Australian Merchant Navy

Australian Merchant Navy

Flag of the Australian Merchant Navy

Information by Enoch Haga

Awards earned by George Ringer:

1939/1945 Pacific Star - Great Britain /OMN/Rex ETINDIAE- IMP/GEORGIVS VI
MARITIME CROSS for Service in War Zones

The 1939/45 Pacific Star

George Ringer

George Ringer

George and Joyce Ringer Tell Their Stories

Section 1 - George Ringer

George Ringer's story was recorded by Robert D. Johns [pen name Jon Zee].
George lived at Pooraka 5095 South Australia, and Johns lived at Somerton
Park 5044 South Australia.

50th anniversary of War in the Pacific:

George Ringer was tough, he had to be, he was a Merchant Mariner during
World War II, and then in the years before he retired, he managed several
pubs. I met him during a government sponsored pilgrimage to Papua New Guinea
to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the war in the
Pacific. There were thirteen of us from South Australia, one or more from
each arm of the services, and George representing the Merchant Marine.

He was a small wiry man who made his presence felt in all of our activities.
I noticed his tense, tough, eager attitude when we first met at the
beginning of the Pilgrimage, but he drew my close attention at the first
formal remembrance ceremony for the overall event. It was held aboard our
ship the Mikhail Sholokov, when its progress was halted about sixteen
kilometers east of Cape Morton on the North East coast of Australia, on the
site of the sinking of the Hospital Ship Centaur.

 The sinking of the Centaur:

The Centaur was plainly marked with the white paint and red crosses which
showed her non-combatant role. She was torpedoed nevertheless, by a Japanese
submarine whose Captain was never charged with the offence, despite the fact
that I believe he survived the war.George's own ship had been sunk just two
months before, by another Japanese submarine, and one of his surviving mates
had joined the Centaur. He was drowned and became one of the 268 casualties
in that sinking. As a result George was chosen from amongst us to recite at
the service, those poignant few words which we call the Ode.

George reads the Ode:

The memorial services were very formal events, with a military band, buglers
playing the Last Post, then Reveille. Soldiers and sailors standing rigidly
to attention, and the veterans trying their best to emulate them. Then there
was George, a Merchant Mariner mind you, with no formal training in drill
and Naval and Military decorum, doing his best to do the right thing. As an
old infantrymen who had spent some service as a spit and polish Drill
Sergeant, I watched his performance critically.

 Tough old George, there was no chance he was going to be put down by the
occasion, or by the old Drill Sergeants watching him. He stood there,
shoulders back, eyes ahead and he recited the Ode clearly and proudly. But
then I think, the drowning of his mate in such tragic circumstances those
many years ago, must have penetrated his perception of what was happening.
He didn't flinch or blur his words, but just at the end I noticed a certain
verbal emotion in his voice and to my surprise I could clearly see tears in
his eyes. Why? I wondered. Could he, as a Merchant Mariner, have war
memories as hurtful as mine?

Merchant Mariners contribute to winning the War:

I took more notice of George after that, perhaps to try to find out more
about the contribution made by the Merchant Marine towards winning the war,
I had been an infantryman, and like all infantrymen, it was my opinion that
infantrymen had won the war, with a little help from others of course. What
did the Merchant Marine do in this regard? I intended to find out from

We were a ship full of war veterans, all of us with war stories to beat all
war stories. Everybody wanting to tell. theirs, but with little time to
listen to others. George was no exception, however, I made a point of
listening to him and the more I listened, the more I wanted to hear. His
years at sea were limited, but he crowded enough hard war experience into
them confirm in my mind, something that my arrogant military background has
always made me reluctant to admit. Without the Merchant Marine we would not
have won the war.

From here on I am putting together scraps of information largely picked up
from conversations which occurred many months ago. If there are errors in my
recording, it doesn't matter much. What I have written is as accurate as I
can make it, keeping in mind that it has been put together from the
anecdotes of others. There is one point however which I hope to bring out.
George's telling of his wartime adventures confirmed in my mind, my belief
that no matter how tough and resolute a person appears to be on the surface,
when the chips are down and all appears to be lost, that unfortunate
individual almost invariably falls back on faith, and appeals to the
Almighty for help. In George's case it is comforting to hear that his appeal
was not made in vain.

The baker's son becomes a sailor:

He was the son of a baker in the Port Adelaide district of South Australia,
with the sale of bread and rolls to ships in port a major part of the
business. In his youth, the delivery of bread to the ships was one of his
responsibilities. When World War II broke out, George was too young to join
the Army or the Air Force, not that he had a desire to enlist at that stage.
Stories told in the family about the sufferings soldiers and airmen in World
War I had left him wary of joining either. However there was a youthful urge
to break away from home to seek adventure, which increased rapidly as war
went on, and at the age of nineteen years he decided to do his bit.

Due to the shipping contacts made through his father's bakery business, he
was familiar with ships and their crews. It seemed to be the best way to go,
so he joined the Merchant Marine. He set the example for his younger brother
who joined the Navy shortly thereafter.George told me that his first ship
was a freighter named the Period. There was little he wanted to remember
about her, except, that she was a lousy sea boat, and that he suffered the
agonies of sea sickness. Not just one attack, but bout after bout. As soon
as the vessel went to sea and began her porpoising roll and pitch, he was
sick, sick, sick. It took him a long time to adjust to the motion and to get
his sea legs.

George Ringer aboard the KALINGO in February, 1943

Enemy contact aboard the Katoomba: Then came the Katoomba and George's first contact with the enemy. She was a passenger and cargo vessel and carried approximately sixty crew members. There was the usual four inch gun mounted at the stern, manned by a Navy Gunner who was supported by selected crew members. About the middle of 1942, with George aboard, the Katoomba was at Fremantle embarking troops of the 9th Army Division for transport to Sydney. There were also other troopships and escort. vessels massed in the harbour waiting to be fuelled and loaded for departure. There were more ships than the harbour had the capacity to handle, so the schedule for departure had to be delayed. It was a fortunate delay, because waiting for them, out to sea beyond Rottnest Island, a Japanese submarine lurked, expecting a convoy to emerge from the harbour to provide easy pickings. The Katoomba was ready to sail well before the others, and as she had the protection of her own stern gun, her sailing orders were changed to allow her to leave earlier than the other ships. She departed alone, late on a Sunday, heading south. According to George, not long after leaving harbour, with the coastline still showing on the horizon, the submarine surfaced on the starboard stern quarter in the late afternoon. At a range of about half a mile, using her deck gun, she fired the first shot. Aboard the Katoomba there was frantic activity as the alarms sounded action stations. The Captain swung the ship away to put the submarine stern-on to present a minimum target, and to give the gunners the best view of the attacker. Credit must be given to the gunners for their ability to return fire so quickly, and a duel began which lasted for a full ten hours. Either the master of the submarine was wary of the four inch gun which engaged his vessel, and he had no wish to draw too close. Or alternatively, the two vessels matched each other in speed, and the submarine was unable to close the gap between them, for more accurate shooting. For the crew and the troops aboard, it was a terrifying time. The flashes and the noise of the exploding guns, the whine of the shells overhead and to the side, the occasional fountain of water as a near-miss hit the sea alongside or astern. It was a miracle that the ship did not take a hit, and apparently the submarine escaped damage also. It was well into the night before the master of the submarine broke off the action. He probably thought that it would be more fruitful to return to his vigil near the approaches to Fremantle Harbour. George Ringer's first contact with the enemy was a scary one, but worse was to follow. The Katoomba reached Sydney safely and eventually he was transferred to the Canberra, a troopship and cargo carrier. It was a critical time of the war, the Japanese thrust towards Australia had not been stopped, and Port Moresby, the main port of New Guinea, was being bombed regularly. Japanese bomb Port Moresby: Soon after George joined her, the Canberra, with a full load of aircraft fuel, ammunition and troops, departed for New Guinea. She was accompanied by another troopship the Macdhui, and they were escorted by two corvettes. The journey to Port Moresby was uneventful, and on arrival, in view of her volatile cargo, the Canberra was immediately taken alongside the only available wharf, to discharge her cargo, and to put ashore the troops on board. Unloading completed, she pulled away and the Macdhui took her place, and then the Japs came in. Japanese aircraft had been bombing Port Moresby regularly, and it was almost a routine raid. There was little or no Air Force defence available, and apart from ground based antiaircraft fire, the Japanese bombers had it nearly all their own way. The Canberra had steam up and was able to escape undamaged despite several near misses; it was a nerve-wracking time for the crew. The Macdhui was left at the wharf a stationary target. She sustained many hits and amongst others she appeared to take a bomb straight down her funnel which exploded, leaving her a wreck. At the conclusion of the raid she was towed out into the harbour, where she was sunk to become a practice target for our own aircraft for the rest of the war. Her remains are still visible in the harbour. The Canberra flees into the Coral Sea: The Canberra fled southeast into the Coral Sea, where she received an urgent telegraphic message to get out of that area immediately, and proceed to the port of Cairns. On arrival there, two American submarines came in to refuel and pulled in alongside their position at the wharf. From their crews it was learned that the famous battle of the Coral Sea was in progress. An enemy convoy consisting of many troop-ships with numerous naval escorts, had been observed at sea heading towards Australia. As soon as it was located, Australian and American ships and planes went in to the attack. The resulting loss of ships and men was a defeat of critical proportions for the Japanese. That sea battle marked the turning point of the war, and defeat after defeat for the enemy was to follow. George aboard the Canberra, had nearly been caught up in it. He was beginning to get the feeling that the Japanese were following him wherever his ship was located. In due course the Canberra returned from Cairns to Sydney, where George transferred to another cargo vessel, the Kalingo. It: is hard to say whether he had been lucky or unlucky with the ships in which he had served to that point in time. Some would say he was lucky to have survived. As for the Kalingo, in my view I can't imagine a more unlucky ship, but once again George survived. Was it luck, or something else which saved him that time? George boards the unlucky Kalingo: Off Sydney Harbour, there were large areas of ocean in which mines were laid and set to sink intruding ships and submarines.. Vessels leaving harbour were given a course to follow to avoid the mined areas When she departed Sydney, the Kalingo's orders were to head due east for approximately two hundred nautical sea miles before changing course. George was in trouble almost as soon as he came aboard, when he ran foul of the Captain, who was a strong disciplinarian. He carried on a laud heated conversation with another crew member in the Captain's hearing. The other crew member used coarse language too obscene to be repeated here. The Captain thought it was George and hauled him up for reprimand. Knowing that if he blamed the other crewman, who was a bit of a strongman amongst his mates on board, he would have trouble with the rest of the crew, young George said nothing and was fined a week's pay. To this day George is ashamed and conscious of the blot on his seagoing record. I've never met a sailor who doesn't use a strong word or two when the occasion demands it, that is until I met George, and I must confess I have never heard him swear. I must bait him one day, just to make sure he's not having me on. The Kalingo torpedoed and sunk; submarine machine guns survivers: The Kalingo headed East as ordered and at approximately one a.m. when the ship was at her maximum easting, there was an enormous explosion and the ship began to sink immediately. George says it was only about ten minutes before she disappeared beneath the surface. Like most of the rest of the crew, George was sleeping in the crew's quarters, dressed in only his underpants and singlet. There was water in the cabin almost immediately. When he came aboard he had been allotted a lifeboat, so his immediate reaction was to go to it. On arrival he found that the boat had been blown to bits and all that remained were bent davits and hanging ropes. He dashed to the other side of the ship to the second lifeboat, where other crew members were gathered trying to release the boat ropes which had been jammed. The situation was desperate, all it needed was for the ropes to be cut, but like George, the crew were still in their underclothes, and the knives which all seamen wear an their belts, almost an a badge of rank. had been left in their cabins in the panic to get clear of the flooding sleeping quarters. George volunteered to go to the galley to get a chopper, but it had nearly disappeared beneath the water when he arrived. He managed to grope around and find a meat cleaver which proved to be effective, but it a took a lot of chopping before the boat suddenly broke free. It hit the water with a great splash and was thumping heavily against the ship's side in the wash of the waves before several crew members were able to jump down to fend her off. The remainder of the crew followed and they were able to row clear before the Kalingo disappeared beneath the surface. A roll check revealed that there were thirty men in the lifeboat. The ship's full complement had been thirty two, but the missing men could not be found and it had to be assumed that they had gone down with the ship. It was a moonlit night with a clear sky, but a heavy swell was running which made it very uncomfortable for those in the boat. The Captain was aboard, but he had only just commenced getting his crew into a resemblance of order when a submarine surfaced some distance away. George's immediate thought, and probably everybody on board thought exactly the same thing: 'The war is over for us, we will be taken prisoner.' No such luck! . . . that is if you can call it lucky to be taken prisoner by the Japanese; in hindsight we know that it would have been otherwise. Men on board the submarine could be seen on the conning tower taking up their stations at the vessel's surface weapons. Then without warning they opened fire with machine guns. Now it's not that easy to hit a target at sea, when that target is moving up and down in the waves and disappearing and reappearing between the swells, especially when the firing base is doing the same thing. The lifeboat was not hit, but it was obvious that there was no escape and that death by drowning or shooting was imminent. The crew crouched in the bottom of the boat, and George is not ashamed to admit that he prayed hard, real hard, for help, help from the Almighty. He states with certainty that the rest of the crew were doing exactly the same thing. 'It was a miracle' George says, 'a direct and timely answer to fervent prayer.' Suddenly, out of nowhere, a tropical squall came up, with heavy rain and cloud which blotted out visibility beyond a metre or two. It lasted no more than half an hour, but when it cleared, the submarine was gone. An "Old Salt" saves his men: It was a good thing the Skipper was a disciplinarian, the crew's relief and emotion at their unexpected escape from immediate death had to be brought under control. They were about two hundred nautical miles from the nearest land and there was little or no food or water. He was one of the old school who could navigate from the sun and the stars. He promised to get his men back to safety if they were prepared to work for it, themselves and row, row, row. The Skipper was a driver, he set a program of two hours rowing and two hours rest for every man, and they kept it up for nearly three days. Two hours of rowing left each rower exhausted. George remembers collapsing almost unconscious to the floor boards at the end of each two hour session, and the Skipper stirring him on by saying, 'You will never get ashore man if you don't get up and do your share.' An aircraft flew almost overhead at one stage, but apparently the lifeboat was not sighted and no help came. It was another miracle, a miracle of navigation, when the Blue Mountains could be seen on the horizon and then the Sydney Heads. The Skipper must be given full credit for it, as well as the Almighty, whose help was certainly and most fervently sought. A fishing cutter saw them at last and took them in tow, bringing them right in to Circular Quay at the centre of the city. Survivers ignored as they stagger up the wharf: I've noticed a funny thing about civilians in wartime. Unless they are directly and personally affected by the war itself, they tend to remain aloof, onlookers only, if the hands-on part can be avoided. It was so at Circular Quay when the lifeboat from the sunken Kalingo came into the wharf. George tells me that the crew secured their boat to a bollard and staggered up the steps to the wharf. The working crowd flowed around them, briefcases in hand all intent on their own objectives. Not a word of welcome was offered, not one person, except for the crew of the fishing cutter came to offer assistance, it was as though they had just arrived by ferry, poorly dressed after some wild binge. It was some time before the Skipper could alert the authorities to the need for assistance, and then the Salvation Army came to their aid with food and clothing. If there is a hero in this accounting it must be the Skipper, the Captain of the Kalingo, George tells me that his surname was Martin. He brought his crew safely ashore and died not long afterwards, of a heart attack. As for George himself, his service in the Merchant Marine was terminated when the after-effects of the sinking of the Kalingo proved too much for him. He suffered a nervous breakdown and never returned to sea. I am writing this version of events for him over half a century after they occurred. George admits that his memory is not the best, so I am not guaranteeing accuracy. However the outline of the main events is accurate enough to make the reader, as well as the writer, aware that the war was not won by one arm of the services alone, each service played its vital part. Incidentally, George says that one in four Merchant Mariners died in that effort, a very high rate of casualties indeed. George remembers another incident: During the war when at sea I was appointed to the gun crew of about six "men." On Australian vessels we had a Navy gunner called a Dems man (Defencively - Equipped Merchant Ship). In America I think you called them "Armed Guards." On one occasion at sea the gun crew was called to action stations and the officer in charge gave each of us some cotton wool to plug in our ears. Well, it was a 4-inch gun. When the first shell went off there was a flash of flame and the explosion blew the wool right out of my ears. When the firing ceased I was deaf. My hearing returned two days later. But today it is not good and has not been good since the war. I receive a war pension for my disability but would sooner have good hearing. Later in the war, when my ship was torpedoed, the explosion right under my cabin deafened me again. THANK GOD FOR THE MERCHANT MARINE

George Ringer Returns!!