MERCHANT SHIP "FLORENCE D"
DESTROYED BY JAPANESE
DURING AIR ATTACK ON DARWIN AREA
ON 19 FEBRUARY 1942

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visits since 18 November 2009

 


Photo:- sourced by Jim Miles, courtesy University of Wisconsin

The cargo vessel "Fiscus", of similar
design to the "Florence D".

 

Looting from "SS Florence D" in March 2011

 

Searching for the SS Florence-D (Lake Farmingdale)

October – December 2008

by James Miles

 

 

Foreword:

 

SS Florence D (originally named Lake Farmingdale) was a steamship built in Superior, Wisconsin, USA and launched 30 April 1919. Her gross tonnage was 2642 tons. In 1925 it was purchased by the Cadwallader-Gibson Lumber Company for $60,000 and sent for operations in the Philippines.   She was bombed by Japanese aircraft while on a US Army charted blockade run of ammunition and supplies destined for the Philippines, during the 1st bombing of Darwin on 19th February 1942. All accounts stated that she lay somewhere to the northwest of Bathurst Island and has been there, undisturbed for 66 years, until now.

I am a long term Territory resident, completing secondary education at Nightcliff High in 1987.  Prior to that, in my late primary years, I was raised in Rabaul, PNG.  Our family left there in 1983 to resume life in Darwin in an attempt to mirror a tropical lifestyle that we had all now become accustomed.   In Rabaul, my father was a keen diver and exposed my brother and me to the underwater world.  Particularly the world of WWII Japanese shipwrecks!  I got a NAUI Open-water diving accreditation at the tender age of 13 and became absorbed in the fascination of WWII history and shipwrecks.  It was at that time he instilled in me the importance of wreck conservation, something unusual in those years of “treasure hunters”.  Those values now remain solidly passed on to me and I always encourage others to think of a wreck as a living time-capsule rather than an object to be used and plundered for ones own advantage. 

My career progression since those days has been wide and varied.  Starting in the NT Police, followed by Commercial Diving, to Army Helicopter Pilot,  I now have a career flying helicopters offshore to the rigs out from Broome with CHC Helicopters.  While in the NT Police, I spent time at Garden Point (Pirlangimpi) and have indigenous friends there and at Nguiu (Bathurst Island) who have also been involved in this search.  I still work casually in Darwin, with Territory Diving Services (Neptune/TDS) as a Commercial Diver.  Whenever I’m on commercial dives in Darwin with the guys, there is always talk of wrecks and discovery.  Young protégé of local diving legend Tim Proctor, Ben, always seems to fuel the atmosphere of historic wreck hunting and has been instrumental in ensuring that I spare no expense in my exploits in the name of history and wreck hunting!  

 

The Story of the Search:

On a day in October, while on holidays in Darwin, my father gives me a new book. Ten Shipwrecks of the Northern Territory, published my museum curator, Paul Clark.  I read it cover to cover.  When I get to the section on the wreck of the USAT Don Isidro, I read the following sentences, “The remaining two (Florence D and Don Isidro) were both lost off the western side of Bathurst Island.  Florence D was lost in deep water and has yet to be found.  When located, it may prove to be the most interesting of all the WWII shipwreck sites located in Northern Territory waters.”

Well, like a bulldog to an old bone I began my mission; to find the Florence D

I’ve always liked looking for things lost underwater.  Whenever I hear of something lost or missing I just get a savage urge to find it! I own an underwater metal detector and have often charted myself out to people who have lost things in the water, particularly in muddy water.  A few years’ back I even advertised my services; “Metals-In-Mud, Underwater Detection”.  I regularly had success recovering peoples lost valuables in places like Cullen Bay Marina.  Recently in fact, I located a lady’s purse for her that she lost off the local sunset pear lugger cruise, Alfred Noble, at Stokes Hill Wharf.  This recovery was in deep murky water, in spring tides!  To me, it’s always the thrill of the hunt and the satisfaction of making someone’s day, rather than any reward I may receive.

While sitting in my hotel room in Broome, between our routine flying schedules out to the rigs, I immediately began putting my idle time to productive use.  I began looking up anything and everything I could find on the internet related to the Florence D.  It was quite amazing what was out there.  I soon realised that I needed to organise facts from fiction and start creating a probability map for a possible search in the future.  I started cutting and pasting everything that was potentially valuable onto a Word doc.  Well, I soon ran out of worthy material on the internet and needed some more cold hard facts to help with the case.  To get cold hard facts I turned to the ships manufacturer in Wisconsin, USA, the Australian War Memorial and the National Australian Archives (NAA) and of course the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory’s (MAGNT), Mr Paul Clark!

The story of the loss of the Florence D is a truly fascinating one.  Fascinating, because a US Navy PBY Catalina reconnaissance aircraft was lost with it, that same fateful day.  The day of course was the very first air attack on Darwin.  19th February 1942. 

The Catalina, under command of LT Tom Moorer (later Admiral, Commander in Chief, Atlantic & US Atlantic Fleet in 60’s and 70’s) left Darwin early that Thursday morning for a patrol towards Ambon in order to gain information as to a possible carrier led Japanese invasion force.  Just after 9am, leaving the northern shores of Melville Island, he spotted a merchant ship (the Florence D) and conducted a reconnaissance.  As he was doing this he was suddenly attacked from above by a small group of fighters that were part of the incoming Japanese, carrier-born, Darwin air-raid.  He ditched the aircraft immediately and the burning wreck was evacuated by way of a liferaft.  Shortly after, the Florence D, who witnessed the event, came to their rescue.  All the Catalina crew survived and the Florence D then began steaming towards Darwin.  Moorer soon learned that the Florence D was a blockade runner, smuggling supplies and arms to the Philippines from Surabaya.  Soon into the voyage the Florence D learned of its sister ship the Don Isidro coming under attack just a short distance ahead and then she herself was attacked as she rounded Bathurst Island.  A dedicated force was sent to sink the Florence D and Don Isidro.  The Florence D suffered a direct hit to the forward cargo hold which housed hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition.  She exploded dramatically by the bow and sunk immediately.  Captain Carmelo Manzano was injured in the attack, so Moorer took command and mustered the survivors into two lifeboats.  During the attack three of the Florence D’s crew (Pilipino) were killed and one of the Catalina’s crew was killed.  Moorer then led a voyage in the two lifeboats, under sail, that took between 7 to 9 hours.  They landed on Bathurst Island around midnight that night and survived until noon on Sunday 22nd when they were rescued by the HMAS Warrnambool.  Even during this rescue they were again attacked by Japanese aircraft, but suffered no casualties.  It must be mentioned that some of the Pilipino crew actually walked across Bathurst Island and were later repatriated to Darwin of the famous Tiwi Island lugger, St Francis.

So with this basic story in hand, I needed facts.  Some important facts. Like:-

  • Where exactly were the survivors rescued from?
  • What were all the timings of events?
  • Did they “sail”?
  • How long did they sail?
  • If so, what were the winds?
  • What was the sailing heading? 
  • What was the boat speed?
  • What were the tides doing?

I quickly got the answers to some of these questions when Guy Olding, Information Services, Australian War Memorial did a fantastic job of getting me a copy of the HMAS Warrnambool’s “War Diary” (Ships Log). 

 

 

My heart skipped a beat!  “Brace Point”!  I had the rescue location and it was different from what all the other accounts said in my research!  This meant that I may be the first to learn this fact!  I love facts!

From what I had learned up until this point, a whole variety of researches had been drawn away from the facts by placing too much weight on a letter written to former NT Chief Minister, Marshall Perron, from Admiral Moorer himself, in 1967.  In the letter, Admiral Moorer did his best to help Mr Perron, himself an avid diver and WWII history buff, to locate the lost Florence D.  Admiral Moorer even gave a Lat’ and Long’ of the lost ship.  In the letter however he stressed, “my best guesstimate (and it is nothing more) as to her location is northwest of the centre of the midpoint of the West Coast of Bathurst Island at a distance of about 50 miles……at latitude 11º10’, longitude 129-30…”

So much weight was placed on this letter that a RAN submarine hunting aircraft was even tasked to run a magnetometer search of this area.  To make matters better, the aircraft reported “an object consistent with that of a 3000 ton ship was located within two nautical miles from Moorer’s position”.  Navy divers were meant to dive the site or conduct side-scan surveys, but to my knowledge and that of the MAGNT, this was never done.

Once I learned and gained a copy of this 1967 letter, I had warning bells sounding in my mind as to the credibility or should I say value of the “facts” contained therein.  I slipped into the skin of Admiral Moorer and began thinking like him.  In fact, I’ve made it a habit with all my research to adopt this habit of “climbing into the skin” of the person testifying or living through an event and think like them.  Doing this, certain things worried me about Admiral Moorer.  Those things are;

1. He would have been focussed on his crew’s welfare once under sail on the Florence D after being plucked from the sea in a liferaft.  Navigation at this point is not a priority.  As far as he was concerned they were just “steaming for Darwin” and they were then sunk a few hours later!  Not enough time to accurately determine navigation.

2. Bombed aboard the Florence D.  The whole bow exploded.  I’m certain that all aboard would now be “Shell Shocked”.  A very real condition.  Having myself experienced live firepower demonstrations at RMC Duntroon, I cannot under emphasise the power of being exposed to big explosions.  Particularly at close range.  Our measly explosions at Duntroon would have been a fraction of what Moorer experienced.  I truly believe that the disorientating effects of this cannot be under emphasised. 

3. To add weight to my “shell shock” theory, in some transcripts from speeches Moorer has given on the subject, he even gives incorrect accounts as to the number of days he “sailed to shore”.  “Days”, not “hours”.  He even thought he was “setting sail for Darwin”.  He demonstrates in his accounts that he really didn’t know where he was at the time of the sinking.

4. Finally, in 1967 when he wrote to Mr Perron, he was under immense stress at work!  He was involved in a serious scandal. Moorer believed that the 1967 Israeli attack on the USS Liberty was deliberate and that President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered the cover-up to maintain ties with Israel.  He was also burdened by immense pressure of the Vietnam War in general.  So his letter would probably have been rushed and not well thought out.

Several other things worried me about the focus on the Florence D being so far offshore.  The main one being this fact:

In 1942 navigation was made by use of landmark bearings or a watch and a sextant or all of these together.  Now, being an avid sailer myself and slipping into Captain Manzano’s suit, I thought, “I’m under duress from attacks; I want to get to the safety of Darwin as soon as possible; I want to take the shortest, safest route; Landmarks are easier than dragging out the old sextant so we’ll hug the coast around Bathurst Island as close as possible to survive this!”  Why would the Florence D be 50 miles offshore?  To me; ludicrous! I formed a theory that the Florence D would never be out of sight of Bathurst Island under these conditions.  By way of practical experiment, in my first two search expeditions, I quickly learned that from the height of the Florence D’s bridge, Bathurst Island would disappear at about 17nm distance.  The Florence D would most likely be inside this zone offshore.  No more.

So, my aviation and sailing theory joined up to draw “sailing vectors” out from Brace Point to end at the likely site of the Florence D.  The main variables were heading and boat speed. 

Boat speed and heading hinged squarely on the question “what were the winds of the day?”  Now I had two choices here.

1. Go off Moorer’s account, “I headed downwind, south east…I used the southern cross…” or,

2. Look at the bombing of Darwin photographs (smoke rising from burning ships in the harbour and the wind ripples on the sea) and make my own determination.  They showed a very light west northwest wind at five knots or less. Or;

3. Ask the Met’ Bureau and get a 1942 synoptic chart of the day from NAA.

Well, on my first seven-day search expedition, I used the vectors determined from method #1.  This turned out to be a mistake.  I should have used “facts” and gone for #2.  I had #3 in hand but National Archives required me to send a friend into their office in Melbourne and take a digital photo of the chart.  I was running out of time for my search and just went with #1.  Had I had of just gone with my observations of the Darwin photographs, I do believe I would have discovered the Florence D on this first expedition.  The vectors of east south east, boat speed 2kts, later worked perfectly.  So perfect in fact that, when coupled with tidal vectors, they bring you to a position of one nautical mile of the actual wreck!

The first seven day expedition was conducted in my 5.6m aluminium centre consol boat, bought specifically for the task.  My only crew was my great old school friend and local Darwin identity, Dr Dimitri Andropov. We invested in the latest Humminbird Side-Scan sounder, which gives amazing 3D resolution on submerged objects.  To add to the unit’s capability, I built a custom made downrigger and mounted the transducer onto an aluminium tube filled with 25kg of lead.  This gave me the capability to lower the transducer to a depth of 50m if required.  By practical experiment, the machine works best, the closer the transducer is to the bottom.

On day-one and two, we went out to the area on days that approximated the actual tides of 19th February 1942.  Four days post new-moon.  We carefully worked out all the timings and conducted two, nine-hour, practical experiments re-enacting the actual lifeboat voyages at “sailing speed” of two knots.  Now armed with this tidal-data, we had real tide vectors of the area to add to the sailing vectors.  We now had more accurate search zones.  Our only big variable now was “heading”.  Did they sail SE or did they sail ESE? We chose SE (Moorer’s testimony, over that of the smoke from the Darwin bombing photographs) “Shell shock” over “facts”.  Silly me!  Anyway, during the main tidal experiment, tracking inbound to Brace Point from the new search area, it later turned out that our track at the midpoint of the experiment was on a direct line to actually cross the wreck!  I’m still not sure if this was a coincidence or actually based on science? But I stupidly decided to reposition the boat only one nautical mile from almost certainly crossing the wreck!  Se la vee!

So we trolled that transducer around for seven days until we ran out of fuel and had to go home.  While out there, Dimitri read and re-read all my research notes.  He said, “You know, I live next door to Marshall Perron’s sister.  We should get his number and call him when we get home.  He may be interested and know some more.”  And that’s exactly what I did.  At 8am the next morning after getting home, the boat still a mess outside, not even rinsed of salt crystals, I called Marshall Perron.  He was very excited to hear of the newfound interest in the Florence D.  We talked lots.  At the end of the call he said, “You know, it’s funny, a chap by the name of Wayne Keeping called me up to talk about the Florence D about a year ago.  He may have some information on it and he says that he may have even found her!  I don’t have his number but I’m sure he’s in the phone book because he’s an old Darwin resident and runs a small business.” 

The next call, after quickly finding Mr Keeping in the phone book, was made.  After a quick introduction and explanation I put it straight to him.  He said, “Yes, I know where it is (Florence D) and have been fishing it for the last 20 years!  I’ve even dived it!  I may even know where the Catalina is, but I haven’t been able to dive that yet!” 

Well, I was ecstatic! I’d just saved hundreds of dollars of search fuel by “letting my fingers do the walking”!  Wow!  Was I excited!  We arranged a meeting then and there with Paul Clark at the Cornucopia Café an MAGNT.  Coffee never tasted so good, as I laid all my ships drawings and research notes before Mr Keeping and we talked about when we could get out there to confirm the finds.  We locked in an expedition aboard his new professional cruising vessel, MV Latrobe.    

The expedition departed in the evening on Fri 5th Dec 2008.  The crew was to consist of Paul Clerk (MAGNT), David Steinberg (Heritage Conservation Services) and Silvano Jung (Anthropologist and Catalina expert).  Sadly all of those experts were unable to attend due to other commitments, so the crew ended up being; Mr Keeping (Finder of the Florence D and owner of MV Latrobe), his friend and WWII enthusiast, Don…, Boris von Rechenberg (Crew Melbourne Businessman), Frank Beecroft (Crew and local Darwin identity), his son Adam, My son Tom, his friend Robin and Myself.  The next morning, Mr Keeping revealed the locations of the two sites and Don shared his research notes, and I shared mine to him.  The first site was a position three nautical miles offshore near Rocky Point and Caution Point.  It was an unusual lump, in an area of flat mud that certainly had the hallmarks of a wreck when observed on a standard depth-sounder.  My boat, MV Blue Yonder, wad been towed behind Wayne’s to be used to gather valuable side-scan imagery before diving in muddy waters to help aid in orientation and safety, knowing what lays below.  So I deployed the side-scan and surveyed the site.  It became immediately apparent that the site was only a large rock formation.  I showed Wayne the imagery and we made a confirmatory dive.  I took down a small hammer to expose the makeup of the objects below.  I exposed an area of rock similar to that of Kakadu Sandstone, secured my safety-line to that rock then Mr Keeping went down to observe it.  Unfortunately Mr Keeping refused to believe that this was not the wreck of the Florence D.

Earlier on, Don showed me, among his notes; an extract from a book with a  quote from the famous diving identity, the late Carl Atkinson. (1960’s and 70’s). It had him saying that he’d located the wreck of the Florence D, three miles out from Rocky Point / Caution Point, Bathurst Island.  This extract from the book is what gave Mr Keeping and Don their main evidence that this site had to be the Florence D.  Sadly, the site has been known by local fisherman for years and even dived by professional researches in the past and proved to be just an interesting reef.

We then headed out to the next site that Mr Keeping believed could be the “Catalina”. This site, was very much inside my search-zone determined for the Florence D.  Once again, I deployed my side-scan and quickly determined that this was a shipwreck!  A pretty large shipwreck.  Mr Keeping was already dressed into my 2nd set of diving gear and ready to hit the water when I tied the Blue Yonder to the stern.  He dived first and I followed shortly after.

My first dive went as follows:-

  • Descended anchor chain.  Visibility very poor at 0.5m.  Landed on flat structure with soft marine growth at 10m depth.  Swam along and found a sheer vertical face.  Descended face to seabed. Sand at 16m depth. Visibility now 0.2m or less.  Moved along seabed to another large structure.  Exposed the nature of structure with small hammer.  Saw shiny metal.  Returned to surface to report finding.
  • I saw Mr Keeping on the surface and we expressed our delight to be “diving a wreck”!  I told the deck crew that I would return to the bottom, and expose some of the wreck near the anchor-chain in order to make video to bring evidence back to show MAGNT. 

 2nd dive:-

  • Went to edge of flat area before shear drop to seabed.  Exposed two small section of what was certainly flat steel plate with steel rivets.  Collected some of the rust layers removed and put them in my catch-bag to take back to Darwin as evidence for MAGNT.

3rd dive:-

  • Took video down to record exposed steel-plate and rivets (Florence D constructed using rivets).  While preparing camera, Mr Keeping was insistent that he had “found the Catalina” and that he was “on an aircraft propeller”.  I expressed my feelings that there was no way it was an aircraft and that in fact he had probably found the Florence D!  He would not believe it.  Anyway I returned to video the steelwork using my old Sony Handy-cam placed inside an old fire extinguisher with its top sawn off and a Perspex window sealing everything up.  It records continuously, with no control whatsoever, but does take remarkable macro-vision in poor visibility conditions. 
  • So that’s what happened.  I dived & obtained the vision to show Paul Clark and David Steinberg back in Darwin. (MAGNT and Heritage reps)

Mr Keeping then confidently bet me a case of Crown Larger that he’d found the Catalina and not the Florence D!  Even after showing him all the side-scan images, he still refused to believe.  I also told him of the research facts that put us into a highly probable site for the Florence D, but he remained stubborn on the issue for many days later. 

I must admit, that to the untrained eye, the side-scan imagery can be confusing, and I didn’t even fully appreciate its worth until back in Darwin in the comfort of home.  When we studied all the images on a computer and determined their order of taking on the GPS track, it became clearer and clearer that this wreck was in fact, the Florence D!  We were even able to accurately determine the wreck’s orientation; north/south, bow to north.  The imagery of the stern, when overlayed to an old photograph that the University of Wisconsin’s Laura Jacobs had earlier sent me, made a remarkable fit.  Later on, Boris told me that he “saw that straight away”, while I hadn’t!  Boris comes from an artistic background! The image shows an intact stern, lying on the sand on its starboard side.  Forward of amidships its a confused mess of debris.  This adds more weight to the fact it is Florence-D; an explosion in forward cargo bay, destroying the bow.

At the time of writing this, I now believe that having given a copy of a short DVD of the discovery to Mr Keeping and the MAGNT crew, he is now convinced that his discovery may very well be the Florence D!  I am looking forward to my Crown Larger soon!

So that ends the story of the search for the Florence D.  Government funded expeditions to analyse the site are now in hand using Mr Keeping’s boat.  From my side, I now have a mission.  A mission to find the PBY Catalina to put a lid on this great story once and for all!

 

Jim Miles

16 December 2008

 

(Below is the side-scan image taken of the stern of the shipwreck and a photo of the stern of the Lake Fiscus, which is the same design as Lake Farmingdale / Florence D)

 

           

 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I'd like to thank Jim Miles for his kind assistance in allowing me to use his material above.

 

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