A fleeting glance

A fleeting glance

By Ashley Smith - Royal Historical Society of Victoria

Normally, the sight of large ships berthed at Victoria Dock would not raise an eyebrow. However, in 1925, these destroyer-class battleships were the Dock’s most important guests in its 33-year existence.

That year saw the arrival of 57 ships and 25,000 men from the United States Fleet in Australia as part of a goodwill tour, led by Admiral Robert Edward Coontz. Fourteen vessels sailed to New South Wales, while the other 43 would enter Melbourne for a two-week stay. They arrived in Port Phillip Bay on July 23, 1925, consisting of the flagship U.S.S. Seattle (formerly U.S.S. Washington), three other battleships (the U.S.S. Pennsylvania, U.S.S. Nevada and the U.S.S. Oklahoma), four light cruisers and six support ships. Some berthed at Port Melbourne however the bulk of the fleet - the 29 destroyers that escorted them – would berth at Victoria Dock, squeezing between the Southern Dock and the Central Pier.

It wasn’t the first time a US fleet had arrived on Melbourne’s doorstep. In 1908, the Great White Fleet- 16 ships with white-painted hulls – sailed into Melbourne as part of the Australian leg of a 15-month expedition around the world to promoting the USA’s status as a world power. They had been invited by then-Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, who planned to use the visit to demonstrate the need of an Australian Naval force instead of being reliant on the British. Back then, Coontz had been an executive officer on the U.S.S. Nebraska, and his memories of Melbourne must have been pleasant for when he returned 17 years later he was anticipating a “royal welcome” (July 27, The Age).

However, what he received when he arrived would be “beyond all expectations”.

From the moment they entered Port Phillip Bay, the Americans were met with a hearty reception as citizens flocked along the shores of Portland, Queenscliff and Sorrento to greet them, while an aerial demonstration by the RAAF flew overhead. After landing, Coontz and his senior officers were treated to a reception at Federal Government House (or Parliament House), and others were treated to a multitude of private functions. On July 24, 2000 marines marched in a parade that ended with a luncheon at the Exhibition Building. Many extravagant events were held for the officers and men, including another dinner held by the Commonwealth Government at Parliament House on July 27, a Governor General’s Ball at Government House (July 28), and a Mayor and Mayoress’ ball for 3000 guests at the Exhibition Building (July 29). Soldiers took field trips to Healesville, Ballarat and Bendigo, attended plays at Her Majesty’s Theatre and the races at Moonee Valley, and were honoured with a fireworks display at St Kilda Pier on August 1. And everywhere soldiers were treated like visiting family members, with the July 25 issue of The Age reporting that marines were made “honoured guests in hundreds of private homes”. In that time, it was reported in The Weekly Times on August 8 (paraphrasing the editor of The Herald who’d been correcting false claims of assaults against the fleet) that nearly half a million citizens visited the various berthed warships.

But it wasn’t all parties and sightseeing as the Americans also engaged in various sporting events. On July 25, The Age reported that marines partook in some boxing matches against some of Australia’s aspiring sparrers at “The Stadium” (likely Festival Hall). At a muddy Richmond Oval, the soldiers from the Pennsylvania beat the Light Cruiser Trenton in a gridiron match in front of 3000 people (including VFL footballers). There were also a series of baseball matches played at both Richmond and the MCG, as teams from the various ships played against teams representing Victoria, South Australia and Australia. Surprisingly, the Australians proved too good in their three matches, tying with the Pennsylvania crew (four-all), before beating teams from the Omaha and the Richmond. The most extraordinary surprise was just who was playing for Australia – some of Australia’s best cricketers of the era getting fit between summers. This included future Australian captain Jack Ryder and a talented centre-fieldsman named William Ponsford.

Some soldiers not only fell in love with Melbourne, but also with its people. Many soldiers became caught up in whirlwind romances and dozens of marriages were planned. One example was the machinist of destroyer U.S.S. Macdonough, Frank Quercy, who in mere days met Kensington’s Violet Ryan, fell in love, then married at Fitzroy Court before he was due to go home.

Alas, it was not all good news. Disaster fell upon the parade in Bourke St when a cantilever veranda at Hoyts Theatre collapsed, injuring more than 100 bystanders. Later, a seaplane from the U.S.S. Pennsylvania crashed at Williamstown, though there were no casualties. The grimmest case, however, was when one soldier was reportedly found dead with a self-inflicted cut to his throat. Even the destroyers’ departure from Victoria Dock wasn’t incident-free, as the Macdonough collided with the coal hulk Werfa. While the destroyer and its crew were left unscathed, the Werfa sank into the murky depths.

Otherwise, the trip was a rousing success, finishing with a party on the Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and Nevada the night before departure. When the fleet left for New Zealand on the morning of August 6 1925, many Melbournians saw them off. The band on the destroyer Melville honoured the occasion by playing Aloha Oe and Auld Lang Syne, with many a marine promising the crowd they would be back. Prime Minister Stanley Bruce declared that the Americans had “forged a link of friendship, which, we trust, will never break”. Coontz meanwhile declared, “I have been strongly impressed with Australia’s wonderful possibilities, which many Australians do not even yet seem to realise.”

While it wouldn’t be until World War Two that such a large contingent of US military would again visit Melbournian soil, undoubtedly ties were strengthened between nations •

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