A one-sided secret sea-battle raged in the New South Wales north coast waters during one fortnight in mid 1943. Much wreckage and Australian blood washed on to beaches during this battle. Because of strict Government censorship laws, it became a secret war, with most Australians being unaware of the extent of the damage being wrought by marauding Japanese submarines.
Unescorted, unarmed merchant ships plying up and down the coast with cargoes of meat and butter, and other items in short supply, hugged the coast in an attempt to avoid the submarines, which singled out their targets, struck swiftly and disappeared.
At the time, most able-bodied men and women were serving in the armed forces, either in Europe or in the islands to the north of Australia. Port Macquarie, like towns up and down the east coast, which was poorly defended, relied on barbed wire entanglements along the beaches as the first line of defence.
The North Coast Steam Navigation (NCSN) steamer, Wollongbar II, had spent two days unloading a record general cargo at Byron Bay and was busy loading 18,000 cases of butter and a cargo of bacon from the Byron Bay bacon factory. The Wollongbar II, during peacetime, had traded mainly between Byron Bay and Sydney and normally had accommodation for about 150 passengers. At this time she carried a crew of 37.
The NCSN Company and the Federal Government had decided that the vessel be kept on this run because of her big refrigeration space. She had spent the previous day searching without success for survivors of another merchantman, the Union Steamship Company's SS Limerick that had been reported sunk.
Captain Charles Benson had discussed his concern with William Davidson, the NCSN Company's manager at Byron Bay, about the presence of the submarine that had attacked the Limerick. He had a premonition of trouble at the back of his mind. Captain Benson's son, Barry, noticed the strain on his father's face. Barry later said,
"He seemed anxious to get away. He also seemed to have a feeling that the submarine was hanging around waiting for him further down the coast."
"He believed that the sub may have seen his ship out searching for the Limerick and decided to play a waiting game. My father said that the Japs were not fools! They were efficient and aware of shipping movements, having access to naval charts and intelligence reports.
"He said that he wished he had left earlier in the afternoon, and he probably would have passed the danger area under cover of darkness. By answering the Limerick's distress call, he had thrown out his schedule and he did not depart from Byron Bay for Sydney until 9pm on 28 April."
The high number of reported sightings of enemy submarines off the east coast meant that no passengers were being carried at the time. Because of the delay searching for the Limerick, Captain Benson took his ship further out to sea than normal to take advantage of the southerly current on the run to Sydney.
By mid-morning on Thursday, 29 April, the Wollongbar II was some six nautical miles off Crescent Head. At 10.15am, Captain Benson was on the bridge making a routine check and chatting to the chief engineer, W. Anderson. They were then joined by the chief officer, J Mason, who, at their invitation, poured himself a cup of tea.
Within a few seconds, chief engineer Anderson, in his Scots accent, bawled out,
"Look out, Sub to port."
The other two men glanced to the left just in time to see the conning tower of a Japanese submarine disappearing below the surface about 300 yards [275 metres] away. They also saw the white streaking wake of a torpedo bouncing on an erratic path, jumping and wobbling on its way towards the ship.
"Look out for yourselves, boys,"
cried the master as he rushed off to destroy the lead-bound naval code and ship's log. He was never seen again. Almost immediately, a second torpedo struck the vessel and blew the Wollongbar II to pieces. In seconds, the skipper and 31 of his crew, including a 16-year-old boy were dead, trapped inside the ship or drowned.
Within two minutes of the attack, little more than scattered wreckage remained-and the five men who survived the attack. They were the relieving chief officer, Will J Mason; wheel hand, Roy Brown; fireman, Bert Blinkhorn; a greaser, Frank Emson and able seaman Pat Tehan.
Blinkhorn said later that he was in the engine room when the torpedo struck. He started to climb the ladder out of the engine room with the seawater catching up fast. He then scrambled up another ladder but the water was still gaining on him. When he reached the deck he saw several sailors wrestling with a boat but he headed straight for a life raft. He never saw the other sailors again. Having scrambled aboard the life raft he managed to get clear of the sinking ship.
The Port Macquarie News later reported chief officer Will Mason's story. Mason said:
"His (the Japanese) conning tower was barely visible in a big swirl of water about three point forward of beam, no more than 300 yards (91 metres) away, with a torpedo coming straight for our No 2 hold. I tried to push the automatic alarm in the wheel house but as I did, the torpedo struck us just forward of the bridge with a terrific thud."
"Roy Brown beat it via the starboard ladder, but myself, I hung on to the bridge dodger ridge rope to see what was going to hap pen and then noticed another torpedo coming at the same angle. Up she went with a bang."
"I came to, swimming in the water, but it seemed to be getting dark green instead of lighter, and I seemed to be in an upright position when all of a sudden fresh air and daylight. One of the survivors informed me later that I shot out of the water like a jack in the box, and came down flop in the water only 20 to 30 feet [6 to 9 metres] from him.
"I trod water for a while and hoped for the best, which was close at hand. One of the lifeboats was full of water, and the gunwale torn out, but it was somewhere to rest in safety from the sharks.
"Making my way to this, I hung on to the brackets below the broken gunwale, and had a fair rest before attempting to pull myself into the boat. I recognised Frank Emson, greaser (the scalded man) lying across the bow. He murmured to me: 'I cannot help you.' And well I knew he could not.
"If ever a man fought to live, it was Emson. The skin was hanging from his hands and fingers, and his face and head was swelling a treat, in fact his eyes closed a few minutes after I landed in the boat. I really thought Frank was a gone coon. He wanted to drink but his lips were swollen and almost closed light.
"Well, the smoke and mist was rolling away, and all that can be seen was a Yank bomber (a Catalina), flying low. He came back and gave us a bit of a cheer that our plight was known. Then, much to my delight, I noticed a raft paddling towards us and recognised the only two sailors saved, Roy Brown, who had been at the wheel, and Pat Tehan.
"Soon we sighted a man on a raft waving a piece of white wood. It proved to be fireman Blinkhorn of Lane Cove. This man had a miraculous escape. He had been on watch and when we picked him up he had dry clothes on. The explosion blew him up and he landed on a raft in the condition we found him in, quite happy and unharmed. [Bert Blinkhorn later denied this version of events saying he had managed to escape by climbing onto the life raft while it was on board the Wollongbar II.]
"We soon had frequent visits from various types of planes so we knew our position was known and assistance would come. The position was looking bad for any further survivors. We searched two other parts which were near at hand, and kept in the middle of thousands of cases of butter floating about, but owing to the slight swell with a while rip or break, the chances of sighting a man's head were very poor.
"Nevertheless, we hung around the position for say about one and half hours, and then I suggested to the other three men that when they were satisfied there were no more men dead or alive to be seen, we would endeavour to make land by dark.
"Our chances of getting ashore before dark were now very poor, although our pull was less than six miles, but under the conditions very difficult."
Frank Emson had suffered extensive scalding. He said later he had been in his cabin [believed to have been over Boiler No 1]. He had run along the promenade area to find a gap in the side curtain of the ship. It is thought he was injured when a steampipe fractured and caused the scalding. His head swelled up like a balloon, with skin hanging from his face, hands, legs and chest.
As the two torpedoes struck the vessel, Able Seaman Pat Tehan of Sydney was on deck. He stripped down to his underclothes because he knew he would have to swim hard to escape the ship as it went down. As he dropped into the swirling sea, he felt himself being dragged under by the suction of the sinking ship. He fought against the drag of the water and finally managed to haul himself on to a raft.
The Wollongbar II broke in to two sections which reared straight up in the air on end before slipping beneath the surface.
Will Mason, meanwhile, had been tossed around underwater and was soon gasping for breath. As he surfaced he grabbed a box of butter and clung to it for support, then became acutely aware of the bow of the vessel towering above him. For a few seconds he was terrified that it would crash down on to him. When the two sections of the stricken vessel disappeared below the surface, all that was left were thousands of boxes of butter bobbing up and down among twisted fragments of the ship and the five men. (Twenty years later, in 1962, barnacle-encrusted blocks of putrid butter washed ashore near Crescent Head).
Flying six thousand feet [1828 metres] above the stricken vessel at the moment of the torpedo attack, trainee RAAF captain Robert Honan was piloting a newly-delivered unarmed Catalina flying boat from Brisbane to Rathmines. From above, Honan saw the blast, and noted in his diary and pilot's log:
"We had reached a point near Crescent Head when I noticed, out of the corner of the windscreen, a large column of water rising into the air a short distance ahead and further out to sea.
"I immediately drew the attention of the second pilot and navigator to the area and asked the latter if we had infringed a bombing range. I was aware that we had already passed well south of Evans Head gunnery range.
"There was no explanation for the phenomenon which was only momentary and not repeated, so I pushed the nose of the Catalina into a steep decent. As we approached the place where we had seen the huge column of water, we saw debris spread in a large circular area of dirty water.
"We saw two boats and several wooden rafts and five men climbing in or already into them. We realised that a ship had sunk but how? As I flew the Catalina in a left hand turn at low level, I saw a submarine below the surface at periscope depth, with the periscope feathering the surface of the comparatively calm sea.
"The outline of the submarine underneath the surface was quite clear. Oh, the frustration was unbelievable. There we were without any means of attacking an enemy submarine which had just sunk a ship off the east coast of Australia, and it was a sitting duck as it gloated over its destruction of an unarmed ship.
"I had flown on anti submarine patrols with aircraft loaded with bombs, depth charges and guns without ever sighting such a target. Our aircraft was brand new, and not even fitted with bomb racks or gun mountings. I momentarily thought of giving the periscope a nudge with a wing tip or the hull, but common sense ruled that out.
Pilot Honan watched as the submarine submerged completely and at the same time sent urgent messages to Rathmines seeking help for the survivors. On 29 April, the town of Port Macquarie was peaceful, with a flower show in full swing at the town hall. It had been organised as a war fund raising effort. Women were to the forefront in the organisation of the flower show, as most of them were already either members of the Red Cross or the wartime volunteer group, the VADs.
Most people had felt the effect of the war through the loss of loved ones and the separation of others, but collectively the town had been fortunate to avoid the immediate traumas involved in armed conflict. The Civil Defence Warden, Clive Chapman, who was also the Port Macquarie Town Clerk, received the news of the sinking of the Wollongbar II through from Melbourne, via the army coastal service at Crescent Head.
He alerted the police, emergency services and the Red Cross and VADs. As the sleepy fishing village came face to face with the horror of war on its very doorstep, the flower show was immediately abandoned and the training of the VADs and Red Cross came to the fore as they prepared to receive an unknown number of casualties.
Knowing of the danger, Captain Benson had previously ordered the life rafts and boats on the Wollongbar II to be attached in such a way that in the event of the vessel sinking, these would just float clear on their own. When Will Mason clambered into the lifeboat, he found that it was so badly damaged that it almost had no bottom.
After helping the other three men aboard and attaching the raft, Mason attempted to step the mast. He injured his legs when he fell through the bottom of the boat. The boat was by then too low in the water to hoist a sail properly so they decided to row to the shore which they estimated to be about six miles away.
The survivors had travelled two miles when they were picked up by the 50-foot trawler, XLCR, owned and manned by Claude Radley, and his crew. The trawler crew had the kettle on and soon made the survivors a cup of tea. The crew even took off some of their own dry clothes to warm and comfort the wet shivering survivors.
There had been whispers in the town of an enemy submarine in the vicinity, because over the previous two nights prior to the sinking of the Wollongbar II, Claude Radley and his crew on the XLCRhad heard an unusual hum and slush at sea. They had also spotted a masked light, possibly from a conning tower as the enemy submarine surfaced to recharge its batteries.
At the time of the attack, Claude Radley in his XLCRwas pursuing his normal snapper fishing south of Port Macquarie when rough weather had forced him and the crew to return to port. As Claude tied up at the docks, Warden Chapman and others advised him of the tragedy. Extra fuel, food and blankets were stowed on board the trawler and Claude and his crew immediately cast off. They included his father, Thomas Radley and brothers Claude, Russell and Mervyn, although they were not part of his normal crew, plus Raymond Smith and Albert Beattie.
Despite extremely bad river bar conditions and very rough seas, the XLCRslowly fought its way against the prevailing conditions until guided by a Catalina, they arrived. The condition of the sea had prevented the Catalina from landing and rescuing the stricken crew.
At 3pm, the crew on the XLCRspotted a small sail five miles east of Racecourse Headland just past Point Plummer. The rescue boat found three men sitting in water in a badly holed lifeboat held above water only by supporting air tanks. The lifeboat had been towing a life raft made from 44-gallon drums, on which two men were riding, one being badly scalded by bursting steampipes on the ship. He had almost been 'cooked' by the steam. As the survivors were helped on board, one of them, clad only in pyjama trousers, grabbed Claude Radley by the arm, and called his name. It was chief officer Will Mason, with whom Claude had sailed a few years before as a cabin boy on the SS Kinchela.
Ray Smith and Claude Radley climbed on board the life raft and lifted the scalded seaman into the trawler. The injured man's skin peeled off as they touched him. Mason assured Claude that there were no more survivors.
The XLCRreturned to Port Macquarie and after crossing the bar, anchored off the Town Green. The trawler was greeted by what appeared to be the whole town, including Dr Eric Murphy, a group of VADs and an ambulance. Also there were the worried, but by now, relieved members of the Radley family.
All the men, except the scalded Frank Emson, were taken to the Royal Hotel. Emson was rushed to hospital for treatment to his severe burns. A Port Macquarie businessman, 'Pop' Jim Aroney, told the hotellier, Bob Stanfield, "Give them anything they want and charge it to me!" Chief Engineer Mason recovered quickly but it was three months before the scalded seaman, Frank Emson, was fully recovered and discharged from hospital.
Blinkhorn, Brown and Tehan were later driven to Wauchope where they caught the night train to Sydney.
The story of Wollongbar II is recorded in the Wollongbar Room at the Mid North Coast Maritime Museum at Port Macquarie.
The material for this article was supplied by Bruce Jordan, past president of the Mid North Coast Maritime Museum from New South Wales in conjunction with other members of the Museum
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