Sea wolves and porpoises - Memories of a war at sea31 July 2020
Navy veteran Joe Treers served in both the Atlantic and Pacific during WWII, dodging Nazi U-boats as well as the Japanese.
Joe Treers doesn’t remember marking the Japanese surrender in a big way. He was at sea at the time, so it occasioned just a small celebration among the crew of HMAS Ping Wo. But when the vessel returned to Townsville, he and a couple of mates decided to go ashore for a beer.
“And we couldn’t get a beer, because they had no glasses!” he recalls, grinning. At the beginning of the war, all the soldiers stationed in Townsville had taken a glass home, bringing it back to the pub on nights out.
“So I thought, ‘I know what we're going to do.’” Joe had one of his mates find some empty beer bottles that he took back to the ship. “I put hot wire across the top of the bottle, and then plunged it into freezing water. And this cracked the top of the bottle off.
“So then I ground the edge, and then we had three of them. And I got some paint and painted our Christian names on each glass. And that's how we got our beer.”
From U-boats to cyclones
After 20 years in the Navy, Joe has a treasure trove of stories. During World War II alone, he served in the North Atlantic, the Indian and the Pacific Oceans.
His first ship was the HMAS Nepal, an N-class destroyer fresh from the shipyards in Portsmouth, England.
“When they thought we were good enough to go to sea, we did a couple of trips escorting other ships to Northern Russia, to Murmansk. And the only thing we liked about that was to get up there with no trouble,” Joe says, playing down the risk. At the time, Nazi U-boats – the so-called ‘sea wolves’ – were plying the North Atlantic, targeting convoys just like the one the Nepal was escorting. In fact, Joe recalls that a couple of the ships in the convoy were lost on the return to Glasgow.
The Nepal sailed for Kilindini in Eastern Africa, where she carried out escort and patrol duties. On her voyage from Africa to Australia, however, her path crossed a severe cyclone.
“And finally it got that big that the skipper took over the wheel in the ship,” Joe says. “From the crest of the wave to the bottom of the wave was 50 feet. That's how high the waves were. And he took us up on an angle, up this wave, turned it right on the crest and then went back down the wave out the other way, and got us out of the cyclone.”
The Nepal made it to Fremantle intact, needing only minor repairs.
Joining the war in the Pacific
Joe spent the final years of the war stationed in New Guinea, sailing between Port Moresby and Townsville. “The ship I was on, we never, ever got attacked by the Japanese aircraft. They were attacking mostly North Australia and naval depots and the other Army depots in New Guinea. And we were just lucky.”
A moment of peace in the middle of war
On nights when he wasn’t on watch, Joe would stand in the forepeak watching the ship cut through the phosphorescent seas, creating an enormous bow wave. “And you’d see them coming way ahead of the ship, always two of them – porpoises or something like that. And then suddenly, they’d turn and head for the ship, and they'd come down past the side of the bow and then turn around and come back. And they'd surf in the bow wave. Just like you see them at the beach,” Joe reminisces.
A lifetime of service
Joe is a stalwart member of the Toowoomba United RSL Sub Branch, having joined the RSL in Bondi 80 years ago. Until recently, he volunteered a lot of his time to the Sub Branch and he is still a regular at Friday evening social events where he’s a one-man welcoming committee for new members. “When we get new members come into the RSL at our [Sub] Branch, I ask them – especially if they're ex-Navy – I ask them where they've been and what they've done,” Joe says. “I ask more questions than they ask me, because the whole system has changed.”
If you’ve been to a Dawn Service in Toowoomba in the past decade, you’ve almost certainly come across Joe. Without fail, the 98-year-old mans his post at the bus interchange, serving tea, coffee and – of course – rum to the hundreds of people attending the service.
District Secretary Tracey-Fay Penrose, who helps Joe serve the gunfire breakfast each ANZAC Day, says Joe is an absolute gem. “He never lets them down, he’s always there. It really means something to him.”