Remembering the Forgotten Fleet

Ruth Lunney at her Medowie home.

ANZAC Day remembers previous generations of Australians who sacrificed so much to keep us free as a nation.

However there were others, now passed on, who were largely forgotten.

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One such group was the ‘Forgotten Fleet’.

Had it not been for Medowie couple Bill and Ruth Lunney, this story could very well have vanished into the mists of time.

Their book tells the tale.

It started out in 1942 when the Australian and American forces repelled a determined thrust by the Japanese to secure the airstrips and garrison at Milne Bay, New Guinea.

It was then developed into a major hub from which the allies could mount operations to push back the Japanese.

There was a problem, however.

They needed a fleet of small ships to ferry supplies to forward bases.
The American army turned to Australia for help.

They went up and down the coast requisitioning shallow draught, seaworthy craft such as tugs, trawlers, ferries, barges and other small ships.

The oyster boat ‘Stella Maris’ from Port Stephens was one of them.

As for the crew, they took onboard adventurers, those too young for military service or those too old to be recruited.
They also included the disabled.

One eye, one leg or one arm made no difference.

Bill Lunney was one of them, as was the late Frede Oulund, a Danish merchant seaman stranded in Sydney by the war.

He was wounded at Milne Bay but recovered and went on to captain his own little ship.

Frede’s wife Margaret lived independently to the age of 100 in her two storey home by the water in Lemon Tree Passage.

Bill has passed on and his wife Ruth, a former Raymond Terrace High School teacher, has reprinted the book as ‘Forgotten Fleet 2’.

As many as 1100 of the little ships, each armed with a single machine gun, transported everything from tents to tanks, bully beef to bulldozers to the frontline troops.

They returned with mail and the sick and wounded.

The ‘Stella Maris’ continued its work as an oyster boat for many years after the war and came to a sad ending when it sank at its moorings in Tanilba Bay about ten years ago.

Lemon Tree Passage also has links with another lesser known vessel which operated not as a little ship, but as part of ‘Z’ force.

Built in Brisbane in 1942, it was a replica of a Macassan Prau, which could blend in with the Indonesian fishing vessels as it landed coast watchers and spied on Japanese naval movements.

After leaving the Lemon Tree Passage marina, the ‘Bintang Siang’ foundered and ended its days on the beach at South West Rocks.

‘Little Ships 2’ is available from Port Stephens library services.


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