The Formation and Operation of the US Army Small Ships in World War II
an address to members of The Royal United Services Institution of New South Wales on the 25th January 2005 was given by Captain E. A. Flint, MBE, ED (Retd) and printed in the Journal , “ United Service “ Volume 55 No. 4 Pages 15-20 ( March 2005 ) issue .
The Fahnestock Expedition
The United States Army Small Ships was a unique organisation which owed its formation to John Sheridan Fahnestock, later Colonel His commitment and dedication to his beliefs, and his outstanding leadership, ensured its success.
In mid March 1940, the Director 11, a 130 foot, 3-masted Grand Banks fishing schooner, left New York harbour for a two year cruise in the South Pacific. The purpose of the “Fahnestock Expedition” was to record bird calls and local music and to make oceanographic studies of the islands visited. The expedition was commanded by Sheridan Fahnestock and the crew consisted of his brother, Bruce Fahnestock, Ladislaw Reday, engineer, and George Peterson, Thomas Folster, Rollin Grant, Phil Farley, Dawson Glover and Bob Wilson. Also on board were Mrs Mary Fahnestock, Mrs Margaret Steele Fahnestock and Mrs Helen Folster.
All went well with the expedition until late 1940 when, attempting to enter Gladstone Harbour, Queensland, the Director 11 hit a reef and was wrecked. There was no loss of life and all on board took a steamship passage back to the United States.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour, Sheridan Fahnestock, whose family were close friends with the Roosevelt family, proposed to the military that the forces in the Philippines be re-supplied by the use of sailing ships, trawlers, and old freighters- in fact any sort of vessel that could escape the scrutiny of the Japanese forces – and for these vessels to slip into one of the countless harbours and bays in the islands in the Philippines.
The plans of Sheridan Fahnestock finally came to the attention of a newly appointed US Army Brigadier General, Arthur H. Wilson, who also had friends in the Presidential circle. The general philosophy of that age group in 1942 was of patriotism and anger against the sneak attack on PearlHarbour that President Roosevelt had called “that day of infamy”. It was the triggering factor that induced the Fahnestock brothers and other young men to rally to the forces.
When the concept of using the crew of Director 11 in the Mission X plan as it became known, was accepted, it was only necessary to round them up and get them to Washington to join the Mission X expedition. Many of the old crew were easily located. Phil Farley and Bob Wilson were in Yale, Dawson Glover had been kicked out of Yale, and “Laddie” Reday was in the Artillery at Fort Monroe. When they all arrived in Washington, Sheridan Fahnestock was given a captain’s commission, his brother, Bruce, a 1st lieutenant’s commission, and the others were made 2ndlieutenants in the US Army by Brigadier General A. H. Wilson.
The initial plan was to take their vessels, once they acquired them, to the Philippines and somehow relieve Macarthur’s forces on Bataan. Just how they were to do this desperate task was extremely vague. In fairness to the planners, it all depended on how long Macarthur could hold out against the Japanese. It also depended on where they could get the vessels, how long it would take to get to the Philippines and whether other people could be enlisted into their group.
Eventually, they were flown to the US west coast, then taken by ship to Honolulu and then flown by B26 bomber to Melbourne, Australia via Brisbane, island hopping on the way. When they arrived in Melbourne they were greeted with the news that Bataan had fallen and that General Macarthur had arrived in Australia with a small staff.
Early 1942 in the South-West Pacific
The position in Australia was critical. The Japanese were swooping down the New Guinea coast. They were in Burma, Lae, Finschhafen, Madang and Hollandia. They had landed at Rabaul and in the Solomons, and were moving overland to take Port Moresby.
Once ashore in New Guinea, however, the Japanese found moving rapidly difficult, as did the Australians facing them, on the precipitous mountain passes and through the almost impenetrable rain forest and the muddy swamps. Impassable New Guinea jungle slowed advance to a snail’s pace and reduced re-supplies to an inadequate trickle. The jungle will lick them, General Thomas Blamey was quoted as saying, and it did with the help of the Australian Army on the Kokoda Track in mid 1942. The Japanese never did reach Port Moresby.
In early 1942, there was considerable rivalry between General Macarthur and the US Navy and there was little co-operation between the two areas of command. The net result was that there were no US Navy ships, landing craft or marines available in 1942 for operations in New Guinea. On 30 March 1942, it was decided that the Pacific Ocean would be commanded by Admiral Nimitz and General Macarthur would command the offensives to recapture New Guinea and the islands to the north of Australia. This command arrangement was formally endorsed by the Australian Government on 14 April 1942. New Guinea was to be an Australian and American Army show, even though the amphibious nature of the struggle was becoming evident to the Australian and American authorities.
Formation of the US Army Small Ships
The Australian and American army headquarters soon recognised the importance of the amphibious capabilities offered by the Mission X plan, so the Mission X team was allowed to commence an unorthodox acquisition of small vessels and supplies and the needed number of officers and men to man the vessels. The proposed modus operandi for this new fleet of ships was to be entirely different from the original concept of running vessels into the Philippines, necessitating the small band of skippers and men assembled for the Philippines to be quickly enlarged.
The first man to be employed by the US Army Small Ships was John B. (Jack) Savage of J J Savage and Son Boat Builders of Victoria. Jack was looking for action and was more than happy with the opportunity to serve in the US Army Small Ships. Jack was responsible for inspecting and approving or rejecting vessels that were commandeered, purchased or leased by the US Army. He was also responsible for the installation of the slipways and repair installations in New Guinea. Jack was once offered a bribe to upgrade a vessel that was being inspected for sale to the US Army. He told the owner that he would have to re-appraise the vessel. The owner was delighted until Jack told him that he had found other defects and that he would have to reduce the price by 20 per cent. He said he was never again offered a bribe.
There is another facet of the US Army Small ships that is not generally known. The US Army also were allowed to hire carpenters, mechanics, shipwrights and labourers who built and manned the slipways and repair facilities, always either under or in danger of air attacks, as these facilities were prime targets for the Japanese air force. The United States Government and the Australian Government, however, still refuse to recognise the service that these men gave. Without their support, the US Small Ships and other Australian Army and Navy small vessels. would have been unable to continue to supply our forces and the war’s outcome could have been entirely different .
Armed with reverse Lend Lease Authorities and promised funds to compensate owners, the Mission X team fanned out to all ports on the east coast of Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand, seeking vessels that were suitable to transport guns, ammunition, stores, food, medical supplies and troops along the uncharted- coast line of New Guinea.
The first acquisitions to the Small Ships fleet were heavily-built wooden trawlers, 42 to 62 feet long, of deep draft and– diesel driven. Their bluff bows could withstand the rough seas of the Australian coast and Bass Strait. They were sheathed in Kauri pine, which repelled the marine termites that bore into wooden hulls in the tropics. Heavy duty coiling winches, which made excellent towing engines, were connected to the main engines. These winches saved many a vessel and its crew. The winches were invaluable for beach landings, as a stern anchor could be dropped off when approaching the beach and, once the vessel had been unloaded, the stern anchor and the coiling winches could be used to help the trawler pull itself off the sand and into deep water.
One of the first trawlers to be purchased was the King John, 62 ft long and skippered by Bill Priest. The next purchased were the Ulladulla, under skipper Jim Ailsop, and the Kelton, with an all Filipino crew skippered by Lieutenant Ames, who had been a mate on the Mactan, one of the last vessels to escape from the Philippines. The next purchased was the Willyama 11, skippered by Ralph Andrews, then finally the Minston Brae, skippered by George Ling.
Reckless courage and a great disregard for the odds and hardships played a great part in the success of the US Army Small Ships, plus a complete lack of knowledge of all the dangers and difficulties that lay ahead for them.
Take the case of George Ling, forging alone out of Townsville across the Coral Sea with orders to go to Milne Bay early in 1942. He had no knowledge where the enemy was at the time. His ship, the Minston Brae, was only armed with two 30 calibre machine guns and George had no idea where Milne Bay was. He finally sighted Samurai Island and tied up to the copra wharf, when an Royal Australian Air Force crash boat pulled up alongside and asked him where he thought he was going. “Well, if it is any of your business”, George replied, “I am going to MilneBay”. “Looks like you are going straight to hell, as there is a Japanese cruiser up ahead just outside Milne Bay”, the crash boat skipper replied. “Are you going to. take them on?”
George did not believe the crash boat skipper and sailed on up the channel. When he did see the Japanese cruiser, it looked to him like a battle ship. He hastily headed back the way that he came. The cruiser decided not to follow George into shallow water and instead fired over 100 rounds at George who hugged the coast at 10 knots all the way to Port Moresby. The crash boat skipper was not so lucky.
“Sorry about that George”, the Army apologised. “Thought that we would have it all secured by the time you arrived. They are still waiting for your cargo.” So George went back to Milne Bay, this time accompanied by Ralph Andrews in the Willyama 11. The delivery was made just a little late.
After the trawlers had been purchased, sailing craft were acquired. The tiny ketch, Melanesia, 31 tons, 54 x 15.2 x 7.3 feet, built in 1917, was one of the first vessels to see action in the early fighting in Oro Bay and Buna. Formerly owned by the Seventh Day Adventist Church, she was skippered by Alan Reynolds, with Ray Parer as the engineer. Parer was a World War I pilot with an Air Force Cross, who had been one of the first airmen to fly from England to Australia. In World War II, he was told by the Royal Australian Air Force that he was too old for active service. Ray carried a sheath knife that he took from a Japanese soldier who had attempted to take over the Melanesia one night. Ray killed the Japanese bare-handed and kept the knife. The Melanesia served for many years after the war in New Guinea for the Seventh Day Adventists.
The auxiliary ketch, Harold, of 96 x 23 x 7.1 feet and 105 tons, built in 1906 in Bermagui, came next. It was a former grain carrier from South Australia. Then came the Leprena, an auxiliary ketch of 92 x 22.8 x 6.6 feet, built in 1906 at Lake Macquarie. Slightly smaller than the Harold, she had served in the Royal Australian Navy in World War I. When released from the Small Ships at the end of World War II, she converted to a trawler and was later beached and burnt.
The 3-masted steel schooner, Argosy Lemal, of 119 x 24.5 x 12 feet, was equipped as a radio communication ship, the hope being the Japanese would overlook her whilst she was serving as a communication ship in combat areas.
Next, the Margaret Thwaites, a big cargo carrying ketch, was acquired followed by several 50 to 70 foot New Zealand scows and a 50 foot Thursday Island Pearling lugger. These vessels were slow and awkward to manoeuvre in reef strewn waters, but they had the natural camouflage of innocent sailing craft and they were the only vessels available.
A few commandeered Dutch freighters and an unarmed old converted four stacker destroyer from World War I, the Maysaya, which had been serving as a banana boat, made up the larger vessels in this odd fleet. The Kooraka, a 130 x 24.4 x 7.5 foot, 340 ton, motor ship, was purchased from the Coast Steam Ship Company of South Australia for 22,000 pounds. She could only make 8 knots and was extremely cumbersome. She saw out the war and was wrecked in New Caledonia in 1966. The motor ship, Moa Moa, of 134 feet and 554 tons, was purchased from the Colonial Sugar Refining Company for 62,000 pounds. The Kurimaru, a Burns Philp steel island freighter, of 1215.7 x 25 x 7.2 feet and 285 tons, saw early action in Milne Bay and took Brigadier Secombe on his foray into Oro Bay and Porlock Harbour prior to the Australian Army landings in 1942. It was later crippled by enemy action.
Finally, the flagship of the fleet was the MV Lorinna of 1100 tons. She was hired on a daily basis from 30 September 1942 to 29 May 1945 for a total 65,050 pounds. Her skipper was Captain Elmer Malanott, an ex World War I U Boat skipper. She survived the war, but has since disappeared from the sea.
Finally, a few plywood landing craft were acquired. These were highly vulnerable. They were gasoline driven. The hulls were plywood. The coxswain’s pulpit was a raised platform at the stern and was a natural target for the Japanese. It is no wonder that the Australians and Americans who manned them did not like them.
Fitting Out and Crewing Vessels
10 Walsh Bay became the US Army Small Ships victualling wharf where the vessels that had been purchased, leased, or commandeered were provisioned, fuelled and fitted out, then armed with 30 or 50 calibre machine guns. In some cases, the weapon was of World War I vintage and, in one case, the weapon was a light cannon, which was more of a threat to the vessel and crew than to the Japanese.
The `Stars and Stripes’ flag was run up the mast’ to show that the vessels were American. I have since found out that the vessels were not legally American. Only American-registered vessels were legally American. British-registered vessels legally remained British. [There was no Australian registration in 1942]. The Americans never re-registered the vessels that they took over, as an inspection of the records at Lloyds Shipping Registry will confirm. Professor Edgar Gold, CM, QC, a professor of maritime law, has also confirmed this. Thus, the vessels that we served on were not foreign, but British-registered vessels.
The crews of these vessels came from two sources. Firstly, crews on the vessels that the US Army acquired were offered a 6-month civilian contract to sail the vessels to New Guinea. This contract was later extended to a 12-month contract, if their work was satisfactory. Secondly, the Australian Government allowed the US Army to hire Australian men and boys, who were too young or too old or medically unfit for service in the Australian Military Forces, for service in the US Army Small Ships, providing that these men and boys had been released by the Australian Manpower authorities. Their ages ranged from 15 to over 70 years of age. There were men with one arm and, in one or two cases, one leg, but they all had to pay tax to the Australian Government.
The Grace Building on the Corner of York and King Street, Sydney, now the Grace Hotel, became the administrative offices for the US Army Small Ships and all the hiring of men and boys for the various positions in the US Army Small Ships was done there. Despite what Government sources have said over the years, we did not swear allegiance to the United States. Our contact was a civilian contract of hire.
Early Operations in New Guinea
So, in mid 1942, a straggle of non-descript wooden fishing trawlers, a gaggle of sailing craft, a few rusty freighters and some plywood landing craft, sailed north through the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. Some struck boldly across the Coral Sea to Port Moresby and Milne Bay in New Guinea. None attracted the attention of the Japanese Forces, which were rapidly advancing southward fresh from overwhelming victories in Singapore and the Philippines.
This ragged flotilla could have been a Dunkirk-type evacuation fleet assembled to pick up retreating forces of a defeated army. In fact, this improbable fleet was the ocean going attack division of the allied forces in the South West Pacific. Moreover, this mixture of strange surface craft, with the addition of eight antiquated plywood landing craft, some plywood dories and a few steel tank barges, comprised the US Army’s entire fleet, the US Army Small Ships
The mission of this fleet was to carry Australian and American troops into battle, to meet the Japanese forces head on. After landing the troops, the small ships were then tasked with the responsibility of bringing up – arms, ammunition, fuel, medical supplies and food, then bringing up fresh troops, then taking back the sick, the wounded and the dead.
It seems incredible that this motley collection of aged hulls would be considered for such an adventure, but General’s Blamey and Macarthur had no other choice. The US Navy had been decimated only months before at Pearl Harbour and now was engrossed in landings and supporting the US Marines at Guadalcanal and other Pacific Islands. The few Australian corvettes available did supply protection and transport troops when possible, but, for the most part, Macarthur and Blamey had to use the only craft on hand, the US Army Small Ships, to move men and materials to and from the landing areas.
First into battle was Captain (later Colonel) Sheridan Fahnestock, formerly the skipper of the Director 11 on the Fahnestock South Seas Expedition, with the plywood landing craft. It was in these early days that the men and boys of the Small Ships learned of their first officer casualty. 1st Lieutenant Bruce Fahnestock, formerly director of the South Seas Expedition and brother to Sheridan, whilst attempting to ferry a small ship to an assembly point in the Buna area, was strafed by a US aircraft. Somewhere there was a breakdown in communication and the air force was not advised that there were US Army Small Ships in the area. Also killed in this attack was Barney Daunton, a well-known correspondent for Time magazine, and a number of soldiers.
Navigation in New Guinea
When the US Small Ships set up office in Milne Bay, they found that they were really handicapped. The much needed arms and ammunition were unloaded directly from the large ships that arrived there from America and Australia into the Small Ships’ trawlers, ketches, small motor ships and dories for delivery to the combat areas.
There was, however, only one antiquated admiralty chart of the New Guinea coast available. “Call this a chart”, said one skipper when he was handed a strip of toilet paper with carefully traced coast line and inked in islands and reefs and other navigational hazards. “All we have” was the reply. “Please mark in any thing else that you find” The smell of the land by day and the bark of a dog at night were the main essentials for coastal navigation. The skippers began to acquire an uncanny skill locating and dodging coral reefs, enemy float planes and hostile shore fire, and finding their way up and down the unknown and hazardous coast line.
Passage north on the New Guinea Coast, through reef infested areas to the small mission station and copra port of Wanigela, was possible if one could spot the tufi leads on the tip of Cape Tufi. They were two home made beacons on the shore, one above the other. Lining them up gave a safe passage through the reefs.
Porlock Harbour, a few miles up the coast near a small copra plantation, was a natural deep water harbour. A north cut in the hills surrounding the bay was a natural beacon. Keeping this notch due west, one could find a safe passage into PorlockHarbour. Unfortunately, the enemy also knew of this beacon.
The base at Oro Bay lay across 22 miles of open water and was safer. To get from Oro Bay to Buna was a navigational nightmare, as well as a test of skill and courage in avoiding the enemy, now very close and patrolling all around Oro Bay. Reefs infested the whole area. None of the reefs were marked or previously known. Nothing showed on any charts.
To make matters more difficult from a navigational point of view, the Small Ships only sailed at night as it was the only time that they could be relatively free from constant air attacks by the Japanese float planes, which would bomb and strafe us using flares that would turn night into day. But if there happened to be a rain squall, they could be avoided.
Allied planes could not be in the area until noon as the fog and mist over the Owen Stanley ranges did not clear till then, so the Japanese had control of the sea and the skies until noon. Reef strewn passages could not be avoided. Oro Bay, our largest staging area and a new base, had deep water where larger vessels could call and discharge cargo for trans-shipment to our trawlers and barges. But from Oro Bay northward, the water was shallow and the passage to Buna was strewn with uncharted reefs.
Inside Cape Sudest, there were reefs with only 3 feet of water cover. The Japanese occupied the plantation and Endaiadere in force. If, however, the ship gave Cape Sudest a too wide a berth, the vessel would run aground on more vicious reefs on the outside. Once the enemy could be routed from Cape Sudest and Cape Endaiadere, we felt we could proceed closer inland without risk of shore attack.
It was a great day for the Small Ships when a native returned to the plantation at Cape Sudest and hung a kerosene lantern out each night as a guide for the Small Ships creeping up the coast. This allowed them to get a fix on two sets of reefs. This native was never recognised for his actions, which would have saved countless lives. It would be nice if the Australian Government together with the American Government gave a school or a library to this area in recognition of this brave act.
The Charles Cam Reef was named after a Small Ship of that name that ran aground on the reef and was strafed. The trawler stayed there as a marker until it broke up. With the reef of the Charles Cam abeam, trawler skippers would head straight for Cape Sudest, passing the bar to the Embogo River to their port side. The white surf over the bar usually gleamed in the moonlight. From there to Hariko Village near Cape Endaiadere, they would be in 4 fathoms of water and a safe passage to Buna Plantation, the scene of the famous battle for Buna.
Importance of the US Small Ships
Most of the night landings were horrific, as ships were harassed by enemy float planes, whose flares turned night into day, and fire from the beaches at Buna, Gona and Porlock Harbour. They were confused nightmares for the crews of the Small Ships. Stores, guns, ammunition and even troops were tossed into the dories or even the surf and left to float to the beaches. The trawlers saved the day in these perilous times, by delivering stores and reinforcements to the beaches and then fish tailing from the beaches with their anchors and winches. The importance of the US Army Small Ships to the Australian and American forces is highlighted by the following report from Major General Harding, commanding the American 41 St Division, to Lieutenant General Herring, commanding allied armies in New Guinea:
During the Buna campaign all was going well until the 16/17 November when 6 small ships were lost together their cargoes. The Small Ship situation has since gone from bad to worse, another small ship went on a reef yesterday, another got stuck on a sand bar and was bombed, another three vessels have been bombed and sunk and today there is only one vessel available.
The U S Army Small Ships were invaluable to the military as they could carry at least 10 tons, whereas the Dakota supply aircraft could only carry 2.5 tons and when loads were dropped, it was any one’s guess where the loads fell.
In the Buna Campaign, the Australian Army field regiments were supplied with 25 pounder guns together with their ammunition. Small ships brought the first tanks ashore, towing steel barges for the operation at Finschhafen, as well as barbed wire, ditch diggers, fuel and reinforcements. Another small ship transported 52 sheep, without regard for the smell and the condition of the vessel afterwards.
Later Additions to the Small Ships Fleet
In 1943, the US Army began to order vessels of various types from Australian boat builders. There were 40 foot wooden tugs that had a large deck area and only needed a three man crew; and 60 foot steel tugs capable of towing a variety of tows, from concrete refrigeration barges, crane barges for heavy lifting, fuel barges, workshops and many other types. One of the first vessels hit by the Japanese at Leyte was one of these steel tugs.
There were a number of Fairmiles built, which could carry arms and ammunition to the beach heads and take the wounded to the hospital ships lying off shore. They were 112 feet long, carried 5,000 gallons of gasoline and were of marine ply construction.
There were also ocean lighters (OLs), 120 feet long with two hatches. One was fitted out as a casualty clearing hospital. Others carried stores. Some were fitted out for refrigeration, others as water carriers.
From the US came large steel tugs of 500 tons. They were steam driven with the capacity to tow 20,000 tons. Most of these vessels were adopted by the Australian Army Water Transport as well as the Royal Australian Navy.
The US Army Small Ships participated with the US Army in the landing at Cape Gloucester, New Britain, in December 1943. They landed 10 days prior to the well-publicised landing of the US Marines whom they also assisted. Then it was on to Hollandia in May 1944. Hollandia was to become the staging area for the landing at Leyte in October, and it was the last hurrah for the beach landing section of the US Army Small Ships. The day of the landing craft mechanical (LCM), landing ship tank (LST) etc. had arrived.
The small improvised assault force, with its ragged small ships, was replaced by a huge co-ordinated battle force engaged in the gigantic and complex war in the Pacific. It was obvious that soon there would be little need for the fiercely independent and odd ball assault ships of the US Army Small Ships Section.
Some of the US Army Small Ships spent the last year of the war contacting guerrilla units still fighting the Japanese in outlying islands in the Philippines. Others took part in the landings at Leyte, Lingayen, Cebu and Dagupan. Others served at Okinawa, or were in Tokyo Bay when the Peace Treaty was signed, or were in the liberation of Chosen as Korea was known then.
The men and boys of the US Army Small Ships, who by their age or physical condition were not eligible for service in their own country’s military forces and were hired by the US Army Small Ships Section, helped to create history in the battle for the South West Pacific during World War II. These men and boys of the Small Ships proved once again the military adage that while military operators plan wars, it is the logisticians who win them.
Captain E. A. (Ernest) Flint, MBE, ED (Retd), a former citizen soldier, served in the US Small Ships Section during World War II. He is currently President of the US Army Small Ships Association and is a member of the Institution.
An Address by Veteran Member Ralph Andrews, given at U.S. Army Small Ships Section Reunion
Before the war I was happily selling tooth brushes, cotton wool etc. for Johnson & Johnson and got itchy feet and wanted to go fishing. A friend and myself had a trawler built. However the war had broken out by this time and the trawler was not finished until June 1941; then we were able to go fishing. We fished in the extra territorial waters, which means outside the line which roughly represents about the fifty fathom mark. We fished from Bass Strait to about the Queensland border. As a matter of interest, during this period we were not aware of mines or any other problems on the coast.
The Japanese had only recently come into the war and we did know though rumours, that ships had been sunk, including two trawlers. One had picked up a mine which blew the trawler to bits, including the crew, and another was shelled by a sub-marine. During this period I was visited down at Eden by a Naval Officer and a civilian who told me that the trawler had been impressed by the Commonwealth Government and would I take it straight to Sydney, which I did. On arriving there I found that the trawler was to be handed over to the American Army.
Whilst we were in Sydney the crews were asked would we man the ship and take it up to Brisbane.
I was asked if I would go over to Mosman and pick up a motor cruiser, and in the company of two armed Military Police I went over and confiscated this lovely little motor cruiser and brought it back to 10 Walsh Bay. Major Leon Lancaster, the boss of Small Ships at the time, said, “How do you like this little ship?”
I said, “I think she’s beautiful.”
He said, “How would you like to take her to Brisbane?”
I said, “Yes” and became the Master of S-51 Shangrila.
There were certain things that had to be done and when it came to taking her up to Brisbane I didn’t think I would have much trouble, it was only coastal hopping. However with the approaches to Brisbane you round Cape Moreton and there should be a big buoy which on turning, would take you into the Eastern channel, but there was no sign of a buoy.
We continued north looking for this buoy until finally we got right up to Caloundra where the Pilot Station was. I said to the pilot, “We have been looking for the leading into the Brisbane River.”
He said, “Just as well you didn’t find it mate because it’s entirely mined and you would have been blown up.” So I didn’t feel very happy about that. It was almost mid-winter and dark by then, so the pilot said, “I think you ought to take a man aboard, a pilot who will take you right up to Brisbane, because you have to pass Fort Littleton and you have to give the code number of the day. That was a big relief, the pilot came aboard and ultimately we arrived in Brisbane.
After tidying up the vessel and getting stores aboard and one thing and another, they said, “Will you take it up to Townsville?” So right ‘oh on we went to Townsville. It wasn’t really easy because there was a lot of coral on the way, but anyway we got into Townsville and no sooner than we were tied up they said, “Would you take it up to Cairns?” So we took it up to Cairns and the next thing I was asked, “Will you take it over to Port Moresby?” This wasn’t really funny because I didn’t have any navigation and they said, “Look here; there is no trouble at all. You have a bit of a chart there and you’ll find your way, away you go.” So to cut a long story short, we proceeded to Port Moresby.
Going across the Coral Sea we saw a lot of American naval life-rafts, known as ‘Carley floats’ and thought ‘what the hell are they doing here’. Anyway we picked one up because we only had a small dinghy and thought that it would be pretty handy to have o board if we got into trouble. In due course we arrived in Port Moresby, to be greeted by the first of many air-raids and had to leave the wharf during the raid.
The next morning we came back to the wharf and discovered that there were a series of planks with holes in them alongside the wharf. We realised later that morning when we started to look around for toilets, that this is precisely what it was. In Port Moresby in those days there were no women and no nurses even. These toilets were a source of all the news that you could imagine. You sat on the hole and spoke to your friend, who passed the message along to the next bloke, and of course learnt what had been going on – because we had no communication what so ever, not having a radio, not even an ordinary broadcast set – that there had been a Coral Sea battle.
The next thing to happen to me was that I took a General and his party on board to go up the coast a little bit of reconnaissance, but unfortunately as there were no charts or anything like that, I ran onto a sand bank and as the tide was dropping we had to stay there for the night. During the night a small plane came around (we had no lights of course) and the General said, “Oh, signal that plane Johns, all OK.” I said, “No General, I’m afraid that’s a Japanese reconnaissance plane.” Anyway, General’s don’t like to be told what to do and the next thing I knew I had lost my command and was given command of a trawler. The Two Freddies. It was on the Two Freddies that I had all the action, on the North East coast of New Guinea.
We started off from Port Moresby, first going down to Milne Bay, and from Milne Bay around the east coast. We then proceeded to find our way to various little bays that were on the north-east coast, and as we went we took on supplies, soldiers and whatever. Unfortunately, one of the first vessels that went up there , the KING JOHN, was unloading when over came a plane which proceeded to strafe and severely damage it, killing a couple of people and believe it or not, it was a Mitchell Bomber with American markings on it. There were two killed, including one of the American Officers, Lieutenant Adam Bruce Fahnestock who was one of the original during formation of the American Small Ships.
We then proceeded to do what we could to get stuff up the coast. Dodging coral, the only thing we could do was pull out in the open sea and proceed as far as we could and then, as soon as daylight came find our way through the coral and land our stuff. Unfortunately, as the Owen Stanley Ranges are very high and cloud covered most of the day there were no planes coming over from Moresby to protect us. The planes that we had to contend with were the Japanese in Buna, which of course was only twenty miles up the coast. So the result was that our little fleet was shot up by Japanese planes, dive bombers and one thing and another. To make matters even worse, the Eva, which was a lovely schooner, was unloading in the middle of the night when two PT came in and proceeded to strafe her and set her on fire. Fortunately the crew managed to get ashore and were not killed, but the Eva was on fire and the ammunition and everything must have made a pretty sight.
I then had to come back down the coast for more supplies but in doing so I called into Tufi, which was the base for the American PT boats, and saw the commander. I won’t relate the actual conversation; other than I told him that he had shot up and set fire to our beautiful Eva. There was only one thing to do. I said, “Give me your chart,” and I drew a line from Tufi up to Buna and I said, “Now you work outside that line and we will work inside.” I told him we did not want to see PT boats again.
So as bad as all that was, by that time we were down to only two trawlers, my own and one other. The others had been strafed, bombed, set on fire, people killed and it wasn’t a very happy time.
However, intelligence at Buna was ridiculous. Everybody was led to believe that that the few Japanese up there were very sick, they had no ammunition, they had no food, nothing at all. It was not realised that there were 5,000 very, very hale and hearty Japanese there, plus the Buna airstrip which was loaded up with plenty of planes. I was detailed to take an American General and his staff up the coast where our soldiers were supposed to be advancing. We advanced so far that we could see the Japanese strip and the planes taking off. Whilst we were there, fortunately for us a couple of American planes came over and bombed the Japanese strip. Fortunately, as I say for us, because the attention was more on them than us.
The General saw it all and said,”Oh my God, turn around and go back!” He didn’t have to tell me twice. So we came back and finally got him ashore and I was able to get my 8 tons of 25 pounder shells ashore. In those days all we could get was a few Papuan canoes, and I put some planks across them to make a sort of raft, and that was the way we got our stuff ashore. The next day I went back down the coast. As I said there was only two of our trawlers left by then. I don’t know for certain, but I loaded something like 90 to 100 American soldiers aboard. There was no room to move on deck. We were to go across to Pongani with the soldiers, but again to travel during the night, and as soon as it became daylight, try to find our way through the coral and into base. As we were going in, down the coast came a number of Japanese bombers and fighter planes which proceeded to strafe us.
Fortunately for us the American soldiers all had their personal weapons and amongst them were a number of Browning automatic rifles, which are very similar to our Bren guns, we also had two 50 calibre machine guns. So with everything firing we observed that one of the Japanese planes hit the water and the others then left us. By that time I had got the vessel in close with the intention of letting the soldiers get ashore rather than be strafed and killed in the little trawler and that is precisely what happened.
I then returned to Milne Bay and proceeded to do what repairs we could to the Two Freddies, but I was so loaded up with malaria and tropical ulcers, along with others, that they just put us ashore. The idea being to repatriate us to Australia.
I tell now a little story which concerned another Small Ship, the Hilda Norling, which was a lovely type ketch. She had been badly strafed, knocked about and put ashore up the coast where another Skipper had taken over to try and salvage her and get her back to Milne Bay. Well, that was actually accomplished and she was towed back to Milne Bay where she lay. So there we were, sick boys and the Hilda Norling laying out there.
The Commander came along to me and said, “There is a vessel out there, will you have a look at it and see if you can get it back to Townsville?” So I went aboard and realised how badly shot up she had been. Anything that had been of any consequence was smashed and the tanks had been holed. However, I said we could fix the holes in the tanks by plugging them and one thing and another. The engine seemed to be all right, it seemed to be going. But I said that there was nothing on board even the stove had been smashed up.
So, I gave him a list of things that had to be done but said that I thought she should be towed. He said, “You people ashore here are all sick, the vessel out there is useless. There are no supplies up here at all; I couldn’t even give you a coil of rope. You are expendable and if you can get it back to Townsville, well good, if you can’t, it’s just too bad.”
I said, “Thanks very much, three bloody cheers.”
So we went and had another look at her. First of all the anchors on those Tasmanian ketches were very, very heavy and although you did have a hand winch, it took about twenty men to pull the anchor up. However there was a little diesel engine with an endless chain on it attached to the winch and that was the method of getting the anchor up. Unfortunately one of the armour piercing bullets had smashed the rocker arm on the diesel which meant it wouldn’t go. However we found a bit of steel drilled three holes in it and made it to the shape of a rocker arm. Believe it or not when we put it on and turned the handle, the diesel engine started, so at least we were able to get the anchor up.
As I said, there was no stove, so we got a 5 gallon drum, punched some holes in it, put it on a bed of sand and put some wood into it. We had a stove. We took one of the shredded sails, put it over the boom and made an awning so that we could sleep on deck. Then I bummed around. I found a bit of rope and stuff from some of the other trawlers. I got a ship’s life boat compass, but I couldn’t get a log, so I said that I thought I could get her to Port Moresby where we might be able to get some more gear. We set off for Port Moresby at four knots, that was flat out. At Port Moresby the usual thing, we arrived just in time for an air-raid and of course we had to leave the wharf. When we came back we were able to get a little bit more gear but I couldn’t get a log.
All I had for navigation was a few charts and the ships life boat compass. So the Commander there said, “We realise that you are in a bad way so we will send another vessel with you over to Thursday Island and if you break down he can at least tow you.” We set away just on dusk, I was watching all through the dark but of course it was pretty hard to see and the next morning there was no sign of the other vessel that was supposed to be accompanying us. I won’t mention the name of the vessel as he just ran off and left us. He didn’t care. However it was a case of going back to Port Moresby or trying to get to Bramble Cay by dead reckoning – 240 nautical miles.
So we proceeded and when I estimated that we were almost there, (it was about midnight three days later) we just stopped, drifted and when it became light believe it or not Bramble Cay was right ahead of us. Ten foot high, that is all it was. However what I was relying on, Darnley Island, which was over to the South East and six hundred feet high – at least I could get a bearing on it to find the channel into Thursday Island through the Torres Strait. So away we went. We finally got into Thursday Island where we all went up to the hospital and got various treatments, but the Mate was in such a bad way with his tropical ulcers they wanted to keep him. So I said that we would just have to leave him there and they said “yes”, but Ray said, “Nothing doing”, so that night we got him out of the window. We got aboard and away we went.
I was able to get some sulphmilamide tablets to treat the sores and one thing and another. These sulpha tablets came in a little dispensing tin, each one holding about 10 or 12 tablets ( I forget now) and I gave a tin to Ray and said take one of these every three hours or whatever it was. After three hours he came back to me for another tin and I said, “Oh my God, don’t tell me you have taken the whole lot,” and he said, “Yea”. Anyhow it didn’t kill him. So, one way and another we finally got to Cairns. At Cairns the authorities came on board, including the Port Doctor. They took the whole lot of us – threw us into Ambulances – up to Gordonvale Hospital where as far as I was concerned that was the end of the Hilda Norling as I was to be repatriated. It was rather sad, but never mind, that’s the way it went. So we had to leave the work to the rest of the fleet, who were now coming up in new boats.
The time I speak of was the happy little period from about July 1942 to March 1943. There were many, many other little stories I could have told you about, but the big thing was we were back; the Hilda Norling was back, though unfortunately after being fixed up she went back to Milne Bay and when she went up to Tufi one night, (she was loaded up with fuel for the PT boats) she caught fire and burnt to the waterline.
An Address by Major General Gordon Maitland A.O., O.B.E., R.F.D., E.D. (Ret)
At the Unveiling of the US Army Small Ships Apprentice Memorial
At Walsh Bay, 8th March 2008.
Minister, Consul General, Fellow Australians,
Unless you actually witnessed it, you would not be able to comprehend the hugeness of the forces that the Allies assembled in New Guinea in 1943. They were huge forces, but you know that because the Small Ships were there. The place names of your banner trace your progress with the American and Australian armies as they advanced up the North Coast of New Guinea, onto Leyte and to within striking distance of Japan.
For those of you who went out yesterday to do your shopping for the weekend, you will have a comprehension of the basics that had to be provided for those forces. Add to it, the fuel, the parts for the tanks and vehicles – huge quantities of ammunition and medical stores. The whole lot was quite beyond the capacity of the air force and its planes to supply. So it had to be by sea, and that is where we met the American Army Small Ships and the men and boys who manned them.
As the Minister remarked, he had not have heard much about the US Army Small Ships until Ernest Flint started to pound his ear, and I am some what ashamed to admit, that the Australian Army didn’t know much about it either, particularly those who soldiered in it.
But how many times did I hear it said, as we went into those later campaigns, how much better supplied and looked after were the troops at that stage than those who had undertaken the initial New Guinea Campaigns either on the Kokoda Trail or down from Wau to Salamoa. The difference in being looked after was immense, and I know how grateful the Australian Army was and how grateful the troops were. I know that those soldiers of long ago, if they knew that I was here with you, would ask me to say thank you to the American Army Small Ships, and to ask me to express not only their gratitude but their admiration to all those who manned those ships
Actually it is a unique story and made even more so by the tales that we are acknowledging this morning, of youngsters only fifteen years old ( and I know what I was like at fifteen) who went to war. “They went to war at a time when the Australian Amy itself enlisted people only at eighteen, and wouldn’t allow them to go overseas until they were nineteen. So it really is a blockbuster of a story, I don’t know why we haven’t got some one like Fitzsimons here to write it up.
The best that the soldiers of those years can do is to say thanks, but I do believe that the Australian people should say thank you in the only way that is open to them by properly acknowledging your service. Infantry soldiers are down to earth people. So I see things somewhat simply, there we had young Australians, aboard Australian Ships, prepared to sacrifice their lives to support Australian troops. Bureaucrats have done what they liked with that, but the answer to me is abundantly simple, properly recognise your service. Again, on behalf of those soldiers of yesteryear
– thank you very much.