The port in a storm

LOCAL historian IAN DARROCH gives us a fascinating glimpse into life during Fremantle in the early years of World War II. If you want to learn more about the war years in Freo then check out his latest book Storm Haven.

• US servicemen relaxing with female staff at His Majesty’s Hotel, Fremantle 1942.

FOR many people living in the metropolitan area, the opening years of World War II contained many experiences they had first encountered during the previous war.

Fremantle residents in particular soon became familiar with the regular visits to Gage Roads of great convoys carrying ANZAC servicemen destined for the battlefields of Europe and the Middle East.

But when Japan unleashed its surprise attack on the US Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, threats of attack and even invasion suddenly loomed large.

Local citizens were plunged into increasing alarm as the forces of Imperial Japan swept all before them in South East Asia, capturing the “impregnable” British bastion of Singapore in February 1942 and five days later, brought war to Australian shores for the first time by bombing Darwin.

As the Japanese threat continued to increase, the local civil defence swung into action.

Barbed wire entanglements suddenly appeared on metropolitan beaches.

• Fred C Ainsworth, Western Australia’s only US war bride ship, 1946.

Entrances to public buildings were fortified with sandbags and glass panels in shop windows were removed and replaced with corrugated iron sheets, or criss-crossed with strips of sticky brown paper to protect against shards of flying glass.

Public air-raid shelters were built by local councils near such busy thoroughfares such as Forrest Place and the Perth and Fremantle Railway Stations.

Slit trenches were also dug in streets and parks, while several large city department stores hastily made their basements available as bomb shelters.

A total blackout of all night-time lighting in homes and places of entertainment covering the strip of coastline between Woodman Point and Little Island just north of Trigg was strictly enforced, while a further ‘brown-out’ extended 160km inland.

Motorists and cyclists were ordered to reduce the lighting on their forms of transport at night by using restricted covers on their headlights.

State authorities encouraged householders to build backyard shelters with advice from the civil defence. Householders were also encouraged to grow their own vegetables and raise chickens to supplement their diet as wartime rationing began to affect many stables, as well as petrol and clothing.

Some schools in Perth and Fremantle thought to be too close to possible targets such as the inner harbour, were closed temporarily.

Students were transferred to nearby schools instead and hours were staggered to allow original students to attend in the morning and the displaced students in the afternoon.

• A sub leaving Freo harbour

School children throughout the metro area were directed to dig their own trenches in adjoining playgrounds.

This proved to be a problem when a group of Fremantle Boys students were detailed to dig trenches in nearby Skinner Street for some elderly residents.

Shortly after they began, a unmistakably human bone was unearthed. As their work progressed, more and more human remains were unearthed. The police were promptly called and only then was it revealed the boys had been working in an abandoned cemetery.

All children were required to wear an identity tag displaying their names and blood group and carried a rolled up sugar bag secured by string to serve as a makeshift blanket.

They also carried a rubber stopper taken from a soft drink bottle, to clench between their teeth to lessen the effects of bomb blasts.

Meanwhile, the port of Fremantle expanded to become the largest Allied submarine base in the southern hemisphere, hosting vessels of the American, British and Dutch Navies.

The servicemen were greeted with hospitality they had never previously encountered, and as a result, many international marriages grew out of this ‘friendly invasion.

That resulting in the need for the converted US troopship Fred C. Ainsworth to visit Fremantle during Easter 1946, to ensure hundreds of local war brides could join their hubbies on the far side of the globe.

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