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Did an Australian adventurer and spy forewarn of the attack on Pearl Harbor?

Battleship USS West Virginia sunk and burning at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. In background is the battleship USS Tennessee.

by Roderick Eime

The story begins aboard the 1929 round-the-world flight of the German airship, LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin.

A truly international contingent of media and privileged guests are enjoying the lavish facilities of Germany’s luxury airship as they complete their ground-breaking three week journey around the planet.

Among the media contingent is the recently knighted Australian celebrity explorer and cinematographer, Sir George Hubert Wilkins, who is reporting for the vast Hearst newspaper network.

Round-the-world voyage of the Graf Zeppelin (LZ-127): Japanese passengers of the Zeppelin in a Tokyo teahouse - 1929. Wilkins is in the rear, while Lt. Cdr. Ryunosuke Kusaka kneels in front. (ullstein bild)

In the spirit of international co-operation, the guests enjoy polite conversation and genuine camaraderie. German, Soviet, Japanese, American, British, Spanish, Swiss and French guests all gather politely for dinner and relaxation in the lounge during the long voyage.

The two Japanese military observers, Lt. Cdr. Ryunosuke Kusaka and Lt. Cdr. Fujiyoshi warm to the amicable Australian and all become good friends. The group are feted like royalty when the airship arrives in Tokyo.

Map depicting the Graf Zeppelin Round-the-world flight, 1929

Fast forward ten years and Wilkins is on a thinly disguised espionage mission and meeting with senior Japanese diplomats in the Raffles Hotel, Singapore. Wilkins had already been in China, Japan and Asia gathering information and it was clear to him that war in the Pacific was inevitable. His Japanese contacts had been very forthcoming with aircraft production data and information in 1929, but now in 1940, they were convivial, but tight-lipped on such matters.

Between times, Wilkins had attempted to take a modified WWI submarine beneath the polar ice cap. The 1931 so-called ‘Nautilus’ mission ended in failure and embarrassment for Wilkins.

In the famous bar in the Raffles Hotel Singapore, Wilkins is enjoying drinks with the Japanese Consul General, who he had met ten years prior in Tokyo, when the conversation becomes ‘fluid’. His drinking pal suddenly drops a most intriguing piece of information.

Famous Long Bar at Raffles where Wilkins heard the astonishing news of the impending attack on Pearl Harbor

“I know what you’re doing here. You’re not on any economic survey, you’re working for the US Government,” said the inebriated diplomat, “Now I’ll tell you something you don’t know. Eighteen months from now we will attack the American fleet in Pearl Harbor.”

Wilkins reeled at the disclosure. “Where did you get such an idea and why are you telling me this?”

The well-lubricated consul burst out laughing and challenged Wilkins to go ahead and make his report, winding up the explorer by saying “they’ll never believe a man who was crazy enough to try to take a submarine to the North Pole!”

Given Wilkins’ excellent personal connections, the idea was not as preposterous as it sounded, and he did go ahead and make his report. Sure enough, his warning was ignored or discounted as implausible. Either way, Wilkins warned the US of an impending attack on Pearl Harbor at least 12 months in advance.

Clipping coinciding with Wilkins biography 1961

Ironically, his Japanese friends would go on to play important parts in the attack. Ryunosuke Kusaka was named the chief of staff of the Japanese Navy Combined Fleet and was critical in the planning of both the Pearl Harbor and Midway attacks, while Vice-Admiral Akira Fujiyoshi rose to Head of Aviation for the Japanese Imperial Navy. Both survived the war.

Numerous theories exist about ignored intelligence and advance warnings that were discounted by the White House for any number of reasons, with most pointing to the US secretly wanting a reason to enter into full-scale war with Japan as was being urged by Churchill. The fact that the all-important US aircraft carriers were absent on the morning of December 7 is most noteworthy. Yet few of these apparently ignored warnings were delivered as early as mid-1940, when Wilkins delivered his. *

* Some sources say Wilkins was in Singapore in 1941


Amelia Earhart Mystery: the theory that just won’t go away

Earhart and her Lockheed Electra

The Amelia Earhart mystery has gripped the imagination for almost 80 years and despite numerous searches and millions of dollars, no conclusive evidence has yet been found.

Many theories have been put forward over the years and just as many discounted, but one just keeps coming back. The idea that Earhart was forced down and captured by the Japanese in the Marshall Islands is as unpalatable as it is incredulous. But one researcher, Mike Campbell, makes a compelling case for this proposition.

To refresh our memories, it was early in the morning of July 2nd, 1937. Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, were flying their specially-modified, twin-engined Lockheed Electra 10E on the final stages of a much-publicised round-the-world flight and supposedly heading to remote Howland Island, 800 Nautical Miles beyond Majuro in the Marshall Islands.

Popularly held accounts attest that Earhart struggled with her radio direction finding (RDF) equipment while attempting to contact the specially-located US Coast Guard ship, Itasca, which was supposed to guide her to the tiny 2000m long island where an airstrip had been prepared especially for her.

In a flurry of garbled and confused radio messages in both voice and morse code, Earhart apparently believed she had arrived at Howland, but could not see either the island or the Coast Guard vessel and by 9am, she was silent and never seen or heard from again. Comprehensive and expensive searches were conducted by the US Navy and Coast Guard, but by January 1939, Earhart was officially declared dead.

In recent years, ardent investigators have revived an alternate theory contrived at the time, that the plane, critically low on fuel, had ditched near Gardner Island (now Nikumaroro in Kiribati) 560 km southeast of Howland. These researchers, notably The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), posted on their website “... not only was a safe landing obviously feasible (on Gardner) but we found artifacts that were undeniably aircraft wreckage in the island’s abandoned village.” Despite years of persistence and tantalising clues, TIGHAR have yet to prove the connection to Earhart and their quest continues.

Even though there are several discrepancies in the competing account, it’s a compelling story nonetheless supported by numerous witnesses from the time of their alleged capture by the Japanese (as spies) through to their supposed transport to Saipan and eventual execution.

Sure, it’s a decent conspiracy theory, but one that will not go away. One is drawn to wonder why such effort is expended in decrying this version of events and what any interested parties might be seeking to hide.

Let’s consider the scenario, first postulated by researcher and author, Fred Goerner in his 1966 bestseller, The Search for Amelia Earhart.

In 1937, the Japanese Empire had control of the Marshall Islands, having been given them by the League of Nations as a protectorate after the defeat of Germany in WWI. Jaluit was then the capital and the Japanese expanded the settlement, as they did elsewhere in the Central Pacific, by encouraging civilian migration from Japan.

Things were going fine for a while, but in the early ‘30s Japan began to quietly build its military presence in these territories in contravention with its agreement with the League of Nations. Chuuk in Micronesia, for example, was expanded to a huge military base to rival Pearl Harbour.

Robert Reimers: "It was no mystery. Everyone knew it."

One of Marshall’s most prominent modern pioneers, Robert Reimers, born on Jaluit in 1909, recalls the increased activity in his home region in a 1991 interview with journalist and Earhart researcher, Bill Prymak.

“When the Japanese Navy kicked out the Germans, they sealed the (Marshall) Islands to all foreigners,” said Reimers, “Before 1935, the work was mainly commercial and communication facilities: harbour dredging; wharves; docks; hospitals; and big, tall radio towers. But after 1935, the Japanese began some military projects like the airfields at Wotje and Maloelap. Emidj, in particular, was a very secret place, and even my local workers had little access to this area.”

It follows then that the US government would take particular interest in the ambitious empire, especially after Japan’s military intervention in China and clear signs it was building its armed forces elsewhere in Asia and the Pacific. What if an otherwise innocent civilian flight could be diverted to reconnoitre these secret islands and determine if Japan was demonstrating hostile intentions to its neighbours, the US included?

It was well known that Earhart was short of funds after the first (east to west) attempt at the round-the-world flight ended in an expensive accident in Hawaii. But she miraculously acquired enough money to relaunch her attempt just two months later when the flight took off from Oaklands California in the opposite direction.

For the final and most difficult section across the Pacific, the aircraft was equipped with advanced RDF equipment and, as mentioned earlier, had the support of the US Coast Guard and a specially built airstrip on remote Howland Island. Proponents of this theory have suggested that was quite an investment for a pair of “stunt flyers”.

earhart map

Earhart's possible alternative routes. Source: Daily Mail UK

Perhaps Earhart was trying to find Howland after a major diversion past Jaluit to inspect Japanese installations on islands in that area. There are a couple of varying accounts of what happened at this time. One says the captain of the Japanese aircraft carrier Akagi was ordered to send up a fighter to “shoot down” a twin-engined aircraft in the area. Whether forced down by a fighter or lack of fuel and in order to stay consistent with eyewitness reports later, the aircraft must have made some kind of controlled landing that left it more or less intact. Eyewitness accounts say the aircraft came down on or near Mili Atoll, a short distance by air from Jaluit.

Local islander, Eliu Jabambam, remembers that there was much clandestine chatter among Marshallese at the time that a male and female pilot had been picked up by a fishing boat and brought to Jaluit. Local workers and civilians were under strict orders from their Japanese masters not to attempt to make any contact with the prisoners or even look at them for fear of severe punishment. So intimidated were they, this is cited as one of the reasons this story has not been more widely circulated even to this day. That, and the fact locals were not really that interested in the plight of a couple of mysterious strangers when their own circumstances was so dire. Reimers recalls:

“It was widely known throughout the Islands by both Japanese and Marshallese that a Japanese fishing boat first found them and their airplane near Mili. They then transferred them to a bigger boat (believed to be the Koshu Maru). They were brought to Jabor, where Bilimon [Amaron] treated them. They were then taken to Kwajalein and from there to Truk and then Saipan. There was no mystery . . . everybody knew it!”

The Bilimon mentioned above was a respected medical orderly on Jaluit and recalls treating a man he believed was Fred Noonan for an injury to his leg.

Just to make matters more interesting, there is an eyewitness account by then 11yo Josephine Blanco who attests the aircraft landed in a restricted military zone on Saipan and the two aviators were immediately arrested and executed as spies a few days later. She told her story to Family Weekly Magazine in July 1960.

“My curiosity was too great to overcome,” said the young girl knowing that if she was caught observing events in the forbidden zone she and her family would be in big trouble. “I waited around to see what would happen. After a few minutes I saw soldiers rush to the scene. They surrounded the plane and, a little later, escorted two people past me: a fairly tall slim woman with a short haircut and dressed in man’s clothing; and a tall man who was wearing dark trousers and a light shirt with short sleeves. I could tell that both were terribly exhausted. But they didn’t appear to be hurt. Nor were their clothes torn.”

When Josephine tried to tell her parents, she was quickly silenced and told to forget what she had seen.

While there are parallel accounts of how Earhart and Noonan were supposed to have ended up on Saipan, all these versions agree that both died on Saipan. Noonan, as a male, was apparently beheaded either soon after arrival or after some years in a cell at the old Japanese jail with Earhart in a nearby cell. Other eyewitnesses say she was lead out of the jail and shot by a firing squad just prior to the US invasion in mid-1944, while other account claim she perished from dysentery.

Saipan resident Manual Muna is convinced the two were incarcerated in the old jail and can even point out the cells she and Noonan are reputed to have been locked in for up to seven years. Another Saipan resident, Mrs. Nieves Cabrera Blas, lived near the Japanese headquarters and recalls:

"....One day I am working on the farm and I see three Japanese motorcycles. Amelia Earhart is in a little seat on the side of one motorcycle. She is wearing handcuffs and she is blindfolded. I watch and they take her to this place where there is a hole been dug. They make her kneel in front then they tear the blindfold from her face and throw it into the hole. The soldiers shoot her in the chest and she falls backwards into the grave..."

To further compound the intrigue, liberating US soldiers claim to have seen a plane resembling the Electra removed from a hangar at the Aslito Airfield and torched at the orders of some higher authority. Another soldier blew open a safe he’d found in the rubble thinking he would find money or valuables. Instead, so he says, he found Earhart's briefcase full of her documents.

USMC and Saipan veteran, Robert Wollack, recalls finding the briefcase. “After we blew the safe, I grabbed the briefcase and ran off with it. When I opened the case, lo and behold, it was Amelia Earhart’s papers that she had on the flight. But there was something wrong. The papers were bone dry. They’d never been wet.”

When one considers the full implications of the Saipan theory, it leads to premise that Earhart and Noonan had, either through poor skill on their part or good intelligence on the part of the Japanese, allowed themselves to be captured during their spy mission. A cover story was created around the Howland Island version in order to preserve the reputation of Roosevelt’s government and avoid any diplomatic backlash with the militaristic Empire of Japan.

Admiral Chester Nimitz: "...Earhart and her navigator did go down in the Marshalls..."

To further support his version, Goerner recalls a conversation he had with one of the US’s heroic commanders from WWII, five-star Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, then Chief of Pacific Operations where he said:

“Now that you’re going to Washington, Fred, I want to tell you Earhart and her navigator did go down in the Marshalls and were picked up by the Japanese.”

And Nimitz was not alone.

In 1966, Marine Gen. Graves B. Erskine, deputy commander of the V Amphibious Corps at the battle of Saipan, famously told news reporters, “It was established that Earhart was on Saipan. You’ll have to dig the rest out for yourselves.”

Will the truth ever be known?


Further reading:

‘Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last’ by Mike Campbell 2012 Sunbury Press

‘The search for Amelia Earhart’ by Fred G Goerner 1967 Dell Publishing

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The True Story behind JFK’s PT-109

Former U.S. President and then U.S. Navy Lt. John F. Kennedy is seen aboard the Patrol Torpedo boat PT-109 boat during World War II in the Pacific theatre, in this handout photograph taken on March 4, 1942. (REUTERS/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library/Handout)

David Ellis and Roderick Eime

Only the more adventurous travellers make it to remote Gizo in the Western Province of the Solomon Islands. It's a magical place with some of the world's best fishing as well as wreck and reef diving.

From Gizo you can venture a further 10 kilometres to a minuscule dot shown on most charts as either Kasolo Atoll or Plum Pudding Island. This sandy speck is better known in popular mythology as Kennedy Island – the place where a then 26 year old US Navy Lieutenant John F. Kennedy, commander of the motor torpedo boat PT109 and future President of the United States, together with ten of his crew, waded ashore in pitch-blackness after their boat was rammed and sunk by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri on the night of 2 August 1943.

For decades, South Pacific adventurers have laid claim to finding and even salvaging the wreckage of PT109. But their assertions are in fact their imaginings. What little remains of PT109 lies at an impossible depth of 374 metres, 4km off Kasolo.

On 1 August 1943, PT109 had been one of fifteen PTs sent from the US Navy's base on Rendova Island to harass a Japanese convoy that had dropped reinforcements and supplies on the nearby and much larger Kolombangara Island as Japan tried to shore up their retreat after the end of their disastrous Guadalcanal campaign earlier that year.

But in the inkiness of that moonless night, the 2000 ton Amagiri, travelling at high speed, rammed the little 25m PT109, splitting her lengthwise and setting her fuel tanks ablaze in a massive fireball.

Artist impression of the collision between IJN destroyer Amagiri and PT-109. Remembering the actual event occurred in the dark of night.

Artist impression of the collision between IJN destroyer Amagiri and PT-109. Remembering the actual event occurred in the dark of night.

Two men died instantly in the violent collision. The stern section sank quickly, leaving the forward section afloat with the surviving crew clinging on for dear life amid a sea of flames. Such was the ferocity of the impact, that the rest of the flotilla left PT109 for dead and headed full speed for base.

With rescue fast becoming a forlorn hope, Lt. Kennedy and the survivors abandoned the sinking bow section and swam and drifted toward Kasolo – which locally means Gods of Paradise, and it must have seemed like salvation to the exhausted and hapless sailors.

In an extraordinary feat of endurance, the injured Kennedy had towed one badly injured seaman the entire four kilometres with the strap of his life vest clenched in his mouth.

Some accounts suggest that the PT109 crew were 'caught napping' when the Amagiri sliced her in two. Other accounts suggest that Amagiri was only aware of the collision after the fact, but witnesses also say that her commander, Lt. Cmdr. Kohei Hanami, made a deliberate effort to ram the allied patrol boat.

Crew of PT-109. JFK standing far right.

Crew of PT-109. JFK standing far right.

After a week of foraging the tiny atoll offered no more water or food, so the group then swam two kilometres south to Olasana Island, from where Kennedy and crewman George Ross swam another kilometre south to larger Naru Island in the hope of finding American troops. But they were surprised to be met instead by two villagers who were working secretly behind enemy lines alongside the Australian Coastwatcher, Reg Evans, who had seen the collision days earlier and been searching for survivors.

Kennedy needed to get a message to his base on Rendova, now 60 kilometres away, and one of the villagers, Biuku Gasa came up with an ingenious idea. He found a green coconut and showed Kennedy how to scratch a message into its surface with a piece of sharpened sea-shell.


Gasa and his teenage offsider, Aaron (Eroni) Kumana, then paddled their canoe all the way through dangerous waters to Rendova with the unusual coconut message and, under cover of the next night's darkness, a PT was summoned by Evans to come rescue Kennedy and his crew.

American dive-holiday operator, Danny Kennedy (no relation) has lived in Gizo for more than 30 years and joined the National Geographic team led by Dr Robert Ballard, famous for finding several long-lost wrecks including the Titanic and Bismarck. The team finally found the few remains of PT109 in 2002.

Danny told us when we visited him in Gizo that despite all the claims by others, all that was sighted by Ballard's ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle) was a brass torpedo tube in 374 metres of water, and possibly a torpedo. Being of timber construction all else had succumbed to the sea, or disappeared under sand and coral debris. The ROV had nudged the torpedo tube but was unable to move it, suggesting it was still attached in some way to the wreck of PT109.

Neither Ballard nor Kennedy will reveal the exact location of PT109, saying they respect it as a war grave. In any case, it's way too deep for scuba divers.

In a heartwarming footnote, Kumana appeared in the National Geographic documentary and had his house paid for by the Kennedy family, National Geographic and other benefactors. He passed away last year at the ripe old age of 96.

For information about Gizo diving, fishing, WWII wreckage tours visit

JFKennedy Solomons PT-109

To be released in October, this thrilling, moment-by-moment account describes in fresh detail the famous WWII events and John F. Kennedy’s heroic actions that saved his crew and is also a fascinating examination of how that extraordinary episode shaped the future president’s life.

Drawing on new information from the American rescuers and recently released archives in both Japan and the U.S., PT-109 recounts this event in breathtaking detail and explores the incident’s remarkable aftermath on JFK’s life and legend. The author, William Doyle reveals that, while the incident transformed JFK into a “war hero” and helped propel him to the U.S. Senate and the White House, the wounds he suffered during that harrowing week continued to haunt him, physically and psychologically.

William Doyle will revisit the Solomon Islands in July to see first hand many of the significant WWII battle sites while on assignment for the New York Times.

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Lifting the Shame of Savo Island

Heroes of the Solomons: Captain Frank Getting RAN

One of Australia’s most experienced and capable naval commanders was struck down in his prime during one of the most ferocious naval engagements of WWII. Was he later a cruel victim of a historical cover-up? Roderick Eime investigates.

The US involvement in the many battles of the Solomon Islands campaign are well documented through movies, documentaries and books. Yet, the substantial participation of Australian naval forces in that campaign is far less acknowledged.

When the Allied Forces began their landings on Guadalcanal and Tulagi on 7 August 1942, they were supported by a massive combined naval force which included the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) warships Canberra, Hobart and Australia.

HMAS Canberra proudly in Sydney Harbour pre-war

HMAS Canberra was a British-built County class heavy cruiser of the Kent sub-class commissioned in 1928. At 10,000 tons and 180m in length, she was slightly larger than the more famous HMAS Sydney which had already been lost during her mutually destructive engagement with the German auxiliary cruiser Kormoran on 19 November 1941. Sydney’s sister ship, the light cruiser, HMAS Perth was lost in the Battle of Sunda Strait in March 1942.

Capt Frank Getting

In command of HMAS Canberra was Captain Frank Edmond Getting. Born in Sydney in 1899, he was among the first cadets of the newly-established Royal Australian Naval College at Osborne House in Geelong. He graduated in 1917 with fellow officers Waller, Collins and others who would later rise to the highest ranks of the newly formed RAN.

Getting received his first commission on submarines in 1928 when he was the first Australian to pass the Royal Navy’s submarine commander’s course. With Australia’s submarines ‘gifted’ back to the RN at the outbreak of WWII, Getting was given command of the armed merchant cruiser HMAS Kanimbla. In 1940 he was appointed Deputy Chief of Naval Staff, a post he held until 1942, when he was given command of HMAS Canberra.

Clearly Getting, at 43, was a commander of considerable ability and promise and held one of the most prestigious posts in the relatively small RAN.

In a report dated March 1940, RN Admiral Percy Noble, wrote:

“Although this officer has only served with me for a short time, he has so favourably impressed me with his ability, keenness and power of command … He has a fine physique and a good manner and appearance. His whole heart seems to be in the Service and I am sure he will do very well.”

The Battle of Savo Island (HBO)

Anyone who saw the seminal HBO television mini-series, Pacific, will remember the initial landings by US Marines were only lightly opposed but the Japanese, once aware of the US forces, made numerous concerted efforts to reclaim the airfield they had begun building near Lunga Point (later Henderson Field) after landing there and on Tulagi in May 1942.

One of those dramatic and courageous attacks was by a naval force on the night of August 8/9th that would become known as The Battle of Savo Island. While supporting the landing operations, the Allied naval ships were positioned in Savo Island Strait, the body of water directly offshore from Honiara, between Guadalcanal and Florida Island. The force had been divided into three sections to guard all possible entry points from the anticipated Japanese counterattack. The three RAN ships were divided between each group, with HMAS Canberra in the southern group, close to Savo Island itself.

The Allied crews on the 23 warships were fatigued from several days of ‘action stations’ and, by all accounts, were in a state of semi-preparedness with many of the sailors probably dozing or asleep when the Japanese force of seven cruisers and one destroyer came charging at full speed into their midst.

Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa - couldn't believe his luck - and took full advantage of the element of surprise.

Led by Vice-Admiral Mikawa, a veteran Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) commander highly skilled in night tactics, his force left Rabaul the afternoon of the Allied landings and skillfully (and luckily) avoided detection while approaching Savo Island from the west. This was despite the fact a US submarine and two RAAF Hudsons medium bombers flying reconnaissance from Milne Bay had both spotted and reported the approaching task force. In shades of Pearl Harbour, this failure of communication is the first part of the US cover-up that sought to conceal the catastrophe that was about to unfold.

Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison was a Pulitzer Prize-winning naval historian who wrote lengthy and authoritative accounts of the glorious US Navy and its war-winning exploits.

Of the failure of communication, he wrote “first Hudson crew made no attempt to radio their sighting report, routinely and leisurely completed their patrol and then ‘had tea’ before submitting their report at Milne Bay.”

Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison, whose US naval histories have been found to be biased and inaccurate.

As a result, Morison claims, the Japanese strike force were able to take the Allied fleet completely by surprise, which they did with disastrous results. HMAS Canberra was one of the first victims of the rampaging IJN vessels. And again, the historical accounts are murky.

While the Australian crew were at actions stations very promptly with turrets manned, the guns were not loaded and the couple of minutes it took to locate a target and get ready to fire proved crucial.

Some criticism, mostly from amateur historians, had been levelled at Canberra's crew for not having main guns ready and laoded beforehand, but this is contrary to naval practice.

According to Frank Allica, a former Commander RAN PWO (G) and Gunnery Officer, “Guns are not kept loaded - even in wartime. Ammunition is kept available in the hoists and ready use stowages, gunbays, ready to load at a moments notice. They can be available in a matter of seconds. To leave guns loaded invites an accidental discharge and possible friendly fire damage.

“The dominant issue is locating the enemy, tracking them with the visual sights and weapon control director. Canberra had no radar at that time so finding a target and getting a fire control solution is the difficult part - not loading the gun. This would have certainly been the case with Canberra that chaotic night. As a last solution the Captain of the Turret can fire the gun in local but it is a point blank solution and is not accurate - not with the main armament.”

Lieutenant Commander Mackenzie J Gregory RAN (ret) was on the bridge that fateful night as a junior officer:

“I called the Navigating Officer and the Gunnery Officer; the P.C.O. sighted 3 ships on our starboard bow and gave the alarm and the order to load the 8" turrets. The Captain quickly arrived to be first to reach the bridge. I sighted torpedo tracks approaching down the starboard side - the Captain ordered full ahead and starboard 35 to quickly swing the ship to starboard.”


Rear Admiral Gerard Charles Muirhead-Gould said the crew of HMAS Canberra should be ashamed

Canberra managed to avoid the incoming ‘long lance’ torpedoes, but immediately started taking shell hits. In fact, Canberra, illuminated by star flares dropped from aircraft, would suffer a hail of some 24 direct hits at point blank range in the course of a few minutes. One struck the bridge where Gregory was stationed and killed or wounded everyone except himself, including Captain Getting.

Getting, despite being seriously injured, could not be persuaded to leave his station by the ship’s surgeon, insisting the doctor treat the other wounded first. Instead he continued to give orders and direct the battle, which from Canberra’s point-of-view was short and brutal. The ship, which was about to become the third major loss for the tiny RAN in the opening stages of the war, possibly managed just a few hurried rounds before being totally disabled by torpedo hits.

Some sources are critical of Canberra’s lack of readiness as contributing to the defeat of Savo Island, particularly Rear Admiral Gerard Charles Muirhead-Gould, the pompous, English-born commander of Sydney’s defences and a pet of Churchill's. He told the crew they should feel ashamed that their ship had been sunk by gunfire without firing a shot in return.

The subsequent RAN Board of Inquiry made no mention of torpedoes at all and much fuss was instead made of the prowess of our brave American ‘chums’ in rescuing survivors.

Such unjustified criticism naturally falls on Captain Getting himself who, supported by eyewitness accounts was quickly to the bridge as soon as the action began.

Burning and battered, Canberra's survivors are evacuated

Listing, battered and burning, Canberra was abandoned the next morning because she did not have propulsion to join the ships that were leaving the scene en masse and abandoning the partially supplied Marines ashore, an act that would later draw much criticism. Ever defiant, numerous shells and finally a torpedo from a US destroyer were required to scuttle her in the deep waters of what would soon be known as “Iron Bottom Sound”.

The final shame of this chapter was that not only did Australia lose a valuable warship with almost 200 casualties from an excellent crew of more than 800, the critical torpedo blow that sealed her fate may well have been a stray or misfire from the destroyer USS Bagley that struck just as Canberra was preparing to engage the enemy with her 8” main guns.

As more documents are declassified and more thorough research is done, many of these slurs against Australian servicemen are finally being corrected.

Bruce Loxton, who was on the bridge with Gregory and Getting and seriously wounded himself, fought for years to clear the names of his fellow officers and men, ultimately publishing a meticulously researched book, “The Shame of Savo: Anatomy of a Naval Disaster”, where he asserts the Canberra was crippled by at least one torpedo from the Bagley.

Then, just last year, an apology was finally issued to the last surviving aircrew from the RAAF Hudsons, Eric Geddes, who had tried in vain to alert his naval comrades of the impending Japanese attack.

Greg Martin, the assistant director of the US Naval History and Heritage Command, in Washington wrote:
"A new generation of naval historians is questioning previous works, such as that of Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison, often written too close to the end of a recently completed campaign ... RADM Morison's criticism, in particular, was unwarranted."

The apology is too late for the more than 1000 sailors who died that night. Captain Frank Getting, at his own insistence, was among the last eventually evacuated from the smouldering Canberra the following morning but succumbed to his wounds en route to Noumea and was buried at sea.

An HMAS Canberra memorial was dedicated at Kings Park, Lake Burley Griffin in 1981.


Pull Quote:

“The fact must be faced that we had an adequate force placed with the very purpose of repelling surface attack and when that surface attack was made, it destroyed our force.” – RADM R. A. Crutchley, RN, VC.

Further reading:

Loxton, Bruce; Chris Coulthard-Clark (1997). The Shame of Savo: Anatomy of a Naval Disaster. Australia: Allen & Unwin Pty Ltd. ISBN 1-86448-286-9.

Filed under: History, World 1 Comment

Petra: Jordan’s Holy Grail

words and pictures by Roderick Eime

Described by a famous poet as “a rose-red city half as old as time”, Jordan’s Petra continues to beguile all who visit. But for how much longer?

Massive sheer rock faces, weathered by time and formed into a smooth, labyrinthine passage (siq), lead us a full mile along this ancient trading route. Two thousand years ago, traders bringing luxury goods such as incense, silk, spices and perfumes would pass through here, paying a toll to the resident Nabataeans who controlled the area.

Our caravan consists of backpack and camera-toting voyeurs, some on camels and others transported by precarious carts pulled by runaway horses. The delirious cries of over-excited tourists echo from the far reaches of the ravine, while above, some uninhibited teenager tries to perform a one-footed yoga tree on an overhanging ledge fifty metres above us. He wobbles alarmingly and the horrified crowd gasps and points in disbelief as he gathers himself up, just.

Twenty years ago, it was movie goers on the edge of their seats as Indiana Jones and his posse clip-clopped, mouths agape, into the ravine that opens up at the end of the siq. In a surrealistic reveal, the famous Al Khazneh (aka The Treasury) comes into view as we amble agog into the sunlight again.

This superb edifice is the trademark structure of Petra, impossibly ornate and painstakingly carved out of the sheer sandstone rock face. Amid a throng of leering, selfie-shooting backpackers, indolent camels and jostling tour bus hordes, we stand and gaze up at this magnificent sight. In spite of the rabble, Al Khazneh looms more than 40m above us, apparently unfazed by the milling crowd. We sit for a moment with a cup of tea bought from a ramshackle kiosk and imbibe the scene, distracted by a fragrant steaming aroma.

Amazingly, this stone metropolis sat for centuries almost undisturbed until rediscovered by Swiss adventurer, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, in 1812. Burckhardt disguised himself as a Bedouin to infiltrate the off-limits region and stealthily made notes and sketches.

Apart from Harrison Ford in 1989’s “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”, T E Lawrence (of Arabia) (1914), President Barack Obama (2013), Queen Elizabeth II (1984) and King Baldwin (12thC) are among the notables to gaze on the spectacle of Petra. Pope Francis may also visit in May this year (2014).

A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1985, Petra is in fact a sprawling outdoor archaeological museum of almost 70,000 hectares, of which only 20 per cent has been excavated. At its tourism peak, Petra would host as many as 8000 visitors every day, but with the combined effects of the GFC and the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, anecdotal reports put the drop-off as much as 75 per cent.

But this lull in trampling tourists could be just what the beleaguered site needs. For several years, there have been concerns about whether the already eroded and crumbling facades can withstand much more attention. It could be a chance to install reinforced pathways and fencing to protect the delicate masonry from further damage. As 60 Minutes reporter, Tara Brown, declared “Petra is being loved to death.” *

After Petra’s appearance in the Hollywood blockbuster, visitor numbers soared. Some say by as much as ten times and the tide will surely return when the current Middle East strife abates. And if human interference wasn’t enough, the entire region is hotspot for earthquakes and many monuments have suffered under the wrath of nature as well as man.

“There’s a balance between economic and cultural value that needs to be struck,” Jordanian royal and custodian of Petra, Her Royal Highness, Princess Dana Firas, tells Brown, “Jordan needs to preserve this priceless heritage as much as we need the tourism dollars.”

Unlike her bountiful neighbours, Jordan has no oil and apart from tourism, relies on meagre export dollars from agricultural produce and minerals.

{subs: need to cut words? Cut the next two pars – 184 words}

Apart from Petra, Jordan hosts numerous other ancient natural and manmade formations like Wadi Rum, the otherworldly landscape that was the setting for the 1962 epic “Lawrence of Arabia” and described by the Welsh-born army officer as “vast, echoing and god-like”. Today, visitors can camp in the desolate valleys, embark on Bedouin camel treks and even take a dawn flight in a hot air balloon.

Then there’s the Dead Sea, less than 50 kilometres from the capital Amman and the lowest point on the surface of the Earth at -400m. The fabled inland body of water is also facing its own threats as its source, the Jordan River, has been diverted by Israel. Millions of tonnes of minerals like potash and bromine are extracted from the water annually by both Israel and Jordan and the water level is falling rapidly. While the going remains good, thousands of visitors staying at such plush resorts as the 5-star Kempinski Hotel Ishtar Dead Sea enjoy the therapeutic and healing qualities of the water and mud known for its remarkable properties as far back as Aristotle (c.350 BC).

But the ornate, parched and abandoned realm of the ancient Nabataeans remains the struggling kingdom’s major drawcard and while most ‘tick box’ visitors spend less than a day within the confines of The Petra Archaeological Park, a comprehensive exploration would take several. Climb 1000 stairs to reach the fabulous ‘monastery’, at least double the size of the ‘treasury’ and something of discovery in itself. Then there’s the amphitheatre, the museum, the royal tombs, the great temple and the staggering Byzantine Church with its intricate mosaics.

That same poet, John William Burgon, a 19th century clergyman, concluded his verse with the lines:

It seems no work of Man's creative hand,
by labour wrought as wavering fancy planned;
But from the rock as if by magic grown,
eternal, silent, beautiful, alone!

Silent and beautiful certainly, but while these hand-hewn rocks of ages still stand, it’s the modern swashbuckler, Indiana Jones, who has set the tone for Jordan’s Holy Grail.


Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways provide convenient connections to Amman (AMM) from Australia. Cruise passengers can also visit Petra via shore excursions from Aqaba.

Petra is located 262 km south of Jordan’s capital, Amman. Park entrance fee is 90JD (AU$140) for visitors not overnighting in the town.

Best time to visit is spring (March to May) and autumn (September to November).

Stay: Mövenpick Resort Petra is located opposite the entrance to the park.

Eat: Classes in Jordanian cuisine at Petra Kitchen

For more information on travel to Jordan, see

The writer was a guest of Jordan Tourism Board

Breakout Factoids:

The name ‘Treasury’ was coined from the misguided belief that the structure contained a pharaoh’s treasure. Bullet-ridden sculptures bear testament to locals’ attempts to break open the mythical cache.

In 2007, Petra was voted into in the controversial New Seven Wonders of the World along with the Taj Mahal and Colosseum. Petra received a reported 14 million internet votes, twice the population of Jordan.

Filed under: Adventure, World Comments Off

Ice Would be Nice

A changing climate has turned the treacherous Northwest Passage into a pushover, discovers Roderick Eime

We’re crowded on the bridge, at least 20 of us, peering out to the horizon with powerful binoculars and telephoto lenses. Surely we’ll see something soon.

Polar bears, whales, countless seabirds and even a rare species of Caribou are all checked off, but something is still missing up here in the high Arctic of Nunavut, Canada. It’s ice.

Up until the last decade, the Northwest Passage was only achievable, if at all, during a small window of opportunity in the northern summer when favourable winds and currents allowed a narrow corridor through the pack ice. The first person to successfully navigate a vessel through the labyrinth was Roald Amundsen in 1906 – a feat that took him the best part of three years.

Beginning almost 200 years ago, scores of brave (some say foolish) explorers set off in waves in an attempt to claim the 20,000 pounds reward offered by the British Admiralty for the discovery of a North-West (sic) Passage. Early attempts were conducted in unusually low ice conditions and bore promising results, but by the mid-19th century, the ice had rebounded and efforts culminated in the famously disastrous expedition by former Tasmanian Governor, Sir John Franklin, who vanished along with his 128 men and their two ships.

Now here we are aboard the Akademik Ioffe, a well-travelled and sturdy former Soviet polar research (some say ‘spy’) vessel steaming confidently through the narrows of the Bellot Strait, a notorious little sliver of water that thwarted almost every navigator before us. The chap who named it in 1852 actually had to the sled the whole way on ice and it wasn’t traversed by a ship until 1937. Some of our complement is actually aboard a little Zodiac runabout for the 25 kilometre run, stopping to set foot on the northernmost point of the American continent, Zenith Point at 72 deg N.

Prior to this, we’d been way up at 74 degrees on Beechey Island, the site of Franklin’s winter camp and burial site for three of his early casualties. This rocky appendage to the much larger Devon Island serves as northern gatekeeper to the east-west Parry Channel. These graves are the only contemporary memorial to Sir John Franklin’s famous folly. From forensic examination of the well-preserved bodies in the 1980s, it was found they succumbed to a mysterious combination of lung disease and lead poisoning thought to be from poorly soldered cans of food. Numerous other memorials and a now ruined winter refuge were added in later years.

“Ice at two o’clock, and what’s that? A bear?” comes the call from Boris, our patient and vigilant expedition leader. At the exit of the strait we finally encounter the ice he’d been studying the night before on the daily satellite chart and there, through the strongest binoculars, we see a lonesome but very large male polar bear, nostrils aloft, already sniffing us out. Given we are something like a day ahead of schedule because of the effortless, ice-free journey so far, Boris decides we’ll keep the bear company for a bit.

The following day is a similar doddle south down through Larsen Sound and after a hearty lunch of steaming broth and roast lamb, we go ashore at the triumphant-sounding Victory Point. In truth, there's nothing victorious about Victory Point. Named, not after some long-forgotten battle, but after the ship commanded by Capt. John Ross during his arduous 1830 voyage.

We land on a desolate and rocky shoreline in our well-rehearsed procedure where shotgun-toting scouts disembark ahead of the main group to set up a polar bear perimeter. After the abundance of hungry carnivores sighted at Coningham Bay, there's plenty of reason to be cautious.

Dotted along the ridge above the high water mark are several stone cairns erected to attest the arrival and departure of various vessels and their shore parties. None, however, are likely to be the original cairn built to mark the initial progress and later demise of Franklin's last surviving men who suffered, as searcher John Rae wrote in his 1853 report to the Admiralty, "a fate as terrible as the imagination can conceive."

None of the monuments we examine contain any clue to their origin. Some weathered mahogany once fastened with modern stainless screws and some soggy, illegible scraps of parchment are all that remain of previous visits. But it was here that the famous official Admiralty document was found in 1859 bearing definitive news of the fate of Franklin.

The document's first entry was on 24 May 1847 signifying 'all well', but further messages scribbled in the margins told a much gloomier tale, including the death of Franklin himself just two weeks later.

It read in part:

April 25th, 1848. Ships Erebus and Terror abandoned ... Total loss by death to date, 9 officers and 15 men ... Start tomorrow for Back's Fish River.

Despite a forensic examination of the puzzling remains by the search party, the mystery of the Franklin Expedition's demise remains unsolved. But as far as the Admiralty was concerned, the costly expedition was lost and the 'case closed'.

Our journey ends as Franklin’s should have at the unlikely outpost of Kugluktuk, an Inuit settlement almost to the Beaufort Sea where a vintage 737 is sent to collect us and bring new adventurers for the return journey. As the old jet taxis through a cloud of dust to the ramshackle terminal, I try to imagine those wretched souls man-hauling heavy lifeboats and scavenging anything to survive in the harsh, featureless landscape of the Arctic. If only they’d waited 150 years, they could have done it in a canoe.

GETTING THERE: Air Canada ( flies daily from Sydney to Vancouver and directly onto 59 Canadian cities. One Ocean Expeditions provide connecting charters from Ottawa and Edmonton.
STAYING THERE: The historic Fairmont Chateau Laurier, Ottawa. ( has rooms from around A$250/night. TripAdvisor 4/5.
CRUISING THERE: One Ocean Expeditions ( offer two annual 14-night Northwest Passage expeditions aboard the 100-berth Akademik Ioffe in August between Kangerlussuaq (Greenland) and Cambridge Bay (Canada). Enquiries: Active Travel ( 1300 783 188


Orient Calls – cruising Asia

vintage asia cruise poster

Asia: It's the latest thing

Traditionally the Asian tourists are not big cruisers. Cruise lines like Star Cruises began mostly as floating casinos for the Chinese who love to gamble and it’s only more recently when a few Europeans and Australians began cruising that they’ve moved to more conventional itineraries with shore excursions.

But cruising in Asia hasn’t just been the domain of locally-based operators. P&O, for example, have a long history of carrying ‘tourists’ on ‘pleasure cruises’ to the orient featuring such then colonial ports as Hong Kong (the Riviera of the Orient) and Singapore (the city of tropical splendour).

Australians are now looking beyond the commonplace South Pacific and Mediterranean offerings and rediscovering cruising in Asia as the ‘orient’ builds world-class infrastructure to accommodate the growing fleet of vessels heading for their ports.

In just the last few years alone, Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai have introduced space-age terminals exclusively for the cruise market as they battle it out for the lion’s share of the cruise ship port calls.

Spurred on by a GFC slump in American cruising that is only now starting to recover, the big cruise lines looked our way for new markets as the Americans stayed home in droves.

Carnival, Holland America, Princess, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Cunard are just some of the heavy-hitters sending their ships down our way to connect us with Asia.

Here are a few examples of who’s going there.

RCCL’s Voyager of the Seas and Mariner of the Seas will head to Japan, Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, Vietnam, China, Japan, Malaysia, Thailand and Taiwan.

Cunard, as part of their regular around-the-world itineraries, will visit Indonesia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, South Korea, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, China, Japan and India.

Princess, an established visitor to Asia, will visit China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Brunei, Thailand, Vietnam and even Cambodia.

The historic former Dutch merchant line, Holland America, is not particularly known for its Asian itineraries, but in 1989, it became part of the massive Carnival group and began expanding its pleasure cruise fleet. Today, ms Volendam and ms Zaandam are regulars in the Asia-Pacific region visiting such ports as Hong Kong, Koh Samui (Thailand), Halong Bay (Vietnam), Nagasaki, Shanghai and Singapore.

Celebrity too will visit Vietnam, Thailand, China, Bali and more. Celebrity Millennium will sail between Singapore and Hong Kong with overnight calls in Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City and the majestic Halong Bay in Vietnam.

Apart from the major, deepwater ports, Asia is ideal for exploring some of the lesser known ports.

Azamara, for example will sail right into the heart of both Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) adding an extra dimension to the cruise experience when guests can walk off and virtually straight into the hub of these exciting cities and avoid the tiring coach transfers otherwise required. Azamara’s list of Asian ports vastly exceeds those of the much bigger vessels thanks to its smaller dimensions allowing access to such exotic spots as Langkawi (Malaysia), Puerto Princesa, (Philippines) and Yangon (Rangoon) in Myanmar (Burma).

If you’re quick, you might get one of the last cabins on SeaDream II, one of the world’s most acclaimed luxury small ships as it makes its Asian debut. Carrying just 52 spoiled couples, this delightful, ultra exclusive, all-inclusive vessel visits Thailand, Vietnam, Burma, China and Indonesia and may not return until 2015.

Similarly, Ponant, Hapag-Lloyd and Orion (now Lindblad National Geographic) delve even deeper into the Asian experience with vessels smaller again but lacking nothing in comfort and facilities. These ‘expedition’ and ‘adventure’ ships deliver a considerably more enriching experience, often visiting ports with little or no infrastructure, yet able to cope with just 100 or so passengers arriving by Zodiac fast tender.

Dig deeper again and you’ll find a wealth of river cruising options becoming increasing popular as travellers discover the wonders of the Mekong (in Vietnam and Cambodia) and the mysterious Irrawaddy (Burma) aboard the classic Pandaw vessels or those of the stylish Heritage Line. There is some concern that the Mekong and Irrawaddy may go the way of the Yangtze with numerous dam projects planned for the upper reaches of these famous waterways, the impact of which is undetermined. So, the message is clear, see these historic and significant rivers now while they retain much of their natural appeal.

When planning any Asian cruise, it’s wise to consider that the major ports with international airports are where the ships will ‘turn around’ or begin or end a sector and take new passengers. Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Bali (Denpassar) and Mumbai are typical such cruise hubs, so it makes sense to plan a few extra days at each end to explore these vibrant cities.

Some must-do shore excursions when in Asia

Take a local small boat cruise on the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Halong Bay. Sure, everyone does it, but you’ll know why when you do. It’s spectacular.

Nagasaki in Japan is best known for its tragic annihilation in World War II, but its European connections go back to the founding Portuguese. Like so much of Japan, the history and culture will enthral you.

From the modern Tianjin cruise terminal, head into Beijing for the iconic attractions of the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City. Say "nǐ hǎo" to Chairman Mao.

Hong Kong just screams out to visitors and if you’re not there for two or three days, you’re in danger of missing out on The Peak tram, Lantau Island or Stanley market. If you’re clever, you’ll allow time for a full day (at least) in stunning Macau too.

Singapore invites you with sleek, clean and efficient infrastructure and is a benchmark for all modern Asian cities. Sip a Singapore Sling at Raffles Hotel, ogle the spectacular Marina Bay Sands complex and touch the sky from the Singapore Flyer.

Filed under: Cruising, World Comments Off