MV Malaita

Malaita was built by Barclay Curle & Co. Glasgow Scotland in 1933 a passenger/cargo motor ship of 3,310gross tons length 351ft, beam 49ft. Pre-World War she traded mainly between Sydney and the Solomon Islands and when Japan became an active belligerent, Malaita was involved with other ships of the fleet in the evacuation of women and children from the Solomon Islands. On completion of this task she was involved in the transportation of Australian troops and equipment to Port Moresby to halt the Japanese advance.

Malaita arrived and anchored at Port Moresby on 23 August 1942; at 6.00pm troops were disembarked, but owing to the congestion of shipping, she did not berth till 5.45pm on the 27th. All discharge of cargo was completed 29 August, and the vessel sailed for Cairns Australia at 11.34am under escort of destroyer H.M.A.S. Arunta.

Just after noon, she was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine near the Port Moresby Harbour entrance. The Royal Australian Navy recorded the event:

"On the 29th August the Japanese submarine RO-33 torpedoed the transport Malaita off Port Moresby. The submarine was sunk on the same day by H.M.A.S. Arunta. Cdr. J.C. Morrow RAN was awarded the DSC for the operation. On the 30th August ships HMAS Arunta, Matafele, and Potrero towed the torpedoed Malaita to shallow water in Basilisk Passage, Port Moresby, New Guinea."

The Masters report stated:- "Basilisk Beacon abeam 12.02pm and at 12.10pm course set and 104 revs ordered on engines. Arunta on station ahead, when there was a terrific explosion which lifted the vessel out of the water and threw everything movable into the air. Malaita by this time had heeled far over to starboard, and debris was falling everywhere. Everyone ordered to starboard lifeboats and abandon ship. The ship was cleared at 12.45pm. Smoke observed coming from a galley fire, at 1.15 pm boarded the ship. The fire had not got much hold and was quickly extinguished with fire extinguishers. B P’s Matafele approached and as Malaita appeared to be going to capsize the crew again abandoned ship. About 15 minutes later decided she was not sinking and reboarded."

A Supplementary Report by the Master Captain R. Duddell gave more detail,

"The submarine was apparently lying close into the reef on the west side of Basilisk Passage, and Arunta’s Asdic detector gear could not pick it up, as I understand it they get contact from the reef. The Chief Officer, who was on the after end of the Boat Deck, saw the track of the torpedo on the starboard quarter a few seconds before it struck. The torpedo struck at No.3 Hatch just under the Bridge and appears to have exploded inside the mass of twisted steel showing through No.3, the extensive damage cannot be described. The blast blew the hatches and beams off No3 and No2. hatches, some were found on top of the funnel and the bridge. Starboard No1 Lifeboat was blown bodily over the bridge and landed on No2 Hatch. The Chief Steward had a miraculous escape, his cabin directly over the explosion was a complete shambles, and considering the amount of flying debris it is a miracle no one was killed".

Captain Eric McFadyen Ex Master Burns Philp (and the then 2nd Mate of Malaita) tells in his Wartime Recollections :"I joined Malaita beginning 1942 as Second Mate. On our last trip into Rabaul New Britain it was just as we were passing Matupi airport, that we became aware of bombs landing on the runway and out into the harbour in our direction. Fortunately they all fell short of us, and we were able to complete our work at Rabaul, and be on our way before the Japanese invasion took place.

"With Malaita now transporting troops and war materials to Port Moresby, to stem the southward advance of Japanese forces to the mainland, my recollections, of the torpedoing of Malaita were as follows. On 29 August we cleared Basilisk Passage at the entrance to Port Moresby, around noon and H.M.A.S. Arunta passed along our starboard side and took up position ahead calling up on the Aldis lamp “ Will escort you for one hour then you must proceed alone.” I had just put the lamp down when the torpedo struck amidships of No.3 hatch, and exploded on the bulkhead between No.2 and No.3 hatches. I blacked out with the explosion so close to the bridge, for as I came to, the Master and Mate had arrived on the bridge and rang stop engines. H.M.A.S. Arunta was calling up again and asked. “Why have you stopped?” My reply, “torpe”, and z-o-o-n-g Arunta was gone clear over the horizon. Seems there was a Greek ship approaching from the west, and Arunta went to direct her to an anchorage at Yule Island.

Malaita then took a fantastic starboard list, and we thought she would roll over, so we abandoned to the lifeboats and stood off.

On the 31st August Malaita shifted to a safe anchorage, and the crew commenced squaring wreckage and damage, engineers restored power. Burns Philp ships Matafele, and Montoro assisting with fresh water and stores being replenished, wireless equipment checked, the salvage tug St. Giles arrived and commenced survey of the vessel. Divers reported extensive under water damage, and it was decided not to attempt repairs at this port, and with favourable weather to attempt to get Malaita to Cairns via the N.E. Channel and the inside passage"

On 15 September Malaita proceeded under her own power at reduced speed H.M.A.S. Swan retired as escort the next day and Malaita proceeded independently to Cairns Australia, arriving 20 September and having steamed the 790 miles from Port Moresby at an average speed of 7 knots.

With her hull further strengthened at Cairns, she commenced the dangerous voyage south, sheltering from heavy weather along the N.S.W. coast, arriving at Sydney 13 November 1942. The extent of damage was so severe repairs were not undertaken until October 1945 and these were completed in April 1947.She resumed trade to New Guinea with Burns Philp and remained in this service until being sold for scrap in 1971.

Note:More detail of Submarine activity may be found in the "Lakatoi" "Matafele" and "Wartime Stories" sections, using the buttons.)