Scoping Freo’s history

“THERE were no girls, no hard liquor, no night life, and no entertainment,” moaned Kenneth Ruiz, from the USS Pollack, about Midway.

“There was little to do but drink beer and watch the gooney birds [the Leysan albatross] mate.”

Fremantle’s Submarines, by local historian Michael Sturma, is far from a dry read and expertly blends naval fact with colourful detail on US sailors’ antics in WA during World War II.

“Fremantle’s brothels, concentrated on Bannister street, were within easy walking distance of the docks,” writes Sturma.

“Of these, The Palms, under the supervision of Ms. Jessie Jones, became the best known.

“…In many ways, Fremantle appeared the polar opposite of Midway, particularly in terms of the availability of female company.”

During the war in the Pacific around 127 US, 31 British and 10 Dutch subs were at one time or another based in Fremantle.

Sturma says Fremantle wasn’t the US navy’s first choice, because it took around two days to get to the Asia-Pacific battlefield, but it was conveniently beyond the range of Japanese planes not launched from an aircraft carrier.

• The submarine tender USS Athedon is waved off at Fremantle, and (inset) Michael Sturma. Photos supplied

• The submarine tender USS Athedon is waved off at Fremantle, and (inset) Michael Sturma. Photos supplied

“The Americans were mainly based in the Philippines, but the Japanese attacked there, so they relocated to the Dutch-East Indies, but then the Japanese invaded Java, so they had to evacuate again.

“They did look at Darwin but it was within striking distance of Japanese aircraft.

“Australia had a couple of subs in WWI, but I think the cost was prohibitive and they always thought Britain would come to their rescue, so by WWII they didn’t have any.”

Aside from regular patrols of the South China Sea, where Allied subs tried to sink merchant ships transporting provisions to Japan, Freo subs were used to transport commandoes on British and Dutch special operations.

Sturma says one of the most famous and daring missions involved the USS Harder.

“During one patrol they claimed they sank five Japanese destroyers, and were involved in the successful extraction of British and Australian commandos from Borneo, with the Japanese hot on their heels,” he says.

“There had already been a number of failed attempts to get them out, but this time they took two Australian commandos with them, who helped make it a success.”

Sturma, originally from Kentucky in the US, moved to Australia in 1976 and works as a history professor at Murdoch university.

“I think the book is a good blend of social and naval history and is very accessible,” he says.

He has authored seven history books, four about submarines.


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