- Ellis, John
- History - general, Ship histories and stories, History - post WWII
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Wyatt Earp, HMAS Wongala
- March 2012 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
From Mawson’s post-war encourage-ment a planning committee was formed in December 1946. Apart from planning a voyage to Antarctica to seek a suitable site for a future base, it was agreed that a formal claim should be made for Heard Island. The committee approached the Australian Commonwealth Naval Board to discuss suitable ships, one to visit the Antarctic continent and the other to visit Heard Island.
Wooden vessels in the ice
Which ships were available and also suitable? Six tank landing ships, (LSTs), had been built in Scotland and Canada for wartime service in the RAN. Three remained in service after the war and LST 3201 was selected to sail to Macquarie Island and Heard Island. Mawson was aware of the merits of wooden vessels in the ice. He lived in Adelaide and remembered a wooden fishing vessel, then on loan to the Sea Scouts in Adelaide. She was built in Norway in 1919 as MV Farnefjord for herring fishing. She was sail-assisted with a fore and aft rig of two triangular sails and two headsails. Lincoln Ellsworth, an American explorer, purchased her in 1933 to support his four voyages of exploration in the Antarctic. One of Ellsworth’s goals was to make the first aerial crossing of Antarctica. Wyatt Earp, the fabled marshal of Dodge City, was Ellsworth’s boyhood hero and distant relative, and so Farnefjord was renamed Wyatt Earp.
His work completed in 1939, Ellsworth gave his ship to his expedition aviator, the Australian Sir Hubert Wilkins. Seeing the opportunity of a bargain, Wilkins sold her to the Australian government for £4,400 in October 1939. She was commissioned into the RAN as HMAS Wongala to carry stores and ammunition around the coast for a year. Most of her war service was as examinations vessel and guard ship in South Australian waters. She was paid off in July 1944. Navy had the Wongala slipped at Port Adelaide early in 1947 for a refit. The work included more accommodation, a new bridge and chartroom, a laboratory and a larger main engine. This engine would increase speed to 8½ knots and additional fuel capacity gave her a range of over 10,000 miles. The bridge, of course, was open. Lieutenant Commander Bill Cook, RAN joined in June 1947 as First Lieutenant to prepare for the commissioning. Wongala was renamed Wyatt Earp a month later and she was commissioned as HMAS Wyatt Earp in November. Bill Cook reflected later that she was probably the last of His Majesty’s ships to use sail. The refit completion was delayed by industrial disputes.
The commissioning crew marched aboard whilst she was still slipped. The commissioning ceremony included unslipping into the Torrens River. Regrettably, Wyatt Earp collided with a freighter across the river. Wyatt Earp’s CO was Commander Karl Oom, OBE, RAN, then the RAN hydrographer. As a hydrographer he had sailed with Mawson in 1930-31. A Perth survivor, Lieutenant Norman (Knocker) White, RAN, was the navigator. The engineer officer was Lieutenant Commander Harold Irwin, RANR(S) and Lieutenant Jock Yule, RAN was the third watchkeeper. The ship’s company included 23 senior and junior ratings, many of whom had sailed with Commander Oom in HMAS Warrego, his recent command. There were eight supernumeraries under the eye of Group Captain Stuart Campbell, RAAF, Rtd. He had been Mawson’s pilot in the 1930s. His charges included chief scientist Dr Philip Law and Squadron Leader Robin Gray, DFC, RAAF, pilot for the Kingfisher floatplane.
HMAS Wyatt Earp was 41.4 m long and drew 4.6 m. She was 402 tons gross and conditions were basic. There was no refrigeration or water making facility and the stowage of victuals was so tight that the
cook had to devise menus with what could be unstowed in the reverse order of stowing. The carcases of thirty sheep were stowed in a foredeck washroom in alternate layers of ice and sawdust. Wyatt Earp sailed for Williamstown on 13 December 1947. Without bilge keels, the ship rolled excessively. There were a few problems during this four-day voyage that was effectively the post-refit trial – the main engine broke down, the gyro failed, the steering chain parted and a davit guy parted. In two days these little worries were rectified and the Kingfisher was taken aboard, allowing departure for Hobart. Farewells from Port Adelaide and Williamstown attracted ministers, senators and crowds. On sailing from Hobart on Boxing Day 1947 there were three men and three children to wave good-bye. The aims of the expedition included a reconnaissance landing for a scientific survey and to identify a suitable site for a permanent base.