History of the former US Navy laundry building

An interim report prepared in January 2011 by Lindsay Peet, a military historian and specialist defence heritage consultant.

In February-March 1942 the Asiatic Fleet of the United States Navy (USN) made an emergency evacuation of their surviving submarines and surface ships from the Philippines and Java to Fremantle. Here they found a new slipway in a well-equipped the port, with the significant infrastructure of Fremantle and Perth nearby, all well out of range of Japanese aircraft based in the Netherlands East Indies. So a decision was made to base the submarines of the USN Seventh Fleet’s Task Force 71 at Fremantle.

This decision resulted in a large USN base facility and infrastructure being established at Fremantle in 1942, such base operating until the end of the War against Japan in 1945. This base required a large number of buildings for various purposes, and areas of vacant land for other purposes. The Navy also utilized a significant amount of dockside resources on both sides of the harbour, but principally Victoria Quay, and later towed a very large floating dry dock, ARD-10, over from the United States, eventually mooring it in the middle of the harbour. In addition, the USN used King George Sound at Albany as a secondary base, and, in 1943, Exmouth Gulf as an advance resupply base. The USN also based its PBY Catalinas of Patrol Wing Ten (later Fleet Air Wing Ten) at Matilda Bay on the Swan River from March 1942 until August 1944.

The USN leased/hired all their premises and areas of vacant land in Fremantle, Perth, and elsewhere in WA during the War, rather than buying them. This was carried out for that Navy by the Australian Army’s Hiring Service using requisition powers contained in the Australian Government’s wartime National Security Regulations. In some instances, these leased premises/buildings were further modified, adapted or improved for wartime purposes. In other cases, new buildings, structures and other facilities were constructed. All of these works were implemented through the aegis of the Allied Works Council which had been set up in Australia in 1942 to prioritise and authorize the immense amount of construction that entailed from that country having become a major place from where the war against Japan in the Southwest Pacific Area was conducted. The money for all of this work and activity in Australia, including hiring/leasing costs and the supply of food, fuel and other consumables, came from the Australian Government under the Reverse Lend-Lease Agreement (this was adjusted after the War against Lend-Lease equipment funding from the US Government).

Almost all the wartime building construction in Australia was timber-framed because timber was a readily available resource. Much use was also made of asbestos products and galvanized roofing iron. Wartime buildings constructed in Australia for the United States armed forces were almost always of a higher standard, both structurally and in respect of fittings and fit outs, than buildings constructed for the Australian armed forces and for the Australian home front!

In setting up their facilities and infrastructure at Fremantle the US Navy required a very large number of buildings to accommodate their maintenance workshops, repair facilities, ordnance facilities, supply, storage/warehousing, cold/refrigerated storage, transport, administration and general support services. Because of the large number of American personnel working at Fremantle, living accommodation, with domestic and recreational facilities for the many enlisted men were also required close by. The USN‘s 1944 Facilities Report for Fremantle and Perth detail the properties lease/hired for USN purposes in the Fremantle area. One of the most important of these was the Old Womens Home, Fremantle, which became known during the War as ‘Receiving Barracks, Navy 137, Fremantle’ and today as the Fremantle Arts Centre. The USN Report shows that by September 1944 at least twenty two buildings had been constructed on that property ‘under Reverse Lend-Lease and by Naval Personnel.’ The first building on the detailed list for the Receiving Barracks was the Laundry with a stated area of 5400 square feet, being the largest building there except for the ‘open garages.’ The 1944 Report states that the capacity of these Barracks was 19 officers and 670 enlisted men, and also states that ‘[T]he Receiving Barracks laundry is used and is adequate for all washing purposes.’ The same Report notes that adjacent to these Barracks there was a playing field with a softball diamond, a football area, and a combined basketball and volley ball court. All of this indicates that these Barracks were a major defence establishment, and it was likely that all facilities were constructed, fitted out and equipped to the much higher American standards.

As stated, Fremantle became a major American submarine home base and after 1942 it was commanded by a USN rear admiral, a well-known one later in the War being Charles Lockwood. It was larger than the USN one at Brisbane, and nearly as big as the USN submarine base at Hawaii. During the war against Japan, USN submarines in the western Pacific commenced their war patrols from one of these home bases, usually returning to that starting base, however, on other occasions they transited between these bases carrying out war patrols in the process. Commencing in 1943, Fremantle-based submarines usually carried out double patrols, returning to an advance base at Exmouth Gulf for refuelling and revictualling, loading more torpedos and ammunition, carrying out urgent repairs, and making essential changes of personnel, before setting out again, and finally ending up at Fremantle. Although hard on both the men and the ship this increased the effectiveness of the submarine campaign. In military terms this is known as a ‘force multiplier,’ ie getting ‘more bang for the buck!’

American submarines originating from Fremantle sank a very large tonnage of Japanese shipping in the western Pacific, arguably more than submarines from any of the other two bases. This success effectively strangled the Japanese supply lines from Japan, as well as their ships transporting oil, petroleum and strategic minerals back to Japan from the resource rich Netherlands East Indies. It is considered that the submarine campaign so disrupted the Japanese war effort that it was one of the major factors shortening the War in the Pacific.

At least six USN submarines departing from Fremantle failed to return, mostly with the loss of their entire crews. Apart from their main role of sinking enemy shipping, these submarines were often required to carry out other types of missions such as rescuing downed Allied aircrew, carrying out covert reconnaissances of particular places, and special operations such as inserting secret agents/special forces into enemy territory and/or retrieving them. Special operations using submarines were especially risky because the vessels had to venture close to shore in poorly charted waters without being detected. All of these wartime activities were particularly dangerous, with the distinct possibility of being depth charged or shelled by Japanese ships, being bombed or strafed from the air by Japanese or Allied aircraft, being struck by their own errant torpedos (these were known to often circle back), hitting uncharted reefs or shoals, losing deck crew in crash dives, and suffering other kinds of underwater accidents and emergencies. When each submarine departed on a war patrol, the crew knew there was a very strong possibility of not returning from that voyage, whether that was due to them being killed or becoming prisoners of the Japanese. So, when a submarine arrived at Fremantle after a war patrol, especially a double one, the crew could not wait to get off their ship immediately and head to Perth or further inland for rest, recreation and the other kinds of activities that young sailors engage in during wartime.

The morale of submarine crews was extremely important. Operating in dangerous enemy waters they had to work as a team if they wanted to sink enemy ships and still survive, they had to depend on each other as if anyone made a mistake the safety of the submarine and all aboard would be jeopardized, and every member of the crew had to be able to put up with whatever exigencies or emergencies that occurred during the patrol. Apart from interacting amongst themselves, and having limited entertainment available, the only real amenity or ‘support’ they had at sea was having reasonable food including ice cream. USN ships were completely dry. But, over-riding all of this, the whole crew would always have in mind the prospects of what was awaiting them when they arrived at a very friendly, safe port like Fremantle, particularly if they already had contacts in the WA community. This, plus the fact that they were directly helping to win the War kept them going.

During World War II submarine crews on all sides were looked after particularly well when they returned from a patrol or a mission because of the dangerous and difficult nature of their work. The USN was no exception: once in port their sailors were given a great deal of freedom and were largely free of duties. It is likely, therefore, that a large laundry facility like the one constructed at the Receiving Barracks which was able to readily handle their clothing and bedding upon such return played a significant part in keeping up the submariners’ morale.

Ablution and washing facilities on the submarines were very limited, conditions were crowded, few of the crew ever got topside into fresh air, so having good laundry facilities ashore at Fremantle when they arrived there was very important. Certainly, the Laundry at the Receiving Barracks would have been well set up and equipped to facilitate this. Although it has yet to be definitely established, it is likely that submarine crews may have had their laundry done for them by other persons at the Barracks, with local civilians possibly being employed for this purpose.

Sources and Bibliography

Published

There a number of published primary and secondary sources dealing with USN submarine operations from Fremantle during 1942-5. These include Admiral Charles Lockwood’s memoir, Sink ‘em all, Clair Blair’s Silent victory, Rosco Creed’s Operations of the Fremantle submarine base, and Lyn Cairns’ Fremantle’s secret fleets, as well as personal memoirs of other former USN submarine officers who sailed to or from Fremantle. These will be detailed in the final version of this report.

Unpublished

In Australia there are records (possibly including drawings) in National Archives of Australia (much in their Perth Office), at least one document in SLWA, and there may be others held in collections in the Perth area. The State Record Office of WA should also be checked as they hold a surprising amount of records dealing with wartime works in WA.

In the USA there are likely to be records in the Naval Historical Center at the Washington Navy Yard, Washington DC, the United States Naval Institute at Annapolis, Maryland (also possibly oral histories), the National Archives and Record Administration at College Park, Maryland, and the MacArthur Memorial Archives at Norfolk, Virginia.

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