- William F. Cook, MVO, Captain, RAN (Rtd)
- Ship histories and stories
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Wyatt Earp, HMAS Wongala
- December 1978 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
SPACE WILL NOT ALLOW ME to dwell significantly on the history of Antarctic exploration, nor the reasons which led to this voyage. The reason, primarily, for the Wyatt Earp mission, was in order that Australia might manifest to a world, in which interest in Antarctica was reawakening after World War II, her 1936, somewhat cheeky, proclamation of Sovereignty over approximately one-third of the great Southern land mass. In a word, as the Geordies say, ‘It’s bums not ‘ats that keeps seats‘! A meeting of the Australian Antarctic Executive Committee, reconstructed after the war, set down Wyatt Earp’s task ‘. . . to make a reconnaissance cruise of certain parts of the Antarctic coast and effect landings where possible‘.
Wyatt Earp is such an improbable name for one of His Majesty’s Australian ships that people often doubt her existence. She, of course, delighted in the nickname of the ‘Twerp‘.
Originally the good ship Fanefjord, she was built for the Norwegian herring fishing trade at Bolsones shipyard, Molde, Norway in 1918-19. She was purchased by the American explorer Lincoln Ellsworth for his 1933 Antarctic Expedition. Ellsworth refitted and sheathed the Fanefjord with oak and armour plate and renamed her Wyatt Earp in memory of the legendary marshal of Dodge City and Tombstone.
She was used by Ellsworth on four Antarctic expeditions between 1933 and 1939, as a base ship for his aircraft. In February 1939 she was purchased by the Commonwealth Government from Ellsworth and handed over to the Royal Australian Navy.
At the time of her purchase she was described as a single screw wooden vessel of 402.16 gross tons, length 135 ft., beam 29 ft. Engines were semi-diesel of 400 hp, giving a maximum speed of 8½ knots with a range of 10 -11,000 miles.
During the war she served as HMAS Wongala, first as a store and ammunition carrier and then as the examination vessel at Port Adelaide and Whyalla. After postwar use by the Sea Cadets in South Australia she was returned to the RAN and refitted in Adelaide in December 1947. On recommissioning she was renamed Wyatt Earp. I joined as First Lieutenant in June 1947 when she was but a gutted hulk on the slipway, and the refit (a story in itself) staggered forward, beset with industrial troubles and slipping steadily behind schedule. At the conclusion of the refit there was no time for a proper shakedown, and many of our later troubles can be ascribed to this factor.
It was most interesting rebuilding a ship up from the hull. None of us, except the Captain who did not join until later, had been to the Antarctic and so we had to draw on our imagination and our knowledge gained from books written by those who had gone before. Although the Antarctic contains 90% of the world’s fresh water in the form of snow and ice, fresh water was to be a big problem, as we had no distilling plant. So we thought out a device for thawing snow and ice between the engine exhaust pipe and the outer funnel. It worked quite well, but as you know it takes masses of snow to make a gallon of water. Still we were glad of it later.
Another domestic problem was that of refrigeration. One doesn’t envisage using a ‘fridge when thinking in terms of a voyage to Antarctica, but how do you keep meat and vegetables fresh until you reach the ice? So we made a temporary ice box out of the ship’s company bathroom (a tiny structure on the upper deck) and, in Hobart, with layers of sawdust and ice, we packed the meat, butter, vegetables in perfect safety until it was cold enough to stow them on the upper deck.
Wyatt Earp’s auxiliary power was sails, a large main, a mizzen, and two headsails. To all of us this was really a step backwards to the turn of the century, but nevertheless exciting. Perhaps we were the last of His Majesty’s ships under the White Ensign to use sail. I know I got a great thrill out of piping ‘Hands to sailing stations’ when we set all plain sail as we so often did. We found that with a favourable wind on the quarter we increased her speed up to 2 knots. But the real advantage was that it slowed down her rate of roll by at least two seconds, which, when she was rolling 30° to 40°, really meant something.
An echo sounder, gyrocompass and small radar set were our concessions to modernity. In this regard I was amused when Sir Douglas Mawson, on one of his visits to the ship in Adelaide, asked to see the ‘barrel’. This was the ‘salt horse’ barrel, one of which apparently had been lashed at the foot of the main mast in his ships! I am not sure to this day whether he was having me on or not.
One splendid idea we had was the galley. It was obvious that with one cook (one professional cook) on complement we should have only one galley to serve both officers and ship’s company. As we expected the galley range to be alight most of the time and heat was to be a very necessary ingredient to our creature comforts, we placed the galley in the centre of the ship between the wardroom on one side and the ship’s company mess on the other. We also left the bulkheads in that area unlined so the heat from the galley permeated through the steel of the bulkheads to warm the messes. It proved 100% effective and many a time after four hours on watch I stood gratefully with my back, bottom and hands against the galley bulkheads thawing out before I ate my meal.
Our aircraft presented a problem. It was a Sikorsky Kingfisher single engined, single float seaplane, and mounted on its float it stood far too high to be stowed with any chance at all of its being successfully transported through the seas and weather we expected. So we unbottomed the float and stowed it on its own crutches, and rested the belly of the Kingfisher in crutches also secured to the deck.
In my reading about Antarctic exploration, the thing which impressed me greatly was the tremendous co-operation between officer, ratings and civilians. Mostly, too, the ships were not under the Naval Discipline Act. I was exercised in my mind as to how to get the message across tactfully to the officers and scientists. So I had the signwriter paint on a board which was hung in the wardroom, Drake’s exhortation to his ‘gentlemen’. ‘The gentlemen must haul and draw with the mariners and the mariners with the gentlemen.‘ I left it at that, but in a letter written after storing ship in Hobart I complained bitterly ‘. . . this hauling with the mariners ruins one’s hands‘.
I wish I had space to tell of the Wyatt Earp bin port, arranged by Mr. Rudi Buring of Buring & Sobels, but that story, like the port, will mature with age.
The ‘team’ for the voyage was Commander K.E. Oom, myself, Lieutenant N.H.S. White (navigator), Lieutenant J.G. Yule (watchkeeper), Mr. Homewood the commissioned bosun, and Lieutenant Commander H.F. Irwin the Engineer Officer. The scientific staff comprised P.G. Law, Chief Scientific Officer, Dr. Fritz Loewe, Meteorologist, E. McCarthy, Magnetician, Dr. A. Bond, the Medical Officer. Also embarked were Squadron Leader R.H. Gray, RAAF and L. Leguay the Dept. of Information photographer, together with 22 Ratings including one RAAF air fitter mechanic.
We sailed from Adelaide (after one day’s sea trials) on Saturday 13 December 1947, many weeks behind in our programme. But with head winds and rough seas all the way to Melbourne, it was a very wet trip. Water came in everywhere; into the mess decks forward and down into the gyro which it put out of action – into the cabins and wardroom aft; and all this necessitated bailing. A steering breakdown was thrown in for good luck (or bad luck)! We arrived in Williamstown on 17 December and the dockyard began to make good our defects immediately.
After entertaining the Minister for the Navy and a brace of Senators we finally slipped at 1342 on Friday 19 December. I stress the day Friday. Like the unfortunate ship in the old sea shanty ‘We had not got far from the land’ – in fact only as far as the Gellibrand Light – when we stopped with engine trouble! We anchored, debated whether to ask for a tow back to Williamstown, but then the Chief got things back ‘on the board’ and we were off again after a delay of two hours.
Karl Oom had a wry sense of humour. His laconic report of proceedings for 20 December reads, ‘A strong gale from the East contradicted storm warnings that gales could be expected from the West! . . . gusts up to 55 m.p.h. accompanied by driving rain and spray. Ship’s way was almost stopped, and due to fully loaded condition the ship’s movement was extremely violent and uncomfortable‘. (The understatement of the voyage). He continued ‘Water poured through the ship’s side into the after accommodation, through the fore decking into the accommodation forward and through the bridge structure into the chart room and the Commanding Officer’s cabin‘. I wrote home on 22 December from Storm Bay: ‘This is the first moment I have had to write since leaving Melbourne. We have had the lousiest weather; the old ship has been moving around in an incredible fashion which made it impossible to write and all our spare moments seem to have been spent in mopping up the water in the wardroom and the cabins‘. In my journal I noted that ‘it was the worst weather I had ever met in Bass Strait; the gyro was put out of action by water which was also inches deep in messes and cabins; the scientific staff had trouble with seasickness; the motion was unbelievable, but the dampness was the worst‘.
After recording a lull and then the recommencement of the gale from another quarter, in typical Oom fashion the report of proceedings goes on to relate ‘On the 22nd the weather deteriorated . . .‘ On arrival in Hobart, once again we were greeted by an army of shipwrights who started immediately to rectify the defects which we had found on the trip from Melbourne.
We were determined if at all possible not to spend Christmas alongside a wharf, so with Herculean efforts on our part and a splendid effort on the part of the shipwrights we completed storing and repairs in time to sail at 0700 on Christmas Day, intending to swing compasses in the Derwent before leaving. Almost immediately we left the wharf we had trouble with the engine – salt water emulsifying the lubricating oil. So we fixed that, swung compasses and returned to Ocean Pier to land the compass adjuster.
I take the story up from the Report of Proceedings ‘. . . when proceeding alongside the main engine controlling mechanism jammed again, engines failed to go astern and the ship after striking the pier without causing damage was brought to a stop by head and stem lines‘.
I quote from my journal as I think it brings the picture of the moment to life much more vividly. ‘So we just hung around till the engine room assessed and adjusted the defect. What an anticlimax! We had done everything in our power to get the ship away from Hobart before Christmas and here we are broken down alongside a wharf just as Christmas Dinner is announced. What gloom! The gloom lasted till after the evening meal when the Captain prescribed champagne cocktails and we sang with Phil Law’s accordion and danced and skylarked till about 3 a.m.‘
We sailed (finally, you will be relieved to learn) at 1315 on Boxing Day. I made this observation about all our departures: ‘In Adelaide we had several Senators and a huge crowd to farewell us. In Melbourne the Minister for the Navy and another large crowd. In Hobart a large crowd yesterday and now, finally, as we sail for the Antarctic we are not very vigorously farewelled by three men, two boys and one baby girl – none of whom seemed greatly animated by the scene!‘ I remarked thus to the Captain who assured me ‘It is luckier without crowds‘.
But our luck was still out, and once clear of the D’Entrecasteaux Channel a gale from the west got up. It was blowing force 9 by midnight and we hove-to to the westward of Eddystone Rock.
The 27th was a dreadful day – hove to for most of it. ‘Further leaks, further water to be bailed, further discomfort‘.
The Captain reported with his usual understatement: ‘It was discouraging to find the sea again entering accommodation aft through the ship’s side and this was believed to be due to the heavily laden condition of the ship with its violent movement in the heavy seas producing undue strain on the superstructure’. Simply put, as she rolled, the planks worked, and the water came in.
On 28 December, we were cheered up with a following wind. All plain sail was set and we made good about 8 knots. But it didn’t last. The bottom fell out of the glass in the evening and the wind increased to gale force from the northwest. At 0200 on 29th the centre of the storm passed over the ship and it blew a gale from the southwest. ‘So we hove to and trod water‘. Literally trod water as it continued to seep into our cabins and needed constant bailing. On top of it all the steering gear parted once again. Sutherland (the shipwright) was an excellent man. He soon had it fixed and with the absolute minimum of fuss. And a further disappointment was the Chief’s report that the leak through the holding down bolts of the engine seemed to be increasing as the engine was bedding itself down.
However, it wasn’t all gloom. I noted ‘Later, things looked brighter. A rising glass and a lowering sea and we proceeded. No talk of about turn now. Even talking of going over the side to canvas the starboard side aft tomorrow. What a difference good weather makes. Bailed out my cabin again after dinner but in a better frame of mind’. The 30th was a glorious morning. At 0800 we stopped engines for a small repair job and with all sails set we did 2 to 3 knots. The ‘Chippy’, ‘Buffer’ and I went over the side on a stage and plugged, caulked and canvassed a considerable stretch of the starboard side aft near the W/T office. Pretty cold work as the water kept washing up to our knees.
The barometer plunged to 972 millibars during the middle watch on 1 January 1948 and after a pregnant pause we got our usual gale which luckily didn’t last for long.
We sat down to a modest New Year’s Eve dinner in an atmosphere of foreboding as to our chances of being able to continue our voyage and, as I recorded, forced ourselves to a certain amount of merriment accompanied by Phil Law’s accordion.
But our wireless reports had obviously worried the Naval Board and on New Year’s Day we were ordered back to Williamstown. We argued by signal, hoping that the Board would change its mind but got back a terse ‘Comply with my signal‘.
There was little, apart from a remarkable change for the better in the weather, to keep us amused on our otherwise gloomy way back to Melbourne.
We arrived in Melbourne on 7 January 1948 and docked down next day. I quote: ‘All the brass in the world came to inspect us, the press was very critical, and things were only middling‘. Some of the highlights of the next five weeks, apart from six days leave to each watch, were the dockyard stiffening up the engine bed, refitting the main and the auxiliary engines, taking out the shaft, renewing the stern bushes, taking off and replacing the sheathing in order to survey the hull, replacing part of the stem post, re-rigging the steering, caulking the upper deck and ship’s side and doing many other small jobs.
We did trials in Port Phillip Bay on 4 February and then on the 6th we went to sea for further trials taking dockyard officers with us. The passage through the rip was very nasty – the only time in my experience in Wyatt Earp that she was pooped, i.e. a wave broke over her stern. We went out with an ebb-tide – necessary precaution for a low powered ship – and ran head on into a southeast gale. The ebb against the wind produced a very short, steep sea which tossed Wyatt Earp like a cork. We certainly turned it on for the dockyard officers and the officers from Navy Office. The bilge pump suctions blocked and the main engine had to be stopped when the level of the water rose too high. Then, with the pumps working and the water under control, it took two hours to restart the engine.
Once again, – a final finally – we sailed from Melbourne on Sunday 8 February 1948 – two months late! Group Captain Stewart Campbell, the Chief Executive Officer of the Expedition joined us before we left.
We had good weather with all the strong winds abaft the beam for almost a week. Thereafter we had four days of bad rolling but continued to make good southing mostly with our sails set. As the temperatures dropped our excitement rose. We had a wonderful display of Aurora Australis on 14 February when in about 55° south.
On 18 February the temperature dropped to 26° F. and in 65° South we sighted our first icebergs. This was 700 miles further south than Mawson first sighted ice in 1930. On reaching the edge of the pack ice, we were held up for two days by gales which reached hurricane force. Karl Oom reported ‘. . . the wind abated to gale force at 0300 on 20th‘ and I noted for that day that the temperature fell to 20°F. and the spray froze as it landed on the deck and in the rigging.
Finally we had an inch of ice on everything forward and it looked a most Christmassy sight. I also noted that the ship’s company had to use our port heads as theirs were frozen up. It wasn’t a very generous gesture as the port heads suffered from a defective non-return valve near the waterline and in rough weather it got its name ‘the Splutterer’.
We turned into the pack ice at dawn on 20 February and weaved and threaded our way south. At first the ice was scattered but gradually got thicker and the floes larger. Emperor and Adelie penguins, seal and whales were sighted regularly on the floes and in the water. Penguins are incredible creatures.
The Emperors – standing two to three feet high -shoot up out of the water like a pip out of an orange to land waddling forwards on a low ice floe. Their speed of advance is often too great and they flop onto their ‘boiled shirts’ and proceed ventre a terre till they stop. The colour of the sea at the base of the old bergs is quite beautiful against the ice and to see a blanket of snow petrels take off en masse from the flat top of an iceberg is breathtaking. During the first dog-watch the pack seemed impenetrable and as it was risky to stay in such ice confined waters in case a cold snap would freeze her up, we came out for the night.
Next day we entered the ice again some miles to the east of our previous track and got to within thirty miles of the coast at Cape Gray before manoeuvring became impossible and we had to get out. This was to be the pattern day after day. The large amount of pack ice off the coast was totally unexpected as, on previous expeditions, in the late summer, the coast had been reported to be ice-free due to the violence of the offshore winds. Unfortunately, too, the weather conditions did not permit flying.
On 22nd February with reasonable calm weather, we assembled the seaplane. This took four or five hours hard work in temperatures which I recorded ‘went up to 30°F. for most of the time‘. Robin Gray, the pilot, and Sergeant Jones, the Sergeant Mechanic, worked unceasingly. We then trussed the ‘choofer’ up with at least six heavy tackles to hold it steady while waiting for an opportunity to fly.
During the day of 24 February we had glorious sunshine for the first time for ten days and the temperature dropped to 12°F. With a drop in the wind, the conditions for a freeze-up seemed ideal and so the Captain was determined to get clear and not remain too deeply in the ice overnight.
Wyatt Earp, with her straight stem and small displacement and awkwardness in turning to starboard in a confined space, was not a good ship for forcing a passage through pack ice.
We came up to the Balleny Islands late on 28 February. The only real ‘dirt’ one can see is the sheer side of the cliffs where snow and ice will not rest. We tried to land by whaler on Young Island, a very forbidding place. The scientists wanted some rock specimens. But with a scratch and inexperienced crew and no ‘beach’ at all, if I can use that word, we were lucky to get off with two or three large rocks and a boat half full of frozen water. Luckily I had laid an anchor out astern as we came in and we were able to haul ourselves off with little damage but very dampened spirits – what the West Country sailors called ‘saltash luck’ – ‘a wet . . . and no fish‘! For several days we carried out a running survey of the Balleny Islands. This entails steaming parallel and close to the shore on a steady course and at a steady speed and taking a set of bearings of prominent points, a sounding, and a radar range of the nearest land every two minutes. By correlating all this data a reasonably accurate picture for that part of the world is obtained. We also swung our magnetic compass one day comparing it against our gyro. The variation was approximately 64° East in that locality.
We kept a bird sighting book and one day some wag (the Chief Engineer I suspect) noted that he had seen a ‘blue beaked beetle browed blowsy bosomed brown bottomed black backed bright breasted big bellied baby bludger bird‘.
Another thing which amused us one day was Group Captain Campbell’s efforts to make ice cream from icecream mix. He put the concoction outside to freeze in temperature ranging from 18° to 20° F. and after six days it had still not solidified. He was demoted to ice cream maker last class!
During our stay off the Ballenys the glass dropped to an all time low for us of 955 millibars and we had our usual share of gales. Top wind force recorded was 70 mph. The swell didn’t increase appreciably but later the wind brought up a line of pack ice and we had to move out to avoid being jammed between the ice and the land. But on the whole this was the best period for weather during the whole of our stay in the ice and Laurie Le Guay took some very good pictures.
On 6 March the weather deteriorated once again and we moved away very slowly to the west towards Commonwealth Bay. We tried again to pierce the pack ice off Cape Gray with the same lack of success. It seemed that during that summer there had not been sufficient offshore wind to disturb the pack ice or drive it out to sea.
On 13 March (we took a risk with the date) sheltering behind the Mertz Glacier ice tongue in restively swell free water, we hoisted out the aircraft. It wasn’t easy. We tried first to get the motorboat in the water as crash boat but as soon as we got it clear of its chocks it took charge, but luckily it didn’t ram the Kingfisher. So we settled for a whaler as a guard boat and put the plane over the side, tendering it off with poles as we lowered it quickly into the water.
Someone remarked that the ‘Twerp‘ would roll in the heavy dew and the roll certainly seemed greatly magnified as we hoisted the plane out. Robin Gray did two trips, one with his mechanic and the other with Le Guay the photographer. They confirmed that pack ice extended southward without break, so after the aircraft landed we hoisted it in and dismantled and stowed it. It took us three hours and it was quite tricky to work on it as it hung from the boom in a rising swell. Pleased with ourselves and it being Saturday night, we toasted our sweethearts and wives in the traditional manner.
The Captain later reported ‘Experience has proved that Wyatt Earp is too small a ship to carry an aircraft such as the Kingfisher for operational use from the ship, as the movement of the ship is so lively that perfectly calm water has to be found before working the plane. In addition, once it is assembled, the aircraft is difficult to house safely against the ship’s violent movement in a seaway.‘
The plane’s reconnaissance confirmed our fears that it was impossible to get to the mainland, so after running some interesting soundings across a relatively shallow patch of moraine off Ninnis Glacier, and recording a depth of 1,068 fathoms on our echo sounder which, now that the end of the voyage was in sight, was operating perfectly, we skirted a big concentration of icebergs, some of them ten miles in length, stranded on a projecting tongue off the Continental Shelf, altered to the northward and set course for Macquarie Island on 14 March.
The last ice was seen next day in latitude 65° 30’ South – a surprisingly short distance from the coastal pack ice and 740 miles further south than experienced in 1930 in the same longitude. Altogether it was a very unusual season and this, together with our late start, was the reason for our failure to get through to the Continent.
A few days of exceptionally fine weather were followed by the usual gale and we were happy to reach the lee of Macquarie Island and anchor at noon on 20 March in Buckles Bay. LST 3501 (Lt. Commander George Dixon RANVR) was in the Bay completing the landing of the scientific party which was to remain on the island for 13 months.
Much of my journal and my letters home were taken up with the joy of the first proper bath for more than six weeks which we had in 3501, and it even got a mention in the LST’s report of proceedings. But the relaxation was short-lived as the weather got up and we had to stand out to sea at 1800 – only to come in and anchor when the wind settled in a safe quarter.
We spent a day or two in Buckles Bay and took in water by an astern method from the LST. Then our departure for Australia was delayed by the usual gale. LST 3501 dragged on several occasions and finally put out to sea, but we held our ground.
The weather having eased slightly, the Captain decided to sail on 24 March, but as we cleared the lee of the island to the north we ran into a screaming westerly. Macquarie Island is the visible manifestation (together with the Bishop and Clerk Islands to the south and the Judge and Clerk Islands to the north) of a submarine mountain chain which rises very steeply from depths of thousands of fathoms. The long unhindered westerly swell of the Southern Ocean builds up alarmingly over this relatively shallow shelf and the seas in a gale must be seen to be believed. Once having committed ourselves it was safer to continue on rather than attempt to turn, and the next two hours were in my estimation the most dangerous of the whole trip. We crossed the mile wide shelf at a speed of one knot with engine revolutions on for seven. I wrote ‘It was fantastic that the old ship could live through such water without taking dangerous amounts on board. We rolled like a log, pitched, tossed, yawed, rose to incredible heights on crests and plunged to abysmal depths in the troughs. She did everything but stand vertical although once or twice she tried her damndest. Most of the time one felt like a buckjump rider expecting to be pitched off or to feel the mount fall under you. It was exciting to say the least of it‘.
But this was our last blow of any consequence and we sighted Eddystone Light on the morning of 30 March. Bass Strait was unbelievably calm, such a contrast to our crossing in December.
On 31 March we entered the Rip at Port Phillip and anchored for the night off Port Arlington. After a very special dinner to mark the end of the voyage we steamed up to Port Melbourne arriving at 0900 on 1 April.
I seem to have highlighted the discomforts, the vicissitudes, the breakdowns and, generally, our bad luck during this voyage. In fact, however, there was no major accident to any member of ship’s company (nothing more serious than the odd cut or bruise) and no major breakdown of machinery or accident to the ship.
Within the limits of the ship’s capabilities and the gear which was provided, I think all performed reasonably well. We were of course frustrated by the late start and the exceptionally bad season. I have nothing but praise for the way in which everybody in the ship did his job.
In his summary, the Captain recorded ‘. . . although good progress was made to the Antarctic, the coasts of Adelie and King George V Lands were found to be guarded by an unbroken line of heavy concentrated pack ice into which it was inadvisable to penetrate to a point where the ship was immovable and there have to wait for improved conditions. The summer was too far advanced and the distance too great to permit a reconnaissance of MacRobertson Land and the usually ice-free western area . . . health was maintained at a high standard and the absence of accidents was marked. Discipline was also excellent‘.
Wyatt Earp paid off in June 1948 and was later sold to a coastal shipping firm. She went to her watery grave off the Queensland coast on 24 January 1959, thankfully without any loss of life.