Merchant Navy's forgotten war heroes
Next Saturday, Nelson members of the Merchant Navy Association will mark Merchant Navy Day and remember the sacrifice of New Zealand and other merchant seamen during wartime. Former harbourmaster Gilbert Inkster told Bill Moore about his war:
A highlight of Gilbert Inkster's World War II was borrowing one ship's only weapon and taking it deer hunting. Another was going from New Zealand to Vancouver and back in a purely sail-powered cargo ship.
Captain Inkster was among the thousands of Kiwis who didn't put on a uniform, but did war service anyway, crewing in the merchant fleet that kept industry going, moved troops and equipment and helped to feed the Allies through six years of conflict.
The men and boys of the Merchant Navy have been largely forgotten, yet theirs was one of the most perilous wartime occupations; their virtually unarmed ships sitting ducks for Axis aggressors who could turn up anywhere - including in New Zealand waters.
Hundreds of mines were laid by German raiders in the early years of the war and several ships were sunk, including the Nelson-owned minesweeper Puriri in May, 1941, off Whangarei.
In all, around 130 New Zealand merchant seafarers lost their lives and about 140 were taken prisoner while serving around the world. Their work is recognised today as containing the greatest risk of any group of New Zealand civilians.
Not that this was a great concern to Captain Inkster at the time.
A Tahunanui boy from a seafaring family, he joined the crew of the coastal scow Pearl Kasper in 1940 as a 16-year-old deck boy, a job that entailed cooking all the meals for the captain and three other crew. The war ended while he was crossing the Pacific towards home aboard the four-masted sailing barque Pamir, a German ship seized as a prize of war by the New Zealand Government in 1941 and pressed into cargo duties.
In between times, he helped with the rapid construction of gun emplacements in the Marlborough Sounds, was fired on by a shore battery when entering Wellington heads aboard a collier, assisted in picking up telegraph cable from Cook Strait so the copper could be used in the war effort, and watched from the Pamir as a United States cruiser trained its guns on the defenceless cargo ship.
Captain Inkster went on to serve on more than 50 other ships. His 60-year career, which only ended when he was 78, included 16 years as either dredgemaster, pilot or harbourmaster for the Nelson Harbour Board, and many years captaining coastal cement ships.
On one occasion in the 1980s, he brought one backwards through the Cut at Port Nelson for his own amusement, and to entertain Nelson's "hillside harbourmasters".
But now, at 88, he cherishes the memories of his first years at sea, when the world was gripped by war and he was learning his profession from the bottom up.
The Pearl Kasper, owned and skippered by Captain Sonny Tregidga, and later by his son Albert, was one of the shallow-draughted scows that plied the top of the south and are remembered as the Blind Bay wooden hullers.
The Pearl Kasper took Golden Bay coal to Picton, picked up stock and wool from d'Urville Island and around the Marlborough Sounds, and carried coastal cargoes to and from Nelson and the many small ports on the coast - Mapua, Motueka, Tarakohe, Waitapu, Onekaka, Collingwood and Westhaven.
The cargo was carried on deck - coal in a heap, bagged cement on dunnage to keep it clear of water that would run across the deck in heavy weather. It was powered by twin 40 horsepower engines but almost always had a sail up to help steer, and sometimes used sail power alone.
A year after Captain Inkster joined the ship, Japan entered the war by attacking Pearl Harbour and the Pearl Kasper's work was suddenly transformed.
There was a fear that the Japanese would arrive on the New Zealand coast and that the Sounds were an ideal hiding place for enemy ships. The little scow was called in to help the hurried construction of a series of gun emplacements at high points - Post Office Point and Maud Island in Pelorus Sound, and Tory Channel, Blumine Island and Maraetai in Queen Charlotte Sound.
By mid-1942 the job was done, with six-inch naval guns in place.
"We just took it as it came. We knew we were doing a pretty important job, I think, when we started carrying cement, shingle and bulldozers. The amazing part about that job is how quick they did it," Captain Inkster says.
The scow, using breastworks that could only be worked at flood tide, carried loads to the gun emplacement works and the amount of manual labour required was astonishing, he says.
A lot of the cargo was shingle needed to build roads to the emplacements and for concrete.
"There were no front-end loaders, only the shovel."
Shingle would be shovelled out of trucks on the Picton wharf down a ramp on to the Pearl Kasper's deck.
"We'd get half loaded and the ship would get quite a list, so we'd have to turn it around."
Once at the destination the shingle would be shovelled into half-drums that were lifted on to a breastwork and emptied, shovelled again on to waiting trucks, then off the trucks at the gun emplacement site, and then into the concrete mixers.
The work was done by tough men in their 40s and early 50s.
"They were a gang of mighty jokers," Captain Inkster says. "We were only boys, we used to give them a bit of cheek and we had a lot of fun with them. I admire those men."
His recollections of the gun emplacement project and excerpts from his diary are covered in more detail in The Price of Vigilance, by Kerry Neal and Nola Leov.
Captain Inkster served on the Pearl Kasper for two years and had graduated to leading hand by the time he left.
"I look back and often think how lucky I was to be in a ship like that. I had very good training with the Tregidgas, and I sailed with very good shipmates. We had no union protection whatever. We worked cargo when required and we didn't have an eight-to-five job.
"If we finished cargo at midday we had the afternoon off. We were free to go to shore, we were free to take the dinghy away fishing. It wasn't a bad start at all."
Next came the old motor ship Alexander, a coaster owned by the Nelson-based Anchor Shipping and Foundry Co, and the Holmlea, on charter to Anchor and "probably the roughest ship I was ever in".
It was used to carry coal as a replacement for the two Anchor Co ships being used as minesweepers, the Puriri and the Rata.
After six months he shifted to a small ship, the Kaitoa, mainly carrying cement and apples from Nelson to Wellington. On one of those trips in 1943 he was woken with a start: "We'd been fired on from Fort Dorset above Seatoun," Captain Inkster recalls.
"The concussion woke me up. It shook the ship, and then I heard the report. The shell went straight over the ship."
His shipmates had put up the wrong flag in answer to the fort's signal.
"That was a proper lot of rubbish, but the excuse was, the authorities said, ‘How do we know that your ship hasn't been apprehended at sea, and a prize crew put on board?'."
He recalls a similar incident at the entrance to Lyttelton had much more serious consequences when the "warning shot" hit a fishing boat, sinking it and killing the skipper.
Captain Inkster's next stint was on the Rata, returned to the Anchor Co after its minesweeping duties ended, and then he was on a government ship, the Matai, for a time as it picked up cable from Cook Strait. That job produced a memorable moment when Post and Telegraph engineers on board hooked up a telephone line from the cable to the ship and he was able to phone his disbelieving aunt.
"It was unheard of. I've told people that and they think I'm bullshitting, but it's true."
By this time, anxious to get in the sea time for a second mate's ticket, he was keen to get on a foreign-going ship and, perhaps because of his experience on the Pearl Kasper, was picked for the Pamir to make a return cargo voyage across the Pacific war zone.
"We were 60 days going north and 48 days coming south, and we had three weeks in Vancouver during summer. We had VE [Victory in Europe] Day going north, and VJ [Victory over Japan] Day coming south."
Captain Inkster was at the Pamir's wheel when he got the news from the third mate: "The war's finished, they dropped some sort of special bomb."
"The whole ship changed - we were free from the stress we didn't think we were under."
Looking back, he doesn't think he or his shipmates were ever really scared, even when a day out of Vancouver a US cruiser circled the Pamir with its guns trained on it, probably trying to make sense of a four-masted sailing ship in that time and place.
Most of the coasters he served on during the war carried a rifle to be used for sinking mines - something he never saw done - and once he borrowed an American .300 which was a bit different from the standard .303, and took it deer hunting at Croisilles.
"Fancy taking the only armament from a ship," he says.
Able-bodied young men out of uniform were frowned upon and sometimes criticised during the war, and partly because of that, seamen were issued with a Merchant Navy badge.
Captain Inkster remembers a 14-year-old ship's boy from the Pearl Kasper getting bailed up on shore by a man demanding to know how he came to wear it, but he doesn't recall any bitterness among seamen in response to their lack of recognition during and after the war.
They were quietly proud of the job they did, he says, providing industry with materials and supplying all the war effort's needs. "The merchant marine supplied all the arms and food and men."
He's not convinced that revisiting those days is the best idea, either.
"I'm a bit of a pacifist. What are they engendering? Are they trying to get a feeling of pride so we answer the call when another time of stress comes - raise flags, play the pipes and drums and we're all heroes again? The irony is there's no Merchant Navy left, we haven't got one."
Nelson members of the Merchant Navy Association will commemorate Merchant Navy Day next Saturday, September 1, when they will gather to march from the old Globe Hotel carpark in Nelson to the war memorial in Anzac Park where they will lay a wreath. The event begins at 11am.
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