- A.N. Other
- Biographies and personal histories, History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Tarangau
- September 2014 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
By Cdre Des Miller, RAN, Rtd
Given the present level of political concern with events in these islands the attached commentary by one of our distinguished members who served there just after WW II provides an interesting reminder of the islands in former times. Let us hope we have not entirely forgotten the ‘can do’ attitude that prevailed and we might learn something from these light-hearted memoirs.
Shortly after Christmas leave our drafting officer told us that he was seeking two volunteer Petty Officer Radio Mechanics for a special task at Manus Island, in the Admiralty Group of Islands, north of New Guinea. The RAN had just acquired a former US naval base there and it was planned that the RAN base at Dreger Harbour, New Guinea – HMAS Tarangau – would be transferred to Manus in the near future. As part of this transfer a new shore-based wireless receiving and transmitting station was to be installed. The equipment was to be delivered in the near future and the task was estimated to take about three months including travelling time. This seemed to be an attractive proposition – an interesting task in an exotic location, a chance to save some money, and the timing was just right for a return to Sydney before June leave. So I volunteered, as did my good friend Les Bail.
Tarangau, on Dreger Harbour not far from Finschhafen, was the RAN’s only New Guinea base. It was well established but not a popular posting; it was isolated, there were no social activities, and sailors’ postings were for 12 months unaccompanied. On arrival, Les and I reported to the Master-at-Arms, who had no idea about what to do with us so he passed us on to the Executive Officer. He was equally nonplussed and so were we when he explained that the planned move to Manus was delayed at least six months, there was just a basic set of radio equipment to be installed in the near future, there were only a few sailors at Manus as an advance party, and there was certainly no work for two Petty Officer Radio Electricians there right now. He would send one. Les and I tossed a coin and I ‘won’ Manus.
The next morning, at sunrise, I boarded a RAAF DC3 bound for the RAAF air base at Momote. The DC3 was configured to carry a mixed cargo/passenger load – cargo down the middle of the cabin and passengers facing inwards on canvas seats down the sides with their backs against the cabin side. The cargo was mainly frozen carcasses of mutton for the RAAF personnel at Momote, hence the early, cool of the morning takeoff. I was clad in tropical shorts and short-sleeved shirt so it was a very cold trip from Finschhafen to Momote.
Manus boasted the largest US Navy base outside America, with three supporting airstrips, a seaplane base, a hospital, an oil fuel installation, repair workshops, a cinema and extensive stores installations. When WW II ended the US administration wanted to retain this excellent base. Our Government refused. The US then suggested it be a joint USN/RAN base but this too was rejected by the Australian Labor Government. If the Australian authorities thought that, by holding firm, the Americans would simply walk away and leave it to us they were totally wrong. Before vacating, the whole facility was stripped of every useful item of equipment. Much was sold for ‘a dollar a ton’ to the Nationalist Chinese to eventually – and ironically – fall into the hands of the Communist Chinese. All that was left for the RAN to take over were empty Quonset buildings. There was no water supply, no electricity system and no sanitation. Light fittings and light switches in even the smallest huts had been severed from the wiring.
I was aware of none of this when I disembarked the DC3 at Momote on that hot, steamy tropical morning. Indeed, the RAAF base seemed quite normal – ambulance, fire truck, well maintained jeeps and trucks and a few wives and children watching activities.
I was told that a Navy vehicle would be along shortly to collect me, and a week’s supply of bread and mail – also off the plane. This advice proved to be correct but the ‘vehicle’ was something of a surprise. It proved to be the strangest vehicle I had seen up to that time. Certainly it had four wheels, an engine and a chassis, but no windscreen or hood, a rudimentary seat and a makeshift tray. I was to learn that it had been salvaged from the jungle, repaired after a fashion and coaxed back to life. It had started life as a weapons carrier, designed to tow a small gun and to carry the gun crew and a small amount of ready-made shells. The driver wore Army boots and khaki socks, a pair of shorts, no shirt and an Army slouch hat sporting a Petty Officer’s badge. He was, in fact, in charge of the 23 – now 24 with my arrival – RAN personnel at the Navy base at Lombrum Point. I helped load the bread and mail, my kitbag and tool box onto the tray of the truck, where I also perched, and we departed Momote. We hadn’t travelled very far on a rough road when it began to rain. The driver stopped and we hurriedly shifted the bread under the truck in an attempt to keep it dry. The rain, though heavy, did not last long and we continued on our way with the week’s supply of bread reloaded and in fair condition.
When we arrived at Lombrum Point I was in for a number of surprises. The first came when the PO said: ‘We’d better get you fixed up for a bunk.’ I assumed that this would be a trip to a bedding store to draw a mattress, pillow and mosquito net. That did come later. First it meant accompanying the PO, who by now had a saw in his hands, to a deserted workshop. There was a long row of empty wooden shelving. He sawed four or five lengths of timber from the shelving, we carried it back to what was to become my sleeping space, and after more sawing and some hammering produced the frame of a crude bed. A number of old inner tubes from truck tyres were cut into strips 5 cm wide and nailed lengthwise and cross-wise to produce a bed base – of sorts.
Other surprises came in quick succession. The head (toilet) was a flimsy structure, very exposed to the elements, precariously perched on the end of a rickety small boat landing. The wharf was called, as one might expect, ‘the shithouse wharf’. For face and hand washing, rainwater was collected into 44-gallon ex-fuel drums alongside the sleeping huts. Crude guttering directed the rainwater into the drums. For showering, there was a bigger version adjacent to a large workshop building. This shower was totally in the open. There was no canteen and no beer ration.
Two sleeping huts were provided, a Petty Officers dining hut, a radio office in one half of a hut, the other half partitioned off as a general store. There was a hut at the water’s edge, with one corner tilted alarmingly towards the water – this was the sailors’ dining area and the galley. The stove was a cranky oil-fuelled device reclaimed from the jungle. A seaman volunteer was ‘the cook’, not that there was much cooking to be done in those early days because there was no refrigeration. We lived on tinned or dried foodstuffs, bread, fish caught in the harbour and fruit bought occasionally from natives. These occupied buildings and others – some small Quonset huts, some very large workshop buildings – were built around a vast area of concrete. This cemented surface sloped at one side and continued for a short distance under the harbour water. This site had been a seaplane base.
My new shipmates were a mixed lot. Some in the Navy at that time believed that Tarangau was a punishment draft. There may have been something in that view – there were certainly a few oddballs among them. An officer turned up occasionally. This was Lieutenant Sims, nicknamed by the sailors ‘Dim Sims’. He was based at RAAF Momote, perhaps as a Liaison Officer. He certainly seemed to play no role in the day-to-day activities at Lombrun Point.
When I checked out the W/T hut I found one very bored Telegraphist, one smallish transmitter/receiver of a type I had never heard of, three or four former RAAF aircraft transmitter/receivers and a number of large crates. The Telegraphist told me the crates contained a larger, more powerful receiver/transmitter. I also learned that power came from a small diesel generator which was used just a few times a day, at set times, to enable the Tel. to talk to Tarangau.
The next day I spent a few hours constructing storage for my few belongings and on improving the state of my bunk by adding more interwoven strips of rubber. I then opened the W/T equipment crates. The boxes contained the various elements of a brand new Australian Army receiver/transmitter. It was a simple task to assemble it and the biggest challenge was to mount the large whip aerial on the roof of the hut. After some initial teething troubles we had it on line and it proved to be a very reliable outfit. We established links with Tarangau and the civil administrations of Rabaul, Port Moresby and Lorengau.
The presence of the RAAF transmitter/receivers was a mystery. I knew that the RAN used a modified version in tugs, air-sea rescue boats and similar craft but all we had at Manus was one former USN harbour personnel and stores craft. Nonetheless, I decided to make them usable and out of the three or four sets I was able to keep two complete sets serviceable. In my time there we never found a use for them.
The task of the advance party at Lombrum Point – most of who had arrived just before me – was to prepare for the transfer of all personnel and facilities then based at Tarangau. To this end, and with very little in the way of tools and equipment, our main efforts were directed towards refurbishing buildings and restoring services.
An early priority was to produce and distribute electric power. A large diesel generator had been located in the jungle and installed at the edge of our living area. The artificers managed to get it working, much to their credit. The task of running power lines fell to me and a Leading Hand. The original distribution system was based on a network of heavy solid copper cables strung between metal planes or palm trees. All the more readily accessible cables in and around the Lombrum Point site had been scavenged for their scrap value. My mate and I would search further afield until we found a cable run which had supplied an outstation remote from Lombrum Point. We climbed the poles or trees, unfastened the cables from the insulators and then cut the cable into lengths which the two of us could manhandle back to base. We also salvaged as many insulators as we could. These we installed on trees and buildings to mount the new cable runs. With power now available several refrigerators were refurbished and put to good use. Fortuitously, it was about that time that we began to receive stocks of beer.
Every six weeks a Burns Philp ship called by, usually the Malaita, skippered by an old hand in New Guinea waters known far and wide as Coconut Bill. She discharged supplies for the RAAF and ourselves and her arrival meant a busy time for us. All the sailors, regardless of rank, became wharf labourers for the day. Working cargo in the hold of a ship in the tropics is not a career choice I recommend.
It was also about this time that a shipment of canteen goods arrived and I found myself running the canteen. This was not very onerous – open for 20 minutes at lunchtime and 20 minutes after supper for the one bottle of beer per day per person beer ration. I was paid ten shillings (one dollar) a week for this extra duty. There was an occasional drawback to this task. A small group of sailors would, by prior arrangement, not draw their beer ration for, say, three nights. They would then draw it all and go off to a workshop or hut somewhere and celebrate a birthday or something. Often, after drinking their stock, just as I was falling off to sleep or even asleep, I would be importuned by the drinkers to unlock the beer fridge to provide ‘tomorrow night’s ration in advance’. I eventually had to put a stop to that idea, as much for their safety and well-being as for my beauty sleep.
Out other social activities were fairly limited – table tennis, softball, a kick of a football, fishing for those so inclined, an occasional 16 mm film flown over from Tarangau or borrowed from the RAAF. Most nights there was game of Mah Jong – played by the Chinese for thousands of years and stuffed up by sailors in five minutes. This cynicism derived from the fact that is was designed to be played by four players but for reasons unknown the RAN version was played by three players.
As well as Malaita calling by we had occasional visits from RAN ships transiting between Australia and Japan. These visits gave us a chance to meet up with old shipmates and to catch up with the latest Navy gossip and to sometimes scrounge bits and pieces needed at Lombrum Point. The officers of the day tended to grimace a bit when we arrived alongside. We were a pretty scruffy lot far removed from the normal spic and span of the navy life. It didn’t help at all that we came alongside not in a workboat but in a lakatoi – a native outrigger canoe – which one of our number had bought.
During the early months I had an occasional trip to Lorengau. There was not much there – the District Commissioner’s Office, a Post Office, a Chinese-run store, a small hospital, the headquarters of the area’s Papua New Guinea Constabulary, a few missionaries. We began to receive requests from the Postmaster to process a backlog of telegrams due to a breakdown of his W/T equipment.
With the telegrams would come a request for assistance to repair his equipment. The poor guy had been a civilian internee of the Japanese and was an alcoholic. I suspected that when he went on a bender he just let the stack of telegrams build up and then used equipment unserviceability as an excuse for not processing them. I told him, gently I hope, that we could only help him out in real emergencies in future.
The Postmaster introduced me to a new drink. He asked me one day if I cared for a drink. When I accepted, he led me to his nearby, rather pleasant bungalow and introduced me to his wife. She produced glasses while he produced from behind one of the cane settees a small wooden cask fitted with a neat brass spigot. He drew off three glasses. I couldn’t decide what it might have been made from but I know it was a potent brew. I asked him and he said: ‘Oh, after we have a party I just empty everything that is left over into the cask.’ I assumed therefore that it was a mixture of whisky, gin, brandy and rum as they were the standard drinks in the tropics.
The hospital at Lorengau had only one doctor and the administration had trouble attracting and keeping a doctor. They were delighted when they were able to recruit a doctor whose wife was a nurse. Their delight was short-lived. Only a few weeks after their arrival they were flown out – gossip had it as stretcher cases – having played free and easy with the hospital’s drug stocks. In later years, as I visited various small, isolated white settlements in the Pacific area I was to find that such communities had more than their fair share of odd bods – not quite the flotsam and jetsam of human society but certainly not an average cross-section of mankind.
The Postmaster at Lorengau was not the only one interested in exotic alcoholic brews. I decided that I would try my hand at making a test batch of ‘jungle juice’. I drilled a hole into a coconut, added some sugar and a few sultanas from a boiled fruit cake I’d been sent. I whittled a wooden plug, stoppered the hole in the coconut and waited. None of us knew how long to wait, but it didn’t take long for slight leakage to appear around the plug. This leakage very quickly attracted dozens of tiny insects and the coconut began to look rather unwholesome. When we eventually decanted it the liquid was cloudy and unattractive and those few brave enough to taste it declared it undrinkable. We did not try any more home brews.
We were surprised to learn that a prisoner-of-war compound was to be built next to our site. About 200 Japanese POWs held at Rabaul as suspected war criminals were to be transferred to Los Negros. The first group built the prison compound and the rest then followed. They were guarded by a detachment of PNG constabulary under the command of Australian Army officers and senior NCOs. Each day some of the prisoners worked outside the compound guarded by PNG constabulary. The trials did not finish until 1951 when, of the last 12 accused, five were hanged by a hangman flown up from Australia.
Our numbers increased gradually and facilities improved slowly. An old USN water filtration plant was repaired and we were no longer dependent on rain water. A septic system was reactivated, as was a shower block. The precarious ‘heads’ on the wharf were dismantled.
A Leading Sick Berth Attendant arrived and set up a Sick Bay in one of the refurbished huts. He had a slight problem for a SBA – his hands shook badly when he had to tend a wound. I had first-hand experience of his problem when he was attempting to stitch a deep cut in my knee. After several unsuccessful stabs at my knee his hands and my upper leg were covered in blood – I fainted. As I came to he was muttering to himself and I heard him say: ‘I don’t know – whenever I stitch people up, they faint on me’. The wound healed quite well and I was lucky there was no infection. Even the smallest scratches could become infected and sometimes develop into tropical ulcers.
We had a native labour force whose main task was to keep the grass cut back on the base and for a set distance surrounding the base. This was an anti-malarial measure, minimising breeding opportunities for mosquitoes. The grass-cutters used a simple tool made from thin steel strap bent at one end. They worked in lines of three or four and just swished away at the grass. They were a simple, cheerful lot but one group incurred my displeasure one day – they swished their way through a vegetable garden I had started. I had had an idea to grow some tomatoes, lettuce and the like to supplement our diet. Seeds sent to me had sprung up quite nicely but were decapitated by the reckless grass-cutters. I gave up any further notions of a beautiful crop for our mess.
The native labour force was paid ten shillings (one dollar) plus a ration of twist tobacco per month. They were also given, every three months, a new lap-lap, the wraparound skirt of cotton worn by both men and women. They spent most of their money in the canteen, usually buying soap (they loved the smell) and Johnsons Baby Powder (sprinkled on their hair, face and shoulders when they were having a sing-sing). They also liked to get their hands on new or used carbon paper; they rubbed it on their hair to give it a blue-black or purple-black hue. Some gambled. The labour force included a few Buka boys. The Bukas were much blacker and much smarter than the locals. They played some form of card game and the Buka boys ended up with spare coins the locals gambled.
A Landing Ship Tank began to transfer heavy equipment and stores from Dreger Harbour and we received word that a Lieutenant Commander and his wife were to transfer from Tarangau to Lombrum Point. This posed a small problem – there was nowhere for them to live. We selected a small Quonset hut a little removed from the main part of the base and began to refurbish it. My main role was to install the electrical system but most of us joined in as amateur builders. The finished product was adequate but basic and I am sure that the Lieutenant Commander’s wife, when she moved in, thought that she too was on a punishment draft.
When several of the ex-USN large refrigerators were repaired Tarangau sent over a Motorised Refrigerator Lighter loaded with a wide range of frozen and chilled foodstuffs. Whoever had been in charge of loading the lighter had made a big mistake – bags of potatoes, many bags of potatoes, had been loaded into the freezer section instead of the cooler section. They were all rotten, the bags leaking a foul liquid and I don’t think I have ever smelt anything quite so bad. We had to unload and bury them.
I had expected to be back in Australia by mid-year and to be then married. It became obvious that was not to be and increasingly it looked very much as though the expected ‘three months up and back’ would become the standard Tarangau 12-month posting. I don’t remember being especially annoyed or dispirited but I was certainly very pleased when, in August, a signal arrived announcing that I, and Les Bail still back at Lorengau, and others were posted to the United Kingdom for the conversion training to maintain the electronics in our newly acquired Fleet Air Arm aircraft. I telegrammed this news to Shirley, suggesting that we get married on my return to Australia and she should travel with me to England. This she agreed to do.
The signal said that we would travel to the UK in SS Strathaird departing Sydney on 28 October 1949. What the signal didn’t say was how we were to get from Manus and New Guinea to Australia. Fortuitously one of our frigates (HMAS Shoalhaven) was returning from Japan via Manus and Tarangau. I had no authority to demand passage in Shoalhaven but I was able to talk my way on board on the understanding that it was to be as far only as Tarangau unless some appropriate authority was forthcoming. Les Bail, at Tarangau, with all the usual administrative systems under the office of Naval Officer Commanding New Guinea, was able to organise our onward passage. So hammocks were found for us in Shoalhaven and we had a leisurely return to Sydney, arriving 24 September 1949.
As a footnote to my days at Lombrum Point, HMAS Tarangau at Dreger Harbour, New Guinea, paid off on 1 January 1950. The Naval Base Manus Island commissioned as HMAS Seeadler on 1 January 1950 and re-commissioned as HMAS Tarangau on 1 April 1950. It paid off on 14 November 1974 and on the same day re-commissioned as PNGD Base Lombrum. The Headquarters of the PNG Defence Force at Port Moresby commissioned as Tarangau on 16 November 1974.