TO former crewmates, their old ship died of shame, simply worn out and neglected.
After 20 years of faithful service to the nation, the 125-feet wooden military cargo vessel once known as AV1379 'Tarra' was declared "beyond economical repair" in April 1965. The next step was its disposal.
Swiftly sold to a French company as an inter-island cargo trader to operate from Noumea, the vessel was renamed 'Milos Del Mar'. And yet, weary from years of duty, the past soon caught up with the former 'Tarra' and it only lasted seven months in civilian hands before abruptly sinking in storm-ravaged seas off the NSW north coast.
But for the public, the hard-working small ship with previous strong links to Newcastle Harbour, was always an oddity. However, it was far from being alone. It was part of a giant, forgotten fleet.
After all, who would guess that the Australian Army had their own maritime arm in World War 2? Very few probably, unless they had seen service themselves in the Pacific Islands. There was strict wartime secrecy and only in the last few decades have details gradually emerged.
Recently I came across a copy of Tarra, the story of an army small ship (Big Sky Publishing), by author Major Jack Peel from 2020. Peel, a former crewman, reveals that 'Tarra', following her launch in Tasmania in 1945, was based first in Newcastle, and later in Cairns, employed in the common practice of dumping of deteriorating ammunition off the east coast of Australia.
Peel, who completed his marine engineering training on 'Tarra', writes that he felt an urgent need to record the history of this well-loved ship and her incredible career at home and in Papua New Guinea waters.
Peel states many people would question the justification for the Australian Army operating seagoing ships and would be surprised to learn that by September 30, 1945, some 2029 vessels of all types had been delivered to the Army with a further 167 still under construction.
In places like New Guinea, there was a great need for small ships. Neither manpower nor aircraft alone could transport the quantities of material required and often there were no facilities for big ships to discharge, Peel says.
AV1379 'Tarra' was the third last of the 300-ton class of vessels built in Tasmania before the end of WW2.
But this particular WCV (wooden cargo vessel) would apparently become the longest serving and hardest working of all these small ships.
The name 'Tarra' is said to honour Charles Tarra, an Aboriginal man who guided Polish explorer Strzelecki and his party through Gippsland, Victoria, in 1840.
After fitting out, 'Tarra's' first major task was dumping ageing and obsolete ammunition at sea.
Once on board, anxious crew members laid projectiles and bombs in rows. At the end of each row, a sandbag was arranged to prevent movement before a layer was placed on top until the hold was full.
Then, with dangerous cargo pennant fluttering, the vessel sailed about 26 nautical miles to the edge of the Continental Shelf to a spot of more than 300 fathoms depth, east of Newcastle, where dumping began.
They were dull, dangerous and tedious voyages where one slip could mean oblivion.
Using cargo nets and winches, crewmen successfully were able to tumble tons of high explosives into the ocean. Other vessels also took part. It is estimated 180,000 tons of conventional munitions were disposed of at sea east of the NSW ports of Sydney and Newcastle after two world wars.
The practice eventually ceased in 1972 under United Nations regulations.
Peel writes that onboard 'Tarra' during the first hour of dumping, the minds of crew members rushed to identify a place of refuge in the event of an accident, but there being none, they just got on with the job.
"The swell of the sea often dislodged the cargo and projectiles rolled about colliding with each other, chased and arrested by the men in the hold, which was another occasion for tension," Peel writes.
"A further hazard was when bombs bounced off the ship's side as a result of the net swinging outward (then) commencing the inward swing before the slip was arrested, sending the bombs towards the ship's side and scaring the life out of everyone."
Another time, a decaying fuse laying on top of the cargo gave off a whitish smoke. Without hesitating, the ship's lieutenant jumped into the cargo hold, grabbed the fuse and heaved it into the sea.
In 1951, the green-hulled 'Tarra' received a coat of white paint when loaned to the War Graves Commission to collect and repatriate the remains of Australian servicemen from various Pacific battle locations.
Lent briefly afterwards to civil authorities, the ship picked up copra from small New Guinea plantations where exports have been postponed by war.
The 'Tarra' then played a significant part in setting up and regularly re-supplying a remote outpost at Vanimo as part of Australia managing Papua New Guinea's defence.
The ship then trained Citizen Military Force (CMF) soldiers, including at Port Stephens. By this stage many similar ships had either been given away to various nations or scuttled.
One curious final task for 'Tarra' was participating in the bizarre Operation 'Blowdown' in mid 1963. This was to simulate an atomic explosion above the Iron Range rainforest in tropical Queensland.
Loaded with the explosives, the 'Tarra' struck bad weather sailing north and was pounded for 18 hours trying to round Sugarloaf Point (Seal Rocks). The vessel started to leak. With new military ships in the pipeline, a compromise was reached to repair the ship by pouring about two tons of concrete inside.
Peel pinpoints the rapid decline of 'Tarra' before her 1965 sale purely to neglect. She was sold only to sink soon after, abandoned in rough seas, northeast of Sugarloaf Point with the crew dramatically rescued.
'Tarra' lived a useful life. Not bad for a vessel which once carried carrier pigeons instead of a radio and had to wait until 1955 to receive navigation radar.