- Thomson, Max
- Biographies and personal histories, WWII operations
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Hawkesbury I, ML817
- March 2001 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
As movies, so many of the films were easily forgettable; yet the locations and especially the settings and circumstances under which they were screened, were gems of wartime naval service lifestyle.
Soldiers, airmen and nurses squatted on rocks and hard ground for a coveted interlude amid all the trauma of war to catch a film, projected onto a rough piece of canvas throw over a hastily erected frame to form a screen.
Others at times viewed an occasional film amid ancient ruins of Middle East settings where Australian servicemen and women found themselves – or across the Mediterranean waters amid bases the desert sands of North Africa.
Later, when they were brought home to take up the war against the Japanese, so many of those same servicemen came to see an odd film or two amid settings of incredible contrast, in a jungle scenario. Wartime pictures that were screened at a myriad of Pacific outposts where servicemen established bases and airfields hacked out of the foetid tropical jungle undergrowth.
Even when the heavens opened and rain poured down as only it can in the tropics to our north, it was rare indeed for anyone to “give it away”. With only one projector, the high spot of any evening so often was the good-humoured banter that took over as one reel was taken off and the next threaded to continue the night’s entertainment. They were occasions when “Digger Humour” most certainly flourished.
Around Port Moresby in the early days of the New Guinea campaign, those who squatted between a rock and a hard place to see a film, remember full well the sheer annoyance of Japanese air raids that disturbed the mood of the moment conjured up by Hollywood’s latest offering.
For Navy men, it was all equally unique.
With ships and crews overworked and spending 25 to 28 days of each month at sea, a night spent in port with the chance to see a film, was a relished occasion.
It exemplified, too, the remarkable camaraderie of the day for the bigger warships so readily to extend invitations to crewmen from nearby ships to join them and view a film – often sending off their own cutters to pick up men from adjacent anchorages.
This hospitality was at its zenith too with the generosity of the American warships. They not only invited our sailors aboard, but on so many occasions the RAN men returned to their ships with generous stocks of reading matter especially the small-print compact editions of the Armed Services books.
Oro Bay, on the New Guinea coastline, provided a remarkable example in the early days of General Douglas Macarthur’s island-hopping campaign.
ML817, the first of the Fairmiles to “go north” and a forerunner of today’s sleek naval patrol vessels, was operating with US torpedo boats along the New Guinea coast harassing Japanese barge traffic and involved in a whole series of exciting sagas and night-time commando-style assignments.
A rare treat for its crew lay in an invitation to enjoy the classic James Cagney film ‘YANKEE DOODLE DANDEE’ aboard the USS Hilo (formerly a millionaire’s enchanting yacht seconded to the US Navy as a torpedo-boat mother-ship).
New Guinea in those days provided other classic examples. RAN warships taking part with convoys into Port Moresby or involved in the anti-submarine sweeps outside Moresby put crews ashore where they could to stretch their legs. A ride thumbed in an army truck saw a few sailors scattered among servicemen on a hillside slope to enjoy a film – usually interrupted in those days by air raids on Port Moresby.
Milne Bay was equally dramatic. Renowned for its awful rain, the Gili Gili area was so often a sea of unbelievable mud and slush as heavy army transports ploughed their way through it all complete with a bow-wave left behind, so deep was the mire. Yet their drivers were ever anxious to give a lift to any sailor or serviceman, to where a film was to be screened under coconut palms and adjacent to parked fighter and bomber aircraft.
A big American floating dock in Hollandia provided an unusual venue for an RAN frigate’s men to enjoy ‘BABES IN SWING STREET’ and the US fleet tanker Winooski hosted men from the convoy’s escort to see ‘THE PRINCESS AND THE PIRATE’.