REMINISCENCES | The amazing adventures of HMAS Jeparit

HMAS Jeparit. Photo: Australian Navy

For most of the last century Australia was involved in war. In the two world wars alone, Australia committed over forty merchant ships as troop carriers, hospital ships and armed merchantmen.

Censorship kept the public in the dark and no-one knows the exact number of seafarers’ lives that were lost. Nor do the majority of Australians know how close we were to the war. In World War II the Germans laid something like 50 mines off our two major ports of Newcastle and Sydney and the Japanese launched submarine attacks on merchant shipping off our east coast.

Very early in 1940 the first casualty of this war was the North Coast Steam Navigation Company’s Nimben, which struck a mine off Norah Head. Seven lives were lost. Then in 1942 the Iron Chieftain was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine after leaving Newcastle. Twelve seafarers died that day.

Another of the North Coast Steam Navigation Company’s ships, the Wollongbar was torpedoed and quickly broke in half off Port Macquarie. Thirty-three crew members perished that day.

It’s been estimated that over 38 ships were sunk in Australian waters. Hundreds of mariners lost their lives at sea on these ships not to mention those Australians that served on British merchant ships. Very little recognition has been given to those who gave their lives for the war effort. Committing Australian merchant ships to the war effort continued right through to the Vietnam War with an ANL ship, the Jeparit.

With the passage of time I think it’s safe to relate of the stories of the Jeparit. In itself, the Jeparit wasn’t a terribly remarkable ship, as far as ships go. A relatively small geared bulker with a Sulzer main engine, she was no more temperamental than normal.

The three generators, ”Faith”, “Hope” and “Charity” were renowned, like all sisters, to be stroppy at times. In fact, it was said that at no time were all three in working condition at once. But it wasn’t the ship that was the stuff of legends, it was the characters that manned her.

A severe attack of larrikinism

During the Vietnam War the Jeparit was contracted by the Australian government to be the supply ship for the Australian troops. Rightly or wrongly the Seamans Union refused to man the ship (a sentiment that was shared by many who saw the futility of this war). So, the Royal Australian Navy was called in to fill the void left by the seamen.

Using Australian merchant navy officers and engineers, the HMAS Jeparit, as it became known, ran forty-three voyages to Vietnam. Bear in mind that on each and every trip the Jeparit was entering a war zone, but nonetheless, there was a severe attack of larrikinism, which, by virtue of its dangerous trade, was tolerated by management.

The stories and antics border on the unbelievable. So outrageous were they that many doubt they actually happened. But I have firsthand knowledge that they did because I sailed with some of the characters.

And this is where I have to be extremely careful because some of the “characters” may not like to see their youthful escapades on the Jeparit aired for public consumption. I know that one character, a good shipmate of mine, who is sadly no longer with us, got up to some amazing hijinks. But his family may have access to a very good libel lawyer so he will remain nameless.

“He fired off one of these parachute flares and the whole of Port Phillip lit up like daylight”

The navy ratings had very good contacts in Vietnam with their friends in the conflict and a lucrative trade in firearms developed. Guns of all shapes and sizes mysteriously appeared on board and were used for recreational “yippee shoots” on the return voyage. My old shipmate said that at times the guns got so hot from firing them off that they were too hot to hold on to.

All sorts of munitions were traded with our boys on the front line. Coca Cola, Playboy magazines, whisky and warm clothing were among the goods “swapped” for firearms. Naturally on arrival back in Australia, the customs officials would take a very dim view of all these weapons, so “over the wall” they went.

Some were dumped in the sumps of the deck cranes and were preserved in hydraulic oil for future use. Some may still have been there when the ship was scrapped. Some of the souvenirs, not many, found their way ashore.

The same shipmate I spoke of was something of a larrikin legend in the company. A “once-met, never-forgotten” type of guy. Many years later while fishing one night near the Gellibrand light in Port Phillip, he decided to try out some military flares he had in the boot of his car, left over from the Jeparit days.

He fired off one of these parachute flares and the whole of Port Phillip lit up like daylight. The flare took forever to float down while the public admired the surreal night-time scenery on the bay. My mate thought it would be a good idea to pack up his fishing gear and head to the pub. A true story. But there were bigger, more outrageous ones than that.

“He had more moves than a Swiss watch”

Another former shipmate was a Jeparit veteran. He may not have been the best engineer around but he certainly had the best connections, particularly in the military, both Australian and American. He had a lucrative trade in “necessities” needed in the war and wasn’t backward in negotiating some outrageous deals.

The most outstanding was his trade with the Americans. Australian troops had nice concrete pads for their tents during the wet season in Vietnam but the Americans were living in a quagmire. They had the cement but no way of making concrete. Our friend somehow came by some cement mixers, which he traded to the Americans in return for, wait for it, a jeep!

Now that vehicle was a bit hard to conceal on the trip back to Australia but if the wheels and the hubs were removed it fitted neatly into the ship’s swimming pool (empty of course). A tarpaulin over the pool completed the concealment and no-one was any the wiser.

I believe they got it back to Australia but what happened to it after that no-one knows. This same entrepreneur allegedly had a bar in Vung Tau operated by some local Vietnamese women and stocked from Australia. He had more moves than a Swiss watch.

The Jeparit carried the last Australian troops out of Vietnam after our withdrawal from the war. There were no casualties during these forty-three voyages and the Jeparit finally completed its service and returned to peacetime duties.

These are just some of the stories of the Jeparit that have become steeped in the legend. Many will have to remain only as whispered myths at ANL reunions, never to be formally entered in print. But no-one should ever forget the Jeparit.

Submissions wanted! Do you have an exciting, amusing or downright dangerous anecdote from your time in the maritime world? Each week, we will feature new personal experiences from across the globe. Submissions to: [email protected]

Kent Stewart

Founder of Maritime Engineers, a multi-region maritime consultancy with clients in the oil and gas industry, navy, commercial shipping and marine insurance, Kent Stewart is our resident expert on commercial shipping and the offshore industries.