Introducing Perth/Fremantle

Posted by Rebekah
Feb 27 2010

After December 7 and 8, the submarine force had a problem: both their bases had been severely damaged.

The submarine base inside Pearl Harbor was actually in perfect condition, but Pearl itself had been blown away, which caused numerous problems with logistics.  The hospitals were overflowing, the water covered in burnt oil and gas and debris, the entrance partially blocked with the wreck of the Nevada.  The sub base had not been targeted because on December 7, submarines were a minor force in the Navy, which relied heavily on its destroyers, battleships and cruisers, most of which now needed extensive repairs, if not refloating off the harbor’s floor.  Soon however, the Pearl Base was up and running, there was just one problem: it was very far away from key areas of the upcoming war.  They needed a base closer to certain portions of the war, near Asia.

Taken from over the USS Spadefish, the USS Tinosa arrives at Pearl in 1944. By then, most of the damage of December 7 had been removed. From navsource.org

The Submarine Base in Manila had sustained heavy damage, and the USS Sealion, hit by an airplane bomb, was a complete loss and  scuttled.  Moreover, while it looked like Japan had taken out Pearl as a pre-emptive strike to keep the American Navy from attacking, they had every intention of invading the Philippines, and did so just days later.  The submarines represented the most technologically advanced ship in the Naval arsenal and had to be moved before any were captured.  Over the course of several months, they were sent south, and before Corrigdor fell, they took with them key personnel, the president of the Philippines and his family, and famously, the “Golden Ballast” of the USS Trout:  20 tons of Gold and Silver bars and pesos, the hard assets of 12 Manila banks, to keep it away from Japanese hands.  (Submariners on that tour said when they dropped off their cargo was the most thorough inspection the Trout or the crew ever received!)

The USS Trout and her men unloading the "Golden Ballast". Trout was lost in 1944 somewhere northwest of the Philippines to unknown causes. She has never been found. Photos from navsource.org

The fleet headed south, first establishing  two submarine bases in the island of Java and another the city of Darwin in north Australia.  Java however, was soon invaded, and Darwin’s tides were too great for a large base, and city too small to support a large military contingent.

The submarine tender USS Holland moved to Fremantle, and soon, the second biggest Allied Submarine Base was booming.

Fremantle and her sister city Perth, are located on the mouth of the Swan River which opens to the Indian Ocean.  Guarding the mouth is Rottnest Island, which soon bristled with nests of anti-aircraft, large bore guns to protect the city and the Naval Base.

Fremantle already had drydocks, machine shops, a railroad and entertainment facilities.  The American and soon British and Dutch navies filled the surrounding warehouses with the additional necessary facilities.  An auxiliary base was also established 200 miles further south at Albany.

The American Naval Base was on the North Warf of Swan River, while the British and Dutch occupied the southern Victoria Warf.  Drydocks and Submarine Tenders could handle even the worst of damage: see the Growler below

The USS Growler was stalking a Japanese Freighter when the freighter turned and rammed the Growler then peppered her with machine gun fire. Her Captain, mortally wounded and surrounded by his dead lookouts, yelled, "Take Her Down" and shut the hatch from the surface. For this action, he was postumously awarded the Medal of Honor, the first submariner to attain it. At Fremantle, the nose of the Growler (damaged on the left) was simply cut off, and replaced (see right). Growler re-entered service, and was lost November 1944 near the Philippines in a depth charge attack. She has not been found.

Like Pearl Harbor, the Navy rented luxury hotels Wentworth, King Edward, Ocean Beach and Majestic, for the submariners to stay in while they were on leave.  Private apartments and penthouses were soon rented too for certain officers and men.  In addition, many submariners, reassigned to Perth multiple times, made friends with the local residents and often stayed with their families.  The Navy purchased the entire output of a brewery, the Emu Brewery, which was rationed to the submariners when they came in port.  There was swimming, horseback riding, sports, and excursions into the local nature.  Most of all, as I talk to submariners, there was the hospitality and gracious nature of the Australians that burns most brightly in their memories.

The Sub base at Fremantle, showing the Sub Tender Pelias surrounded by her sub charges. Photo from navsource.org

The Australian military had largely left Australia to fight with Britain in 1939, but with the Japanese expansion, many feared an imminent invasion, so the addition of the foreign militaries was welcome.  Moreover, since many young eligible men were at the war fronts in Europe and Africa, many local women enjoyed the influx of companions for dances, dates, and social events.  The Americans, at least, enjoyed the Australian company, and there were a significant number of marriages between American sailors and Australian women.  (This was one area where Fremantle outshone Hawaii:  many of the women near the naval base in Hawaii were already attached or married to sailors, while a far lesser proportion of Australian women seemed to be similarly attached: at least, from what I’ve been told that is).

It was the most desired base to be placed between patrols (you certainly didn’t want Midway: no girls!), and would be the base for the end of Flier’s story.  Here her crew would spend their last free weeks, from here she would leave on her last patrol, from here would two other soon-to-be sunken submarines that will come into play, and here would the survivors eventually return, and be hustled back out again, lest they frighten the outgoing sailors.

Here the Redfin is running training runs with her new captain and crew, here is the goal of the USS Robalo, now entering Allied waters, and here the Japanese eye is watching closely.

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