Journal of the australian naval

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Most people have never heard of HMAS Matafele. the wartime Royal Australian Navy stores carrier which disappeared in 1944 It disappeared somewhere between Townsville and Milne Bay in New Guinea with four officers. 20 ratings and 13 native crew members onboard.

Matafele started lile as a 350 tonne cargo-passenger motor vessel in 1938, constructed by the Whompoa Dock Company for the Burns Philp (South Seas) Company. Her name. Matafele. which was selected to honour a district in Western Samoa, means eye of the coconut'

Although placed under the control of the British Ministry of War Transport in 1939 on the

outbreak of war, the MV Matafele went about her normal trading duties amongst the atolls and reefs of the south Pacific in the early years of World War II. War came to the Matafele in January. 1942 when she arrived in Rabaul Harbour to find the town had already been evacuated and was under Japanese air attack With Japanese troops being landed on the beaches, Matafele's skipper made the immediate decision to sail for Australia Hidden by heavy rain squalls she made her break and reached Australia via Samarai, She was the last Allied vessel to leave Rabaul before the Japanese occupation.

Pago 72 — November 86. Journal ol the Australian Naval Institute

HMAS Matalele pictured shortly before her loss

Photo courtesy of author

In March 1942. Matafele was one of seven small ships taken up by the Australian Commonwealth Shipping Board to operate between Cairns and Darwin. Later that same year she was transferred to the operational control of the Naval-Otficer-in-Charge. New Guinea, and was utilised as a stores carrier. She had the distinction of being the first ship to run stores beyond Milne Bay after the Japanese landings earlier that year. She still retained a mixed crew with merchant service personnel being replaced by Naval officers and seamen as they were discharged.

On 29 August, whilst proceeding from Port Moresby to Cairns she assisted in towing the torpedoed MV Malaita into a shallow water anchorage. In the meantime the destroyer HMAS Arunta sank the offending Japanese Submarine R033.

By December. 1942 all merchant service officers had been replaced and 14 Naval ratings were drafted from the HMAS Basilisk naval establishment at Port Moresby. The native crew members onboard agreed to stay with the ship.

On 1 January, 1943, Matafele had the distinction of being the only Royal Australian Navy ship to commission at sea. She was commissioned HMAS Matafele under the command of Lieutenant Commander C.F. SYMONDS. a former Royal Navy Officer attached to the RAN Emergency List. The identification letters MF' were painted on her hull.

She continued to run stores to forward areas for most of 1943 before being transferred to an Allied Survey group where she was engaged in buoying channels and erecting navigational markers. The ship was sent south to Sydney in February, 1944 for a long overdue refit. On its completion in March, she once again headed north to Queensland to join the ships on the Townsville-Milne Bay stores run.

HMAS Matafele was last sighted on 23 June, 1944 when she sailed from Townsville carrying 220 tonnes of stores, bound for Milne Bay in New Guinea. She had 37 personnel onboard. Five days later, on 28 June, she was requested to report her present position and estimated time of arrival at Milne Bay. The continual requests drew no reply. Either the ship had sustained problems with her radio or come to grief. A wide aerial and sea search was conducted but no trace of her was ever found.

At the time it was generally accepted that the ship had become the victim of a Japanese Submarine. However, postwar examination of Japanese records show no submarines were deployed in the area where Matafele disappeared. It can only be assumed that HMAS Matafele foundered after running into heavy weather in the Coral Sea on or about 28 June, 1944. Her fate is destined to remain one of the mysteries of the sea.

Vic Jeffery

November 86. Journal ol Ihe Australian Naval Institute — Page 73



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