Update: Small Ships contract image 24 November 2009
Army Ships -- The Ghost Fleet
South West Pacific Area (SWPA)
An Australian's Experience
Walter Rignold Marshall (1901-1988)
The above emblem appeared in Forgotten Fleet by Bill Lunney and Frank Finch. It may be from a certificate.
The organization is U.S. Army Services of Supply (USASOS) under which the Transportation Corps (TC) operated the Water Division (as opposed to its rail and road operations) and the war theater being the Southwest Pacific Area under MacArthur.
The story was provided 5 February 2001 by Sue Simmonds of Australia with the following comment:
I note that Mr. Marshall went to sea at 15 and would have been 42 at the time this account begins. His description of the state of ships is interesting in light of what is known about the desperate shortage of hulls in general and in particular to support war in what was then a remote corner of the world. His brief comments about command failures are mild compared to some in official accounts of the period. Unprepared people as well as ships were swept up to do as best they could and all war stories are colored by such obvious command errors and useless red tape. I was impressed by the character that I assume is an Army civilian (unless he was seriously out-of-uniform), whose function was never discovered, stalking about Muscoota's deck in cowboy regalia. I'd put odds on him being from Texas and deeply regret no photo is available. Think of it; deep in the heart of Paupa aboard a coaling hulk stalks a flashy cowboy with no apparent purpose . . . McHale's Navy pales in comparison.
Technically this was no longer the Army Transportation Service (A.T.S.) as the function had become the Water Division of the Army Transportation Corps a short time earlier. As in most such reorganizations it takes time for the new terminology, emblems and particularly culture to change. For convenience I will keep this with A.T.S. links.
I believe there is another factor at play in SWPA. It was a far, far away region in those days. In addition MacArthur was known for running his own show to a considerable extent. I believe the logo at the head of the page was the "official" view while the operating forces tended to have a slightly divergent organizational view. After all, they were far too busy to care a great deal how things were organized in the far away United States or Washington's War Department.
With many thanks to Sue Simmonds and Bill Lunney I now have a copy of Forgotten Fleet by Bill Lunney and Frank Finch. Mr. Lunney has given permission to quote and use the book as reference in regard to the SWPA experience. It is an excellent reference and it is a shame it is not more commonly available in the United States. The book was published as part of Australia Remembers 1945 - 1995, a 50th anniversary commemoration of the Second World War's end.
Note the resonance between my independent choice of "Ghost Fleet" and "Forgotten Fleet." We in the United States have almost erased memory of the Army's fleet. The fact that Australians and New Zealanders provided most of the crews for the resident U.S. Army SWPA fleet and sailed Australian vessels under the U.S. flag is practically unknown in the United States and almost forgotten in Australia. There is a disturbing hint that toward the end of the war the U.S. Army and government actually tried to minimize this vital role of citizens from "Down Under" in being a part of much more than the "Allied effort" and actually operating much of the vital marine supply network under the U.S. flag and command.
Many of the ships flying the U.S. flag and operating under the U.S. Army were not ships of "ATS." Here is what is said about this:
Some of the most interesting vessels fell into the Small Ships category. The first ever command ships were among them. There was even an Army ship construction program building little fishing trawler types to add to this fleet.
The comment "sometimes referred to as the U.S. Army Transportation Corps" is interesting in light of the logo at the top of the page. It officially was the U.S. Army Transportation Corps. had been Quartermaster Corps, but at about the moment Australians were being recruited it was changing to that from the old organization under Quartermaster Corps. I suspect the slightly out-of-focus Australian view vs. the administrative history/date view in official accounts is the usual lag time in organizational shift being reflected at operating levels compounded by wartime and the very remoteness of the region in 1942. It was probably also compounded a bit by the fact MacArthur pretty much ran his own show his way.
Walter Rignold Marshall's story is edited only for format and several obvious typographical mistakes.
R. Jackson, 24 February 2001
1943 and the Americans had arrived, and were marshaling anything that would float to carry supplies. Ships that had been laid up in Rotton Row for years were requisitioned. Our troops were landed at Port Moresby to move across the Owen Stanley's via the Kokoda Trail, and at Milne Bay they were young conscript militia boys to be strengthened later by veteran A.I.F. from the Middle East and North Africa. The Americans were in need of ex merchant seamen and advertised for them. I went to Millers Point and offered my services. I signed a contract as a civilian employee of the United States Army Transportation Corps and was soon on my way to Milne Bay via Townsville. That was the most dreary train journey I have ever made in my life. My travel orders got me to Brisbane by Express in relative comfort, but from there to Townsville it was an overcrowded troop train and four days and nights of positive hell. However, we eventually made it and, on reporting to the personnel officer, I was informed that I was to leave the next morning on a Dutch steamer for Milne Bay and would be reassigned to a small ship there.
Detail of Walter Marshall's Small Ships Section contract showing organization and its A.P.O. address.
Detail of contract reversed to show print bleed through with wage scale for U.S. Army "S.S.S. (Small Ships Section), T.S. (Transportation Service), U.S.A.S.O.S. (U.S. Army Services of Supply), S.W.P.A. (Southwest Pacific Area)" contract employees in pounds, shillings and pence.
The morning we arrived in Milne Bay all hell broke loose. The Japanese were to make their last air raid on the Bay and, there being a lot of shipping there, they sent, some say, one hundred bombers. I did not stop to count them as we were too busy with the fifty calibre machine guns. Ships were scattering all over the Bay, most of them with Aussie militia aboard, so there was no shortage of gunners. When the raid ended and a stock was taken of casualties and vessel damage, it was found the ship I was to join had suffered a very near miss and concussion had cracked her diesel motors. She was to be sent under tow to Sydney for a new Atlas diesel to be installed. Personnel informed me I was to join the Kooraka, the concussion damaged ship. Apart from the cook, steward, and engineers I had a First Mate, six Papuan boys, one from the Solomon Islands, and a Tasmanian lad as Ordinary seaman. That was all the deck crew that could be spared in Milne Bay at the time. However, the native boys proved equal to anything asked of them. I cannot recall the name of the ship which towed us, but I do remember she was neither big nor powerful.
We put into Townsville for stores and water and fuel for the other ship, and it was here I saw the hulk of my boyhood, the barque Shandon, and it was there that she probably ended her days.
Leaving for Sydney we were in dangerous waters as Japanese submarines were known to be in the area, though I hardly think they would have expended a torpedo on us as we were only small fry. However, they did get the North Coast Company's passenger ship Woollong Bar and the hospital ship Centaur, with large losses of life.
Nearing Port Stephens the towing ship developed engine trouble and signalled for permission to enter port. At that time Port Stephens was a closed port and as we entered the reason became obvious. The foreshores of the harbour were alive with landing barges and army personnel; troop landing, tank landing, and invasion tactics were in full swing on the beaches, and it wasn't to be long before MacArthur started his so successful leap-froging tactics up the New Guinea coast towards Japan.
Arriving in Sydney the ship was taken immediately to Chapman's Dock at Balmain. No time was lost, as ships were vital; as were seaman, contrary to what the Manpower staff said. I was soon reassigned to the Muscoota.
She was a rigged down four masted barque of 2569 gross tonnage, with a very interesting history. Originally a British ship, she was christened Buckingham and sold to a German firm prior to WW1. She was renamed Bertha and captured during the First World War and renamed Ottowa. Later she was sold to American interests and called Muscoota. Eventually, and finally, she carried the name Flying Cloud.
During her rigging down (which was carried out in Sydney) a large gantry, eighty feet high and running on rails the full width of the ship, was fabricated and a steam boiler installed in her fore hold; which supplied the steam to drive her large generator which in turn provided power for her whole operation. Her role as a coal hulk was to be towed around Sydney Harbour to any ship requiring bunker coal.
On board her at Pyrmont I reported to any army captain named Strider. During our association he stood high in my opinion, for I found him to be a fair and thoroughly capable man as head of repair and maintenance. He was engaged in sending down all the gear on the gantry; comprising engine beds, winding engines, and their wire ropes, chutes, counter balancing gear, which were all stowed on top of the coal cargo amidships. This hive of industry was to keep me very busy, and with little sleep, for quite a few months. Most of the work was being done, and very efficiently, by a shore gang of old seaman. It was to be a horse of a different colour when I arrived at our destination, as most of the crew were gradually reassigned to other ships due to the shortage of skilled seaman.
There was one man who was a seaman in every sense of the word, a Scandinavian and the only man I could really rely upon. The rest of the deck crew was made up of young men who had never been to sea before yet somehow ended up as Able and Ordinary seaman. One, in particular, had been a pianist on Station 2KY. We had only one lifeboat and it hung in davits on our starboard quarter, slung out but bowsed in. I judged it as being barely sufficient to accommodate all hands in the event of having to abandon ship in a hurry. Had she received a torpedo, or even a couple of shells, through her paper-thin plating I was of the opinion she would have sunk within a minute or so anyway.
It was now about time for us to sail. Hatches had been fitted, tarpaulins stretched and wedged, and two motor launches were lifted aboard and lashed; as it was obvious to me that when we reached the Heads she would roll heavily in open water. In times of war rules and regulations sometimes go by the board and, frankly, I did not think we would make it to New Guinea.
We were towed to Sydney Heads where a powerful U.S. Army deep water tug awaited us. After clearing the boom gate we lay, as I anticipated, beam on to a heavy swell coming through the Heads. If my memory serves me, the tug was the Bayou St. John and it was not long before we had her large towing wire aboard us and shackled to our two anchor cables. We then slacked out our hawser pipes to form a bridle. The tug was signalled to take the tow gently, while we paid out more cable and put wire preventers on them. Gradually increasing speed the tug paid out its end of the towing wire, and it was then his responsibility to control the length of the tow over his large steam winch. Everything went without a hitch and, after the army personnel had been taken ashore, we were under tow; and a long and dangerous one it was, too.
We left the Pyrmont Wharf at 12.30 p.m. on June 9th, 1943 and were under tow at 3.00 p.m. making about eight knots, though we were to better that later. Nothing untoward happened and we passed through Whitsunday Passage on June 14th, arriving at Townsville on the 15th. It was a remarkable tow. [Diary for the tow is now on line.]
We had to call at Townsville, as our for'ard fresh water tank and sprung a leak, emptied itself, and had to be repaired. This meant a lot of work for us as, having dropped our tow, we had to shackle our cable back on the anchor; and before taking up the tow again the anchor has to be "fished", laid on its blocks on the fo'c'sle head, and the cable shackled on again. This procedure was to be followed each time we were not under tow.
We left Townsville the morning of June 22nd, having spent one week there. Proceeding north, and close inshore, the tug master decided to anchor for the night. He was a little apprehensive in those reef strewn waters, so it meant us going through the anchoring procedures again in Weary Bay, south of Cooktown. We cleared Cape York on June 28th and anchored at Thursday Island that night, leaving the next day for Milne Bay via the Coral Sea. I had some instruction on our 75mm anti-submarine gun, which was mounted on the poop, and it was very interesting.
We entered the China Strait, and the tug ceased towing while we shortened our end of the towline, then passed Samarai and entered Milne Bay six days out from Thursday Island. We dropped anchor at the head of Milne Bay (Gili Gili) at 6 pm on the 3rd July, 1943. It was journey's end for the old Muscoota, after being towed some 2,700 miles, and the start of a lot more hard work for me and my small grew. We were now right on the front line and were expecting anything, however, nothing eventuated as the Japanese had suffered their first defeat; at the hands of our militia boys on the Milne Bay airstrip, about a week or so previously.
We had been twenty four days from Sydney to Milne Bay and, considering we were at Townsville for six days, anchored every night inside the reef, and having spent one day at Thursday Island, I figured our actual towing time was roughly fourteen days; which I thought was very smart towing.
Our anchor had barely found ground when a personnel officer boarded with a requisition to take six of my crew. This left me one man so I chose the Scandinavian. No tears were shed as I was glad to see them go, as I had a big job ahead of me and needed capable men if I was to carry it out without a major accident. I look back with pride that I did just that, with a very small crew and in a time which Captain Strider regarded as phenomenal. Of course, there was no such thing as an eight hour day and we worked in and between monsoonal rain showers and tropical heat wearing only swimming trunks. I was constantly being reminded by army personnel, of varying degrees of rank, as to the number one priority of the project; yet, when I wanted various equipment sent from Sydney under priority, it somehow seemed to slip back to the end of the line. Moral - When working as a civilian for any army, keep your feet out of the red tape.
I had been left with the Scandinavian, Roy Sherringham (a fitter) and one electrician. The only power for lifting was an old steam winch, situated for'ard and abaft the anchor windlass, therefore, all hauling wires had to be led through snatch-blocks. This tended to increase the physical labour involved.
We started immediately the morning after our arrival, opening up the hatches and taking down the extra presenter stays on the gantry. That was the 4th July, 1943, and, having completed the gantry, we began loading 1000 tons of coal out of a liberty ship on the 26th August. We had accomplished the job in 53 days, whilst I had estimated it would take about 2 months.
Roy and I had to teach ourselves to operate the gantry, and we shared this task until they sent men from personnel for us to teach. We had minor troubles to iron out over the following weeks and, what with operating and repair and maintenance, we were kept busy.
It was now getting close to the end of my contract, and I expected to be returning home in four or five weeks. However, I was prevailed upon to stay and did not get home for another three months. That was November 1943, and I had Christmas at home.
Prior to my coming home on leave, the Muscoota had been shifted from Gili Gili to a base called Waga Waga and moored there permanently. A very strong current swept in an eddy around the foreshore and a great deal of trouble was experienced, as she was continually dragging her anchor. So, while I was on leave, she was shifted out into deep water in Milne Bay.
Meanwhile, I had signed on a new contract to rejoin her, but, having had an accident to my foot and being under medical care, I had extra time in Sydney and did not receive my travel orders for another month or so. Finally, I did receive them and was to travel back on an army DC3. We dropped down at Townsville to pick up other personnel, one of whom was John Wayne as part of an entertainment troupe. We left at daylight the following morning, landed at Cooktown long enough to refuel, and then were away to New Guinea.
Arriving back on board I found things somewhat changed. Personnel officers had installed some of their countrymen, upsetting the status quo, and she was not the happy ship she had been prior to my absence. One character I recall, and I still don't know what his function was, walked around with a cowboy's stetson on his head, two forty fives in low slung holsters around his hips, and high heeled boots.
There had not been any alteration to my classification so I was still in charge, with Roy Sherringham as my backstop. He and I got on well together, as I never presumed to enter into his sphere neither did he enter mine, and I know we made a very good team. Things, however, were about to alter sooner than I expected. During Roy's shift on, something occurred which carried away wires on the gantry arm traverse gear and the counter balance wires and guides. I forgot what brought it about, but for a couple of days the ship was inundated with authority of all ranks below general; resulting in Roy, as I thought, being made a scapegoat. Out of fairness and loyalty I went ashore to the office of a Major Stubbs (who was then in charge of repair and maintenance), and, after and interview of some acrimony, demanded my travel orders for return to Sydney.
After a few days ashore waiting for these, both Roy and I were offered a job on a ship (which was deeply loaded with war materials) [The Mokatam] lying in Milne Bay. He was to be in the engine room and I was offered articles and very much increased pay. She was a very old turret ship of about 8000 tons, and, on her voyage from San Francisco her engine had broken down hopelessly. She had been towed into Milne Bay, and lay at anchor waiting to be towed to wherever her cargo was required. It seemed I was never to get away from towing or being towed. However, in the days of steam it was good experience.
* * * *
Sue Simmonds writes: "I realised after the book had gone to the printer that the caption on the photo of Dad and Roy was incorrect, it is actually the turret ship, which was the Mokatam, you will find her history in "Forgotten Fleet", the superstructure in the background gives away her origins"
* * * *
She proved to be the antitheses of last year's hard, constant, and dirty work. I had a comfortable cabin, bed linen, the services of a steward and cabin boy, and ate like a human being as the food was excellent. I also had a full crew of reasonably good seamen and a large ship and gun crew (army), a sandbagged bridge which bristled with 50 calibre machine guns, plus 75mm anti-submarine guns on the poop. I had so little to do that at times I actually became bored, but I always remembered that old saying "never look a gift horse in the mouth".
At last a powerful deep water tug, the Arkansas Falls, came to tow us to Oro Bay, where we expected to join a convoy for Fincheshaven. Arriving at Oro Bay we anchored for the night and on arising at 7am there were ships everywhere. We hove our anchor, had our towline aboard, and as the various ships took their place in the convoy we, being a towed ship, were led into place at the end. There were some twenty vessels in the convoy of all shapes and sizes. The destroyers, corvettes, and M.T.B.'s took their places in front, astern, and both flanks.
Daylight revealed two ships missing from the convoy. They had slipped out at either Salamaua or Lae during the night. At 8.30 am we left the convoy, entered Dreger Harbour, and anchored in the lee of an island to wait further orders, "Ducks" alongside us began to unload some of our war materials. The Dutch hospital ship Maetsuyker, registered in Curacoa, came in from the north and unloaded casualties, and Karoola came from the south loaded with Australian troops and headed north. We were now about nine miles south of Finschaven, where our troops had only just landed and heavy fighting was going on; particularly at Mt. Sattel, which is directly behind Finschaven.
We were informed we were to go over to Cape Gloucester with the rest of our cargo, as the gasoline (in 44 gallon drums) was urgently needed there. Cape Gloucester is on the western end of New Britian, whilst Rabaul (with the Japanese in occupation) is on the north eastern end. Cape Gloucester was bombarded by American and Australian naval ships (about a week before we arrived), and softened up, and the American army was then in possession. It was from there they began a drive to re-take Rabaul.
We went from Dreger Harbour to Cape Gloucester under cover of darkness, anchored in Dampier Strait, and started unloading feverishly into "ducks". Never did I see winches and falls take such a thrashing as they did from the soldier longshoremen.
Being right up behind the action, one could see and appreciate Douglas MacArthur's strategy; which was leap-froging one Japanese stronghold and isolating it by hitting the next one with strength, then taking it and leaving the isolated ones for later. So it went, from Finschaven right up the east coast of New Guinea to Madang, We Wak, Aitape, Hollandia, The Phillipines, and finally Okinawa.
We finished unloading and loaded a few thousand forty four gallon drums. We had been there twenty four days when loading ceased and a tug arrived to tow us back to Milne Bay. On arrival I saw the personnel officer and asked to be paid off, as it was now seven months I had been in the combat area and I needed a break. Request was granted and I was paid off by mutual consent. I lived in a tent onshore until my travel orders came through. It was then October 1944.
I heard, too, what had happened to the Muscoota as well as saw her. After I had left her she had been towed into Milne Bay's deeper waters, a Dutch ship laying alongside her overnight had banked her fires when the wind freshened. She began to surge and, by the time she had raised steam enough to get away, she had punched holes in the already thin plating of the Muscoota, which began to take water. She was eventually taken into the small inlet of Waga Waga and hauled head on up to the beach.
Unfortunately, nobody had thought to traverse the gantry to the bows; consequently, as she settled by the stern, the gantry moved of its own volition (and weight) towards the stern, and, when I last saw her the stern was in at least one hundred feet of water and her bow was ashore. That, I assume, is where she is today. I wasn't very happy to see her that way, considering the worry and hard work I had invested in her.
There was an attempt made at what I considered was a cover up, for, on arrival back from Cape Gloucester, an army launch came alongside the Mokatam. A high ranking officer came aboard and asked to see me. H wanted me to accompany him ashore and, on asking why, all he would say was that it was important. I was ushered into an office full of other high ranking officers and, after being a generous whisky and treated very courteously, I was asked to sign a document which, in effect, said "on the night the Muscoota was beached everything humanly possible had been done to save her, and that no blame was attachable to anybody". I laughed and said "But I wasn't on the ship that night. I was some hundreds of miles away at Cape Gloucester, therefore haven't any knowledge of what occured." They replied "It is just a matter of form." "Under no circumstances" I said "would I sign that to save anybody's skin. From what I've heard she is where she is through damned carelessness and inefficiency. One thing, though, I kept her afloat. It took some other bastard to lose her. Good day! Gentlemen." I left there so angry I could have bitten the dog next door.
My travel orders arrived in due course. The Karoola arrived with Aussie troops going south on leave so I went on her to Townsville, thence by rail to Brisbane and sleeping berth to Sydney. I had been eleven months up there this time and just under three years in all, and was heartily sick of the tropics.
The day after arriving home I reported in at A.T.S. Headquarters in York Street, and was sent to see their doctor at the corner of Erskine and York Streets. There, I was to undergo ray treatment for an injury sustained to my ribs at Dreger Harbour, and which was causing me considerable discomfort. I attended the U.S. Army Dispensary for the next three months, undergoing ray treatment and physiotherapy for arthritis and fibrositis. I was discharged in February 1945 with a certificate saying it was advisable that I give up the sea due to this condition. I decided to take their advice, it being obvious that the war in the Pacific was nearing an end, (which happened about five months later) and I felt I'd done my part.
WALTER RIGNOLD MARSHALL 1901 - 1988
Copyright © 2001 by Sue Simmonds. Used by permission
Some additional ship information from Forgotten Fleet and links for ships, places and incidents mentioned in Walter Marshall's narrative:
Centaur: Australian hospital ship torpedoed by Japanese submarine.
I've so far been unable to locate on-line coverage of the Karoola. This may be the same vessel that served as the Australian hospital ship Karoola in the First World War.
Forgotten Fleet information:
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. I understand copies are available and hope to have current ordering information shortly. I am also working on a page with a bit more about this book that fills a real void in WW II history. (Back to introductory portion)
Page, with exception Walter Rignold Marshall narrative and quotes from Forgotten Fleet - Copyright © 2001 by Ramon Jackson