United States Marines Return to Australia
-or G’Day, Mate. Can I buy you a drink?
In late September 1976, about two months after I reported aboard USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19) in San Diego as Officer-in-Charge of the Nucleus Landing Force Staff, we deployed for West Pac. (See T.I.N.S. Tales "The Admiral and the Ensign" and "Adventures in Annual Physicals" on this site for more Blue Ridge lore.) Our destination was White Beach on the island of Okinawa to serve as the flagship of Commander Task Force 76, the amphibious arm of the U.S. Seventh Fleet. But enroute to Oki, we would sail to Australia to support Operation Kangaroo II, a 7th Fleet exercise which included an amphibious landing on the east coast of Australia, followed by a week’s liberty in Australian ports of call.
USS Blue Ridge-White Beach, Okinawa
We were joined at Kwajalien atoll in early October by the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade embarked in the amphibious group’s ships. Before proceeding to Australia for the landings, we cross decked the staffs of CTF-76 and 9th MAB from other amphibious ships from Okinawa onto Blue Ridge.
We made the landing, operated ashore for several days, then back loaded and headed south for Sydney. Other ships of the amphibious task force visited Melbourne, Brisbane, and Hobart, Tasmania, which, from all accounts was a devil of a place.
During the early days of World War II Australian Army and Navy units of the British Empire were deployed to fight in North Africa, Europe, Italy and the Mediterranean. As Japanese attacks continued to seize islands in the South and Southwest Pacific, Australia became virtually defenseless. In 1942 the 1st Marine Division was deployed to Australia, and the 2nd Marine Division to New Zealand as staging areas for the assault on Guadalcanal and island fortresses farther north. These Marine divisions were the only thing standing between Australia and New Zealand and the Japanese Empire.
Both the Aussies and Kiwis were highly appreciative of these Marines and showed it in various ways. After the Battle for Guadalcanal was over the 1st Marine Division returned to Australia to recuperate and refit for the next assault to the north. At about this same time Australian soldiers and sailors began returning home from the European Theater and found that more than a few of their women had been rewarding the Marines for saving them from the Japs, and in many cases, for just being there. This resulted in the infamous "Battle of Melbourne" where many an Aussie soldier and Marine head was cracked, resulting in a very busy time for shore patrols and military police from both nations.
We were advised as we approached Sydney harbor that the Australians were still very appreciative of what the U.S. Marines had done for them during World War II some thirty five years after the fact. It was recommended that we wear uniforms on liberty as much as possible. When we went ashore we were greeted with great affection by the Aussies. You could hardly buy a drink, and Australian families invited sailors and Marines to their homes for dinner and drinks sight unseen. You just picked a name and phone number off a bulletin board near the fleet landing and called.
On one liberty when we wore civilian clothes, two Marine buddies and I went out to dinner and then hit some of Sydney’s finest pubs. When it was time to return to the ship, we hailed a cab. It was a small vehicle that the three of us barely fit into…two in the back and one in the front with the cabbie. During the trip the left rear tire went flat. The driver got the spare out of the trunk, but didn’t have a jack. We suggested that three of us hold the small car up while the fourth removed the flat and replaced it with the spare. The cabbie readily agreed, and we loosened the lug nuts, and leaned the spare against the side of the cab. We tried lifting the cab and found that we could do so pretty easily as long as we didn’t have to hold it up too long. I was elected to quickly remove the flat and replace it with the spare as the other three held up the cab by the rear bumper.
I positioned myself in front of the flat tire. When the cab was lifted I was going to squat down, remove the lug nuts and flat, and rapidly put the spare on so the car could be set down. The other three lifted the cab and I rapidly squatted down. The ass of my trousers ripped open from the bottom of the crotch to the belt. I had no choice but to get to work, so I did the tire switch with my ass exposed to the Australian evening breeze. But the flat was quickly fixed and we continued to the fleet landing. The cabbie gave us a free ride for our help.
The walk from the gate of the fleet landing to the ship was a well lighted several hundred yards, and it wasn’t that late so there were a number of sailors, Marines and civilians milling around. I walked as quickly as I could to the ship trying to hide my ripped trousers, but didn’t make it unnoticed. There was much hilarity on the quarterdeck of Blue Ridge as me and my semi-bare ass requested permission to come aboard. At least I didn’t have to salute since I was in civvies, so I tried to hold the ass of my pants together with my right hand.
Thus we ended our stay beneath the Southern Cross and the amphibious group headed north for Okinawa. On the trip back we traversed "The Slot", that body of water that ran between the two chains of islands that make up the Solomon Islands. As we passed Guadalcanal we held a memorial service for those Marines, soldiers and sailors who had died during that great battle, and cast a wreath off the fantail into the waters of The Slot. The Marine who dropped the wreath was the 9th MAB Fire Support Coordinator, Major Harvey "Barney" Barnum. Barney was awarded the Medal of Honor in Vietnam for an action in December of 1965 when he was assigned as the artillery forward observer to Hotel Company, 9th Marines. When his company commander and radio operator were killed he took command and rallied the company to counterattack, evacuate casualties, and continue on to the battalion objective.
We then sailed on to White Beach in Okinawa, and from there supported several more amphibious exercises in the Philippines and Okinawa, and visited ports of call in Pusan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Subic Bay and Manila. We returned to San Diego in the spring of 1977, and deployed once more to West Pac before I left the Blue Ridge in the summer of 1978. It was a good ship. During my career I spent about four years at sea either as a seagoing Marine, or aboard amphibs for various deployments. There is an anchor in the Marine emblem for a reason, and I guess I’m as good an example as any of one who spent a good bit of his career as a Soldier of the Sea.
More memories from our glorious days east of Suez.
Dirck Praeger sends