Editor’s note: This is the sixth installment from a 1951 booklet titled “The Seafarers in World War II.” Penned by the late SIU historian John Bunker, the publication recapped SIU members’ service in the War. More than 1,200 SIU members lost their lives to wartime service in the U.S. Merchant Marine. Earlier installments are available on the SIU website and in print beginning with the May 2020 edition of the LOG. (We are tentatively planning to post a PDF of the entire booklet on the SIU website once all of the text has been published here.) This one picks up aboard the SIU-crewed SS Coast Farmer in Australia in January 1942. Army officers had just boarded the vessel and said it was loaded with “very important” cargo that in turn was to be transported northward.
“North!” To Captain Mattson that could mean only one thing – what with the Japanese in possession of all the Pacific north of Australia except the Philippines – north to MacArthur on Bataan!
Two machine guns were then mounted on the bridge as armament, and several Navy gunners were put aboard to serve them. It was later discovered that some vital parts were missing in the guns and they couldn’t be fired, so the Coast Farmer was as well armed as though she mounted a batter of water pistols.
Not long after midnight on February 3, the Coast Farmer swung out her lifeboats, “doused” all lights, and left Brisbane for the north.
Several days later they arrived on Thursday Island off Cape York, at the entrance to Torres Strait. Here the Skipper was given detailed routing instructions, plus the disquieting news that two faster ships which had left for the same destination had been bombed and sunk by the Japanese.
Submarines, it was said, had been sighted along the course the Farmer was to take. This induced Captain Mattson to take advantage of night, and they left Thursday Island for the Arafura Sea in the face of heavy winds and seas which gave the old ship some protection from submarines on the first lap of its hazardous voyage.
They were on their own now! No American ships to call upon for aid. No friendly ships of any kind to offer succor in the seas ahead.
After passing a chain of islands held by the Japanese a few nights later, the Skipper decided they would have to stop for part of a day in order to approach a certain narrow channel under cover of night.
The channel was flanked by Japanese islands and there was a very good chance that enemy patrol boats or transports would be about.
At the time they were only 45 miles off the Japanese base at Amboina and, as dawn swept across the great southwest Pacific, the crew of the Farmer started the longest day of their lives.
The clocks ticked away minutes that seemed like hours, suspense – filled minutes that were fraught with constant danger.
Lookouts manned the bridge and crow’s nest. Every man aboard the ship walked restlessly about the decks, pacing away the dragging hours as the bright sun climbed ever so slowly to its zenith. Occasionally in the distance they could see black objects which seemed to be riding the placid surface of the sea like the conning towers of submarines. But they must have been whales or blackfish, for no sub attacks developed.
They all held their breath when several planes crossed the horizon some miles off, but these airmen ignored the little freighter entirely, for no American ship, the Japanese were confident, could venture so far north and so boldly, too.
All hands felt much better when the sun had disappeared over the Java Sea and the waters were once again clothed in the night.
The boiler fires were lit again, the throttle was opened, and the shaft began to turn over once more. They continued on their way, making the expected landfall during the darkest part of the night and passing close between two Japanese islands unobserved.
Steady Nerves A ‘Must’
Several days later they sighted the mountains of Mindanao in the Philippines, but Captain Mattson stayed clear of the land until he was sure of their position. There was no help to be had here in case the shores ahead should be swarming with Japanese. It called for steady nerves, calm judgement, and a few prayers.
Facing the Skipper now was the problem of getting ship and precious cargo up to the rendezvous point on Bataan without detection by the enemy. It was 150 miles yet to the embattled defenders of Bataan so, with an assurance from Chief Engineer George Smithers that his men could coax a few extra revolutions from the machinery, Captain Mattson threw the telegraph over to “full ahead” and on they went to whatever might lay before.
The current was in their favor and so, too, must have been destiny, for they later found out that their course lay through a mine field which the Japanese had planted just to forestall such reinforcements.
Ignorant of this peril, they forged ahead at what for the Coast Farmer was the amazing speed of 15 knots, arriving at the appointed rendezvous at about 5:30 in the morning.
At first no one was to be seen along the wooded, hilly shore, but after a while a small launch put out from a veiled landing some 300 yards away.
The men in the launch wore American Army uniforms and all hands were on the qui vive as they came up the gangway. But alert, too, were the strangers, for they drew their service revolvers as soon as they stepped over the rail. After all, the Coast Farmer flew no flag and bore no markings on her bow or stern.
Grim jaws relaxed, however, as everyone realized that the rendezvous had come off as planned and the boarding party introduced themselves as Colonel Chastine, Major Gregory and Mr. Wilder, a civilian pilot. While the crew rigged booms and tackle for discharging, Mr. Wilder brought the ship to anchor very close to shore under the shadow of a mountain rising nearly 3,000 feet above the sea, thus affording some cover from the air spotters and making it harder for bombers to attack from the land side.
In the week that followed, Army stevedores and the freighter’s own men unloaded her vital cargo of guns, shells, food and medical supplies, then took aboard $150,000 worth of tin, a scarce material of war which factories were crying for back in the states.
The Army men at Gingoog were amazed that the Coast Farmer had made it through, for they had received reports that the Japanese sank her, along with several other vessels trying to run the gauntlet to Bataan.
Fourteen-hundred miles unescorted and unarmed through enemy waters alive with Japanese planes, ships and subs – it was a feat of heroic proportions.
While the discharging was underway, the crew acquired several monkeys and a lively dispute arose as to whether they should be kept or put ashore, one faction claiming the simians would bring good luck, and the others averring that they didn’t want any part of “monkey luck” good or bad.
The “official” ship’s mascot was a scrawny cat and the chief carried his own mascot in the person of an Angora rabbit.
When the tin was stowed away, the anchor chain ground up through the hawse and the brave little ship headed out to sea.
From the shore the doughboys waved them a wistful goodbye and as Captain Mattson put his ship seaward on the tide it was with the gravest misgivings, for a Japanese cruiser had been reported not far down the coast.
“At 3:00 PM,” said the Skipper’s official report, “we were on our way, taking great care not to let the fires smoke, keeping a good lookout for floating mines, and spinning the rudder hard over when one was sighted right ahead.”
Something On Starboard
While edging south through the night, expecting at any moment to hear the hum of airplane engines or the crack of shells from a U-boat, a ship was reported coming toward them off the starboard side.
From the silhouette of the stranger, they thought for a while she was the Mormacsun, which had been scheduled for the same run.
Captain Mattson was about to order the signalman to “speak” her by blinker but an instinctive caution held back the command.
He let the ship pass unnoticed and lucky that he did, for when the two vessels came abreast several miles apart they could see that she was not a Mormacsun despite the close resemblance. Whoever she was, she was by all odds a Japanese transport.
Several days after this hairbreadth escape, they sighted Thursday Island dead ahead. Army and Navy personnel welcomed them back as though they had returned from the dead. “It’s a miracle,” they insisted.
“It’s sure a miracle, all right.”
Said Captain Mattson: “Every member of the crew behaved splendidly. I cannot say enough for their loyalty, inspiring courage and co-operation during the entire voyage.” (Deck crewmen were SUP.)
The varied adventures of the SS Coast Farmer ended on July 20, 1942, when a Japanese torpedo sent her to the bottom 25 miles off Cape Perpendicular.
One of the most dramatic and yet tragic episodes of the war at sea involved Convoy PQ-17, better known as among SIU seamen as the “Fourth of July” Convoy to north Russia.
Seamen of the Seafarers International Union and its affiliate, the Sailors Union of the Pacific, have very personal interest in this convoy, because they manned most of the 20 American freighters in the 33-ship fleet.
PQ-17 was heavily protected when it left Reykjavik on June 27, 1942. For convoy patrol and defense there was a heavy task force consisting of destroyers, sloops, corvettes, two “ack ack” ships, several armed trawlers, three rescue vessels and two British submarines that hoped for a chance to torpedo any big German men o’ war that might be lured out to attack the fleet.
Heavy escorts included the cruisers HMS London, HMS Norfolk, USS Wichita, and USS Tuscaloosa.
Covering the convoy’s flank about 100 miles to the east was another battle fleet, numbering the aircraft carrier HMS Victorious, British battleship Duke of York, USS Washington (battleship), several cruisers and numerous destroyers.