Seafarers in peril, yesterday and today
Last year I attended a memorial service at Rookwood cemetery. The Australian Merchant Navy was the focus and I did not expect to be emotionally impacted at what seemed to me a far removed and remote subject. However, by the end of the address, tears were in my eyes and a large gap in my understanding had been filled. The seafarers of yesterday who served in the war are true heroes and as I reflected on both them and on the seafarers I meet today, I realised that there is not all that much difference between them. Both face peril at sea and both make sacrifices of real magnitude. As well I understood that to serve these men and women when they arrive in port is, in itself, an essential service that enables these valiant seafarers to continue to provide us Aussies much of what we take for granted.
Perils of the sea
Crossing the sea is hazardous and many are the perils faced by those that set foot on an outgoing vessel. Families must deal with fathers who are repeatedly absent and sometimes they don’t make it back home. This was never truer than when merchant seafarers were conscripted into the merchant navy during World War 2. The Merchant Navy under the command of the British Empire suffered proportionately, the highest casualties of any of the allied services who participated in the Second World War. This included the Australian Merchant Fleet as well as the fleets of other Commonwealth nations who still supply the merchant seafarers who visit Australian ports today. The number of known deaths of British Empire merchant seamen is well over thirty thousand men.
At a purely Australian level our national records have 3,500 merchant seamen serving on Australian registered ships and of these 845 are known to have died during World War 2. Many other Australians served and died on British merchant ships or ships of the International Seamen’s Pool. There were certainly hundreds of them, but the exact numbers will never be known.
What is also not well known is the critical contribution merchant seamen made to the allied victory. These men were often on ships with little chance of returning fire, sitting ducks who nevertheless pressed on because their loads were vital to an allied victory. The Japanese were forced to retreat on the Kokoda track because they were cut off from their supplies, whereas the allied forces were faithfully supplied throughout the campaign despite many setbacks. The seafarers achieved this logistical miracle in the midst of their ships being strafed, mined and torpedoed. General Macarthur noted the truth about their contribution to the allied victory in the Pacific: “They brought us our lifeblood and they paid for it with their own”. These men enabled victory in Europe also, as they ran the deadly gauntlet from Gibraltar to Malta, delivered supplies under fire, to the rats of Tobruk and backed up the invasions of France, Sicily and Italy. Their final contribution to the war effort was bringing home thousands of emaciated prisoners of war who had survived years of brutal captivity.
Recognising today's mariners
The Merchant Navy supplied essential products around the world yesterday and merchant ships do the same today. Thankfully seagoing conditions today are less hazardous and not so many lives are lost but the risks are high for those who enable the Australian standard of living to flourish. Australian truck drivers think Australia stops without trucks. It’s true, but without ships Australia would stop even more dramatically. Seafarers enable us to live as we do but they are also at risk emotionally and physically. They need help communicating with their family, with friends or with the appropriate services when necessary and this is where our organisation steps up. The Mission to Seafarers provide centres enabling easy and relaxing contact with their relatives and caring assistance in the event of any accident or sickness.
Caring for seafarers is essential, it is needed 7 days a week, and a lot of resources are needed to effectively provide appropriate services to them. We have included some recent comments from seafarers showing their appreciation for the services and therefore the necessity of providing these transport and welfare services. In fact, just yesterday, our chaplain Jim Watt, was cheered when he went on board a vessel with Sim cards.