18 May 2023

Shellharbour marks 80 years since historic ship sinking

| Kellie O'Brien
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Sunday marks the 80th anniversary of the tragic shipwreck of SS Cities Service Boston

It’s the 80th anniversary of the tragic shipwreck of SS Cities Service Boston in Shellharbour. Photo: Shellharbour City Museum.

This month marks 80 years since Shellharbour’s most tragic shipping incident, where four Australian soldiers lost their lives during a maritime military rescue mission at Bass Point.

On 16 May, 1943, the US military ship SS Cities Service Boston hit a reef during a violent storm and was run aground at Bass Point to avoid sinking, but left 62 men on board stranded.

Shellharbour City Council Mayor Chris Homer said it was a significant moment in Shellharbour’s history.

He said each year a commemorative ceremony at Bass Point Reserve marked the heroic rescue efforts of Australian soldiers and residents who flocked to assist. This year’s ceremony was held early, on 7 May.

“The annual service at the wreck site is also to remember those lives lost in the rescue effort, so their bravery is not forgotten,” Cr Homer said.

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The SS Cities Service Boston had departed California with a consignment of aviation fuel, which it discharged on arrival in Brisbane, before sailing with a convoy to Sydney nine days later.

However, as they moved on toward Melbourne, they were targeted by Japanese submarines.

A video playing in the foyer of the Shellharbour Civic Centre details through images how the captain had decided to hug the coastline to avoid a submarine attack, but the high winds and large seas made the task almost impossible.

“The ship’s compass was archaic and gave inaccurate readings,” the video said.

Aboard the Boston, the lookout had sighted the reef but it was already too late as the hull of the ship grated the rock and then hit hard. The captain deliberately ran the ship aground to prevent sinking, leaving 62 men on board stranded.

Salvage operations on the SS Cities Service Boston

Salvage operations on the SS Cities Service Boston, which took more than 10 years to complete. Photo: Shellharbour City Museum.

The hooter on the ship sounded, signalling that it was in trouble.

Thirty-five soldiers from the 6th Australian Machine Gun Battalion (AIF), stationed in nearby Dapto, came to their aid.

They set up a bosun’s chair, a seat suspended from rope, and worked in shifts to save all 62 men while battling the rough seas.

“One soldier swam out to the ship in dangerous seas to get a rope and buoy that was thrown overboard by the crew,” Cr Homer said.

“The men stood on the rocks holding the rope taut while the crew slid along it to the shore.

“However, in the final stage of the rescue effort, a large wave washed 10 of the rescuers off the rocks.”

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Six men clambered back onto the rocks.

The remaining four – Sgt William Francis Allan, Pte Geoffrey William Pitt, Pte Raymond John Snell and Pte Bruce Howard Simmons – lost their lives.

They were awarded The Soldier’s Medal by the United States government on 4 June, 1944.

In 1968, a memorial to honour the four lives lost was unveiled on the northern side of Bass Point in Shellharbour and is the site of the memorial service held each year.

While the last surviving member of the battalion passed away in 2014, family members and the community still gather to recognise those involved.

The video in the civic centre foyer, which overlooks a display of serving ware salvaged from the wreck, an engineer’s log, the lifeboat pulley and a set of keys from the captain’s room, details how the wrecked ship was stripped, and parts were sold to a subsidiary of Broken Hill Proprietary Ltd (BHP).

Ownership passed to several companies including Port Kembla Steel Works. The salvage operations on the wreck took more than 10 years to complete.

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