An Issue of Neglect (Merchant Marine Memorial)

Rowan Cahill

On Sunday 7 October, 1990 Governor General Bill Hayden unveiled a memorial on the shores of Canberra’s Lake Burley Griffin to Australian merchant mariners who gave their lives at sea in the World Wars of 1914-18 and 1939-45.

The memorial was a long time coming, reflecting a shameful national attitude of neglect towards merchant mariners. In 1989-90 as a result of an inquiry set up by the Hawke government and headed by Commissioner Joslyn McGirr, recommendations were brought down that Australian and allied merchant veterans of World War II should have full repatriation rights. Forty five years too late but better late than never.

When I was researching and writing the history of the Seamen’s Union of Australia (The Seamen’s Union of Australia 1872-1972, by Brian Fitzpatrick and Rowan J. Cahill, Sydney, 1981) the role of the Australian merchant navy, particularly SUA members, in World War II was something that fascinated me. On the one hand I was impressed by its contribution to the war effort, the quiet heroism and courage in taking ships, many unarmed and pensionable scrap heap material, into war zones which, in the case of Australia, existed immediately outside our main ports.

Australian eastern and southern waters were thoroughly mined by the Germans as soon as the war started, while the Japanese later took care of northern shipping lanes. Enemy aircraft preyed as far south as the northern coastal waters of NSW, while submarines were active in all Australian waters, even to the extent of surface attacks off Geraldton, Fremantle, Newcastle, Moruya and Jervis Bay. Australian merchant mariners had a higher per capita casualty rate than the armed forces during World War II.

On the other hand I was angered by the post-war attitude towards this heroic contribution – officialdom neglected the merchant marine; there was little in the way of ‘thank you’, no recognition, no equality in the way of repatriation rights, not even a national memorial or a place in the history books (until the SUA history was published, which to my knowledge is still the only place where it is detailed to any extent).

I researched the history in 1970-71 and spent considerable time talking with E.V. Elliott (Federal Secretary 1941-78) and Bill Bird (Victorian Branch Secretary 1943-58), key SUA leaders during the war years. Both men felt intensely about the wartime experience. Bill got angry and passionate when he spoke about the neglect I refer to. Elliott too was emotional recalling the war. As SUA leader, it had been his responsibility as part of the war effort and agreements with the Curtin Labor government to facilitate the flow of merchant shipping, ensuring an adequate labour supply and swiftly overcoming or circumventing industrial problems – a sort of civilian de facto commander-in-chief; he felt the human losses in a deep personal way.

The SUA used the war and co-operation with the Labor government to improve working conditions, but an attitude of contempt towards merchant seafarers was always present. Much of the wartime energy of the Council for Civil Liberties was spent protecting basic civil rights of merchant seamen in Australian ports; east coast seamen went on strike November/December 1943 when authorities arbitrarily decided merchant ships could sail unescorted in waters south of Brisbane; an article in the Bulletin (26 April 1944) inferred that the sacrifices and hardships of Australian merchant seamen warranted neither sympathy nor attention; in 1946 the SUA was refused permission by the Australian government to participate in the celebratory London Victory March.

I believe it was this wartime experience of sacrifice and subsequent neglect that helps account for the domestic militancy of the post-war SUA, its emphasis on world peace, its political activity against the war-mongering Menzies government, its actions against the Korean and Vietnam wars, and not essentially the fact the union was led mainly by communists and that militancy was the style of the Communist Party of Australia.

The nucleus of the post-war union comprised men who survived the war, while wartime leaders were continually re-elected to post-war office – men who understood only too well the way the workers they led had sacrificed supremely only to be cruelly betrayed. Not only were there in a sense then scores to be settled and matters of justice and ethics attended to, but a generation of seamen realised they were a type of cannon fodder in times of war; hence a popular SUA slogan and powerful political theme: Peace is Union Business.