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.