My father was born in 1910. He left school at 14; times were tough and he never had a trade so when the depression hit, just like hundreds of others, he went looking for work on “The Track”. He got a bit of farm work here and there, mostly paid with bed and meals so at the age of 17 he decided to join the Merchant Navy. He was small – barely 5 feet tall and could not swim a stroke – but he was accepted and given the title of a greaser. He worked in the engine rooms of the S.S. Fiona and the S.S. Rona; both ships were owned by the Colonial Sugar Refinery and both ships carried sugar cane and molasses to Fiji, Suva and the Solomon Islands.
Some American servicemen were stationed in the Solomon’s and Australian men often visited the Americans’ canteen because it was there they were able to buy items we did not have. Cigarettes and alcohol were readily available but were not allowed to be brought ashore in Sydney. One of Dad’s shipmates bought two bottles of the finest whiskey and he devised a clever way to bring it ashore. When the ship docked in Sydney, he hid his two bottles of whiskey behind a crate on the wharf. He then snatched one of the many cats that roamed the wharves. He put the cat into his Gladstone Bag and proceeded along the wharf to the gate where of course he had to open the bag and declare the contents. He vigorously objected. He told the gatekeeper he had a cat in the bag because he wanted to surprise his kids and the gatekeeper didn’t believe him and ordered him to open the bag. He did and the cat shot out of the bag and ran back along the wharf with Dad’s mate running after it. He reached the crate and slipped the two bottles of whiskey in his bag tucked it up under his arm and made his way back to the gate, smiling at the gatekeeper he said “I’ve got the little bastard this time” and went home with a smile on his face.
During the second world war, cannons and the personnel needed to man them were put on both ships. On two occasions Dad’s ship was followed by Japanese submarines, once into Brisbane harbour and the other into Newcastle harbour; scary considering Dad was down in the engine rooms trying to keep everything well greased so the motors kept going trying to outrun the Japanese.
When they were in a convoy (in the company of bigger ships) and suddenly found themselves in danger, the big ships would be full steam ahead and the smaller ships were left to struggle on and hope for the best. Thankfully the Rona and the Fiona were never hit.
Mum and Dad met through mutual friends when he was 33 and Mum was 19. They married in 1945 and Dad left the sea soon after. He suffered panic attacks but nowadays he would have be diagnosed with PTSD and treated properly. Back then doctors told him to take up smoking to calm his nerves and he became a very heavy smoker. Dad died in his 70s of an asbestos/nicotine related tumour on the lung – RIP.
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