behind, Frank continued to take them home and devoted more time to developing The Finch Family Maritime Museum. The museum maintains a commemorative display dedicated to the Small Ships Section and A.T.S. during WWII, among many other Service and maritime related artefacts.