On 28th March 1942 the troopship RMS Queen Mary arrived in Sydney with 8,398 Americans on board, destined for the Pacific War. These first American troops to be transported on the ‘Grey Ghost’ (the nickname for the camouflaged giant, yet fast, former liner) had embarked in Boston on the 18th February on what became known as their ’40 days and 40 nights’ voyage.
It’s been a busy few days here in Houston with museum’s Guardians of Sunda Strait exhibition. All the objects and their labels have been successfully and safely installed in their showcases or on display panels and all the graphics have been applied to the walls. The final graphic caused a few headaches though! Firstly, the paper didn’t arrive at the factory, then the wrong graphic was accidentally printed, then the colours were wrong. But we have it now and it looks great. Exhibition installation always has a contingency of a few days built in just for this kind of last minute problem!
On a dark and stormy day in Houston, Texas, museum’s latest international travelling exhibition starts to take shape.
SS Mariposa was launched in 1931 by the Matson Line to carry 700 passengers in luxury across the Pacific from San Francisco to Sydney. Stripped down to carry up to 5000 personnel, Mariposa was one of the minor ‘monsters’ of the Allied troopship fleet during World War II. The world’s biggest ocean liners, nicknamed ‘the monsters’ were requisitioned to transport troops and materiel because they could outrun most enemy ships and submarines and therefore needed fewer naval escorts as they sailed around the world.
The Polish passenger liner MV Batory seems an odd ship to be commemorated at Sydney’s North Head Quarantine Station, as it never moored there. Yet its presence is captured in concrete: ‘BRITISH EVACUEE / CHILDREN / ARRIVED 16TH OCTOBER / 1940. M.S. BATORY / VA + DS’, followed by 37 names etched into four neat panels.
In fact, despite outbreaks of influenza, measles and ‘school sores’, the Batory was never quarantined. Rather, for the British children it rushed to Sydney in 1940, North Head represented a safe haven from German bombers and invasion scares.
The 9th of December 2016 is the 75th anniversary of the lifting of the siege of Tobruk, the port on the north coast of Libya that proved such a thorn in the side of German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel during the eight months that the siege lasted. The Australian War Memorial describes it as one of the longest sieges in British military history.
Whenever the siege of Tobruk is remembered, the Australian soldiers, who formed the greater part of the garrison for most of the time, are quite rightly afforded pride of place.
“The more meetings there are, the more exchanges that take place between nations, the better individual relations are : collaboration, solidarity and comradeship are no longer empty words, but the foundations for a better understanding of human problems and a bringing together of nations.”
Dr. Vesely, 1932. Cited by Margareta Niculescu, “Once again… UNIMA”, in UNIMA 2000, UNion Internationale de la MArionnette (UNIMA), Charleville-Mézières, 2000, p.9
Lois Carrington (nee Griffiths) was a lover of language, she studied Russian, French and Latin at university, her other passion was teaching. It was a natural fit for her to answer the Australian government’s call for teachers to help smooth the transition to Australian life for the influx of post World War II migrants. So in 1949, fresh out of university, passionate and with few resources, Lois began her career to teach English “on the way”, aboard migrant ships and at reception centers across Australia.
Captain Edward ‘Tip’ Broughton was already a veteran of two wars. He had served in the Boer War (that time ‘overestimating’ his age in order to be accepted) and had been part of the Maori Battalion at Gallipoli. He later served in France and was mentioned in dispatches for his ‘distinguished and gallant service’. Broughton moved to Australia after the war and settled in Melbourne where he was a bookmaker until the opportunity to serve in the army arose again.
Ern Flint, who died on 3 July at the age of 88, lobbied for many years to earn recognition for the service of the more than 3,000 Australian civilians who risked life and limb serving under contract in the US Army Small Ships Section during World War II.
I’m pleased to announce the first winner of the museum’s #HoodsHarbour People’s Choice competition for the month of April. Myleah Bailey from Victoria has chosen this photograph from the museum’s Samuel J Hood collection via our Flickr Commons photostream. It depicts crowds at Circular Quay, Sydney welcoming home the crew of HMAS Sydney II on 10 February 1941. The ship had left Australia 10 months previously for battle in the Mediterranean and relatives were keen to see their fathers, uncles, cousins, brothers, husbands, fiancées, boyfriends and friends again. Myleah told us why this was her favourite from the Hood collection, which now forms the basis for the photograph’s exhibition label:
The faces and fashions change, but be it 1941 or 2014 the heartfelt message, and title, of this image remains the same – ‘Welcome Home’.
Our winner told me she ‘was very surprised to receive it! I really enjoyed seeing the pictures in the exhibition and there were many beautiful ones displayed.’ Congratulations Myleah!
Every now and then, a story comes forward from within the museum’s collection that astounds us. For a long time the identity of the young woman depicted in this World War II propaganda poster was a mystery. Staggeringly, just two months ago, the woman on the poster came forward. This is a snippet from Weslee D’Audney’s story which has featured in the museum’s latest issue of Signals. The exhibition Persuasion: US propaganda posters from WWII closes on 20 March 2014.
“I HAVE NEVER BEEN FAMOUS, though my face adorns a famous poster that blanketed America during World War II – and even now pops up almost weekly in a new form. I’m probably the only person alive who remembers its creation.
In 1938, on an uninhabited island somewhere between America and New Zealand, a German nobleman anchored his schooner. He had a mission. Twenty-one years previously, he’d buried treasure, or as he told the American press, ‘a chest with gold and German banknotes’. He told The Australian Women’s Weekly that a ‘plan of the hidden treasure was tattooed on his knee’ and he was finally making the journey from his country to retrieve it. There have been many labels used to describe Count Felix Graf von Luckner – war raider, Nazi spy, gentleman pirate, ‘rollicking buccaneer’, and the list goes on. Some of them are unfounded, yet some of them contain elements of the truth. So when he finally arrived, Samuel J Hood was on hand to photograph the man famed for sinking 28 Allied merchant vessels in 1917. Hood’s photographs display a glimmer of the controversy and suspicion aroused that day back in May 1938 as tensions brewed in Europe and a German war raider known as Der Seeteufel (the Sea Devil) sailed into Sydney waters in the dead of the night. Continue reading
Over the past few weeks I have been working my way through a wonderful collection of textiles, handcrafts, photographs and family heirlooms donated by Anu Mihkelson, who as a toddler migrated from Sweden to Australia with her Estonian parents Oskar and Magda in 1948.
The Mihkelson collection is one of the museum’s richest collections relating to Australia’s post-World War II immigration history. Some of the material will go on display later this year in our Passengers Gallery but in the meantime I thought I would show you a few pieces from the collection that combine two of my favourite things – history and knitting!
Anu’s mother Magda Mihkelson was an accomplished knitter who used her needlework skills to help contribute to the family income. She knitted traditional Estonian Haapsalu lace scarves and intricately-patterned cardigans to order, both while part of the vibrant Estonian refugee community in Sweden in the 1940s, and later amongst the rural migrant cane-cutting and mining hubs of northern Queensland, where Oskar Mihkelson worked.
Magda was such a prolific knitter that she even knitted up all her leftover wool as the family travelled by train from Sweden to Genoa, Italy, to board the Lloyd Triestino liner Toscana for the six-week voyage to Australia.
Anu has written a poem about her mother’s knitting that speaks volumes about women’s work, war and displacement, the industriousness of migrants, and the adaptation of European cultural traditions to the Australian context. She has kindly allowed me to reproduce the poem here and I hope you enjoy it.
She knitted when the house was asleep
Occasionally at the child in the cot she would peep
Peace around her to concentrate
With each item a little more money to make.
Jacquard, chevron, cable,
Samples set out on the table
Haapsalu scarves to slip through a wedding ring
Others to wear by those who sing
At an Estonian Song Festival.
Colourful gloves, bonnets, socks,
Patterns counted off graph-paper blocks,
Traditional snowflakes respecting the trust
Of Estonia left behind, in war’s dust.
In Sweden she did this in earnest
For she was a refugee
And her work was done for a fee.
In Estonia it was a woman’s art
To knit, crochet and dress smart
But then in 1944 with her life she fled
Knitting needles now clicked the feelings not said.
The nickel plated needles are worn
Paper ends to hold the stitches, now torn;
Small double-pointed needles
For socks and mittens and cable sweaters.
Crochet hooks in different sizes –
Later the handkerchiefs won prizes.
All the pieces tell a story
Of migration, and someone else’s war glory
My pink jacket and blue skirt with straps
Other cultures fused
The Christening shawl not used
Since I grew and needed a skirt.
All packed in a trunk
I close the lid,
On all she did.
Life was not to be a failure –
Off again, this time to Australia.
At Tully and Mission Beach
For her family safety was within reach
Swim trunks of merino
White angora bolero
Jacket with cherry bunches
Many hours she hunches
The pattern was wrong
It took so long
The client’s payment seemed a song.
Then off to Mount Isa we went
There eight years were spent.
Days were hot and dry
Still, there was wool –
And the winter nights were cool
She knitted, ready for a southern clime,
Sydney … it was time.
You can read more about the Mihkelson family’s incredible journey from Estonia to Australia via Sweden in Anu’s books Three Suitcases and a Three-Year-Old (Kangaroo Press 1999) and The View from Here (self-published 2011).
Curator, Post-Federation Immigration
In late 2013 a new display will open to the public in the museum’s USA Gallery. This World War 2 story remembers the service of over 3,000 Australian civilians employed by the US Army Small Ships Section between May 1942 and January 1947. Many objects and photographs selected for display have been borrowed from individuals or from the families of those who served with the US Small Ships. The US Army Small Ships Association Inc has been instrumental in helping museum staff with the development of this project.
So why are we telling this story?
It is a fascinating and little known part of the Allied war effort in the Pacific. The US Army Small Ships Section played a crucial role in transporting supplies to Allied troops fighting in the Philippines, Papua New Guinea and other South-West Pacific campaigns. Sailing under the American flag, they carried food, water, ammunition, mail and building and medical supplies. They collected the wounded and repatriated the dead.
Nothing about this fleet was conventional. The vessels were largely skippered and crewed by Australian civilians considered too old or too young or medically unfit to join the Australian Armed Services. Some were as young as 15 while others were 70 years old. A small group of US Army officers led by Captain Sheridan Fahnestock co-ordinated the charter and requisitioning of vessels from Tasmania, mainland Australia and New Zealand. It was essential for these ‘small ships’ to have shallow draft so they could navigate the uncharted coastal waters of Papua New Guinea where larger vessels could not safely go. This ‘raggle taggle’ fleet included fishing trawlers, sailing craft, tugs, private launches, speed boats, ferries, landing craft and some larger ships such as freighters. This fleet grew to over 3,000 by war’s end due to an ambitious vessel building program.
While researching the story of the US Small Ships, I was struck by a series of photographs taken by Neil Sandery (1917- 1946) who joined the US Small Ships in 1942. He was a keen amateur photographer and his evocative images provide an insight into the hazards and hardships of daily life as part of the US Army Small Ships service. Sandery takes the viewer on board the vessels he skippered as well as the places he visited. His is but one of many compelling stories to emerge from researching the history of the US Small Ships service during World War 2.
Sandery was the skipper of the Timoshenko, one of two trawlers involved in the advance landing of US Army troops at Pongai, Papua New Guinea, in October 1942. Timoshenko and King John were mistaken for Japanese vessels and attacked by an American bomber. Two men were killed and 18 wounded in the attack.
This exhibition would not be possible without the generosity and assistance of individuals who served with the US Small Ships Service, the US Army Small Ships Association Inc and its President Ernest A Flint, and the efforts of others who have previously researched and written about this fascinating subject.
Lunney B and Lunney R Forgotten Fleet 2, Forfleet Publishing, 2004
Reday L The Raggle Taggle Fleet , US Army Small Ships Association
Arriving in Australia in 1892, as the Australian towing industry was coming into its own, HERO remained a feature on (and at the bottom of) Sydney Harbour for nearly 70 years. Continue reading