- Piper, Robert Kendall
- Ship histories and stories
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 1982 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
AN AURA OF MYSTERY has often surrounded the shipwreck on the reef off Moresby’s Ela Beach. Some rumours had her as a German raider which ran aground in the first world war. However, she was British owned and British built, but still retains an amazing historical background. Like many great heroes Pruth became more famous in death than life.
The SS Pruth was constructed during 1916 by J.L. Thompson and Sons Ltd. at Sunderland, in the north-east of England, for the Hain Steamship Company. Officially listed as a steel screw schooner she boasted a 400’ length, 53’ breadth and 26’ depth. Unladen the vessel weighed 2,945 tons and had the capability to carry some 1,753 tons of cargo.
With a cargo of galvanised iron, barbed wire, automobiles and oil, she began her final journey from San Francisco in November 1923. At Samarai there was a stop to pick up some copra and at Moresby it was planned to onload more.
The evening of 30 December 1923 was gusty and squally from the south-east as the ship edged towards Basilisk Passage. Captain Hudson constantly consulted his charts as he cautiously poked along looking for the correct passage into the harbour. A sudden very strong gust of wind on the port side, which could not quickly be corrected at the wheelhouse, forced Pruth aground on Nateara reef. The position then did not appear serious and all aboard thought the grounding was only going to be a temporary embarrassment.
A heavy south-east swell began straining the vessel that night and pushing her into a more critical position. Anchors were run out to check the drift and lightering (offloading in small boats) of cargo commenced the following day.
Lloyds of London received wireless messages on both January 1 and 2 from Port Moresby. The latter read: ‘British steamer Pruth still aground. Anticipate refloating high tide (January 4), providing weather favourable.’
Marine authorities at Port Moresby offered to give assistance but Hudson felt that he could move off under his own power at an appropriate high tide.
The refloat attempt on January 4 was unsuccessful and the master considered the risk too great for a large steamer to approach and assist. He requested as an alternative a tug from his Brisbane agents. Ten days later the Coringa arrived with diver and salvage gear.
In the meantime a temporary wharf had been hastily erected on nearby Manubada Island arid a dump made there for drums of fuel. Some 900 tons was offloaded in this manner. The small schooner, Lotus, while assisting operations caught fire and was completely gutted. One of the Papuan crewmen suffered severe burns and later died.
By January 19, due to further unfavourable weather. Captain Hudson in desperation began jettisoning cargo and fuel coal overboard. Anything to lighten the load and lift the vessel. No. 1 and 5 holds were both leaking but with the pumps keeping the water flow under control, the ship was also ‘hogged’ (caught in the centre and sagging at each end) near both the engine room and cross bunkers.
Four days later Pruth’s fate was sealed. Adverse conditions had by now driven her 600 feet further onto the reef. The position was hopeless. Lloyds were notified by the owners: ‘We have abandoned her.’
During the 1930s the Pruth remained firmly manacled off Ela Beach. To locals, visitors and tourists in transit she became known as ‘The Moresby Wreck.’ It was also sometime during this decade that her salvage rights were purchased by Mr. G.A. Stewart of Napa Napa.
In 1940, as war clouds loomed on the Asian horizon, Pruth was nearly sold to the Japanese for scrap. Prime Minister Menzies, in person, was informed of the intended sale by the Administrator and intervened on Defence advice. Metal of all kinds was then in great demand. The 15” steel propeller shafting from Pruth went to Australia in 1941, among 200 tons of other scrap metal, aboard the Macdhui. With German expansions the rest of the world was also gearing up for war and the stripped, rusty old ship on the reef was soon to serve a special purpose in the forthcoming south-west Pacific conflict.
The last quarter of 1942 saw a large influx of Allied bombers into the New Guinea theatre of war. Japanese shipping was considered a prime target to prevent the build up of men and supplies on the northern shores of PNG. Skip bombing and strafing was being considered for such planes as the Mitchell B.25, A20 Havoc and Beaufighter. These revolutionary new attack procedures required constant practice to perfect and the most convenient target for the Moresby squadrons was the SS Pruth.