FPB SHIPWRECK 1964 -1974 visits

How the ship looked in 1964
1964  “Francis Preston Blair” (hull number 1230)  was a WW2 Liberty ship.

1-FPB-01

Showing the explosion hole in the starboard bow below the water line. Legend was a Japanese torpedo hit did this.

Other shell holes in the hull came through target practice by (Royal Australian Air Force) RAAF aircraft. More details elsewhere.

During WW2 USA was supplying UK and Australia via merchant ships. The American shipbuilding effort was incredible, and worth a good documentary being made.

Liberty ships were being constructed at 16 shipyards. A new ship launched every day. At the peak, one ship was built and fitted out in just seven days. The secret was welding the ships together instead of using rivets.

2300 ships were built in 1942-43. The German U-boats could not sink them fast enough. Plenty survived.

Once the keel was laid, sections of the ship fabricated elsewhere would be brought to the site and assembled. The expected life of a liberty ship was five years if not sunk beforehand. Many survived 25 years of service.

These merchant ships were fitted with a 4″ rear deck gun. The anti-aircraft guns were one 12 pounder, 20mm and 40mm Bofors, and PAC rockets.

The Francis Preston Blair wreck was purchased by the Australian government in 1952 for target practice, especially in later years by the RAAF flying F-111’s from Amberley air base near Brisbane.

We were at Saumarez during one of these missions. Very exciting to have the swing-winged aircraft flying low above Coralita (international dive charter boat) at high speed with wings folded back.

The Francis Preston Blair (7 196 tons) was built by Sudden & Christensen, San Francisco. Launched 8 January 1943, hull number 1230,  grounded on Saumarez Reef at 9:30 am 15 July 1945 while traveling between New Guinea and Sydney.

Our captain, Wally Muller, first visited the wreck shortly after the stranding and found a number of empty 4″ shell cases near the rear deck gun, summarizing the ship had been firing when it went aground – perhaps being followed by a Japanese submarine. This might have explained an explosion hole in the bow, below the water line.

The military has no knowledge of any enemy action having occurred causing the the stranding.
Liberty ships were being launched at the rate of one every day to ferry supplies for the war effort. Many were sunk by submarines.

Cameraman Walt Deas reported (August 2005) “Francis Preson Blair has now totally collapsed”.

Liberty Ships built by the United States Maritime Commission in World War II

Liberty ship was the name given to the EC2 type ship designed for “Emergency” construction by the United States Maritime Commission in World War II. Liberty ships, nicknamed “ugly ducklings” by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The first of the 2,751 Liberty ships was the SS Patrick Henry, launched on Sept. 27, 1941, and built to a standardized, mass produced design. The 250,000 parts were pre-fabricated throughout the country in 250-ton sections and welded together in about 70 days.

One Liberty ship, the SS Robert E. Peary was built in four and a half days. A Liberty cost under $2,000,000.

The Liberty was 441 feet long and 56 feet wide. Her three-cylinder, reciprocating steam engine, fed by two oil-burning boilers produced 2,500 hp and a speed of 11 knots. Her 5 holds could carry over 9,000 tons of cargo, plus airplanes, tanks, and locomotives lashed to its deck. A Liberty could carry 2,840 jeeps, 440 tanks, or 230 million rounds of rifle ammunition.

1974 visit aboard Coralita
1974 visit aboard Coralita

The following information tells how the ship became stranded on Saumarez Reef during a cyclone.  The author is the daughter of a crewman who was aboard.

The family consensus is that: Dad said that “It was the typhoon that put the Blair on the reef.”  They had been trying to avoid the typhoon for some time, and it got them off course.  There were high winds on this trip.   He would say that the ship would toss as the water heaved over the bow.  There was always the fear of Japanese subs. For some reason, they were not in a convoy on July 15.


At any rate, Dad would say that the ship went up and came down, nice and pretty, on the reef! and they were stuck!!   Once the Captain realized that the ship could not move, (it was grounded), he immediately gave the order that no one was to leave the ship. He knew that the waters were shark infested, and the reef would cut their leather shoes/boots. The ship offered the best protection.  The order also meant that no one was to get into lifeboats.  No one was hurt.

Officers and crew, all of them, were soon rescued and thrilled to see the Aussies!  The Sydney Morning Herald took a picture of the stricken ship.   I wish I could remember the name of the Captain, as he was quite a character and was well respected.  Our guess is that he would have taken the log books with him.   Wonder what happened to them?  Dad would often wonder aloud, through the years, what happened to the Captain and the other guys with whom he sailed?

FPB - Zangari prop FPB - Zangari gun FPB - side entrance FPB - Coralita