by Pat Burnett
The short and unusual history of HMAS Boonaroo constitutes an historical first in the story of the RAN. It was the first occasion on which the Navy commissioned and operated a merchant vessel in peacetime because of an industrial dispute. In February 1967, during the escalation of the Vietnam War that followed Australia’s involvement, the Seaman’s Union decided that it would not man ships carrying war materials into the war zone.
The issue came to a head over the planned sailing of the Australian National Line (ANL) freighter Boonaroo to Vietnam with a cargo of munitions; this was the first time that such a cargo had been involved. Announcing the decision, the secretary of the union, E.V. Elliott, said he did not support escalation of the war and believed only naval vessels should be used for the purpose and civilians not involved.
Bernie Nolan, the Victorian secretary, said Boonaroo was not built to carry war materials and his members had not been told any details of the cargo or its destination. The ACTU was brought into the dispute at an early stage and its president, Albert Monk, advised the Seaman’s Union to man the ship voluntarily. When it refused the government stepped in and ordered the RAN to man her. The ACTU then instructed Charlie Fitzgibbon of the Waterside Workers’ Federation and other unions involved to work normally to load the cargo.
HMAS Boonaroo was the first naval vessel commissioned under the new Australian white ensign.
MV Boonaroo was one of five B Class freighters, the largest general cargo ships operated by the ANL at the time. Three were motor vessels and two steamships and Boonaroo was the first of the former, commissioned in 1953. All the class had Aboriginal names, the sister ships being Baralga, Bulwarra, Bilkurra and Binburra.
Boonaroo‘s load displacement was 9400 tons and deadweight 6450 tons. Overall length was 405 feet, beam 53 feet and deep load draught 22.5 feet. The main engine was a two-stroke single acting four cylinder Doxford diesel developing 2800 IHP with a fuel consumption of eight tons per day, giving the ship a top speed of 11.5 knots. She had five hatches and holds, one 25-ton and 16 five-ton derricks. Her port of registry was Melbourne and she was normally employed on the Queensland coastal run. At the time of the takeover she was 14 years old and although clean enough inside, she was in a rather advanced state of rust on the outside of the hull and superstructure. Navigationally, she was fitted with a small gyro compass, a standard magnetic compass and binnacle, a commercial “ship’s head up” radar and VHF radio.
When the RAN was ordered to man Boonaroo I was Captain of HMAS Vendetta, then refitting at Sydney. I was told on 28 February 1967 to report to Lonsdale, the naval depot at Melbourne, and stand by to commission Boonaroo, which was berthed at 24 South Wharf in the Yarra. I arrived there that afternoon and immediately had a meeting with Department of Shipping and Transport (DST) representatives on the details of taking over the ship. The ANL paid off the 37 members of the civilian crew, 17 of whom were members of the Seaman’s Union, on the morning of Wednesday 1 March and at 2100 that evening I went on board with two-thirds of the ship’s company of eight officers and 32 men and held a commissioning ceremony.
It must have been one of the shortest and least ceremonious commissionings ever held, consisting of simply reading the warrant and hoisting and lowering the ensign, all in the dark. It was also one of the most unusual, since not only did we have a new RAN ship (and a merchant ship at that) but also a new ensign, as by a coincidence this was the date on which the present RAN ensign was introduced. The occasion attracted some front-page publicity and amusing cartoons in the press next day.
The rest of the ship’s company joined during that day and it was spent learning our way around the ship and the operation of the engines, winches, derricks and other unfamiliar equipment and in meetings to plan the cargo stowage. The Departments of Shipping and Supply and the ANL were very helpful and by the end of the day we were sufficiently confident to set our sailing time at 0500 next morning.
Ship’s company, HMAS Boonaroo.
Part of this confidence was due to the fact that we had on board two officers who had served before in B Class vessels: LCDR George Hunt RANR(S), who was Master of the sister ship Bulwarra at the time, and Jim Ford, Second Engineer of Boonaroo and formerly a mechanician in the RAN, who was signed on as a Reserve Lieutenant for the voyage. The expert knowledge possessed by these two officers was of great assistance to the operation.
No doubt we could have managed without them if we had had to, but it would have taken longer and been more difficult. Another ex-Merchant Service officer, LCDR Tom Whittaker RANR, was the Engineer Officer, and the Executive Officer and Navigator was LCDR Mike Freeman RAN. There were also two other watchkeeping officers and a Supply Officer. As far as accommodation was concerned, the sailors were not too disappointed to learn that they each had their own cabin, except for the sick berth attendant and an ABSEA who shared the two-berth sick bay.
At 0500 on 2 March we slipped from South Wharf to proceed to the explosives berth at Point Wilson on the northern shore of Corio Bay, where we were to load our cargo. The tug crews were on strike in sympathy with the Seaman’s Union, so we had to make do with naval workboats. Our departure and passage down river and across Port Phillip were uneventful and provided good practice for me in handling a merchant ship for the first time.
It is a very different proposition from a Daring Class destroyer, the main differences being the single screw and rudder, the reduced power and manoeuvrability and the big change between light and deep load conditions. Other factors are the increased effect of wind and greater emphasis on use of anchors. On the whole I was pleasantly surprised by the ship’s handling characteristics, especially her response to rudder movements.
We began loading later that morning, mainly 500 and 1000 lb. bombs but also three field kitchens, some telegraph poles, a 10-ton road tanker and several smaller vehicles, all of which had to be secured on the upper deck. In addition there were some explosives items such as detonators which were stowed in a special locker embarked for the purpose. All of it was destined for the RAAF base at Fanrang, about 25 miles south of Cam Ranh Bay on the east coast of South Vietnam.
The loading was carried out by the Geelong waterside workers as advised by the ACTU without serious interruption, although at a sedate pace. The DST were again very helpful and the ship’s companies of Cerberus and Lonsdale also gave great assistance throughout the operation, especially with mustering stores and securing cargo. It was interesting to learn more about cargo stowage and handling and our lone shipwright was backed up in his task of “tomming” and shoring the bombs on their pallets by a team from Cerberus.
We took over the ANL victualling and general stores already on board, which necessitated a high-speed muster by naval stores inspectors who had to grapple with the ANL’s “heap” system. The main items we added were RAN lifesaving equipment, small arms, stationery and communications equipment. By the evening of Friday 10 March loading was completed and we sailed at 1900, only two days behind the original schedule.
The first leg of the voyage was to Cairns to fuel from RAN stocks there. It started in calm sunny weather, which gave us a day to check the cargo under good conditions and make a few minor adjustments. We also took the opportunity to exercise leaving ship stations and make ourselves acquainted with the unfamiliar boats and davits.
Boonaroo track chart
Boonaroo track chart.
This was just as well, because the further we went up the coast, the worse the weather became. By the time we reached the Sunshine Coast it was raining continuously and three cyclones were in the Coral Sea area.
We carried out cargo rounds every hour until we got inside the southern end of the Barrier Reef and the sea moderated. At our sedate top speed of 11.5 knots it took us seven days to reach Cairns, where we arrived on the morning of 17 March and sailed six hours later on completion of fuelling. The ship’s draught and length were rather critical in the entrance channel and off the naval fuelling jetty and provided more good ship-handling practice.
As we progressed through the tropics the weather improved and we rigged an improvised canvas swimming pool on No. 4 hatch, which was well patronised.
It was interesting to note how many merchant ships we passed were on the ball and dipped their ensigns to us, in spite of our disguise, and how many were fooled by it. We cleared Torres Strait on 19 March and our route thereafter was west of West Irian and east of Kalimantan and Sulawesi. The long hop from Cairns to Vietnam took 11 days and to help pass the time various competitions were organised, as well as the usual “crossing the line” ceremony.
We also practised our small arms fire and started a ship husbandry program on some of the worst rust-affected areas of the ship. On crossing the equator on 23 March we transferred to the operational control of C-in-C Far East Fleet. The only warship we met on passage was an Indonesian frigate in Banka Passage.
Cam Ranh Bay
We arrived off Cam Ranh Bay at 0700 on Tuesday 28 March, at action stations and ready for anything, not knowing quite what to expect. It was 200 miles north of the main scene of Australian logistic operations at Vung Tau and our communications with the outside world, and hence our knowledge of the current local state of affairs, were limited by our equipment.
Cam Ranh Bay is a fine large natural harbour, one of the few on this coast, and was one of the main supply centres for the allied forces. It is divided naturally into inner and outer areas and on arrival we were directed by the US port authority to anchor in the inner harbour. Shortly afterwards we were boarded by a young US Army officer from the 24th Terminal Transportation Company, which handled all cargo operations as well as manning most of the tugs and other harbour craft and providing pilots.
We had considerable difficulty in persuading him that we were RAN personnel, in spite of our uniforms; I think he believed, looking at the ship, that it was some kind of weird Aussie hoax. We shifted berth to the outer anchorage at 0845 and by 1100 the unloading of our deck cargo into lighters had started.
Floating pontoon piers
At Cam Ranh Bay unloading operations were carried out over the beaches in landing craft as well as at floating pontoon piers. The USAF and USN patrolled the base area continuously and we had our first sight of F4C Phantoms.
Next day we moved alongside an ammunition pier where men of the 24th Terminal Company unloaded our bombs. They were much quicker than the Australian wharfies but also much more casual and thought nothing of it when they dropped one bomb from upper deck level to the bottom of No. 3 hold, fortunately without serious results. By late Saturday 1 April they were finished and I breathed a sigh of relief that the main part of our mission had been successfully accomplished.
During our five-day stay I was taken on a jeep tour of the base, which covered an extensive area of sandhills. The base contained an enormous stockpile of military equipment, vehicles and munitions, much of which went unused and was eventually abandoned, as this was cheaper than shipping it back to the States. At this time the local front line was in the coastal ranges several miles to the west, held by a South Korean battalion, whence the sound of firing and air attacks could be heard. The only action at the base itself was an infrequent hit-and-run grenade or mine attack.
I was able to witness an impressive demonstration of the latest types of landing craft and techniques, given for the benefit of a visiting US General, as well as talking to some of the Phantom pilots about their flying operations. The base amenities were naturally limited, accommodation consisting of huts and tents, but the US authorities were generous in extending the use of whatever they had with us, including their well-stocked PX store.
There was one Vietnamese village inside the perimeter, into and out of which all movement was tightly controlled; the only other local settlements were outside the base area. During our unloading we were visited by a Malaysian TV cameraman filming Australian operations for Channel 7 and the results were later shown on Sydney newsreels.
We sailed on Sunday 2 April for Singapore to refuel from RN stocks before returning to Melbourne west about. We anchored overnight in the open sea 12 miles south of Cape St Jacques, off Vung Tau, to rendezvous next morning with RAAF helicopters for transfer of stores and mail. While there we established radio contact and exchanged greetings with MV Jeparit, the second ANL vessel to be requisitioned by the government to take war supplies to Vietnam, which was unloading at Vung Tau. She was still manned by ANL officers but had an RAN detachment on board to replace members of the Seaman’s Union.
On this passage we encountered more shipping off the Vietnamese coast, including several USN escort vessels and a Russian merchant ship. After the helicopter transfer we proceeded for Singapore, where we arrived on 5 April. Our passage up Johore Strait to the naval base caused considerable curiosity among the RN ships present. We berthed at the Stores Basin to refuel, sailing on completion.
We had expected to return to Melbourne west about, but were diverted to Darwin to load another cargo of bombs for return to Sydney. We proceeded via Carimata and Lombok Straits, passing through the latter with its spectacular views on 9 April, when we reverted to FOCAF’s operational control. Time threatened to lie heavily on our hands during the return passage and again an ambitious program of organised games and ship husbandry proved helpful in preventing boredom. We anchored overnight in the approaches to Darwin, berthing alongside the main wharf next morning.
Our first encounter was with Customs, who searched us thoroughly before granting pratique, and our second with the Darwin watersiders. They are a law unto themselves and the facts that the ship had been to Vietnam, the civilian crew had been replaced and the cargo being loaded was munitions, apparently caused the loading to be frequently interrupted on trifling pretexts, so that it took seven days instead of the scheduled four. However, the delay provided the ship’s company with a welcome opportunity to catch up on some social and recreational activity and we finally sailed for Sydney just before midnight on 20 April. The passage took nine days with a bit of assistance from a “plumber’s current” and was uneventful.
On arrival at Sydney we secured to the explosives buoy off Garden Island to disembark the bombs into ammunition lighters. To our surprise, although we had been cleared by Customs at Darwin we were again subjected to intense surveillance during our stay. A launch continuously patrolled the ship and officers were on 24-hour duty at Kuttabul Steps, the only place we were allowed to land.
This time our unloading proceeded quickly and without incident. On 3 May we refuelled and the ship was surveyed by the DST. We were interviewed by the media about the trip, but by this time public interest was much less than at our departure. We sailed for Melbourne at 2200 that night.
Decommissioned 8 May 1967
We berthed at No. 11 North Wharf in the Yarra late in the evening of 5 May. So the wheel came full circle and we were back at our starting point after 10 interesting weeks, under quieter circumstances, though our peace was disturbed by our third Customs clearance since our return to Australia.
The weekend was spent disembarking the ship’s company and naval stores to Lonsdale. At 1500 on Monday 8 May a brief decommissioning ceremony was held at which the ship was officially handed back to the ANL. So ended the history of HMAS Boonaroo, one of the shortest and most unusual commissions in the RAN. As far as I was concerned, there were four major main points of interest arising from the whole operation:
It gave the Navy and other departments concerned practical experience in the manning, operation and logistic support of a merchant ship.It enabled the plans for this contingency to be revised in the light of this experience.It provided a rare opportunity for practice in handling a merchant ship and cargo.It was an interesting comparison of different attitudes towards ship husbandry. ANL and Department of Shipping officers told me such maintenance is not economically viable in the merchant service.