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Book Review - The Rag Tag Fleet

12 July 2022

The unknown story of the Australian men and boats that helped win the war in the Pacific

Cover of the book The Rag Tag Fleet by Ian W Shaw

By Ian W Shaw

Hachette, Sydney, 2017, 336pp

9780733637292 - Paperback

9780733637308 - eBook

Reviewed by Dr Al Palazzo

Ian W. Shaw’s The Rag Tag Fleet is not a work of great academic history, but that was never his intention. Instead, Shaw’s work is a great historical story, one that readers interested in Australia and the Second World in the Pacific will welcome. Shaw recounts the adventures of an eclectic mix of Australian mariners and the small boats they sailed which sustained Allied operations in New Guinea during the darkest months of 1942. For the military professional, this is a story of the unorthodox conduct of logistics undertaken by a quasi-military organisation extemporised from Australia’s unwanted manpower.  It is also the story of the introduction into military service of small fishing boats and sailing ships. For the military enthusiast, this is the tale of a group of men on the frontline of war and the dangerous job they did against an implacable enemy. Shaw’s book may not satisfy the scholar, but for everyone else it is a ripper of a yarn.

In 1942, the US and Australian forces in New Guinea shared a common problem. Neither had support vessels or merchant ships that could sail the uncharted waters off Papua nor access the tiny ports and villages that dotted the coast. If the Allies were to turn the tide in New Guinea the troops needed supplies, and most of it would need to come by sea. The solution was the US Army’s Small Ships Section.

Those who served on the Small Ships were neither soldiers nor sailors, nor even enlisted members of the US armed forces. They were contractors, individuals who signed-on for a set period to work on a small boat in a combat zone. In some cases, they were the captain and crew of a boat that the US had pressed into service. Australia gave the US permission to take local craft into its growing fleet, as well as to recruit from the pool of men that did not meet Australia’s service requirements. These men (and boys) were too young, too old or too unfit to serve in the armed forces. They received two sets of working dress, a pair of boots and they sailed under the US flag. They did not wear a uniform, although they were subject to US military regulations and the Australian Government taxed their wages.

This was not easy or safe work as the boats employed were not designed for distant waters or for extended periods of time at sea. Additionally, Japanese planes did not discriminate between navy ships or the trawlers of the Small Ships. Japanese aircraft swooped upon any boat they saw. Casualties among these men were not infrequent, including when the Japanese destroyed a convoy of four vessels. Throughout, Shaw brings the story of these men to life, capturing the adventures they shared and frustrations they endured.

The Australian Army also raised its own small boat organisation, which today lives on as the maritime soldiers of 10 Force Support Battalion based in Townsville. The experiences and risks taken by those who served in both organisations were similar. The only real difference was that the Australian Army enlisted its recruits as soldiers whereas the US small boat crews remained contractors to the war’s end.

Despite the daily risks they faced, when the war ended the Small Ships’s unconventional service obligation was a problem for Australian Government’s bureaucrats. As contractors to a foreign power, the Australian Honours and Awards Tribunal refused to recognise the men’s service, even deciding against giving them the same rights enjoyed by Australian merchant seamen who had sailed on foreign vessels. It was a long fight, and the men of the Small Ships suffered numerous rejections, but they eventually won their battle for recognition. In 2009, the Department of Veterans Affairs agreed to accept that these men had served their nation on active operations in war.

The Rag Tag Fleet is a fast paced and easy to read, and Shaw illuminates a small part of the war that deserves recognition. Each boat had its own personality, as did the crews that worked them, and Shaw captures it all. The result is a story of action, danger and teamwork in the best tradition of the Australian way of war. I enjoyed The Rag Tag Fleet and I hope you will too.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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