- A.N. Other and NHSA Webmaster
- Ship histories and stories
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
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- September 1975 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The first leg of the voyage was to Cairns to fuel from RAN stocks there, and it started in calm, sunny weather, which gave us a day to check the cargo under good conditions and make a few minor adjustments. We also took the opportunity to exercise leaving ship stations and make ourselves acquainted with the unfamiliar boats and davits. This was just as well, because the further we went up the coast the worse the weather became, until by the time we reached the ‘sunshine state’ it was raining continuously and no less than three cyclones were in the Coral Sea area. We carried out cargo rounds every hour until we got inside the southern end of the Barrier Reef and the sea moderated, but all remained well. At our sedate top speed of 11½ knots it took us seven days to reach Cairns, where we arrived on the morning of 17th March and sailed 6 hours later on completion of fuelling. The ship’s draught and length were fairly critical in the entrance channel and off the naval fuelling jetty, and provided more good shiphandling practice.
As we progressed through the tropics the weather improved and we rigged an improvised canvas swimming pool on No. 4 hatch, which was very well patronised. It was interesting to note how many merchant ships we passed were on the ball and dipped their ensigns to us in spite of our heavy disguise, and how many were fooled by it. We cleared Torres Strait on 19th March and our route thereafter was west of West Irian and east of Celebes and Borneo. The long hop from Cairns to Vietnam took 11 days and to help pass the time various competitions were organised, as well as the usual ‘crossing the line‘ ceremony. We also practised with small arms and started a ship husbandry programme on some of the worst rust-affected areas of the ship. Crossing the equator on 23rd March we transferred to the operational control of the Commander-in- Chief, Far East Fleet. The only warship we met on passage was an Indonesian frigate in Banka Passage off the Celebes. We arrived off Cam Ranh Bay at 0700 on Tuesday 28th March at action stations and ready for anything, not knowing quite what to expect, as it was about 200 miles further north than the usual scene of Australian logistic operations at Vung Tau, and our communications with the outside world, and hence our knowledge of the local scene, were very limited.
Cam Ranh Bay is a fine, large natural harbour, one of the few on the Vietnamese coast, and was one of the main supply centres for the allied forces. It is divided naturally into an inner and outer area, and on arrival we were directed by the US port authorities to anchor in the inner harbour. Shortly after we were boarded by a young US army officer from the 24th Terminal Transportation Company, which handled all cargo operations as well as manning most of the tugs and other harbour craft and providing pilots. We had considerable difficulty in persuading him that we were RAN personnel, in spite of our uniform; I think he believed, looking at the ship, that it was all some kind of weird Australian hoax. We shifted berth to the outer anchorage at 0845 and by 1100 the unloading of our deck cargo into lighters started. At Cam Ranh Bay unloading operations were carried out over the beaches in landing craft as well as at floating pontoon piers. The USAF and USN patrolled the base area continuously and we saw our first sight of F4C Phantoms in operation. The second day we moved alongside an ammunition pier where men of the 24th Terminal Company unloaded our bombs. There were munitions stockpiled on it much of which went unused and one bomb had fallen from above upper deck level to the bottom of No. 3 hold, to our great consternation. By late Saturday 1st April they were finished and we breathed a sigh of relief that the main part of our mission had been successfully accomplished.
During our 5-day stay I was taken on a jeep tour of the base, which covered an extensive area of sandhills and had an enormous amount of military equipment, vehicles and munitions stockpiled on it, much of which went unused and was eventually abandoned, as this was cheaper than shipping it back to the States. At this time the local front line was in the coastal ranges several miles to the west, held by a South Korean battalion, where the sound of firing and air attacks could occasionally be heard. The only action at the base was an infrequent hit-and-run grenade or mine attack. I was able to witness an impressive demonstration of the latest types of landing craft and techniques given for a visiting US general, as well as talking to some of the Phantom pilots about their operations. The base amenities were naturally limited, accommodation consisting of tents and huts, but the US authorities were generous in extending the use of whatever they had to us, including their well-stocked Post-Exchange store. There was one Vietnamese village inside the perimeter, into and out of which all movement was controlled. The only other local settlements in the vicinity were outside the base area. During the unloading we were visited by a Malaysian TV cameraman filming Australian operations in Vietnam for Channel 7, and the results were later shown on Sydney newsreels.
We sailed on Sunday 2nd April for Singapore to refuel from RN stocks before returning to Melbourne west about. We anchored overnight in the open sea 12 miles south of Cape St. Jacques, off Vung Tau, to rendezvous next morning with RAAF helicopters for transfer of stores and mail.
While there we established contact and exchanged greetings by radio with MV Jeparit, the second ANL vessel to be requisitioned by the Government to take war supplies to Vietnam, which was unloading at Vung Tau. She was still manned by ANL officers but had an RAN detachment on board to replace members of the Seamen’s Union. On this passage we encountered more shipping off the Vietnamese coast, including several USN escorts and a Russian merchant ship. After the helicopter transfer we proceeded for Singapore, where we arrived on the 5th April. Our passage up Johore Strait to the Naval Base caused considerable curiosity among the grey funnel line ships present, as the sight of the RAN ensign flying from a rather rusty-looking merchant ship was somewhat unusual. We berthed in the RN stores basin and refuelled, sailing on completion. We had expected to return direct to Melbourne west about, but were diverted to Darwin to load another cargo of RAAF bombs, this time for return to Sydney. We proceeded via Carimata and Lombok Straits, passing through the latter with its fine views of Bali on 9th April, when we reverted to FOCAF’s operational control. Time threatened to lie heavily on our hands during the return trip and again an ambitious programme of organised games and ship husbandry proved helpful in combating boredom. We anchored overnight in the approaches to Darwin on 12th April and berthed alongside the main wharf next morning.
Our first encounter was with Customs, who gave us thorough treatment before pratique was granted, and our second with the Darwin watersiders. They are notoriously a law unto themselves, and the facts that the ship had been to Vietnam, that the RAN had replaced the civilian crew and that the cargo being loaded was munitions apparently had an effect, because the loading was frequently interrupted and took 7 days instead of the scheduled 4. The delay provided a welcome opportunity for the ship’s company to catch up on some social and recreational activity, and we finally sailed for Sydney just before midnight on Thursday 20th April. The passage took 9 days with a bit of assistance from a ‘plumber’s current‘ as well as the usual East Australian current, and was uneventful. On arrival at Sydney we secured to the explosives buoy off Garden Island to unload the bombs into ammunition lighters. To our surprise, although we had been cleared by Customs at Darwin and had spent 7 days there, we were again subjected to intensive Customs procedure during our stay. A launch continuously patrolled the ship and officers were on 24-hour duty at Kuttabul steps, which was the only place we were allowed to land. Our unloading proceeded quickly and without incident. On 3rd May we refuelled and the ship was surveyed by officers from the Dept. of Shipping and Transport. We were interviewed by the media about the trip but by this time public interest was much less than the time of our departure. One of our sailors distinguished himself during the interviews, when asked if he was looking forward to getting back to the Navy, by replying ‘I’ll be glad to get off this offal barge, no risk.‘ On this triumphant note we sailed for Melbourne at 2200 that night.
We arrived off Port Phillip on 5th May and berthed at No 11 North Wharf in the Yarra late that evening. So the wheel came full circle and we were back at our starting point 10 weeks later, but under quieter circumstances. Once again our peace was disturbed by Customs descending on us, so that by the time we left the ship we had been cleared no less than three times. The weekend was spent disembarking naval stores and the ship’s company to Lonsdale and at 1500 on Monday 8th May a brief decommissioning ceremony was held at which the ship was officially handed back to the ANL. So ended the history of HMAS Boonaroo, one of the shortest and most unusual commissions in the RAN As far as I was concerned, the main points of interest arising from the experience were these: –
- a) It gave the Navy and other Departments concerned practical experience in the manning, operation and logistic support of a merchant ship, and enabled the plans for such a contingency to be revised in the light of this experience.
- b) It gave me an insight into the operation of the Seamen’s Union and the Waterside Workers’ Federation and the problems involved in working with them.
- c) It provided a rare opportunity for practical experience in handling a merchant ship.
- d) It was an interesting comparison of differing outlooks on the value of ship husbandry. The maintenance we carried out during the trip enabled us to hand the ship back to the ANL in better condition than when we took her over, but ANL and Dept. of Shipping and Transport officers told me such maintenance is not economically justifiable in the Merchant Service.
For the poetically inclined, I conclude with the Ballad of the Boonaroo: –
It was the good ship Boonaroo
That sailed the Aussie main
Like many other freighters do,
Which, sailed by their civvie crew,
Drop cargo off at Wallaroo
And home return again.
But then one day the call was heard
To Vietnam we go!
The Seaman’s Union quickly stirred;
A meeting soon sent out the word,
They promptly gave the trip the bird
And loudly answered ‘No!’
And so the Boonaroo was manned
By sailor boys in blue;
An operation quickly planned
By the Top Brass throughout the land;
The Navy lent a helping hand
As it will always do.
Now HMAS Boonaroo .
Sails o’er the seven seas;
Sweethearts and wives, stay always true,
Manning the proper thing will do
And post us back again to you
To live a life of ease.