MV Neptuna

Neptuna and Merkur were sister ships built in Germany in 1924 and 1925. They traded to Central America as Rio Panuco and Rio Bravo but during the world wide economic depression at the time the company owning them went bankrupt. They were sold to the Nord Deutscher Lloyd Line of Bremen, who in or about 1934 ran them on the service between New Guinea and Hong Kong via ports in competition with Burns Philp. Burns Philp approached the Australian Government to have them prevented from operating out of New Guinea. The Government declined and instead offered to pay the interest on any money Burns Philp borrowed to buy them. This was agreed to and they were purchased in 1935.

Neptuna of 5952 gross tons 393ft length and 52ft beam operated on the Australia, New Guinea, Philippines, Hong Kong, Saigon Service. Saigon French Indo China (now Ho-Chi-Min City Vietnam) at this particular time was the main source of supply of rice to New Guinea, this being the main diet of the native population.

The Neptuna departed from Sydney in August 1941 on a voyage to Hong Kong, via New Guinea with troops of the Australian Army and was carrying as cargo, logistic supplies and their two mobile 3-inch Anti Aircraft Guns. This detachment was off-loaded at Rabaul augmenting the 2/22nd Infantry Battalion group garrisoned there.

On the return voyage from Hong Kong, and whilst off the northern coast of then Dutch New Guinea, Neptuna was ordered into Madang with another of the Burns Philp ships the Macdhui, to shelter from a suspected German Commerce Raider operating in the area, and believed to be in the vicinity of the two ships. After a few days the Naval Authorities formed the view that danger no longer existed and the interrupted voyages were continued on to Sydney.

Crewed by 18 Australian Officers, 4 Cadets, and 125 Chinese, the ship was at Manila when Japan declared war on 7 December 1941. Homeward bound she was diverted to Rabaul, Madang, Lae and Salamaua, to assist in the evacuation of women and children ahead of the Japanese southward advance. With more persons aboard than her safety certificate permitted, and with enemy aircraft audible above the monsoonal cloud she remained undetected, and in due course was diverted to Townsville to disembark a number of passengers to comply with safety regulations. She reached Sydney on 31 December.

After discharge of cargo Neptuna commenced loading defence stores and equipment for the Armed Forces in Darwin. The last of the cargo to be loaded was done at the explosives anchorage: the cargo consisted of 200 depth charges, stowed in specially prepared magazines in the aft end of the ship, (Hatches 3 and 4) with a very large quantity of anti aircraft shells for the Navy and Army. Now virtually an ammunition supply ship, her dangers were compounded.

While Neptuna was berthed in Sydney, the Chinese crew became very agitated. Their home territory had been captured by the Japanese, they were thus no longer able to return home, and with Neptuna now based in Sydney, they sought and were granted better conditions and increased remuneration.
Industrial stoppages by waterside labour ("wharfies") caused frequent cargo loading delays. They came at a time critical to Australia's survival. The ship eventually sailed from Sydney at the end of January 1942, calling at Brisbane to load cargo and a full complement of Army troops to strengthen the garrison at Darwin. Naval escort Brisbane to Darwin was provided.
Arriving at her destination 12 February 1942. Neptuna was given berthing priority, and went alongside the main wharf to disembark the troops.
Disembarkation completed, Neptuna was ordered by the Naval Officer In Charge (N.O.I.C.) to a particular anchorage in Darwin harbour, the port being congested with shipping both Navy and Merchant Navy.

On 18 February a convoy escorted by the Cruiser U.S.S. Houston, the Destroyer U.S.S. Peary and the Sloops H.M.A.S. Swan, and H.M.A.S. Warrego, returned to Darwin Harbour. They had been attacked by Japanese aircraft, whilst attempting to land "Australian" and "U.S." troops on Timor to reinforce ‘Sparrow Force". (See the Burns Philp ship Tulagi story for more detail on this) consisting mainly of the 2/43 Infantry Battalion, and the 2/2nd. Independent Commando Company of the A.I.F. who were already opposing the Japanese Forces on Timor. Amongst the ships of this convoy was the Burns Philp ship Tulagi.

Neptuna after arrival at Darwin 12 February had been notified she would be at anchor for some time. The Chief Engineer thus decided to do a necessary piston replacement in the port engine. This meant that in the event of any power being required, only the starboard engine was available a risky procedure. Late on 18 February, instructions were received to berth early on the 19th and this was successfully accomplished at 9am. using one engine.

The wharf labourers commenced discharging the general cargo on to the wharf. H.M.A.S. Swan came alongside Neptuna’s starboard side aft, and the Navy then sent in a working party under the supervision of a Petty Officer (P.O.) to commence passing the high explosive anti-aircraft shells onto the Swan, which had depleted her stock of ammunition whilst defending the convoy en route to Timor.

At this juncture the P.O. was approached by the waterside workers union delegate ("the delo"), demanding that the naval party cease passing the shells aboard Swan, as the ammunition was cargo, and cargo discharge was the work of wharf labourers not naval ratings. the P.O. told "The delo" get out of the way of my men, or they would toss him into the harbour". The waterside workers were annoyed by this, and seeing Neptuna’s Cadets standing by, appealed to them for support. The cadets responded that they would assist the naval ratings in man-handling the wharfies over the side. At this stage of the confrontation, a sailor observed a formation of aircraft flying overhead, and remarked that the "Yanks had at last arrived." Another one said, "Look they are dropping leaflets."

Almost immediately there was a huge explosion on the wharf forward of Neptuna; the ship, hit below the waterline, gave an enormous shudder, and began taking in water. On shore Air-Raid sirens commenced to sound. Ammunition transfer stopped, Swan cast off from Neptuna and went full astern, backing off for sea room to manoeuvre, and commenced firing her Anti Aircraft Guns using the A.A. shells obtained from Neptuna.

H.M.A.S. Swan clear, the Cadets reported to the bridge for further orders from the Chief Officer, however the Master and Officers had assembled in the foyer aft of the Saloon.

Third Officer B.Deburca left the group and approached the aft end of the ship, where at No.3 and 4 hatches the ammunition magazine stowage was still open, to assess the situation. The Master, Capt. Michie, was standing outside the foyer, observing the chaos and confusion that a direct hit by a bomb had created. The wharf turntable area had received a direct hit, and was now completely destroyed The storage tank farm ashore had also received a direct hit, and oil was now gushing out of the pipeline and onto the wharf and into the harbour. Any escape via this area was now impossible. The First and Second Mates with three Engineers went to the assembly area and waited for command orders.

Neptuna then received a direct hit from a bomb, injuring the Ship’s Surgeon Dr.J.Hyde and Cadet J. Knight and both now found their legs pinned. Fire had broken out, they were unable to move with the amount of debris on top of them but a second bomb followed and exploded close by, dislodging the debris which allowed them to get free Although both were injured, Dr.Hyde went out on deck, where he found Capt. Michie badly wounded and dying, while Cadet Knight descended to "D" Deck, crossed to the Engineer’s alleyway and up onto the main deck at No. 3 Hatch, to find the Third Mate Deburca ordering the Chinese crew, and rigging hatch planking, to make a gangway onto the wharf to escape the now badly listing Neptuna.

In consultation with Chief Engineer J. Mc Namara, now on deck as nothing further could be done in the engine room, Deburca now ordered "Abandon Ship" and saw that everyone still alive on board escaped the ship, and where possible had a lifejacket, as the only egress available was over the side, either from the ship or the wharf. Neptuna was now burning badly, and the oil from the pipeline was alight on the harbour.

Most of the surviving ship’s company were rescued from the wharf and the harbour, and taken aboard H.M.A.S. Platypus, a depot ship being used as a casualty clearing station. In the water Dr. Hyde had placed the badly wounded Cadet Stobo on a wooden plank and both were rescued from the harbour by motor launch. Cadet Stobo died shortly afterwards aboard H.M.A.S. Platypus

When the fire entered No.3 and No. 4 hatch Neptuna blew herself apart, with a huge atomic style mushroom cloud created by the explosion of the ammunition still remaining aboard.

The following members of the ship’s company had been Killed In Action (K.I.A.) or died of wounds:-

  • W.Michie - Master.
  • J.Gillies - 1st Officer.
  • J.Forman - 2nd Officer
  • T. Fowler - Engineer.
  • C. Cross - Engineer
  • N. Wilson - Engineer
  • R. Stobo - Cadet
  • 3 Radio Officers A.W.A. (names unknown)
  • 45 Chinese Crew Members were K.I.A. (names unknown)

Recommendations for bravery awards resulted in the following:

  • Dr. John Hyde - Ship’s Surgeon:
    Member of British Empire (M.B.E.) and Lloyds War Medal For Gallantry At Sea.
  • Brendan Deburca - Third Officer:
    Honourable Commendation.
  • John F McNamara - Chief Engineer:
    Honourable Commendation.
  • James Renfrew - 2nd. Engineer:
    Honourable Commendation.
  • John Rothery - Deck Cadet:
    Honourable Commendation.
  • George Kent - Deck Cadet:
    Honourable Commendation.
  • Kwok Sing- Quartermaster:
    British Empire Medal (B.E.M.)

An Honourable Commendation equates to the Armed Forces Mentioned in Dispatches (M.I.D.).

B.Deburca, J. F. McNamara, J. Renfrew, John Rothery, George Kent, all signed on to Burns Philip's Tulagi, the ship having been run aground and abandoned during the air raids. Refloated and crewed by Officers Engineers and Seamen from other ships, she returned to Sydney.

The Ship’s Surgeon Dr. Hyde and Cadet J. Knight were admitted as patients aboard the Hospital Ship Manunda and transported south. The other survivors were flown to Sydney by air. The Asian survivors were repatriated to Sydney, and were inducted into the Civilian Constructional Corps (C.C.C.) and at War’s end were returned home to Hong Kong.

With the benefit of hindsight the disastrous end of Neptuna, a fine vessel, may be seen as due to a combination of berthing priority decisions and a lack of readiness of the Australian community (including some expected to directly support Merchant Navy operations) to accept that the horror of war was upon them. Criticisms were made at the time, and the lessons for the future remain.

Neptuna Photo Gallery