Remembering the Australians who sailed in WW2 under the American flag

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These Australians were too young and too old to go to war, yet served under the Stars and Stripes.

The brothers Bruce and Sheridan Fahnestock are very much at the heart of the relatively little-known story about this disparate collection of Australian boats and crews who sailed under the American flag. The book, The Rag Tag Fleet by Ian W Shaw is a remarkable and eminently readable record of those whose efforts should be better known.

The Fahnestock family were wealthy Americans who made three trips into and through the Pacific islands, especially those to the north of Australia. Their 1934 and 1940 trips were to investigate and record native art and music. The third, in 1941 and supported by President Roosevelt, a family friend, took them through the Dutch East Indies, Malaya and Singapore, making careful note of Japanese infiltration. They were able to provide extensive records on their return. World War Two, in the meantime, had become fact following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.

With their extensive knowledge of shallow seas and navigation through reef-strewn waters, they were flown out to Melbourne. Charged with establishing a flotilla suited to the seas they knew so well, they enlisted the help of ‘Young’ Jack Savage of the well-known Savage family to act as marine surveyor. Within weeks they had bought or commandeered seine trawlers, ketches, yawls and schooners, punts and scows, these last predominantly from Tasmania and New Zealand.  Many of the boats’ skippers signed up to become part of the operation.

I won’t say too much about the book, for the sake of its story and for those who will read it and enjoy it. I must include one minor spoiler, simply because of its humorous side. A military contact mentioned two carriages in a Melbourne rail yard, chock full of 0.3 and 0.5-inch machine guns earlier intended for Fortress Singapore, already fallen. A quick shufti and they prepared official-looking orders which were duly placed, in the dead of night, in the consignment boxes on the carriages. The following morning, two of the men arrived at the rail yard in full uniform, bearing orders that, amazingly, matched those on the rail cars. They were now equipped with machine guns to arm their flotilla!

Mission X, as they were first called, went through a number of name changes until, eventually, it became the Small Ships Section. Predominantly established with Australian boats and crews, it was to operate under the US flag. The men were provided two sets of official clothing but actually wore civvy clobber when working, reserving their uniforms for shore duties or leave.

They were a truly disparate lot. Any Australian between 18 and 45 was excluded because that was the age range from which men were drawn for military service. As a result, everyone had to be above or below that age range. As an example, Clarrie Dawes, originally from Ceduna, had been at sea as an ordinary seaman since age 14½ but now, aged 16, became part of the operation. Not only that, he signed on as an able seaman, doubling his wages to £50 a month. Beyond the young and the old, some of those signed up for duty were men with disabilities; one had even lost a foot!

Now reestablished in Sydney’s Grace Building, the organisation’s frenzied activity continued there and at nearby Walsh Bay, almost under the city end of the new Sydney Harbour Bridge. There was no let-up; then off to war they went. It was late 1942 and the Japs were being pushed back along the Kokoda Track towards Buna. Men and materiel had to be moved in quickly and in quantity to attack positions already held by the enemy, soon to be bolstered by greater numbers coming down off the Owen-Stanleys. It mattered not that they’d undergone months of arduous conditions and severe privation, the Japanese soldier remained a ferocious adversary.

No suitable airfields existed in the area at that time and regular ships were of too great a draught to navigate seas as shallow as those along the Papuan coast. Thus it was these brave men and boys who sailed their small ships into the face of danger. They helped overcome Australia’s threat of a land-based scourge by helping supply the troops involved in the bloody Buna-Gona battlefield.

It has nothing to do with the book but I was ever reminded while reading of Psalm 107, verse 23: “Let them also offer sacrifices… those who go down to the sea in ships…” Amen.

The Rag Tag Fleet, by Ian W Shaw (published by Hachette Australia) is a fitting tribute to those involved. It is available from Dymocks. Click here to learn more.