Flier pulled into and out of Exmouth Gulf for the traditional top off of the fuel tanks sixty-six years ago yesterday and today.
Exmouth Gulf is a city on the western coast of Australia. With the destruction of Pearl Harbor and Manila in December 1941, the Navy’s remaining fleet, including most of her submarines had to scatter and fleet to stay ahead of the Japanese. (It was here that submarines proved their worth, being able to sneak into Manila and deliver supplies and remove important people, papers and even several tons of gold.)
Pearl Harbor would remain a submarine base, but she was so far away from the front and important enemy shipping lanes, especially those in the south west Pacific, that the Navy realized they would need another one or two bases. At first they tried to establish bases in Java. But Java was soon taken as well, and the fleet kept moving south. looking for a place to establish their new base, most likely in Australia.
There were three main candidates on Australia’s western coast: Darwin, Exmouth Gulf, and Freemantle. Darwin was an attractive post, but it was soon bombed by the Japanese. As one of the most northern cities in Australia, it was most at risk for invasion. In addition, the waters were open, easily minable, and worst of all, were subject to huge tide changes. It could work well for an emergency, but all things considered, they had to go south.
Exmouth Gulf was next, but an idea for a base there was quickly abandoned. When the tender Pelias docked there, rough seas prevented the subs from tying up next to her. Exmouth Gulf lacked the towns, hotels and other infrastructure to handle more than a couple of submarines at a time. Even today, less than 2,000 people permanently live at Exmouth Gulf.
Fremantle, despite her distance from the front (about five days travel) had everything that the Submarine Force was looking for in a new home: a deep, protected harbor (or mouth of a river in this case) a town already equipped with hotels, restaurants, workmen, warehouses, and defensible places in case the worst came. It even had drydocks for those damaged ships who couldn’t make it back to Pearl or the States.
But being so far from the front, the Navy decided to create a refueling station at Exmouth so submarines could top off before heading to patrol and, if necessary, get more fuel to make it back.
Flier pulled into Exmouth Gulf the evening of August 3, and spent the night refueling. No one outside of Captain knew where they were going still, and the rumors were probably rampant.
After leaving the next day, Jacobson and the fire crew, Chief Gunnery Officer Lt. John Edward Casey, Chief Gunner’s Mate Charles Pope, Gunner’ s Mate Joseph Galinac, and Fire Controlman Donald Tremaine, initiated a deck gun targeting practice using an old wreck grounded near Exmouth Gulf. According to Jacobson’s memoirs, “This ship had the distinction of being shot at by more submarines than any other ship in the world. Every sub that passed would fire at it.”
In the days before I knew about Google Earth, it took me a LONG time to find the identity of this vessel, but I think I found her.
It’s the SS Mildura. Wrecked on a reef during a cyclone in 1907. Her crew made it to shore, but the Mildura stayed stranded on the reef. Several war diaries from WWI and WWII record using her for targeting practice. In addition to submarines, larger surface vessels used it for target practice, as did planes for bombing practice. In addition, timbers from her frame and decking as well as some of her iron fixtures were removed (shortly after she wrecked, long before bombing practice!) for rennovations at Yardie Homestead.
All things considered, over one hundred years later, it’s amazing that ANY of this wreck still exists!
After she finished, Flier turned north, ready for business.
The wreck of Mildura can be visited today, at the end of the Mildura Wreck Road.
Website about the three Milduras. A photo of the SS Mildura prior to her wrecking is located in the library of New South Wales, but has never been posted online.