by Daphne Roper
As civilians in Newcastle and following the bombing of Darwin 75 years ago, the wives and children of the merchant seamen lived a life of much fear and sometimes dread.
We were aware we lived in a vulnerable city with the BHP industrial complex the reason for our being. Those merchant ships leaving the port carried precious cargo on a long, slow exposed journey to southern ports. That cargo was necessary for munitions building and other manufacturing and also to keep domestic coal fires burning in cold winters. All this well known by the Japanese and easy waiting victims for silent, sleek efficient midget submarines which patrolled the Pacific and Southern oceans.
Censorship was worn like a badge in these families. Even though our lives revolved around the ‘berthing’ and ‘sailing’, I well remember my mother’s warning words, her index finger to her lips “ Don’t tell your friends Daddy is coming home!”, or “ Ssh, Say Good-bye. Don’t tell anyone daddy’s ship is sailing!” How we all dreaded those ‘good-bye’ kisses. I was envious of my friends who had not seen their father for years – They only had one ‘good-bye’!. This feeling understood now but difficult for a seven or eight year old.
My parents bought an old 1927 model A Ford car and had the telephone installed, solely because of censorship. Letter writing was frequent but no shipping plans allowed to be shared. Instead, a phone call from Dad from a southern port to request use of the car on such and such a day, after sunset or before sunrise. So a check of high tide times either am or pm gave an indication of berthing times. The harbour had not been dredged so entry and egress to and from port could only occur at these times. Mum would wake us if necessary and always have the car at the wharf awaiting berthing regardless of the time.
At night time, the drive from Mayfield West down to the wharf had difficult hazards to negotiate, street lighting limited and compulsory dimming of headlights, and then there was “THE Bridge”. That rickety old wooden Tighes Hill bridge covering the maze of BHP rail lines leading to and from the wharves. This construction, years old, had a steep, narrow approach up to the highest point, a short level span, then a devil’s elbow downward to ground level. My sister and I in the back seat, (before seatbelts) dressed in pyjamas and dressing gowns were terrified of this. As we approached Mum would say “say a prayer girls”, and this we did. Prayers were frequent during those war years.
Was it Mum’s good driving, or an answered prayer? We always arrived safely on the other side, then Mum would steer the old car down to the wharf. Parked there, we’d suddenly hear a swishing sound breaking the stillness and appearing alongside us, the hulk of the Iron King or the Iron Knight. As soon as the gangway installed and engines silent, Dad’s quick footsteps striding to the car. What joy, kisses galore, another safe homecoming.
On August 15th 1945, the war in the Pacific was over. The Area Director came to my High School to make the announcement during morning assembly and gave us the day off. Down National Park Street, hundreds of black-stockinged legs running amid cheers, laughter, squeals and hugs. I, somewhat apart, not wanting anyone to see my tears. But they were surely tears of Joy. No more …dreaded “good-byes”.
Some other more pleasant memories of the harbour in later years. If there was a ship launched from the State Dockyard and Dad’s ship in Port, we were allowed on deck to watch the launching. It was such an exciting experience for children. Like the ‘christening’ of something spectacular and new. From the opposite wharf, we had the rear view of the keel hitting the water. Every ship blew a cheery whistle and cheering could be heard across the water from the proud dockyard workers to others watching from the riverside.
Such a contrast from the harbour and Port of to-day, but one which must not be forgotten.