- Periodical, Semaphore
- History - Between the wars
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Fantome, HMAS Brisbane I, HMAS Encounter
- September 2010 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Encounter was not a modern ship, but she had led an active service life, most recently involving convoy escort and patrol duties in the Malay Archipelago and Australian waters. Just the previous month she had suffered 74 cases of influenza while operating out of Fremantle, and now, as a precaution against further infection, all members of her crew (over 450) were doubly inoculated. Encounter’s normal passage speed was only 13 knots, but this had to be regulated by coal consumption and navigational requirements. Without modern navigational aids, it was sometimes necessary to arrive at certain points in daylight, while fuel replenishment, and hence range, relied on an efficient logistics system. A coaling stop in Suva would be necessary, but naval stocks there amounted to only 300 tons, so the Naval Board arranged for a rendezvous with a collier. This vessel could not, however, reach Fiji until at least 5 December.
Arriving in Suva on 30 November Encounter took on half the available coal and, almost more important, 39 tons of water. With influenza still prevalent, Thring implemented a strict quarantine enforced by guards placed on the wharf. The ship’s company completed all coaling, rather than the native labour normally employed. As no one could return from ashore, Thring communicated by letter with Britain’s resident High Commissioner for the Western Pacific, C.H. Rodwell. The news was not good. The Samoan epidemic showed no sign of abating, with deaths in Apia reaching 50 a day. Moreover, a message from Tonga indicated that conditions there were at least as bad while the facilities for coping with it were worse. On his own initiative, Thring extended Encounter’s mission to include Tonga, but to avoid further delay, landed a nine-man team under the senior Army surgeon, Major Alexander, to take immediate passage in SY Ranadi. Unfortunately, the yacht broke down soon after sailing and was forced to return to Suva.
Sailing from Suva on the evening of 30 November, Thring called for 80 volunteers from his own ship’s company should it prove necessary to provide greater assistance ashore. Despite the dangerous and unpleasant nature of the work, and the fact that any party landed would be left behind – missing their first peacetime Christmas at home – all the officers and most of the ratings volunteered. It would be difficult to find a more telling example of the Australian Navy’s tradition of ‘service before self’.
Encounter anchored off Apia on the morning of 3 December. The harbour was small for a ship of her size and, when combined with a considerable swell and strong winds, made unloading extremely hazardous. Although the ship rolled through more than 20 degrees, within six hours the landing party (six surgeons, eighteen medical orderlies and three naval sick berth ratings) and their stores were safely disembarked.
Ashore Surgeon Grey and his teams immediately set to work, yet the scale of the disaster remained daunting, and for many of those afflicted help came too late. A Sydney newspaper reported that the Australians ‘…with their motor trucks are doing wonderful service day after day gathering up the dead, who are simply lifted out of their houses as they lie on their sleeping-mats. The mats are wrapped around them, and they are deposited in one great pit.‘
Economic and social collapse
Made worse by the deaths caused by exhaustion and starvation, the two-month epidemic eventually killed 25 per cent of the total Samoan population, and often more than half the male adults in individual communities. Economic and social collapse followed.
Meanwhile Encounter had proceeded direct to Tonga reaching the capital, Nuku’alofa, on 5 December. Here the British Consul advised that, although subsiding, the epidemic had struck down 95 per cent of the indigenous population and left 10 per cent dead. The situation in the outlying islands was just as bad. Thring attempted to get Fantome to bring out Major Alexander’s party, which had been doing good work in Fiji, but the sloop had experienced a fresh outbreak of influenza and remained unable to go to sea. Rodwell had no other craft available for the task.
Thring landed his last surgeon together with five orderlies and the remaining drugs and stores, but there was little more he could do. Yet even this small contribution was of great relief to the European and indigenous community. In thanking Thring for Encounter’s ‘timely aid’, the Consul remarked:
‘Though conditions had greatly improved before the party arrived there was still a good deal of work to be done of a nature that required professional skill and knowledge‘.
The party, he added, ‘…has been indefatigable… in efforts to eradicate the disease‘.