MacArthur’s Navy Jane Moorhead
The remarkable true story of the Australian ketch Jane Moorhead
There are many famous maritime stories from the Second World War which have stood the test of time, Dunkirk among them, but none more so than the little unknown Australian story of the ketch, Jane Moorhead.
The Jane Moorhead was built at Sydney Cove in 1885 by Sir Thomas Moorhead and christened in honour of his eldest daughter, Jany. The Jane was used primarily in the colony of New South Wales as a timber transporter along the main waterways of the Hawkesbury river.
As the colony grew, the Jane sailed for Hobart in Van Diemens Land where she continued to service the penal colony of Port Arthur.
After Federation in 1901, the Jane was purchased by Peter Grant Hay in 1923, owner of ships chandlers and merchants, Coulson Hay & Co. in Melbourne for transport of his Kentdale hops in the Derwent Valley of Tasmania to Carlton & United Breweries, and later his Richmond Brewery in Melbourne.
At the outbreak of war in the Pacific in 1941, the United States Army, led by General Douglas MacArthur in Manila, was tasked with the creation of an auxiliary ships service from Australia, which would become the essential lifeline of the Australian and Allied forces in New Guinea.
The Small Ships Section was founded by wealthy yachtsmen A. Bruce and J. Sheridan Fahnestock of Long Island, N.Y., who were family friends of U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt. They, their mother, friends and scientists had conducted two famed South Seas exploring expeditions in 1934 and 1940 aboard 65-foot and 137-foot schooners sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History and other institutions. During the 1940 expedition, they gathered hydrographic data for the U.S. Hydrographic Office and the British Admiralty.
From their experience sailing among the islands, the Fahnestocks concluded that a small fleet of craft, similar to “the little ships” at Dunkirk could be used for supply operations in the Pacific. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, they began work on “Mission X” in Washington, D.C. Logistics, communications and engineering specialists, along with the Fahnestock group, worked to devise a secret plan to relieve the Philippines.
However, after the fall of Singapore on the 15th of February 1942, it soon became clear to Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall that the first priority was to stop the Japanese from advancing to Australia. Maj. Arthur R. Wilson met with Sheridan Fahnestock in early January 1942 and asked if he and his brother could return to the Pacific as Army officers to put together a small ships service from Australia. On the 19th of February 1942, the Japanese bombed Darwin.
In March 1942, Roosevelt ordered MacArthur to depart the Philippines. After arriving in Australia, MacArthur determined that New Guinea would be its new defensive line. In July, Japanese forces occupied the New Guinea north shore at Buna and MacArthur would spend the next two years evicting them. The Navy’s Pacific Fleet had virtually abandoned MacArthur since Pearl Harbour, citing submerged uncharted reefs along the coast would have little or no room for its warships to maneuver without grounding.
Meanwhile, the Fahnestocks, members of their exploring group, and other officers arrived in Australia in the spring of 1942. Fahnestock’s visit to Melbourne included a general inspection of US troops stationed at Sandown Racecourse, owned by Peter Grant Hay, at which time an agreement was struck between Grant Hay, his brewery and US Army officials on the 26th November 1942 to supply Richmond beer to US and Allied troops in Egypt and North Africa, including the requisition of his ship, the Jane Moorhead.
Grant Hay was also a first cousin of Lt. General Sir Leslie Morshead, who was based in New Guinea at the time. From Melbourne, MacArthur began to hire and requisition vessels through Coulson Hay & Co. and enlist the unlikely crews from towns across Australia’s eastern and southern coasts.
Under the terms of a reverse lend-lease agreement, the US Army acquired a colorful assortment of vessels: fishing trawlers, ferries, island traders, pearl luggers, coconut plantation boats, coastal schooners and tugboats, among these the 72-foot Jane Moorhead.
In October 1942, the first orders were placed with shipyards around Australia for new vessels, which along with Australian Army and Navy orders, created a ship building boom for large boat builders in the capital cities, and tiny ship yards dotted around the coast in places like Ulladulla and Taree.
The boats were then dispatched to Sydney to be reinforced, painted grey and given an identification number “S” under an American flag.
The Grace Building in York Street, Sydney, was the HQ for “Mission X” and included military personnel and civilian specialists whose objective was to defeat the advancing Japanese Forces in the Pacific.
The flotilla soon embarked on its journey north, carrying metal matting for airstrips; high-octane gasoline; trucks, jeeps and bulldozers; spare parts; guns and ammunition; mail; boots and helmets; medical supplies, dehydrated, canned and powdered food, and Richmond beer.
As a result, MacArthur’s early forces and supplies for the New Guinea campaign landings at Pongani were ferried entirely by the small fleet craft assembled by the Fahnestocks and Grant Hay’s from Melbourne.
The crews faced some of the most tracherous ocean environments, crossing thousands of kilometres of uncharted waters. The monsoon rains, heat and humidity caused pneumonia and bronchitis; malaria, dengue fever, scrub typhus, jungle rot, and dysentery were rampant; leeches infested the creeks, and sharks and crocodiles inhabited coastal waters.
They sheltered by day under the cover of jungle estuaries, and delivered their cargo by night, returning with the wounded and the dead. Smaller boats remained in makeshift ports as transports and to deliver cargo to beachheads and along rivers.
The Jane Moorhead (S-63) was the first ship to see action in the campaign. Although the oldest vessel in U.S. service, the Jane with a crew of eight was from all accounts a die-hard seaworthy vessel, repurposed and refitted with three .50 caliber machine guns with no refrigeration, electricity or toilet facilities. The men slept in the captain’s cabin and foc’sle or on the deck at night.
The Jane’s first big mission came during the assault on Pongani at Tambu Bay, a battle that resulted in 9,000 American and Australian casualties, half again as many as at Guadalcanal. The Jane carried soldiers and ammunition from Wanigela to Pongani.
During the landing, the troops and supplies were offloaded onto double-hulled native dugouts pushed through the breakers by the men standing naked in the surf. A few hours later, the Jane turned around and headed back to Wanigela for another load.
The Fahnestocks broadcast news from the expedition to the American public via the NBC radio network. Family friends of President Roosevelt and the brothers, also visited the President before their second expedition.
The Jane came out of the Pongani landings unscathed, however she was bombed and strafed several times at Lae and Dreger Harbor and at Cape Gloucester, New Britain. When she sailed between the islands, she was attacked repeatedly by lone Japanese “Zeros,” aircraft equipped with pontoons and torpedos.
By 1943, approximately 3000 small ships were constructed during the war effort, including freighters, launches, tugs, towboats, lighters, rescue and salvage boats and a large number of barges. An additional 4000 lifeboats and dinghies were built. Around 3000 Australians enlisted in the Small Ships Section during the Second World War.
The Jane’s US and Allied service in the Pacific, is one of many stories in the Small Ships Section recorded in the archives of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra and US Army Small Ships Association that is dedicated to the brave men and women who answered our country’s call in its hour of need and helped turn the tide, to victory in the Pacific.
The Small Ships followed the US Army through the Pacific War, island hopping from Papua New Guinea to the Solomon Islands, the Philippines and eventually to Okinawa, Korea and Japan.
Following the Japanese surrender at the Bay of Tokyo in 1945, the Jane returned home to Australia from active service to Homebush Bay, in New South Wales.
The Jane and her sister fleet are the only known Australian vessels in history, to fly under an American flag during the war.
A maritime underwater archaeological survey of the Jane at Homebush Bay is presently being led by James Grant Hay in an effort to have the small ships section recognised by the U.S and Australian Government Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal.