- Hicks, George
- Ship histories and stories
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Tarakan I
- September 2007 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Rewritten by George Hicks from an article published by Lew Lind in the magazine Garden Island, January/February, 1970
|Type:||General Purpose Vessel [ex-Landing Ship (Tank), LST3 Class]|
|Pendant Number:||3017 (1946), Y14 (1947)|
|Displacement:||4,980 tons (Deep), 2,140 (Light), 3117 (Beaching)|
|Length:||345 feet 10 inches, (105.41 m) OA, incl Kedge Anchor stowage 330 feet (100.58 m) BP|
|Beam (moulded):||54 feet (16.46m), 55 feet 2.75 inches (16.83m) extreme|
|Depth (moulded):||27 feet (8.23m)|
|Beaching Draft:||4 feet 5 inches (1.34m) For’d, 11 feet 8 inches (3.55m) Aft|
|Speed:||13 knots (Fully loaded), 8 knots (Economy)|
LST 3107 was one of six WWII Landing Ships transferred from the Royal Navy to the RAN at Colombo and commissioned on 4th July 1946. She was named Tarakan in 1948. With the RAN, she served in Australian and PNG waters as a General Purpose vessel, used chiefly for dumping condemned ammunition at sea.
At precisely 8.26 on the morning of Wednesday 25 January 1950, a violent explosion punched across the water. A mushroom of black oily smoke speckled by 44 gallon drums rose high in the sky above HMAS Tarakan moored alongside at the naval dockyard.
Tarakan was a tank landing ship, one of thousands mass produced during World War II. In the post war years she had become a supply ship for the Royal Australian Navy. She had ferried supplies to Heard Island in the Antarctic and Manus Island on the equator, and was used to dump obsolete ammunition off the coastlines of Australia.
‘It was a strange bang – it seemed to go var-oom and sweep on for minutes until it swelled into a great rattling boom,’ said an eyewitness, who was walking 100 feet from the doomed ship. ‘The Tarakan seemed to swell like a boxer expanding his chest, wisps of dust eddied from the ship’s plates and then, like a flash of lightning, a flame swept the ship from end to end. Dust and smoke mushroomed to mast height and then came the explosion. Forty-four gallon petrol drums rose in the air like patterns of depth charges,’ he said.
Lieutenant-Commander Ferguson, Captain of HMAS Lae, a sister ship of Tarakan, was one of the first to reach the ship’s deck. He leapt from his vessel berthed alongside and dragged an injured worker across the deck. He could hear the roar of flames beneath his feet and feel the heavy fumes of petrol and methyl chloride, a dangerous refrigerant, hanging over the ship.
Lt Cdr Ferguson passed the wounded workman over the ship’s side to two first aid men and then mustered a rescue party to search for other casualties.
Altogether 25 men were caught in the burning ship. A quick inspection revealed that two decks had been crushed together by the explosion – there was no exit. Within minutes the steel decks became so hot that the rescue party had to leave the ship.
Twenty-two of the trapped men were in the seamen’s mess which the explosion had plunged into inky darkness. Fittings were torn from the bulkheads and the whole space was littered with distorted tables, forms and bunks. The darkness did not last for long. A dull red glow aft showed through the swirling dust and smoke. The glow spread and trapped men moaned and screamed as the heat seared their bodies.
One man fought his way to a porthole and pushed his head through. He saw rescuers on the wharfside and pleaded hoarsely, ‘Hurry for God’s sake, we’re roasting alive’.
Two seaman were trapped under a fallen bulkhead close to the flames. Three of their messmates crawled through the debris to reach them. Sobbing with pain as the hot steel burnt the flesh from their hands, they lifted the bulkheads and dragged the trapped men clear.
Five and a half minutes after the explosion, dockyard and civil firemen in asbestos suits and wearing respirators boarded Tarakan. Water and foam was poured on to the deck but after a few minutes the rescue party was forced back; there was no way of reaching the trapped men.
Flames close to fuel tanks
A second explosion was expected at any minute. Flames were now close to the ship’s fuel tanks. Great clouds of oil and bitumen-fed smoke blanketed out the sky. Fire parties from the cruiser Hobart berthed nearby were pumping hundreds of tons of salt water into the ship. There was a danger that the weight of water would capsize the vessel so the pumps were stopped.