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3 April 2001: remove dead links 9 December 2011
An Even More Forgotten Aspect of the "Forgotten Fleet"


Army Ships -- The Ghost Fleet
South West Pacific Area (SWPA)

Forgotten Fleet
by
Bill Lunney and Frank Finch

a Review and comment by R. Jackson

The above emblem appeared in Forgotten Fleet by Bill Lunney and Frank Finch. It may be from a certificate.


Forgotten Fleet: a history of the part played by Australian men and ships in the U.S. Army Small Ships Section in New Guinea, 1942-1945; Bill Lunney; Forfleet Publishing, 7 Wade Close, Medowie NSW 2318, Tel. 049 828437; ISBN 0 646 26048 0.


Why a "Review" instead of another Army Ship page? After decades of personal study of the Second World War, reading probably a majority of books published in the United States and quite a few in the United Kingdom on the subject, I realize this is an area I've barely seen mentioned. I know about the rag tag flotilla of Greek fishing boats, or caiques, and various other odd craft operating in the Greek Islands and Adriatic under the Special Boat Squadrons well in advance of any substantial Allied gains in the area. I know about the war against the German weather stations in the Arctic. All sorts of obscure little operations have been past discoveries. My look into the nearly forgotten U.S. Army fleet led to additional comments in Grover's U.S. Army ships and Watercraft of World War II (David H. Grover; Published: Annapolis, Md. by the Naval Institute Press, 1987 (ISBN: 0870217666)) about the somewhat mysterious SWPA fleet. Australians began sending me e-mail and eventually one, Sue Simmonds, sent a substantial story and the book.

Footnotes about the ships supplying Mac Arthur's push from Australia through Papua and New Guinea to the Philippines indeed essentially hide a much more interesting story. It is one that apparently is as lost in Australia as our Army ships are here. The fact that men from Australia and New Zealand were responsible for much of the crews aboard these U.S. Army vessels, sailing under the U.S. flag and having even taken oaths concerning that service perhaps explains why their part in the story is so unknown. An obscure fleet within an already largely unrecognized Army fleet, manned by foreigners would tend to bring obscurity in the United States. Australians under the Stars and Stripes probably was not something the average Australian knew well despite the nearness to both the war and actual events.

There appear to be at least two more or less distinct fleets:

Australians served on both. On the large vessels (for convenience I'll call them ATS, as did the people of the time) Australians signed Articles and were essentially as any other merchant seamen aboard Allied ships. For the small boats things got rather strange in my opinion. They signed a six or twelve month contract and swore a sort of "loyalty" oath. Frank Finch describes it as:

He comments that it seemed strange to be taking an oath to the army of the United States of America. He was given a document citing the Geneva Convention and making his rank equivalent to a Private First Class in the U.S. Army. He was about 15, or perhaps newly 16, years old at the time. This was 1943 and there is a 1942 photograph of him "aged 15" aboard another ship.

This is the book's introduction:

Author, "Bill Lunney aged 16, on leave from New Guinea"

Now, six years and counting since the 50th anniversary of that war's ending, there are quite a few "forgotten" fleets and armies. "Forgotten Fleet" is the semiofficial term used for the Royal Navy presence in the Indo-Pacific after VE day. It is forgotten at home and most people in the U.S. never quite realized the a large Royal Navy contingent came east to fight a type of war almost entirely new to them. In the U.S. it sometimes appears that this war at sea is limited to a vague idea of Pacific operations and D-day.

This United States Army fleet; manned in considerable part by citizens of Australia, New Zealand and some Papuans; was almost as far as one could get from that Army's home base. The early war in the Southwest Pacific did appear in many cases to be overshadowed by events in Europe and later by the more dramatic island invasions. I've noticed that contemporary news tended to feature events here less prominently than those elsewhere. It was largely tedious jungle warfare undertaken by less dramatic units than the massed fleets and sudden strikes in the central Pacific.

* * * *

The ships, many really boats, could go where no big transport could navigate. The Coral Sea is aptly named. MacArthur demonstrated his real talent in the coast hopping war that saved lives. He used a terrain feature of the huge island without much in the way of lines of communication ashore to effectively turn the Japanese into defenders of little islands that could be cut off by leapfrogging them along the coast. It was a land strategy similar to the island hopping in the Central Pacific where islands were bypassed and left to starve or surrender. This somewhat weird fleet was key to that along shore hopping. They could also move in areas not yet secure without the huge investment of protecting carrier and naval forces. They could and did seek protection and hide in such areas.

"U.S. Small Ship S-82 in her daytime hideout, 1943 (Australian War Museum 055775)"

They still got caught. Much of the time they had to operate in the open while supporting an operation. In one story a vessel was directed to go forward of the intended landing place by the General in command because rapid progress was being made ashore and he wanted the ammunition forward. They did so, despite an officer rushing into the surf waving his shirt trying to warn them not to go further. That ship made it to Hariko.

The next group was composed of three vessels and barges. They were "setting out for Hariko. The largest of these was the two-masted schooner, Alacrity. She carried most of the ammunition for the task force. As well, she was towing a steel barge with a twenty-nine man portable hospital. On her decks were forty native ammunition carriers and the Ordinance Officer, young Lieutenant John E. Harbert. The second of these Small Ships was the little trawler Bonwin, loaded with rations and ammunition. The Minnamurra, a trawler skippered by Australian Ted King, made up the trio. Aboard her were U.S. Army Captain John R. Keegan, Colonel Herbert B. Laux, and Major-General Edwin F. Harding, Commander of the U.S. 32nd Division. Minnamurra carried ammunition, rations, radio supplies, 81 mm mortars and .50 calibre machine guns."

Along with this group was a captured Japanese barge carrying two 25 pounder guns, ammunition and their Australian gun crews -- the artillery support for an American attack on Cape Endaiadere. These ships were just arriving and beginning to off load when jumped by enemy fighters. All three ships burnt to the waterline, two near shore and Bonwin at sea. Only five survived Bonwin, three of whom were wounded. Losses were heavy all around.

There are also amusing bits. A story by Ralph Andrews relates heading toward Cape Sudest with Two Freddies while carrying an American General. As they came abreast of Buna airfield they saw Japanese planes landing and taking off just as two Mitchell bombers bombed the strip. One of the Mitchells was shot down and the general remarked "I think we have proceeded a beach too far." Ralph mentions "I didn't argue with that but turned the Two Freddies about and landed the General in safer territory."

Those two schooners mentioned in the introduction, Harold and the Argosy Lemal, were the predecessors of the future command ships. They, along with Geoanna (TP-249) and Volador (TP-248), provided communications relays and acted as command post for forward elements ashore. They had more than a passing connection to sensitive Signal Corps activity with encryption equipment for HQ level communications. At a later date a number of U.S. Navy amphibious ships sprouted strange antenna farms. They were the AGCs. These ships, their very existence shrouded in secrecy until after the war, were the nerve centers for big amphibious landings taking place later in the war.

Material furnished by the daughter of one of the Australians, who was a part of this Small Ships fleet, is covered in a separate page, An Australian's Experience - Walter Rignold Marshall (1901-1988). Portions of his diary covering the period are being transcribed and provided to me for addition to another page, Diary of Walter Marshall, where I've made brief extracts from Forgotten Fleet's ship descriptions for those ships mentioned in the diary. A number of people have sent brief e-mail messages about SWPA ships. Those are covered at SWPA Stories.

* * * *

Some of the Small Ship stories cross other projects I've done. Under a heading "Typhoon of '45" I was reminded of the USS Relief (AH-1) Chronicle and Arthur Altvater's comment in his personal log "Never have I been so scared in my life. The only thing I could do to help was pray and brother I certainly lost no time doing that. Deo Gratios!" It was the one Arthur made this comment about that apparently is mentioned as the first typhoon by Alf Rieck in connection with BCL-3061, a concrete lighter, heading to Okinawa and Japan. BCL-3061 and its crew was being towed by Tug 652 and they lost the line in the storm, but through what has to be quite a story the tug managed to get another line to the lighter a day later.

If Arthur, no stranger to torpedoes and bombs, felt that way on the fairly large and self powered Relief, those on a lighter made of concrete adrift in the storm with a snapped tow line must have at times felt pretty hopeless. Half the convoy was lost. They arrived in Okinawa to find the war over and ride out the big one that hit that island [1945 was one of the worst typhoon seasons with several very bad ones. Several, including these, are covered at Naval Historical Center's "Typhoons and Hurricanes: The Effects of Cyclonic Winds on U.S. Naval Operations"]. Alf, his mates and BCL-3061 survived to make it into Tokyo Wan.

The introduction mentioned "boys of fifteen and sixteen, and old sailors" but the details are even more interesting. Some examples:

This is an almost random sample of the short profiles that also revealed some were "Australian" by circumstance. There were Norwegians, Dutch, and others caught or pushed into this corner of the southwest Pacific/southeast Indian Ocean area by the war. Some of the ships were refugees from now occupied ports to the north. So were many members of the crews for the vessels. All became involved in the Small Ships and the larger SWPA fleet.

Those who arrived at these pages from the Army Ships pages may know the story of how critical hulls were in the days before the huge shipyard production increases began catching up with demand. In SWPA those overall Allied shortages were compounded. Anything that floated and could carry cargo was used.

As an illustration consider the Rufus King (S-129). She was a Liberty ship, broken in half as a result of accident. Her bow section was manned and used. A vertical boiler fitted into #3 hold provided steam, coal filled #1, steel and gas bottles filled #2 hold. The original ship's winches did the lifting. She was towed up to New Guinea with more cargo and then used as a repair ship. She apparently worked from Milne Bay and eventually ended up near Finschhafen.

Other ships pressed into service were Weeroona, a steel-hull side paddle steamer built in 1910, used as a quarters ship for Small Ships people from Australia to New Guinea. Wortanna, built 1876 in Glasgow, Scotland as Paddle Brig 18 had been converted from steam to engines and screws and sail. A three masted auxiliary motor cargo schooner in 1917, she was taken into U.S. Army service in 1942 and served until, at age 69, she was released in September 1945. Bill Lunney, the author, served in Chippewa, an ex-Laker A.T.S. ship from the Great Lakes of the Unites States now serving in the tropical southwest Pacific and partially crewed by Small Ships people. The list is long and immensely varied.

The men faced some odd problems. "Service with the Small Ships did not fit into any neat bureaucratic category during the war" and their status as British subjects under the U.S. flag could get "interesting" due to actions on both sides. For example, one individual who signed on at age 16 in 1943 and had served on three ships up in New Guinea was discharged from the Small Ships because the Australian government had decided anyone under 18 was too young to "be in such a dangerous theatre of war." He falsified his age and joined the regular forces.

MacArthur apparently decided he didn't want Australians to share in his "Return," but his staff convinced him the Australians and Small Ships were necessary. Then the Australian government apparently tried to apply a restriction placed on the Australian Militia restricting service to south of the Equator. Small Ship Australians already in the Philippines and no few being WW I veterans were furious. One was quoted by a news correspondent as saying "We signed on to serve in any war zone, and we'll go to Tokio if necessary." Some were ordered back by U.S. officials until it was all explained as a "misunderstanding"' of Australian government inquiries by U.S. staff. They too did a "Return" and some -- as with the crew of BCL-3061 -- did "go to Tokio."

Many U.S. veterans are having trouble getting records of their service. The Small Ship Australians are in an even worse situation. They were given a "Certificate of Discharge for Civilian Employee." Those who also served in the regular Transportation Corps merchant fleet would supposedly be covered by the 1988 Congressional recognition of civilians employed by the Corps and Merchant Marine on the big ships. The records for the Small Ships people appear to be as lost as those for veterans who had their records burned in the St. Louis fire. Several who have actually gone to St. Louis during travel here have been treated poorly and not even been admitted to a face-to-face meeting, instead being required to talk over inter-building telephones. That is typical. It takes a little more than a generation to really forget those who took risk in the past.

There is belated recognition in Australia. Sue Simmonds attended the unveiling of a plaque, 15 May 2001, at the former headquarters of the U.S. Army Small Ships. She describes the event as follows:

On Tuesday the 15 May, we went to Sydney to the Grace Hotel, which when known as the Grace Building was the "small ships" headquarters during WW II.

One Mr Ern Flint, after considerable effort had managed to have a plaque installed in the building, and the unveiling took place on the Tuesday.

Present were, the Hotel Manager, the US Army Military Attache to Australia Colonel Michael J Baier, US Consul General Richard L Greene, a representative from the Merchant Navy Association, Frank Finch co-author of "Forgotten Fleet", Principal Chaplain of the Mission to Seamen of NSW and approximately 60 others, including veterans, wives, sons, daughters and friends.

Frank Finch describes the event in a letter to the Northern Rivers Echo of Lismore, NSW, Australia with a quote of the invitation:

Mr Richard L Greene, US Consul general, Sydney and Colonel Michael J Baier, US Army Attache to Australia, together with Mr Heinz Javier Colby, Manager of the Grace Hotel have pleasure in inviting... to the Official Unveiling of a Plaque commemorating the Occupancy by the United States Army in the Grace Building from May 1942 to January 1947, and also the enlistment of over 3000 Australian men and boys in the United States Army Small Ships. the unveiling will be held in the Grace Hotel, 77 York Street, Sydney, on Tuesday, May 15, 2001, at 10.30am for 11am.

Mr. Finch then goes on to describe the men and ships:

These men and boys ranged from 14 years of age to men approaching their late 70s. Some men were one armed, one leg and other ailments, rejected by the other armed services. We even boasted a VC winner from World War I, George Julian Howell, and believe it or not an ex-German U-boat Commander from the Great War.

Our vessels were just as unique, paddle steamers, tugs, schooners, ferryboats - anything that floated were put into service in the early war years in New Guinea. A high ranking officer summed it up correctly. He said when small ship vessels took troops into Bunam - "War All Gone Crazy".

By any standard this fleet and the men who ran it were unique. Both deserve to be remembered.



An Even More Forgotten Aspect of the "Forgotten Fleet"

Most of the accounts deal with Australians crewing the ships. This account is particularly interesting as we have an Australian carpenter engaged in base facility construction.

Alan Q. Schubert's Story
From e-mail sent by his son.

BACKGROUND

My father was Alan Quiggin Schubert, a building contractor from Sydney, and along with some thousands of other Australian men he served in the Small Ships Section of the American Army in the South West Pacific Area during WW2. The remarkable aspect of my father's experience was that he knew nothing about boats or ships and did not serve on any "small ships", but was engaged in the building of facilities to serve them. This type of Australian-American co-operation in WW2 seems not to have been recorded elsewhere on the Internet.

EARLY HISTORY OF US ARMY SMALL SHIPS SECTION

The formation of this unit was ordered by General Douglas MacArthur in Melbourne, Australia, early in 1942, after his escape to Australia from the Philippines. The Small Ships Section of the US Army Services of Supply was used to support the US Army in operations along the northern New Guinea coast, where the Japanese had occupied bridgeheads with the clear intention of occupying most of Papua-New Guinea and perhaps the northern parts of Australia.

The history of the Small Ships Section and of its vital contribution to the Allied war effort in the S.W. Pacific Area in 1942-1945 is presented in the book "Forgotten Fleet", written by Bill Lunney and Frank Finch, and published in Australia in 1995. The unit was part of the US Army Transportation Corps, S.W.P.A.

The Small Ships Section had its origins in the Mission X Group in early 1942 and the need for small ships to relieve the beleaguered US Army in the Philippines. However, by the time the Mission X Group arrived in Australia, events had overtaken its original purpose and the Japanese Army had occupied many parts of the coast of northern New Guinea. This New Guinea coast included a mass of unchartered reefs too dangerous for large ships and General MacArthur saw a use for the Group' small ships in his plans to drive the Japanese out of New Guinea.

Headquarters of the section started in Melbourne and moved to Sydney in about May of 1942. The fleet of small craft bought and commandeered from various places around the South-East coast of Australia grew very quickly and waterfront facilities were urgently needed. The Sydney headquarters was set up in what was known as the Grace Building in York street, Sydney, and a prominent plaque in the building's lobby commemorates the war service of the US Army Small Ships Section during WW2.

JOINING THE SMALL SHIPS SECTION, SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES (NSW)

My father had trained as a carpenter and in 1927, at the very early age of 21 years, became a self-employed contractor and completed many significant private and public buildings up to the outbreak of WW2 in 1939. Some construction continued in Australia until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, after which my father's building work seems to have been limited to air-raid shelters and similar defense works. In 1942 or 1943 my father joined the Small Ships Section of the American Army. He was inducted into the unit in Sydney.

I'm sure that he knew very little about ships, large or small. But he did know about building, and I presume that is why he was accepted by the Small Ships Section. He had been a Lieutenant in the Australian Army Militia in the late 1920s, but he was slightly too old for the Australian Army in 1942.

I used to wonder what sort of oath he took to join a unit of the US Army. Had he been in the Australian Army I understand that he would have to swear to defend Australia against the King's enemies. It is not important, because America and Australia had common cause against the Japanese aggressors.

Anyway, he arrived home one day in his full American uniform...a khaki peaked cap with an emblem at its front (I presume that it was an American Eagle), pressed khaki shirt and tie, and pressed khaki trousers complete with khaki belt. He was a tall man and I thought he looked like General MacArthur, except for the "scrambled egg" on MacArthur's cap and, of course, MacArthur's medals and badges of rank. My father told the family that he was being sent to Townsville in Northern Queensland to work with the American Army.

He knew that his letters would be censored and so he and my mother worked out a code by which he could keep her informed of certain things without running foul of the censor. I remember one of the code items was "The mozzies (i.e. mosquitos) were active last night" meant that Japanese planes came over his base. Also, "The mozzies were active last night and left their mark" meant that the Japanese had bombed his base.

He was provided with US papers, which were supposed to establish that, in the event of his capture by the Japanese, he would be treated as a Prisoner of War rather than a civilian spy. (Of course we now know that being treated as a Prisoner of War by the Japanese generally meant brutal and inhumane treatment, but my father probably wasn't aware of this at the time.) Thankfully, he was not captured.

TOWNSVILLE, QUEENSLAND (QLD)

My father went to Townsville by troop-train, via Brisbane. In Townsville he was engaged on building facilities for the Small Ships Section, and these included wharves, barracks and a mess hall. He of course came in contact with many Americans, and was intrigued by the American's use of certain words, such as chow (for food), chow line (for food queue), PX store (for canteen), and buddy (for friend).

While working in Townsville he suffered a hernia to his stomach and was hospitalised briefly in an American Army hospital. I knew that this hospital had the number 13 in its name, because of a coincidence. It so happened that the Australian Army ran a large hospital called 113th Australian General Hospital in Concord, in Sydney, a few miles from our home, and many American servicemen were treated there. When my mother learnt that my father was in a US Army 13th Hospital, I remember her saying to me that she had written to my father saying that she wished she could put a 1 (one) in front of its name and so magically change the 13th Hospital into the 113th Hospital and thus be able to visit him in Sydney. I have recently found out that this 3th Hospital was the US Army 13th Station Hospital, then located about 25 miles from Townsville.

Information on the 13th and other US Army Hospitals in Australia during WW2, and indeed on the US Army, Army Air Force and Navy, and their many units in Australia during WW2, can be accessed at Peter Dunn's marvellous web site Australians @ War. This very comprehensive WW2 site is well worth some study, even though it does not seem to mention the US Army Small Ships Section!

While in hospital near Townsville, my father sent me a cartoon sketch with a most humorous caption, one that I will never forget. The detailed pencil sketch had been drawn by a fellow American patient, and it showed a bandaged black American patient lying in a hospital bed, another sitting beside the bed, wearing large ear muffs and reading a letter to the patient, and a nurse standing at the door of the ward. The caption went something like this: Nurse; "What is going on here?". Man reading the letter; "Well Ma'am. Its like dis. Dis man done got dis 'ere letter from his girl friend, but he cain't read what his girl friend done writ. So he asked me to read the letter to him, and he made me wear these ear muffs so I cain't tell what his girl friend done writ him." I am not racially prejudiced, nor was I then, but I really enjoyed the joke.

My father recovered after surgery on his hernia and continued to serve in the Small Ships Section in Townsville.

CAIRNS, QLD

My father was subsequently sent to Cairns, north of Townsville, and another town/city in northern Queensland with a huge US Army presence. Again he did not work on ships but on the building of shore facilities for the Small Ships Section.

FINCHHAFEN, NEW GUINEA

After the Japanese were driven out of Finchhafen by units of the Australian 9th Division by 2 October 1943, my father was sent there and again worked building shore facilities.

One incident that I vividly recall his telling the family later occurred when there was a US ammunition ship in the harbour. It was night-time, the air-raid siren went off, and everyone knew that the Japanese aircraft would try to sink that ammunition ship, so the men in my father's camp ran up into the hills behind Finchhafen for safety. The Japanese succeeded in bombing the ammunition ship, and it went up with a gigantic bang. My father said he had never seen such fireworks in all his life. I presume that this was late in 1943 or early in 1944.

Unfortunately, my father suffered a double hernia of the stomach while lifting something too heavy for him in Finchhafen, and he was sent back to Sydney for surgery and recovery.

HERNE BAY, NSW

My father was admitted to a US Army hospital in the Sydney suburb of Herne Bay. I remember my mother taking me, together with my younger brother and younger sister, to the Herne Bay hospital to visit him, and I remember being interested in the American accents of some of the patients. The ward was a long single-storey building, with a central aisle and a row of beds arranged perpendicular to each long wall. The nurses were American.

I have recently learnt that this hospital was the 118th General Hospital, US Army, and was planned as the largest military hospital in Australia during WW2. It was planned as a hospital centre of five hospitals totalling 4250 beds in 490 barracks-type buildings, although I am not sure whether it was all built. It was built by the Australian Government under Reverse Lend-Lease for the US Army. An historical panel on this hospital has been prepared by Canterbury City Library.

On returning to Sydney my father brought with him a wrist watch that he had bought in an American PX. It was my first watch and I wore it proudly to school. It had what was a new feature to me, namely a sweep second hand, and it was luminous! I am not sure but the brand may have been Elbon. He also brought back some tropical shells for my sister, and two books printed in America as War Time editions.

He also brought home a small copy of the New Testament, which had been provided by the US Army. Inside the front cover, it had an inspiring message from an American General. I presume that these New Testaments were issued to all US servicemen at the time, and I just wish that I still had my father's copy, because he had the names and addresses of some of his Small Ships Section friends written in it.

Some time after my father left Herne Bay Hospital, he was honourably discharged from the Small Ships Section. I suppose that the front line in the SWPA had moved on to other islands in the north, perhaps the Philippines, and his building services were no longer needed.

CONCLUSION

Thus ended a few momentous years in my father's life, years that made a strong impression on me as a schoolboy. I have written these recollections primarily because my father joined the US Army Small Ships Section to defend Australia, but remarkably, did not work on ships at all, and I would like to honour him by having my recollections on the internet.

I have developed a warm affection for American people and will never forget their efforts and sacrifices in those dark years when Australia was threatened with invasion by the Japanese. I have visited America many times now, once as a single young man and several times with my wife and one of my children. I have found second-cousins in California, Arizona, Illinois, Ohio and Florida, and it has been marvellous to experience their hospitality and warmth towards Australians.

John Schubert
Sydney, NSW, Australia



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