MV Tulagi

MV Tulagi was built by the Hong Kong and Whampoa Dock Co. in 1939, a twin screw motor vessel of 2281 gross tons service speed 12 knots length 254ft breadth 44ft. Until November 1939, she traded between Sydney and the Pacific Islands and the west coast of North America, then joining MV Montoro on the Sydney- Darwin via Port Moresby run. She was manned by twelve Australian Deck and Engineer Officers and thirty two Malay and Chinese crew.

Late in 1940 MV Tulagi was in the vicinity of where the German Commerce raiders were operating (See the page "An Introduction") and was kept under surveillance by a floatplane but was not attacked

MV Tulagi departed Sydney on 5 December 2023 (two days before Japan attacked Pearl Harbour) for Port Moresby, via Brisbane and Cairns. On 23 January 2024 Japan invaded Rabaul. At that time MV Tulagi was en-route to Darwin where on her arrival the harbour was obviously congested with Naval and Merchant ships of all nationalities, some with passengers fleeing the Japanese southward advance, others with troops and equipment for the defence of Darwin.

The Australian defensive force on Timor ("Sparrow Force") needed reinforcing and MV Tulagi was one of four transport ships- the others being USAT Meigs, USAT Mauna Loa and USS Portmar tasked for the 15 February convoy to do this. They were to be escorted by USS Houston, USS Peary, HMAS Warrego and HMAS Swan. Four hundred miles of open sea without air cover lay ahead and on board the ships were,*Aust. Headquarters Sparrow Force (11 all ranks).
*U.S. Army 1 Bn. 148 Field Artillery Regt. (560 all ranks).
*Aust Sparrow Force Sigs. Section (31 all ranks).
*Aust. 2/4 Pioneer Bn. (1008 all ranks).
*Aust. 2/40 Inf. Bn. Reinforcements (50 all ranks).
*Aust. 2/12 Field Ambulance (11 all ranks), and their stores.

Japanese aircraft heavily attacked this convoy on 16 February but due mainly to the defence put up by the USS Houston with Captain Rooks (later to be posthumously awarded the USA Congressional Medal of Honour for his command of "Houston" in the Battle of the Sunda Straits) in command, it came through unscathed. But due to detection by the Japanese Air Force, and the close proximity to their bases at Sulawesi (Celebes) and Ambon the convoy was instructed to return to Darwin. This was effected and the convoy safely entered Darwin Harbour on the afternoon of the 18th.

Thus on 19 February MV Tulagi was still at anchor in Darwin Harbour but it still had remaining on board troops of the 148th Field Artillery US Army. Then occurred the first of 70 Japanese raids on Darwin and other northern centres.

Books, personal experiences, individual recollections etc. etc. have detailed at length the Japanese air raid on Darwin, damage to ships, harbour installations, RAAF airstrip and town. these include:-
*"Darwin Fortress" by Robert J Rayner.
*In The Highest Tradition" By John Bradford.
*Darwin 1942" By Timothy Hall.
*Australia's Pearl Harbour" by Douglas Lockwood.
*The Shadow's Edge" by Professor Alan Powell.
"Darwin and the Northern Territory 1942-1945" by the Department of Veterans Affairs 2002.
Others produced unpublished accounts, for example Captain J F Thompson of MV Tulagi in his Master's report to General Manager Burns Philp & Co, Ltd. 19 March 1942.
Detail is also recorded in letters and accounts of MV Neptuna's Officers. In their various ways, they all recount a disastrous episode which was to challenge the whole nation.

MV Tulagi was only superficially damaged, but because of the large number of troops aboard Captain Thompson put the ship aground on a mud bank, north of Harper's Folly and south of Sweir's Bluff. Though in a crocodile infested creek, if the MV Tulagi was attacked everybody could get ashore. That now occurred, however later in the afternoon Captain Thompson and the Chief Engineer Mr. J.R. Ward went back on board.

(It is worthy of comment that as standard practice Merchant Mariners were classified as civilians, and as such, every person who was employed aboard MV Tulagi signed Articles of Agreement with the Master. This contract ceased when the Master ordered "Abandon Ship." Captain Thompson, when he requested the former crew members to reboard MV Tulagi was offering them re-employment. As the pay of the ship's personnel of MV Tulagi ceased when they were ordered to abandon ship there was consequently no obligation to return. It is understandable, given the dramatic circumstances, that a number chose not to do so.)

The MV Tulagi's Log (Record of Events on Board Ship) tells the February 1942 Darwin story from a seafarer's viewpoint through the following extracts :-

Gentle westerly wind, slight sea. Overcast and showery bridge and engine room watches doubled up, very strict lookouts kept at all times as convoy proceeding under sealed orders, no further report can be given until arrival at Darwin.

1.05pm 18/2/42. When vessel arrived brought up to anchor, 60 fathoms cable of starboard anchor. Strict watches kept at all times.

8am. 19/2/42. Gentle to moderate westerly wind, fine clear and cloudy weather. During this period a heavy air attack was experienced. During this raid, starboard cable was slipped leaving anchor and 60 fathoms of cable on the bottom. Vessel was put on full speed and run aground on soft mud in Crocodile Creek, in order to save life and vessel. Immediate disembarkation of U.S. troops still aboard commenced using lifeboats and rafts. During this procedure the ship was subjected to further air attack, all remaining on board ordered overside to swim ashore. All troops and crew safely ashore.

Afternoon 20/2/42.assisted by Naval working party and survivors of the MV Neptuna Engineers, 3rd Officer, two Cadets, and a Chinese fitter arrived to assist. Only five members of MV Tulagi's crew returned on board the 3rd Engineer, three wireless operators and the Purser

9.50pm Vessel afloat. Weighed anchor and proceeded. 10.43pm. Vessel brought up to anchor in 9 fathoms of water with 60 fathoms cable on port anchor.MV Tulagi after repairs proceeded to Sydney crewed by volunteers from "MV Neptuna" "MV British Motorist" six naval ratings one Chief Petty Officer and a civilian. All were signed on for the trip to Sydney. Total crew on board 25.

7.45am. 1/3/42 weighed anchor and proceeded under naval escort.7.35pm. Vessel proceeded independently.

Vessel arrived Sydney all fast alongside No. 6 Walsh Bay 12.45pm Voyage time 19 days at an average speed 11.25 knots.

MV Tulagi then sailed on various voyages with an Australian crew supplying U.S. and Australian forces in the South Pacific area of combat and on the shuttle service to Darwin with other ships of the Burns Philp fleet until 1944.

Being a British Registered ship (Hong Kong) the United Kingdom Department of Defence assumed control of the vessel in February 1944. MV Tulagi loaded with a full cargo of flour for Colombo sailed on 10 March 2024 under control of the British Admiralty in the Command of L.W. (Dusty) Millar Mr. Ward remained aboard as Chief Engineer

The ship was to be subjected to some structural alterations on arrival at Colombo and to then form part of the Royal Navy Fleet Train. Leaving Sydney she proceeded down the New South Wales Coast thence via Bass Strait and rounded Cape Leuwin. The weather was fine with smooth seas. On 27 March MV Tulagi's voyage ended abruptly.Carrying fifty four persons(crew 16 Europeans, 26 Indian, 7 Malay and five gunners of the Royal Australian Navy) she was torpedoed somewhere in the Indian Ocean by the German Submarine U532. commanded by Fregattenkaptain Oscar Junker of the First Monsun Submarine Group.

The attacking submarine had sailed from Penang Malaya, now a Japanese Naval Maintenance and refuelling base for Axis Forces, on 4 January 1944, (The U532 had sunk seven other vessels one being the USS Walter Camp, 7130 tons by the time she returned to Penang on 19 April 2024). The survivors reported that at approximately 0100 hours Tuesday 28 March, and with a terrific explosion, the ship was hit by two torpedoes on the starboard side, between number No3 hatch and the engineroom.

The following survivors record tells the rest MV Tulagi:- sank in 20 seconds, stern first and rolling to starboard with the loss of thirty nine persons. The survivors now on rafts were the Chief Engineer, 2nd Mate, 3rd Mate, Purser, Deck Cadet, 3rd Engineer, the 5 Naval gunners 3 Malays and 1 Indian

So began one of the most epic drifts of survival in the annals of maritime history. An unknown submarine followed and observed the rafts over the next few days. By Saturday 1 April most of the survivors were now naked and exposed to the elements. On Friday 21 April, twenty four days after the sinking, the fifteen were split into two raft groups, seven on one, eight on the other. On Sunday 30 April thirty four days into the drift they saw smoke from a ship on the horizon. The ship passed at about 1700hrs. apparently without seeing them.

After some time the connecting rope rotted and the two rafts drifted apart, and "we waved good bye". One of these rafts was never seen nor heard from again and no evidence was found of survivors.

At daylight Thursday 25 May after fifty eight days of drifting the remaining raft with seven aboard was greeted with "lovely" white gulls and at 1000 hours land was sighted. A large surf was breaking and the raft stood on its end as it went through the surf into calm water. At about 1110pm the seven landed on a beach on the Island of Bijoutier in the Seychelles. Hours before entering the reef the raft was surrounded by sharks and large fish. At daylight two boats approached from the Island of Alphonse to the north and the survivors were taken back to a small village and fed and clothed for fourteen days.

On Monday 12 June the seven survivors were taken to Mahe on the Island of Victoria thence by ship to Bombay. They sailed for Melbourne and then travelled by train to Sydney arriving Monday 31 July 1944.

A round voyage of 142 days 20 hours and 45 minutes, a lifetime indeed for those that lived, they being the Chief Engineer, 2nd Officer, Purser, 3 Malays and 1 Indian. It was not long before a number were back at sea.

Subsequently, awards under the Imperial Honours System were made to the following crew members:-

* John R.T.Ward     Chief Engineer  Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE)

* Richard T. Charles 2nd Officer      Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE)

* Dudley G.S.Jacobs Purser             Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE)

* Ali Bin Sarawee     Quartermaster  British Empire Medal (BEM)

* Bahu Mian x Abdul Bhooya Fireman British Empire Medal (BEM).