Remembering the Forgotten Fleet

In late 2013 a new display will open to the public in the museum’s USA Gallery. This World War 2 story remembers the service of over 3,000 Australian civilians employed by the US Army Small Ships Section between May 1942 and January 1947. Many objects and photographs selected for display have been borrowed from individuals or from the families of those who served with the US Small Ships. The US Army Small Ships Association Inc has been instrumental in helping museum staff with the development of this project.

So why are we telling this story?

It is a fascinating and little known part of the Allied war effort in the Pacific. The US Army Small Ships Section played a crucial role in transporting supplies to Allied troops fighting in the Philippines, Papua New Guinea and other South-West Pacific campaigns. Sailing under the American flag, they carried food, water, ammunition, mail and building and medical supplies. They collected the wounded and repatriated the dead.

Photo of

Unloading supplies from a US Army small ship, Papua New Guinea, about 1943.
Photographer Neil Sandery

Nothing about this fleet was conventional.  The vessels were largely skippered and crewed by Australian civilians considered too old or too young or medically unfit to join the Australian Armed Services. Some were as young as 15 while others were 70 years old. A small group of US Army officers led by Captain Sheridan Fahnestock co-ordinated the charter and requisitioning of vessels from Tasmania, mainland Australia and New Zealand. It was essential for these ‘small ships’ to have shallow draft so they could navigate the uncharted coastal waters of Papua New Guinea where larger vessels could not safely go. This ‘raggle taggle’ fleet included fishing trawlers, sailing craft, tugs, private launches, speed boats, ferries, landing craft and some larger ships such as freighters. This fleet grew to over 3,000 by war’s end due to an ambitious vessel building program.

Photo of

US Army Small Ships in Papua New Guinea about 1943. Photographer Neil Sandery

Photo of

US Army Small Ships personnel in 1943 Neil Sandery, second from right. Photographer Robert Bruce Irving

While researching the story of the US Small Ships, I was struck by a series of photographs taken by Neil Sandery (1917- 1946) who joined the US Small Ships in 1942. He was a keen amateur photographer and his evocative images provide an insight into the hazards and hardships of daily life as part of the US Army Small Ships service. Sandery takes the viewer on board the vessels he skippered as well as the places he visited. His is but one of many compelling stories to emerge from researching the history of the US Small Ships service during World War 2.

Sandery was the skipper of the Timoshenko, one of two trawlers involved in the advance landing of US Army troops at Pongai, Papua New Guinea, in October 1942. Timoshenko and King John were mistaken for Japanese vessels and attacked by an American bomber. Two men were killed and 18 wounded in the attack.

Photo of

US troops on board the trawler Timoshenko enroute to Pongai 18 October 1942. Photographer Neil Sandery

Photo of

Unidentified bombers overhead, Papua New Guinea, about 1943.
Photographer Neil Sandery

This exhibition would not be possible without the generosity and assistance of individuals who served with the US Small Ships Service, the US Army Small Ships Association Inc and its President Ernest A Flint, and the efforts of others who have previously researched and written about this fascinating subject.

Penny Cuthbert
Curator

Suggested Reading
Lunney B and Lunney R Forgotten Fleet 2, Forfleet Publishing, 2004
Reday L The Raggle Taggle Fleet , US Army Small Ships Association 

 

 

 

 

 

14 thoughts on “Remembering the Forgotten Fleet

  1. Hello there, and thanks for posting this short history. I have a question about the photo, fourth from top, captioned, “—US troops on board the trawler Timoshenko enroute to Pongai 18 October 1942. Photographer Neil Sandery”. Is this actually one of a series of photos made by Sandery on the Timoshenko that day? You may be familiar with John Darnton’s recent book, ALMOST A FAMILY, where he includes another photo attributed to Sandery. Do you have access to the others, and if so, how would someone go about requesting to see the others? Kind REgards, Joe H. Camp, Jr., Ph. D. USA

    • Hi Joe, I have only found two photos taken on the Timoshenko by my father on on 18 October 1942. Kind regards, Neil Sandery

  2. I am hoping that the display includes the contribution of the Dutch KPM line which was provided to General MacArthur as a single package for the US Army small ships by the Dutch government in exile and without which the initial Kokoda, Milne Bay and north PNG campaigns may not have been possible.

    My father was an officer on the van der Lijn and only spoke with economy about his experience when he was alive. I now find that he and his ship were in harms way pretty well for most of 1942 – 43 and several of the Dutch ships were damaged or destroyed by enemy action.

    Philip van der Eyk

    • Exactly Philip– One should never forget the brave achievements of the KPM freighters that helped our American troops as well as the Australian. Regards, JHC

  3. Hi,
    I am so happy to see that this exhibition has been created.
    My Grandfather was an Australian who joined after the RAN found out he was under age!
    Like so many other young men he came home a very broken man.
    To me he was a very strong role model who overcame addiction in order to help care for me.
    Unfortunately, my mother’s memories are very different, she suffered through years of his alcoholism and violent outbursts. Now she is having a lot of trouble dealing with all of that and I was wondering if you know of any support groups or resources that might help?
    A huge part of the problem has been the lack of recognition given to these Men by their own country. My Grandfather had a lot of trouble getting DVA services etc.
    Again, thank you for all the hard work you have put into this wonderful exhibition.
    All the best,
    Rebecca.

  4. My father served on board a Merchant Marine Y boat with Neil Sandery, who was the well respected captain. He asked me to see if I could find out about him and the pictures he took. My dad is 92 and amazed with information I have found for him.

    • Rebecca’s comment prompted me to revisit this area and I thought I might use the opportunity to call for any one with knowledge of the Dutch contribution that I flagged last year

      I visited the ANMM display last year and was not surprised to note that it was only about the Australian experience and this would reflect the strong views of the local association. The real significance of the small ships was in 1942 and the first half of 1943. From then on the US Army was equipped with modern machines of war, including Liberty ships, LCTs and all manner of vessels directly from the US for their front line operations.

      This prompted me to do some preliminary research and approach James Cook University to work up to a dissertation on the topic. That research confirms the significance of the heavy lift capacity chartered to the US Army by the KPM line and particularly the process of reinforcing the forward base at Oro Bay (Papua) in late 1942 and early 1943 (by converted Dutch liners) in Japanese contested and unsurveyed waters. To say this was a dangerous undertaking is an understatement and the Dutch mourn dozens killed in the operation. Anyone who has sailed on a moonless night inshore without navigation markers in unknown waters will know what I mean – and that is without the possibility of Japanese submarines and dawn air attack.

      There has been little academic treatment of this particular aspect of the US Army small ships and I was wondering if there is anyone on the ANMM list who has a similar interest in telling the story of the Dutch ships? I can be contacted through this forum or directly at nambis7@hotmail.com

  5. My father -in-law was Jim Vine, War Correspondent who travelled aboard many of these ships and also is mentioned in the book “Forgotten Fleet.” I was wondering if anyone has any photos of him during this period? Our family would appreciate them very much.

  6. My grandfather Charles Brown is believed to have served with the US Army Small Ships after his military discharge in WW2. He was from the Newcastle NSW region. For months now I have been passed from pillar to post by US authorities in trying to confirm his service. Is there anybody out there who knows of where any records of Australian personnel may be available? I am doing a family history and have received no help at this stage from either Australian or US departments. Many thanks Garry Scow – Warners Bay NSW Australia

    • Hi, Aussie military sources had no info at all. Forgotten Fleet 1 & 2 has covered so many of the men who were involved with the Small Ships and has been a wonderful source on information. After being told all records were burned, I was referred to an archive in USA to source and receive my father’s records. I will check old files and let you know who/where I found my dad’s Merchant Marine records with US Army, Department of Transport, Small Ships Division for John Joseph “Joe” Horan. On Sep 16 1943 he received Travel Orders from Secretary of War to travel to Newcastle via 2nd class rail to board ship – Lumber Schooner “Esther Johnson” one of the largest of the Small Ships at over a thousand tons and more than 200 feet long, could carry enough timber in one load to build a complete wharf. Thomas Broxom a cousin of my mother, from Newcastle, a merchant marine also served with the small ships fleet.

      • Hi,
        I totally get where you are coming from!
        My Grandfather joined as Bosun but as he spoke very little about his time and he has passed on I have been trying to find out more.
        I joined the RAN because of his influence and have been on a search ever since.
        A relative said they thought they saw his photo in the forgotten fleet and I have been trying to track down a copy but both books are out of print now so not sure what else I can do.
        The US is little help without a service number. All I want is to acknowledge his service as do my paternal grandfather who was in the Australian Army. I know he served on hostail boats and was sunk serveral times, he rescued Dutch nuns and was awarded medals but we can’t get them without his details.
        They really are the forgotten fleet, except for those of us who knew and loved them. I wish you all the best in your search.

        Rebecca.

  7. My father John Joseph Horan (Joe) born 1904 in Sydney, volunteered with Man Power to join the Forgotten Fleet. He spent some years as a British Merchant Marine on three tourist ships mainly as a steward and had returned from England in Jan 1940 after he was “stranded on the beach” at the beginning of WW2 in London. He applied to be a Tally Clerk with the Small Ships Division and then as a cook deckhand on the Esther Johnson and later as an engineer on the UST 189. He told me about his experiences – ships sinking, rescuing pilots whose planes had crashed into the Coral Sea and off Milne Bay, Goodenough Island etc. FAmily had a wonderful photo of dad diving off one of the rescue ships, wearing his old Bondi Beach LIfesaver Woolen Swimmers.. he was an experienced lifesaver and keen golfer and cricket player… Pretty fit for his age. I am hoping my sister will find that photo so we can share it with the Maritime Museum.

    • Hi Noni,

      That sounds like a wonderfully evocative photograph of your father. I hope your sister find it so you can share it with the museum.

      – Kate

      • We were lucky that we found dad’s original discharge document in his wallet and were able to source his records from the USA. Will advise the contact addresses I have on file. At some stage the USA Veterans Service paid a lump sum payment for allies who served in the US Army about equivalent back then of AUD $80,000. I mean to make a claim for mum while she was alive, but didn’t.

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