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.