The Finch family are thrilled the Australian War Memorial has accepted their father’s medals for display.
The medals of Kyogle’s Frederick Bradley Finch OAM, known as Frank, included his World War II medals from Australia, USA and Norway, his Legionnaires cap, merchant navy badge and US Merchant Marine Honourable Discharge patch and pin.
Two books he wrote will be part of the collection – The Forgotten Fleet and Under Three Flags.
His daughter Kerry Finch wrote about his life:
Dad was born in Parramatta and grew up around Bondi and would often sit on the headland watching ships. His father was a merchant seaman and so he grew up listening to stories of the sea. By the time he was eight, his father had taught him to ‘box the compass’ – meaning to recite all 32 points, identify star constellations, to tie knots and to paint – all requirements to be a sailor.
At 14 he climbed aboard his first vessel, a houseboat, to get a tattoo and when asked why, the answer was simple – he wanted to be a sailor. The irony was that he never learned to swim.
The next vessel he boarded was with crew who stowed him away on ships from Sydney to Newcastle until one was blown up by a mine and the crew said it was too dangerous for him to come.
At age 15, the war had been going on for two and a half years in Europe, the Middle East and the Pacific.
In 1942, he signed on to the tanker MV Falkefjell, his first real ship. It sailed the next morning.
He rushed to get his document of identity and a clearance from Customs House then give his boss and Dairy Farmers his notice. Then he had to tell his mother – she was not impressed.
He did several trips delivering oil to war affected areas in the South Pacific, New Zealand and Australia, often dodging floating mines and enemy submarines.
It was a bad time to be at sea with German U-boat wolf packs in the Atlantic and the Japanese sub packs in the Pacific and Indian oceans – 54 allied ships were sunk off Australia, including the hospital ship Centaur, killing 268. Ports had to close because it was too dangerous because of the Japanese sub blockade.
At 16 he told his mother he was going to join the army. She said No. She was afraid he was more likely to be killed in the army but the reality was the opposite.
He signed up with the US Army Transportation Corps Small Ships division – ex-Sydney ferries, wheat ketches, harbour tugs and trawlers.
He took the oath and was issued an American uniform as a private first class. He took a troop train north to join the USS Volunteer S-93 – an old small tug that had finished its sea life and was waiting to be broken up. It had a crew of four – two 70-year-olds and two teenage boys with no radio and little safety equipment.
Their job was to tow a heavy bitumen barge across 1000 miles of ocean to Milne Bay in New Guinea.
Frank spent his 17th birthday there, somehow being entered into a boxing tournament where he ended up learning the driving force of a Liverpool kiss (a headbutt to the face).
He joined the SS Corrimal to Sydney to join a Norwegian ship heading to the US where he joined large Atlantic convoys carrying war supplied to Britain.
In Washington DC he inquired again about joining the Australian Army. It would have taken two weeks, so he joined a Norwegian freighter – as part of the last North African convoy, carrying coal to Algiers.
Ashore in Algiers, Frank and a mate were late back and the ship had sailed.
The Foreign Legionnaires came to their rescue, helping them to make their way across 650km of North Africa to rejoin their ship in Tunisia for a convoy heading for Gibraltar. They had just formed into convoy position when a submarine alert was given – with a destroyer dropping depth charges. Several days later war with Germany ended.
Frank arrived back in the US in May 1945 and joined a tanker for 10 trips taking oil across the Panama Canal Zone.
The war with Japan was still on and on August 6, 1945, while sailing back to the US, they received word that a bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima. Days later a bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. He signed off and two days later while he was in a restaurant in San Francisco the announcement came over the radio – war with Japan was over.
He criss-crossed the Atlantic and Pacific, arriving back in Sydney in December 1946.
He met his wife Fay on a blind date through friends in Sydney in 1949 – a Kyogle girl who was working there. They married in 1950, making their home back in Kyogle, where they had eight children with four of the sons becoming merchant seamen. He created the Finch Maritime Museum in his backyard.
Thousands of men and boys served the US Army Small Ships during the war and were not recognised for their service until many years after. The public and in many cases the families of veterans heard nothing of the small ships from 1942 until Frank wrote and published The Forgotten Fleet with veteran and friend Bill Lunney in 1995. This led directly to the formation of the Small Ships Association where he assisted many veterans in receiving the official recognition they so deserved.
In 2010 the Small Ships were inducted into the US Army Transportation Hall of Fame.
Frank received an OAM in 2017 for his preservation of maritime history.
In 46 years he sailed on 96 ships until he retired in 1988.
He passed away March 6, 2020 aged 93.
This article appeared in the Richmond River Independent, 20 January 2021.