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- September 1975 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
THE SHORT AND UNUSUAL HISTORY of HMAS Boonaroo constitutes a historical first in the story of the RAN. It was the first, and so far the only, occasion on which the RAN has commissioned and operated a merchant ship in peacetime because of an industrial dispute.
In February 1967, during the escalation of the Vietnam War which followed Australia’s involvement in it, the Seamen’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 freighter MV 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, Mr. 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 should not be involved. Mr. B. 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 the President, Mr. Albert Monk, advised the Seamen’s Union to man the ship voluntarily. When they refused the Government stepped in and ordered the RAN to man Boonaroo. The ACTU then instructed Mr. C. Fitzgibbon of the Waterside Workers’ Federation and other unions involved to work normally to load the cargo.
MV Boonaroo is one of five ‘B’ class freighters, the largest general cargo ships operated by the ANL at the time. Three are motor vessels and two steamships, and Boonaroo was the first of the former, commissioned in 1953. All the class have aboriginal names, the sister ships being Baralga, Bulwarra, Bilkurra and Binburra. Load displacement is 9,400 tons and deadweight tonnage 6,450 tons. Length overall is 405 feet, beam 53 feet and deep load draught 22’6″. The main engine is a two-stroke single acting 4 cylinder Doxford diesel developing 2,800 IHP, with a fuel consumption of 8 tons per day. This gives the ship a top speed of 11½ knots. She has 5 hatches and holds, one 25-ton and sixteen 5-ton derricks. Her port of registry is Melbourne and she is 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 fairly advanced state of rust on the outside of the hull and superstructure. On the navigational side she was equipped with a small gyro compass, a standard magnetic compass and binnacle, a commercial radar set with ‘ship’s head up’ presentation, and VHF radio.
When the RAN was ordered to man Boonaroo I was captain of HMAS Vendetta, then refitting at Sydney. I was told at the Fleet captain’s meeting on 28th February, much to my surprise, to get myself to Melbourne as quickly as I could, report to HMAS Lonsdale and stand by to commission Boonaroo, which was berthed at No. 24 South Wharf in the Yarra. I arrived there that afternoon and immediately had talks with the Department of Shipping and Transport on the details of taking over the ship. The ANL paid off the members of the civilian crew, 17 of whom were members of the Seamen’s Union, on the morning of Wednesday 1st March and at 2100 that evening I went on board with two-thirds of the ship’s company of 8 officers and 32 sailors, and held a commissioning ceremony. It must have been one of the shortest and least ceremonious commissionings ever held, consisting as it did simply of reading the commissioning warrant and hoisting and lowering the ensign, all in the dark. It must also have been one of the most unusual, because not only did we have a new RAN ship (and a merchant ship at that) but also a new RAN 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 some amusing cartoons in the press.
The rest of the ship’s company joined the following morning and the day was spent learning our way round the ship and the operation of the engines, winches, derricks and other unfamiliar equipment, and in meetings to plan the stowage of the cargo. The Departments of Shipping and Transport were very helpful and by the end of the day we were sufficiently confident to set our sailing time for 0500 the next morning. Part of this confidence was due to the fact that we had on board two officers who had served before in ‘B’ class ships; Lieut. Cmdr. George Hunt, RANR(S), who was master of the 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 specially for the trip. 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, Reserve Lieut. Cmdr. Tom Whittaker, was the engineer officer and the executive officer and navigator was Lieut. Cmdr. Mike Freeman, RAN. There were also two other watchkeeping officers and a Supply officer. As far as accommodation was concerned the ship’s company were not too disappointed to learn that they each had their own cabin with the exception of the Sick Berth Attendant and one AB who shared the two-berth sick bay.
At 0500 on 2nd March we slipped from South Wharf to proceed to the explosives berth at Point Wilson on the northern shore of Corio Bay, 23 miles from Geelong, where we were to load our cargo. The tug crews were on strike in sympathy with the Seamen’s Union, so we had to make do with naval workboats. Fortunately our choice of departure time had resulted, as we hoped, in calm conditions and absence of spectators, and the departure and passage down river and across Port Phillip were uneventful, and provided good practice for me in handling a merchant ship for the 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 manoeuverability and the big change between light and deep load conditions. Other factors are the increased effect of wind and the greater emphasis on use of the anchors. On the whole I was pleasantly surprised by the ship’s handling characteristics, especially her response to rudder movements. For that first passage I was glad to have George Hunt on the bridge, and later described for the benefit of Navy News how he ‘could be seen nervously pacing the bridge muttering ‘left hand down a bit‘ and similar nautical phrases.’
We began loading the cargo later that morning. It consisted mainly of 500 and 1,000lb. bombs, but there were also 3 field kitchens, a pile of telegraph poles, a 10-ton road tanker and several other vehicles, all of which had to be secured on the upper deck, and 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 operation was carried out by the Geelong watersiders as advised by the ACTU without serious interruption, although at a gentlemanly pace. The Departments of Supply and Transport were again very helpful, and the ship’s companies of Cerberus and Lonsdale also gave us considerable assistance throughout the operation, especially with mustering stores and securing cargo. It was interesting to learn more about cargo handling and stowage, and our lone naval shipwright was backed up in his big task of ‘tomming’ and shoring the bombs on their pallets by a team from Cerberus. Some wag was heard to remark that in the end there was more timber and dunnage aboard than cargo. We took over the ANL victualling and general stores already on board, which necessitated a high-pressure muster by naval stores inspectors who had to learn the ANL’s ‘heap’ system. The main items we added were RAN lifesaving equipment, small arms, communications equipment and stationery. By the evening of Friday 10th March loading was completed, and we sailed at 1900 only two days behind the original schedule.