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- September 2021 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
One of the most intriguing wartime dramas occurred off the Western Australian coast in February 1942 concerning attacks made by Japanese aircraft on the motor vessel Koolama. The story of this ship, the attack and subsequent events, was well researched by Bill Loane and published in The Koolama Incident in 1992, and updated in 2004. The previous year (2003) the ABC produced a documentary: Malice or Mutiny: The Koolama Incident.
Koolama, an Aboriginal word for waterfowl, was built by the well-known shipbuilder Harland & Wolff, not in their famous Belfast yard (think Titanic) but in a subsidiary yard on the Clyde. She was the pride of the Western Australian Government’s State Shipping Service, a small company which serviced the remote settlements in the sparsely populated north of this vast state.
Koolama was 4,068 gross tons, 348 feet (106 metres) in length, with a beam of 52 feet (16 metres) and a 19 feet (6 metre) draught. A reinforced keel was fitted for sitting on the bottom at northwestern ports, where tides rise and fall ten metres. She had a generously sized crew of about 90 which included two stewardesses, and could carry 100 passengers in some degree of comfort with the latest in punkah-louvre ventilation. In the meat season workers were carried in the ‘tween decks sleeping in hammocks. She could carry refrigerated cargo and up to 500 head of live cattle. She was fitted with two of the latest Danish manufactured Bermeister and Wain 6-cylinder diesel engines driving twin propellers and giving her a respectable maximum speed of 16 knots.
In late November 1937 Captain Jack Eggleston, together with his wife, left Fremantle aboard an Orient liner bound for England, then took the train to Glasgow to standby his new ship. Joined by the Australian crew, the ship undertook trials and then sailed on her delivery voyage on 7 April 1938. Later that month Koolama berthed for the first time at her home port of Fremantle, and commenced her maiden voyage, to the northwest ports and Darwin on 23 May 1938.
Captain and Chief Officer
Both Captain Jack Eggleston and his Chief Officer Ken Reynolds feature greatly in this story. Both men had similar careers, they attended the same school in Fremantle, and both entered the Merchant Service as junior seamen; they were very competent practical men who had come up the hard way in gaining their Master’s certificates, and had both served through the Great Depression when jobs at sea were difficult to find.
Born in 1899, Jack Eggleston was the older of the two and had started his sea service during WWI where he had the unusual distinction, for a young merchant sailor, of being Mentioned in Dispatches. In 1935 a cyclone devastated the mostly Japanese pearling fleet at Broome, sinking 20 luggers with the death of 140 souls. MV Koolinda went to the rescue of survivors. For his bravery Captain Eggleston received a letter of gratitude and inscribed gold watch from the Commonwealth Government. Overall, Jack was an outspoken but cheerful man, who was well respected and liked a drink.
Born in 1902, Ken Reynolds was three years younger than his captain, and was the very opposite in character; being of a serious disposition he was quiet and rarely drank, which in those days was unusual. Ken was a very private man and rather aloof, he was a stickler for regulations and a keen disciplinarian. In a small shipping company, always in the shadow of his captain, he had to wait patiently, and possibly frustratingly for many years, to be given the opportunity for his own command. The difference in pay between Chief Officer on £35 p/m and Master on £70 p/m may also have led to resentment.
Off to War
After a normal run stopping at intermediate ports, Koolama reached Darwin on 10 January 1942. The port was now full of shipping preparing for war. After discharging her passengers and cargo and preparing for a return journey, just 30 minutes before her intended sailing she was boarded by two naval officers who invited the captain to discharge all passengers and cargo and be ready to sail the next day for a secret destination. He was later informed that he would be carrying up to 400 troops together with their equipment in support of troops from the 8th Division already at Kupang in Dutch West Timor (Sparrow Force) and those on the Dutch island of Ambon (Gull Force).
Escorted by HMAS Warrego, they sailed on the afternoon of 17 January. By this time Koolama was armed with a 0.303 machine gun on either bridge wing and a 50 mm gun on the poop deck. The latter was intended to ward off submarines; it could not elevate above 15 degrees and was therefore useless as an anti-aircraft weapon. In her new-found role lookouts were doubled and the guns were manned by onboard troops, although the ship now carried a ‘Gunner’ amongst her merchant crew. They had to become used to station keeping and zig-zag patterns, altering course every ten to fifteen minutes.
Kupang was reached safely on 19 January with the ship anchoring off the harbor and disembarking troops and supplies using her boats. It was learnt that another merchantman had been bombed and sunk nearby. Later they were joined by an old American WWI four stacker USS Pilsbury. They left Kupang on the afternoon of 21 January and arrived off Ambon about 24 hours later, and after negotiating the Dutch minefield they came alongside. Here the situation was more tense as a Japanese submarine had been sighted which was fired upon by the US destroyer and bombed by an RAAF Hudson aircraft, with unknown results. This action attracted the attention of a Japanese reconnaissance plane which was chased away by the Australian bomber.
After disembarking the Australian troops, at the request of the Dutch authorities they embarked 80 civilian evacuees, mainly Dutch women and children. Because of the possibility of a Japanese attack they left Ambon under cover of darkness and arrived back in Darwin at noon on Saturday 24 January. The Dutch passengers remained on board the ship which sailed south under the escort of HMAS Swan. After clearing port, the escort dropped depth charges on a suspected submarine. They reached Fremantle at 10.00 am on 2 February.
The Final Voyage
The final voyage of this splendid ship began at 3.30 pm on a hot midsummer’s day, Tuesday 10 February 1942. While HMAS Sydney had been sunk by the German auxiliary cruiser Kormoran off the WA coast a few months earlier and the Japanese presence was getting ever closer, no escort was provided, and ships were not yet sailing in convoy. On this voyage however 14 Army personnel were added to the passenger list, going as far as Wyndham; it is assumed they helped to man the ship’s armament.
The ship was still painted in her peacetime colours and in addition to her armament the only other precaution was to darken ship at night. Koolama maintained her normal run with stops, sometimes for only a few hours, at Geraldton, Carnarvon, Onslow, Cossack, Simpsons Point, Port Headland, Broome and Derby. With these intermediate ports behind her she sailed from Derby at about 3 pm on Thursday 19 February into a perfect evening and starry night, with the sun rising at 5.50 am the next morning.
Bombed and Beached
At 11.30 am the alarm bells were rung when an aircraft was sighted which proved to be a Japanese reconnaissance plane. As the plane circled the ship, fire was opened from the bridge-mounted machine guns; for a while the larger calibre after gun joined in but it proved worthless in the AA role. The ship carried out evasive action by twisting and turning at regular intervals so as not to present a steady target.
The aircraft then dived from about 800 metres and dropped three or four bombs which luckily all missed but some were dangerously near misses. The ship radioed that she was being attacked and gave her position as 35 km off Cape Londonderry. The attacker then flew off, presumably to his base in Ambon about 1200 km distant.
Peace did not last long as at about 1.30 pm three Kawanishi Type 97 float planes2 positioned themselves in an arrow formation. On their first pass a bomb hit the ship. The Captain ordered that oil drums on the upper deck be lit, with the smoke to confuse the enemy into thinking severe damage had been done. The planes then returned for a second run in which they released the remainder of their bombs. In a little over 30 minutes they were gone and Koolama was severely damaged, with at least three direct hits. It was later discovered that one unexploded bomb lay deep in her engine room. An SOS had been sent which was picked up in Darwin and relayed to the nearest settlement at the Kalumburu Catholic Mission.
Surprisingly the injuries amongst passengers and crew were minimal. One passenger, Bluey Plummer, had been struck by a bomb fragment and was badly injured with a large head wound. Two others received shrapnel wounds.
The ship was still able to make headway but water was rising in the damaged holds and engine room. In assessing the seriousness of the damage, a decision was made to try and save the ship and if necessary evacuate all non-essential personnel. The nearest port, Wyndham, was 150 nautical miles away; the advantage of this port was its large meatworks with an extensive engineering workshop. However, it was agreed the ship could not be kept afloat long enough to make this port without first having repairs made to stem the flooding.
On making the coast the Captain ordered ‘abandon ship’ and all non-essential personnel and provisions were loaded into the ship’s boats under the direction of Chief Officer Reynolds. They then found a perfect cove with its own supply of fresh water from a nearby waterfall, which they called Calamity Bay. This is where they spent the first night under makeshift tents, with armed sentries posted against would-be looters and crocodiles.
In a remarkable feat of seamanship, with no rudder and manoeuvring by main engines and avoiding reefs, and with a crew of twenty volunteers, Captain Eggleston safely anchored his ship on a good sandy bottom near Cape Rulhieres. At low tide the ship was mainly resting on the sand. By water the distance between the ship and the shore party was about five km. It was only later that they discovered that the ship was lying on a small island separated from the mainland by 500 metres of tidal water.
Survival and Saviours
Daytime temperatures were high making work routines difficult and at night the temperature rarely fell below 30 degrees C. The main problem was biting insects: swarming sandflies, mosquitoes, bush flies and huge horse flies, all seeking to feast on human blood. On the bright side, at Calamity Bay a rock pool had been discovered allowing fresh water baths.
Chief Officer Reynolds had insisted their camp be sited so as not to be visible from the air should the Japanese return. He also established an air raid lookout on a promontory which was manned during daylight hours by a sentry with anempty kerosene tin which could be banged to raise the alarm. They built a storeroom, separate accommodation for the women and children, dug latrines and even built a small hospital.
Reynolds decided that to save Plummer it would be necessary to operate. Assisted by his Second Officer, the two stewardesses and a naval rating (Heffernan) who was a passenger, they carried out the operation. Using morphine for sedation they then spent two and a half hours carefully stitching the top of Plummer’s skull into place. While the patient lost a lot of blood he survived the ordeal.
When this was done the alarm was raised when an enemy aircraft suddenly appeared overhead. It did not appear to notice the disguised shore camp and proceeded around a bend, when they heard machine gun fire followed by bomb explosions.
When the aircraft approached the ship most of her salvage crew were ashore and quickly hid in the bush. The plane came in low, raked the ship with machine gun fire then dropped three bombs, which remarkably all missed this sitting duck. The plane then flew off without inspecting damage.
The salvage crew of 21 persons now comprised the Captain, Chief Engineer Joe Welch, all the engineering staff and four volunteer civilian passengers with trade backgrounds. In a thorough inspection of the hull it was found that the worst damage was to No 4 hold which had been penetrated by a bomb. The adjacent bulkhead had been holed, letting water into the No 3 hold which was now full of rotting meat cargo. The main engines appeared to be working, two generators had been damaged beyond repair but another was operating and this was used to give lighting so they could continue work in the relative cool of the evening.
The ship’s pumps were damaged but the engineers believed they could repair these in about two days and they could start pumping out the holds and flooded engine room spaces. It was unlikely the steering gear could be repaired and for good measure the radio was out of action. They could then attempt to make the ship safe by covering the gaping holes with cement-based plugs – there was a plentiful supply of cement in the cargo.
On Sunday 22 February the Kalumburu Mission received a coded message which read: Ship beached approx 100 miles NE of Mission. Request you send party to contact survivors. Report condition of ship. Naval Officer Darwin.
The Mission replied: Will send lugger tomorrow. It will take at least four days before any report can be obtained.
The Father Superior of the Mission decided to send his junior, Father Seraphim Sanz, with a crew of seven mission aboriginals in their lugger. Unfortunately, the lugger was then at the old Drysdale River Mission about 30 km away. A land expedition was also prepared of two aboriginals carrying a letter from the Father Superior saying that help was on its way. These runners had to cover 150 km over rugged country to an uncertain destination.
Owing to a storm the lugger, loaded with what limited provisions the Mission could spare, could not depart until the early hours of 23 February.
While all this activity was going on the plane spotter sounded his warning signal but this time it turned out to be a friendly RAAF Wirraway which circled the ship but then continued on its way. The plane landed at the Kalumburu Mission and briefed the staff saying that a message in the sand said: All safe three wounded.
On the morning of Tuesday 24 February the alarm again sounded as they were overflown this time by a friendly Lockheed. This was the first of three aircraft to inspect the ship on that day. So by now it was obvious that shore authorities knew the exact position of the ship, if not her condition.
At about 4 pm the same day a small vessel was spotted at the entrance to the bay; this was Father Seraphim and his crew who were welcomed by Chief Officer Reynolds and his companions. It was to be short visit as the Father wished to get to the ship before nightfall. The Father managed to find Captain Eggleston and have a conversation with him before returning to the lugger.
The next day the two native runners arrived at Calamity Bay camp with their letter. They had travelled almost non-stop day and night across difficult terrain, swimming rivers and fording creeks to complete their trek in about 48 hours.
It was now decided to move the wounded and others suffering from fever, plus women and children, in the lugger back to the mission. This involved moving fifteen from the camp to the lugger, including the critically ill Bluey Plummer. The lugger anchored overnight, then with the aid of the morning tide reached the Old Drysdale River Mission on the afternoon of 26 February.
State Ships had hired an aircraft and sent a Mr. Gibson, a former engineer in Koolama, to the Mission to assess the situation. He later flew over the ship and exchanged messages by heliograph. While this may have been helpful, it did not have any material bearing on the situation.
A Difference of Opinion or Mutiny?
The situation at the ship was reaching a climax and they were operating in demanding conditions under increased stress as they tried to ready the ship for her return to deep water. Captain Eggleston was possibly becoming short tempered as he again returned to Calamity Cove in the evening seeking more volunteers. This may not have been helped in that his appearance was somewhat disheveled and he may have had a few drinks after a hard day’s work.
The Captain outlined his plans for trying to sail to Wyndham in the next few days as they were now able to pump water out of the holds and a favourable high tide would create ideal conditions. He asked each of his deck officers by name for assistance but each refused; deeming the difficult navigational passage to Wyndham and thus closer to the enemy was unsound, and a better solution would be to proceed south to Broome. When the Captain then addressed the group, none too tactfully again seeking volunteers, tempers flared, resulting in an unfortunate confrontation.
After the Captain returned to his ship the Chief Officer called the still smouldering crowd together and calmed them down, asking for patience and promising that arrangements were under way for those fit enough to walk overland to safety. While the Chief Officer could possibly have done more to support his Captain he did keep excellent control of those inside his camp and retained their respect.
The Long Walk
Plans were now made to send two overland groups guided by local aborigines to walk to the nearest habitation at the Old Drysdale River Mission about 120 km away. The first party comprised 28 passengers and 11 soldiers plus two guides. The second group was of 23 passengers and 31 crew plus two guides. When these had departed 44 still remained in the beach camp, including some walking wounded; ten were passengers and the remainder crew. There were a further 27 crew and passengers on the ship.
On Saturday 28 February, with sufficient water pumped out the ship floated off, and water was pumped back into the ballast tanks to keep her in position. On the same day a small seaplane landed near Koolama; she had onboard Captain Gregory from the Darwin office of State Ships. He informed Captain Eggleston that a larger flying boat was being arranged to take off as many as possible from the shore party but that all those remaining would have to fend for themselves.
At about 6.30 pm Sunday 01 March the ship floated off and the engine telegraph rang ‘Stand By’. The anchor was raised and slowly, without steering gear and somewhat unsteadily, the ship made her way across the bay. The Cambridge Gulf with its many hazards was entered about 5.30 am on the next morning and, in an incredible feat of seamanship with great credit to all involved in saving the ship, at 11.00 am they berthed alongside the jetty at Wyndham. However, she was listing badly and taking on more water than when she had started this short voyage.
As quickly as possible cargo was discharged and this continued the following morning, but with water still rising in her holds this had to be halted. To add to their woes, on Tuesday 03 March Wyndham and Broome were subjected to enemy air attacks by eight Zero fighters coming in over Wyndham, raining cannon fire on the aerodrome, the meatworks and of course poor old Koolama. Early that evening at about 4.45 pm this gallant ship had had enough and she turned over and lay to rest with her port side exposed above the waterline.
On the same day, at 7.45 am a Qantas Camilla seaplane put into Calamity Bay and within 30 minutes had taken off with 25 on board, with priority given to the injured and passengers and finally crew. Now only 19 men remained on the beach, but not for long as at 2 pm the Mission lugger pulled into the bay and took off the remainder of Koolama’s crew.
The overlanders now found themselves on the wrong side of the fast-flowing Drysdale River. But help was at hand and around mid-morning on 2 March six Mission boys arrived on the opposite bank with precious ropes. The best swimmer now plunged into the torrent and carried the rope across. When this was secured to trees and boulders the men proceeded hand over hand to reach safety. It took about four hours for all to safely cross the raging torrent.
The fittest of the party wanted to press ahead with two guides and cover the remaining 18 km to the Mission. Exhausted, battered and bruised they reached sanctuary after midnight. The remainder rested overnight and at a more leisurely pace found the Mission on Tuesday 03 March.
The Mission was now overflowing with nearly 150 distressed mariners eating into its very limited supplies. It was here that following a stroke Second Radio Officer Fred Stansfield died and lies buried at the Mission. Remarkably he was the only fatality during this whole ordeal.
At 6 am on Sunday 15 March a party of 25 volunteers departed Drysdale to help clear the Kalumburu Airfield about 30 km distant which had been recently attacked by the enemy. This was to make it ready to uplift the stranded mariners. The first planes arrived on Thursday 19 March and it was not until Saturday 21 that all had been evacuated, mainly to Adelaide.
Captain Eggleston and other survivors from Koolama at Wyndham were mostly airlifted to Perth, arriving on 15 March. The remainder made their way by ship and it was not until early April that all survivors were accounted for.
A number of inquiries were held into the loss of Koolama; the first took place just six weeks after the ship rolled over and sank. Another by the Western Australian State Government exonerated both Captain Eggleston and Chief Officer Reynolds of any blame associated with the loss. In April 1942 the Naval Officer Darwin sent HMAS Southern Cross to Wyndham under the command of Lieutenant M. Boyd to resolve the problem posed by the wreck blocking the port. This officer conducted a survey and presented a report. In summary this said Koolama had now sunk a further two meters into the mud and her port side was now only exposed 450 mm above the low water mark. There was only brief mention of an unexploded bomb in her hull.
Various unsuccessful attempts were made at salvage until April 1946 when the salvage vessel Caledonian Salvorarrived at Wyndham. After lengthy and expensive operations all this attempt had to show was that the ship had sunk deeper into the mud where she lies to this day.
Both Captain Eggleston and Chief Officer Reynolds retuned to sea with the State Shipping Service and the latter was promoted to Captain. Captain Eggleston reached the pinnacle of his profession becoming Marine Superintendent of the company. When he retired from this position he was succeeded by Captain Reynolds.
- Kangaroo had been bought off the stocks by the Western Australian State Shipping Service in 1915 but she was requisitioned for war service. While operating in the Mediterranean, deck boy Jack Eggleston in the crow’s nest spotted a German submarine. The ship opened fire with its 4-inch gun which caused the sub to dive and Kangaroo was then able to outrun her attacker.
- The Kawanishi 97 aircraft were quite large and not particularly fast. They had a crew of up to nine, including: pilot, co-pilot, navigator, starboard gunner, port gunner, tail gunner and bomb aimer. They were mostly used for reconnaissance and combat and were favoured because of their reliability. With four engines they had a maximum speed of 208 knots. Cruising at 4000 metres they had a range of 3650 km. They were capable of carrying 2 x 800 kg bombs but a frequent configuration was 6 x 60 kg bombs, which gave them greater chance of success against shipping; these were used against Koolama.