Ping Wo’s Golden Secret

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History - WW2, Ship histories and stories, WWII operations
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Originally published in the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved) of March 2004

HMAS Ping Wo was not the most glamorous ship ever requisitioned by the Royal Australian Navy.

Described by at least one of her crew as a ‘rust bucket’, the 3105grt flatbottomed Yangtze riverboat had been built in 1922. Towing the disabled destroyer HMAS Vendetta, Ping Wo arrived in Fremantle, Western Australia, early in 1942 carrying a secret cargo of gold bullion. The events that heralded this surprising use of an old unseaworthy river boat are dramatic.

In December 1941, Ping Wo was requisitioned by the Royal Navy and manned by a scratch crew to evacuate refugees out of Singapore ahead of imminent Japanese occupation. This scratch crew comprised two officers and the European crew members from the badly damaged 10,253grt cargo liner Talthybius. The Talthybius (Captain Kent), of Alfred Holt & Co. (Blue Funnel Line), built by Scotts of Greenock in 1912, had arrived in Singapore on 25 January 1942 and, after being bombed while in the harbour, had to be abandoned. The Chinese crew members of Talthybius had all gone ashore to take their chances there and some RAN and RN reserve sailors supplemented the remaining crew of the Talthybius on the Ping Wo. Under directions from the RN Port Authority, the mixed crew set about coaling the ship and loading food supplies from the transit sheds along the waterfront.

With Captain Kent in command, the Ping Wo moved from the wharf in the midafternoon of 11 February to the Eastern Roads in Singapore, where they took on board nearly 200 European and Eurasian refugees. During the night they sailed to Java, surviving several bombing attacks from Japanese aircraft, and on arrival in Java they transferred the evacuees to other ships and proceeded to refuel and provision the ship for the journey to Australia.

While in Java, the Ping Wo was ordered to take under tow the old disabled Australian destroyer HMAS Vendetta. Vendetta had been in dock in Singapore undergoing repairs and a refit following her campaign in the Middle East. She was caught with her engines and other vital equipment dismantled, so after quickly collecting together her various dismembered parts, the destroyer was towed from Singapore by the old RN destroyer HMS Stronghold. Through Japanese air raids, the two ships made a slow and difficult passage to Palembang, in the then Netherlands East Indies. At Palembang the RN tug HMS St. Just and HMAS Yarra (Lt. Cdr. R.W. Rankin) took over the tow to Tangjong Priok. Here the Ping Wo took charge of the tow and, together with the Giang Ann and the Darvel, escorted by HMAS Yarra, the little convoy set sail for Australia.

After again eluding Japanese bombers, Yarra handed over her convoy to the old cruiser HMAS Adelaide some 200 miles south of Christmas Island. Despite many harrowing experiences with tow lines parting, bad weather and ships rolling violently, after 17 days the convoy arrived safely in Fremantle on 4 March 1942.

Without any fanfare, bank officials relieved the Ping Wo of her cargo of 10,635 fine ounces of gold bullion. During World War II, at the fixed price of £8 sterling per ounce, this cargo was valued at £85,080 sterling – a considerable fortune in 1942. At current prices that gold is worth around $3,491,000. The gold was in 21 boxes and belonged to the Bank of England, but just how it came to be aboard the Ping Wo is still a mystery. Talthybius had carried gold bullion valued at £1,000,000 sterling between Hong Kong and Canada in 1939 and August 1940, so it is possible that the gold had been transferred from her to the Ping Wo with the scratch crew in Singapore. However, the gold on the Ping Wo had always been destined for Australia and not Canada, according to the archivist at the Bank of England. It had originated in Singapore from the Straits Settlements Bank of Singapore, not Hong Kong.

Furthermore, a rusty, old, flatbottomed Chinese riverboat seems an unlikely vessel to be carrying a gold shipment, especially when towing a disabled destroyer. However, it could be argued that the tow arrangement was not made until after the gold was on board.

Even so, it was a risky endeavour. At the beginning of World War II strict rules and regulations were laid down by the British government regarding the movement of gold bullion by sea. Vessels were classified by these rules in respect of communications equipment, armament and speed. The routes used were strictly governed according to the strategic situation of the war. By the middle of 1940 fast cargo liners like the Talthybius (up to 10,000grt) were limited to £1,000,000 sterling worth of gold bullion and slow cargo ships none at all. By mid 1940 the rules had changed and liners over 15,000grt were allowed to carry sterling, while slow cargo ships under 10,000grt could carry up to £5,000,000 sterling worth of gold bullion. Nevertheless, during desperate times, desperate measures were sometimes needed.

Ping Wo’s gold was transferred by train, under escort, from Fremantle to Melbourne for assay on 17 March. On 3 May the shipment was moved by rail to Broken Hill, where all the gold bullion in Australia was stored for the duration of the war. Ping Wo was taken over by the RAN and sent to New Guinea as a stores ship, returning to China at the end of hostilities. Talthybius was salvaged by the Japanese and renamed Taruyasu Maru. At the end of the war she became war booty and was again renamed Empire Evenlode before ending up at the shipbreakers several years later. Vendetta was refitted and returned to service. She was sold in 1946 and, after being stripped down, was sunk off Sydney Heads in 1948.

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