William Henry Cruger, aka Harry to his mates, was keen as mustard to join the war effort but at 14 and a half years of age he wasn’t old enough to sign up to the defence forces so he joined the Merchant Navy instead.
During the Second World War, merchant vessels were commissioned by the naval service as hospital and supply ships and armed merchant cruisers.
Harry began his career on the sea as a deck boy which, he says, was code for ‘dogs body’. “There was a lot of scrubbing going on. You scrubbed the decks and mess room, you washed the dishes and you got the tucker from the galley to serve to crew.”
When he got promoted to the deck crew as an ordinary seaman he was part of a rotating roster of watch keepers whose job it was to ensure the ship stayed on course and didn’t run into any trouble throughout the night and early morning.
“You spent two hours on the wheel and two hours on the bridge as a lookout. There were no radars or fancy gadgets. In the night you were looking out for a light house and in the day time you were looking for islands. These days you just press a button and the ship navigates itself but we would be out at sea, sometimes up to 36 days straight, without seeing land and our skipper and second mate would use a sexton to navigate and they always got it spot on.
One time we were going down past Jervis Bay and it was 4am and I was coming up the starboard side of the ship and about to put my foot on the ladder to go to the bridge and I saw this massive rogue wave so I threw myself sideways as the ship dived down. It was like hitting a brick wall and when we came up the ladder and life boat were gone, so that was a close call.”
Harry spent 17 and a half years in the Merchant Navy, the first four years during the war.
“We were told ‘don’t talk because the enemy listens’. Our ships were all coal burners so they only went about eight knots. We had military rifles and weaponry on board but no one knew how to use them because we weren’t trained soldiers, but we were expected to practice using them when we were out to sea. We would tie big 44 gallon drums together and drop them off the side and shoot at them with a fixed shell and, of course, we never got with a bull’s roar of them.
Once we were doing a drill and one of the crew hadn’t gotten the message. He was still in the bathroom and someone fired a shot and the shower collapsed and the bath basin fell off the wall and this bloke was starkers and he thinks we are under attack. The next thing you know we find him naked sitting in a lifeboat!”
The Merchant Navy ran in Harry’s bloodline. His father was on ships during the First World War in England and the Middle East and retired at the age of 75. “He was torpedoed three times but he managed to survive. He got back to Australia in 1920 and also served as part of the American Army Small ships in World War Two.”
Harry’s first ship did cargo runs between Melbourne, Sydney and Newcastle delivering beer, food, ammunition, petrol, machinery parts, limestone and steel.
In 1942, Harry had a near escape when he was on the passenger ship the SS Ormiston. It passed through Sydney Harbour with a load of troops just before the Japanese carried out a series of torpedo attacks on Sydney and Newcastle.
“That was a close call. We were in convoy with a number of naval ships so we could have lost a lot of lives. A lot of ships were sunk during World War Two along the coastline like the Limerick, Kalingo and Wollongbar. A lot of it was secret until after the war.”
In 1943, Harry joined the American Transport Service and worked as a second class able seaman on the SS Uki supporting allied forces in Papua New Guinea by carrying supplies from Milne Bay to smaller islands like Goodenough Island, Woodlark Island, Kirraween and Langmack Bay where bigger ships were docked.
“We would go alongside the big naval ships and unload 300 tonne of cargo to supply the troops – petrol, bombs, ammunition. These naval vessels were too big to get into most of the ports so our job was to pick up the supplies and drop them off.”
He says there was a real sense of camaraderie between the Americans and Australians. He remembers seeing 1940s American film stars Phyllis Brooks, Gary Cooper and Una Merkel perform for the troops in PNG. “Gary couldn’t sing for nuts. He gave a rendition of a scene out The Pride of the Yankee a movie about baseball players. But it was a treat for the troops and a memorable moment sitting on seats made out of palm trees in the tropics watching these big name stars,” Harry recalls.
He spent six months in PNG before being sent back to Bundaberg in Queensland. From there he joined a Danish ship, the MV Astoria, in Sydney which has been taken over by the British Ministry of Transport. “We carried steel from Newcastle to Adelaide and then wheat from South Australia to Peru and Chile in South America, loaded up with 9,000 tonne of nitrates and came back via Easter Island, Townsville, Mackay and back to Sydney. I did that a couple of times, it was a great adventure,” he says.
He was on the Danish ship when peace was declared in Europe doing a trip between Auckland and Western Australia. “We knew it was coming, but it was great news nonetheless. We shared a few beers and that was that.”
Harry was on an Austrian vessel, SS Corio, in Port Adelaide when victory in the Pacific was announced. They berthed in Port Adelaide and joined the VP Day march the next day to celebrate the news.
The sea continued to dominate Harry’s life post war. He spent decades working for the Merchant Navy before switching to the Manly Ferry service and then he joined the Maritime Service Board, retiring at 60 to live close to the water at South West Rocks. He even met his wife on a ship called the Duntroon in 1958 – the only vessel he worked with his father on.
Harry has a swathe of medals including - the Imperial Medals: the 1939/45 Star, the 1939/45 War Medal, Australian Service Medal, the Australian Victory Medal, USA Merchant Marine Victory Medal and South West Pacific War Medal.
He even got a letter from American President Harry Truman thanking him for his service.
He says he is proud to have been part of the war effort and said he wouldn’t change his experience ‘for quids’.