War drama recalled as wharf marks 150 years

TIME and tide will never wash from Betty Koellner’s memory the sight of bewildered American soldiers on Tathra Wharf who had ignored warnings at Eden to abandon their journey through submarine-infested waters.

“We had more Japanese submarines along the coast than people knew about,” said Ms Koellner, who was a teenager when a torpedo struck the American cargo ship, 19km out to sea.

“You’d hear them of a night - putt, putt, putt - charging their batteries,” she said.

Covered in oil and anguish, survivors limped onto the wharf after their ship exploded at dawn in 1942. The force shook her home.

“I ran out onto the patio and could see the [Australian] plane circling over the ship and smoke started to billow out of the ship.

“I got on my bike and rode the two miles over to school and when I got there, the teacher took us down to the wharf to see what was happening.

“Some of the Americans were crying. They were saying their mates were locked in the engine room, it really upset us kids.”

Her memories surface on a serene morning on the wharf’s sun-bleached deck. 

A few anglers idle away the morning awaiting a bite on their pilchards in the swaying water.

Children peer over the edge. A woman reads her novel.

The Tasman Sea gives rocks and barnacle-covered turpentine posts a repetitive wash of fizzy white water.

Ms Koellner looks over the silver sea from the only remaining steamer wharf on the Australian coastline which is celebrating its 150th anniversary.

Her first wharf moment was in her mother’s womb. Eighty-three years ago expectant mothers caught a steamship to Sydney to have their babies.

Farm produce and passengers were first loaded onto sailing ships and later paddle wheelers, and later still, steamers.

“When the ships would come around the point to load the pigs up, they’d blow a whistle and the pigs would start squealing,” Ms Koellner said.

A local Pig and Whistle Fleet committee will re-open a museum on the wharf to mark the anniversary next month.

They’ll remember retired school teachers Daisy and Ray Berlin who led the campaign to save the wharf more than 30 years ago, in contrast to Bermagui and Eden where old wharfs were left to rot before being demolished.

They’ll likely remember the fierce winds on that horror night in November 2008, when Shane O’Neill, 28, who had been fishing, drowned trying to save his sons Travis, 15 months old, and Riley, 4.

“I put the garbage out that night and the wind was just about blowing my head off. It wasn’t the wharf’s fault.”

Her remark animates the wharf, as artist David Mills does with a big face on its main building.

He’s painted the wharf for 20 years and says the best time is in late afternoon summer sunlight from the west which coats the whole headland in ochre.

The weatherboard shed turns pink and it roof luminous silver.

Under heavy rafters inside, a cafe looks out through two large double doors across the deck to the sea.

Cafe owner Poppy Benton says humpback and southern right whales and whale sharks “as big as a coach” cruise past in winter, hardly raising an eyebrow among the regular fishermen who are accustomed to the ocean’s gentle monsters.

• See the full program of Wharf 150th events on Page 35

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