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Mission X gathering at Pier 10 on Walsh Bay, Sydney, before heading north into battle. Image Credit: Gladstone Maritime Museum Sheridan Collection

On this day: The Ragtag Fleet is born

  • BY Erin Frick |
  • March 21, 2014

During World War II more than 3000 Aussies who couldn't join the military signed up for 'The Ragtag Fleet' and faced fire in the Pacific.

ON 21 MARCH 1942 the strapping figure of US General Douglas MacArthur arrived in Melbourne, accompanied by Captain John Sheridan and Bruce Fahnestock. Setting up in the US Army Headquarters which had taken over a local highschool building – he began to assemble an odd, cobbled together Aussie fleet.

Four or so months earlier the Japanese attacked the Philippines only a day after its attack on the US Navy Fleet in Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, thus beginning the second stage of World War II.

From that point onwards MacArthur, who was forced to evacuate the Philippines and head to Melbourne, began mobilising a fleet of US troops across the Pacific. But to do that they needed support to transport supplies across the huge battleground, and most Australian ships and able-bodied troops were already overseas.

So a plan was hatched to enlist Aussie civilians not considered fit enough to fight in the war effort and refit old and disused ships. They called it Mission X, but locals quickly dubbed it 'The Ragtag Fleet'.

Gathering Mission X volunteers 

From Melbourne MacArthur began to hire and requisition all manner of vessels and enlist their unlikely crews from towns across Australia's eastern and southern coasts. New boats were added and kept boatyards around Sydney busy for the duration of the war.

Mission X was met with widespread support by Aussies who were eager to contribute to the war effort says Richard Wood, program development manager of the National Maritime Museum's USA Gallery.

Boys under the age of 17 and men over 60 usually exempt from participating in the war effort were allowed to enlist in this fleet, as well as those who had medical conditions which otherwise rendered them unable to serve in the military. A total of 3327 Aussie men joined.

"Young men had the enthusiasm and vigour to be there and older men were masters of the seas. They had the experience and knowledge needed to navigate the uncharted waters of the tropics, including coral reefs and small islands, with skill," Richard says.

The boats were dispatched to Sydney to be reinforced, painted grey and given an identification number. They each received one machine gun and an American flag. With that basic overhaul, they became part of the war effort. The Grace Building in York Street, Sydney, was the HQ for Mission X until 1947.

The tough realities of fighting in the Pacific 

The flotilla soon embarked on its journey north, carrying food, water, medical supplies, ditch diggers, ammunition and prefabricated buildings across thousands of kilometres of rough, uncharted water.

Conditions on the boats were grim. Numerous crew members contracted diseases including malaria, dengue fever and dysentery. The fleet's only defence was to sail by night then hide covered in palm fronds upstream in estuaries during the day. Vulnerable to aircraft attack, they were frequently strafed and bombed, incurring 32 casualties.

Surviving three and a half years of active fire and harsh conditions, the crew of Mission X provided essential support to Allied troops from New Guinea, to the Philippines and Korea, and eventually the occupation of Japan.

Today former members of the fleet are calling for more recognition. "Every time we asked for the medal we were knocked back. There was another [Defence] Honours and Awards Tribunal in November and it is still deliberating on whether they are going to give us the medal, and they should," Ernest Flint junior, president of the US Small Ships Association, told the Sydney Morning Herald late last year. 

In the USA the exploits of a schooner from Mission X was once celebrated in the 1960 Hollywood film The Wackiest Ship in the Army.