The Australian Maritime Museum opens an exhibitiion featuring the Small Ships. This article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.
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The US Army called it ‘‘Operation X’’ but in Australia it was better known as ‘‘The Ragtag Fleet’’.
A flotilla of 3320 small Australian vessels of all shapes and sizes including fishing trawlers, tugs, ketches and schooners was requisitioned by the US Army to sail in 1942 under the stars and stripes flag, to establish a supply lifeline to US and Allied troops fighting the war against Japan. Covered in palm fronds, they hid by day in jungle estuaries and landed cargo including water, food, fuel, fresh troops and heavy equipment by night. They also brought out the wounded and the dead.
Many of the crew, a bit like the boats, were deemed unfit or too old for regular Australian service, but they had the knowledge and bravery to navigate the uncharted reefs and islands of the tropics to confront the Japanese.
But more than 70 years after the campaign which took the small ships with 3327 men and boys into the front lines in the Philippines and New Guinea, the few remaining veterans are fighting one last battle.t
Their contribution to the war effort has long been recognised by the US and the Philippines, and they have even been entitled to benefits under the Veterans Affairs system. But what they are seeking is recognition from the Australian government, with the award of the Australian Service Medal.
Now with the contribution they made to be the focus this week of an exhibition at the Australian National Maritime Museum, they are hopeful that in the new year that recognition will finally come.
Ernest Flint was 16 when he signed up in Sydney along with his father, also Ernest, then aged 60, a veteran of World War I and the Boer War.
Mr Flint junior, now 86, from Foster, and president of the US Small Ships Association, said: ‘‘Every time we asked for the medal we were knocked back. There was another [Defence] Honours and Awards Tribunal in November and it is still deliberating on whether they are going to give us the medal, and they should.
‘‘The Americans put us in the American Transportation Hall of Fame for god’s sake. The only people who won’t do the right thing by us is the bloody Australians would you believe. We have been promised a decision in January.’’
Richard Wood, program development manager of the museum’s USA Gallery said the US Army’s creation of its small ships section in Australia, under the orders of General Douglas MacArthur was ‘‘a little known story of daring and courage by Australians during the Second World War’’.
‘‘The first US amphibious action against the Japanese was the landing of troops on two quite small Australian-owned fishing trawlers,’’ he said.
‘‘In 1942 our army was spread around the world and not much of it was available to react to Japan and we were going to rely on the US once it entered the war in our fight back.
‘‘The US Navy had been severely damaged in the Battle of the Coral Sea and that’s why Mission X was so important, it was in the first instance to get troops on the ground in New Guinea.’’
Recognition in America also came in 1960 with a Hollywood movie starring Jack Lemmon called The Wackiest Ship in the Army, a lighthearted look at the exploits of a 70-year-old New Zealand schooner in the flotilla.
With Mr Flint on one boat and his father on another they met up for just one day in Manila before the war finished.
‘‘I knew he was in the Philippines and I went looking for his ship and I couldn’t find him,’’ Mr Flint said. ‘‘I had a case of beer I brought up from Australia. I told my dad when I met him we’d open the case of beer. When I got back to the ship the crew convinced me I wasn’t going to meet my dad and there wasn’t any beer about so we opened the case. We were down to one bottle and my father and his skipper turned up. They had a bottle between them.’’
He hopes recognition with the award of a medal will allow for one more celebration.
Mission X – The Ragtag Fleet opens at Australian National Maritime Museum on December 19.
Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/national/ragtag-fleet-war-heroes-still-seeking-australian-recognition-20131219-2zm90.html#ixzz2nxx8IkAv