Part of a series of interview segments produced by the SUA/MUA in which retired Australian merchant seamen recount their working lives at sea as well as their engagement with union campaigns and activities. Each episode features a seaman, or sometimes a pair of seamen, sharing their story in a largely unstructured and extended interview. They form an important on camera collection of oral histories about Australia’s unionised merchant seamen.
In this episode seaman Jim Homeboat Smith recounts how he started work in 1937 at 16 years old. It was so hot in the engine room, you could not put your hand onto the rails. He thinks that the miners had much easier jobs than these blokes. A big change came when the oil-burners replaced the coal-burners. There were many tough men working in the engine room, but not many Aussies. They would have to stand at the pick-up line, and the company representatives would choose whoever they thought were right for the job.
During the war the old ships were “sitting ducks” and some ships in the convoys would come so close, they would bang into each other. Jim has many anecdotes about the sea, like the time when a hole in the ship was filled with jelly fish and saved it from sinking. “Stuff you don’t read about”. There were no washing machines in the early days, so they had to use a barrel to wash their clothes and the tankers could be away for months at a time. He worked on Norwegian ships as they were good but always short-handed when looking after the fires. Some companies would show preference for “scabs” and not union men. These scabs would end up going to the American ships. He feels that there’s very little knowledge of the maritime history, and what went on during WWII, the merchant navy’s role in the conflict.
Picture and sound quality is low given low budget production.
Author: J Bird, 2023