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Sailor’s Stories - John Gilfellon

Sailor’s Stories - John Gilfellon

HMAS Perth

On 5 September 1966 I arrived on the HMAS Perth. As the ship had been built in America most of the crew had gone over to collect it so I had to listen to all their stories.
In April 1967 while on a visit to Hobart the Perth was sent to Macquarie Is to bring back a seriously ill researcher from the Australian base there. Macquarie Is is an Australian territory situated 1,500 kilometres south east of Tasmania (about half way to Antarctica). The weather was very rough going and coming with the ship rolling near 45 degrees at times. Most of the trip the outside decks were closed because the sea was continually breaking over them putting lives at risk. On arrival the sea was too rough to send in the boats so the clearance divers had to swim lines inshore to achieve the rescue. One of the divers dressed in his black wet suit and greased up against the cold water was sure that a bull seal was making eyes at him.
While at sea when no exercises were being held the crew were allowed a beer issue. Each crew member was entitled to one large can of beer, same size as a bottle. Some crew members would ask others to order theirs so that they would have more than one. The cans were opened on collection so by the time they drank two or three the last one was almost flat. I did not usually take up my issue.
On 2nd September 1967 we sailed for the Perth's first tour of duty in the Vietnam War. On the way north we had to cross the equator and as with navy ships we had a crossing of the line ceremony. Those deemed to be crossing the line for the first time, or for any other reasons were gathered up by the fuzz, the largest blokes among the crew and brought for sentencing by Neptune, nobody was exempt.
After sentencing, nobody got off, you were then dunked in a pool full of a mixture of foul stuff. It helped moral and provided some entertainment.
We joined the American Seventh Fleet on 14th September 1967. We were stationed at Subic Bay, a large American naval and air force base in the Phillipines. I remember a sense of excitement as we arrived with over 50 naval ships of all descriptions tied up and anchored and air force planes taking off regularly from the base across the bay. The Perth tied up three ships deep at the wharf. The American destroyer we tied up to was undergoing repairs from being hit by enemy gunfire. There was movement everywhere with ships being refuelled, taking on more ammunition and stores, you got the sense that you were in the war zone although a long way from Vietnam. Announcements being made of numerous ships speakers reinforced the excitement.
“All those that have done wrong muster at the sheriff's office”, “Gedung alongside” (this was a food van that drove up and down the wharf selling all sorts of edibles) were just some of the memorable announcements. The navy base had a supermarket, large canteen and bar, ten pin bowling alleys and other sporting facilities. There were around 20,000 sailors at the base so they had to be supplied.
Olongapo, a town outside the gates of the base was where we went on nightly shore leave. It was basically a long street of bars. We were told not to venture from the main street as it was extremely dangerous. I was unlucky enough to get “Shore Patrol” duties on some of the nights I had to work. I got to go with the American shore patrol to break up any fights that included Australians. The Americans did not like getting involved with Australians. We worked out of the local police station, the police treatment of the locals was extremely harsh.
The Americans reaction reminded me of the time in Sydney hotel when an American sailor approached us and offered to buy us a drink. He said that his father, who had been to Australia during the second world war, had advised him “that if you meet any Australians, buy them a drink, don't try to fight them”. We spent the next hours talking Australian for them with phrases such as, “gooday mate” “cooey cobba”, and “stone the crows”
Our role included firing at enemy positions in support of American troop positions and enemy supply routes over two thirds of the North Vietnam coast. In harassing enemy supply routes and boats off the coast we came under heavy enemy fire on a number of occasions. On 18 October 1967 the Perth was hit by enemy gunfire while shelling North Vietnamese coastal batteries just north of the North/South border.
While on station we operated in four hour shifts, during the day while not on shift we would still carry out our normal duties. We normally sailed a good way off the coast but when we got a call to carry out shelling we would head closer to the coast to be in range. The day we were hit I was on morning watch (3.50am to 7.50am) (navy tradition is that the watch changes 10mins before the hour so as not to interrupt the things that have to happen on the hour) I got my breakfast and was sitting with a few mates when we heard a sound like large hail stones hitting the ship, I jokingly said that it sounds like we were under fire when the alarms went off and we were instructed to get to our stations as we were under fire. My station, when not on watch directly below the mess in the centre of the ship, was in our sleeping quarters at the rear of the ship. I scrapped my plate in the bins and placed the plate in the scullery (where the washing up was done) and open the door to go to my station when an enemy shell exploded in the passageway about twenty metres away. I shut the door only to have to open it when an officer ran to the explosion and closed it after him. Four sailors were injured of which two were evacuated to the American cruiser later in the day.
For our periods of rest and recreation we visited Bangkok and Hong Kong for Christmas. While in Hong Kong myself and two others were hosted by a family for Christmas dinner. The husband worked for the Australian Egg Board and they lived in a high rise building. He drove us around Hong Kong in the afternoon and showed us the sites. During dinner we were asked if we would like a drink, only to be told that they had no alcohol as they did not drink, this was a disappointment but we got over it. As families were required to hire a local maid it was a novelty to be served by a maid and the meal was great.
On one other occasion when we came under fire I was off watch and playing cards at a table in our sleeping quarters when the announcement came that the ship was under fire. We sat at the table listening to the explosions as the shells hit the water, we forgot about the cards for a while and just waited to see if any of the shells hit the ship and where. When the all clear was given we looked at each other in relief and comments were passed such as "boy you certainly turned white". All this was bravado of course as we were all just as frightened as each other.
Organisation made up packages for the troops in Vietnam and one night my Auntie Edie (she was in Darwin during the bombing in WW2) heard that all troops serving in Vietnam were receiving regular packages, she was aware that we on the Perth were not so she was straight on the phone to the station. We began receiving packages soon after.
The only way to communicate with home was by mail. So I would write a letter then wait weeks for a reply. No email or facebook then. Mum would send me packages of homemade cakes and biscuits which were really appreciated.
The families had the opportunity to send a visual message as the Navy arranged for the families to go to Leeuwin and be filmed. The movies were shown in the mess (the large dining room). I got to see my family and hear their best wishes. My Dad being an Army man finished of his wishes by saying "keep your head down" which was applicable in the Army but meant sleep in the Navy. I got a bit of teasing over that. It was great to see them and know that they were thinking of me.