Remembering the Role of the Small Ships in the World War II Pacific Campaign


By Robbin Laird

On December 31, 2020, the Australian Department of Defence published an article by Flight Lieutenant Natalie Giles which highlighted a ceremony remembering one contributor to the small ship’s role in World War II.

Former World War II Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force telephonist Thelma Zimmerman was presented a United States Army Small Ships medallion on December 11 for her support of the small ships’ association.

Commander Air Warfare Centre and Senior Australian Defence Force Officer for the Edinburgh Defence precinct Air Commodore Brendan Rogers made the presentation to the 98-year-old at a ceremony hosted by the War Widow’s Guild in South Australia.

“While her husband, Alby, served overseas with the Royal Australian Air Force in the Pacific, Thelma served in Adelaide and Melbourne as a telephonist in the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force,” Air Commodore Rogers said. 

“Thelma always appreciated the incredible work the US Army Small Ships provided to personnel like her husband and has gone out of her way to support the US Army Small Ships Association in recent years. 

“In return, the association wanted to present Thelma with the special medallion to recognise her support. 

“It was an honour for me to present this award to Thelma and to formally recognise her valuable contributions.” 

Mrs Zimmerman said she was honoured to receive the medallion.

“My husband received so much support from the small ships that supported our boys in deploying to and from the islands in World War II so I have been forever thankful to them,” she said.

The US Army Small Ships Section was raised in Australia and consisted mainly of Australians who were too old, too young, or medically unfit to serve in the Navy, Army or Air Force in World War II. 

Almost 3000 Australians served in the US Army Small Ships. 

The unit supported the deployment and repatriation of Australian personnel and equipment, including Air Force units, in the south-west Pacific. 

US Army Small Ships Association vice-president David Lloyd also presented a medallion to Air Commodore Rogers and No. 92 Wing Warrant Officer Suzanne Hall.

Mr Lloyd asked that the medallion be displayed throughout the year and be carried by the youngest member of RAAF Base Edinburgh on Anzac Day parades as a mark of respect to those who served in the small ships’ unit during World War II. 

“It was a privilege to receive the medallion and we will ensure it serves to inspire the next generation serving at Edinburgh, particularly during the Air Force centenary next year,” Warrant Officer Hall said.

In a November 29, 2018 article published on, I wrote a review of a book which focused on the role of the small ships in the World War II Pacific campaign and that article follows:

During one of my trips to Australia, I visited my favorite book store in Sydney, Dymocks, and purchased a signed copy of The Rag Tag Fleet.

The book tells a fascinating story about Australian citizens supported the war, and is a version perhaps not quite as dramatic of what the British did at Dunkirk.

It is a story of how a fleet of Australian fishing boats, trawlers and schooners supplied US and Australian forces in the Pacific in really desperate times.

In the words on the dust jacket of the book:

In this desperate situation, a fleet of hundreds of Australian small ships is assembled, sailing under the American flag, and crewed by over 3000 Australians either too young or too old to join the regular forces.  Their task: the bring supplies and equipment to the Allied troops saving bloody battles against Japanese forces across the South Pacific.”

The book starts with the fascinating story of the Fahnestocks, Americans who game to the Pacific as adventurers and ended up as the personal spies for President Roosevelt in getting an eye on what the Japanese where up to in the 1930s in the Pacific.

As the book starts, we are introduced to the Fahnestocks: “For young men who would never want for anything, the Fahnestock brothers certainly had a way of putting themselves into places where they could easily lose everything.”

When you start like that, it is easy to see why I read on.

The origin of the Small Boats effort was generated by an ArmyBG reaching out to the Fahnestocks.

“In January 1942, as the Fahnestock brothers were preparing and delivering their presentation to a sold-out crowd at the New York Town Hall, a regular US Army Colonel named Arthur Wilson was promoted to brigadier-general and made quartermaster for all the US forces that had been, and would be. dispatched to Australia and beyond to confront the Japanese forces still sweeping through Asia towards Australia.

“Wilson knew President Roosevelt, and it may have been through him that he first learned of the Fahnestock brothers and their plan….

“One day in late January, Sheridan Fahnestock received a cryptic invitation to a meeting backstage at the Washington Auditorium.  There, he found a US Army major sitting behind a plain desk.  The man insisted Sheridan to sit in the chair in front of the desk and then proceeded to question him on his knowledge of the Pacific, as well as his background and general thoughts on the war no raging in the Far East.

Seemingly satisfied with the answers, the major introduced himself as Arthu Wilson and said that he had been made responsible for australia, but didn’t provide any context for that statement.  Wilson then proceeded to ask Sheridan if he would be interested in commanding a small boats operation.”1

That is how it started. What the book then details is the story of how from this small beginning, Australians and Americans would work together to put together a very significant small boat effort to provide logistical support to Australian and American troops fighting the Japanese.

If one ever doubted the importance of logistics, that doubted should spend time examine the war in the Pacific. As courageous as the front line soldiers certainly were, the logistical support force was the key enabler of any combat force.

And in this case a “rag tag” fleet of small boats became the lifeblood of support in 1942 for American and Australian forces.

The courage and inventiveness of the Australians commanding and operating their small boats is provided throughout the narrative.

It is a reminder of how in times of crisis, any adversary should not underestimate the will and courage of either the Australian or American peoples.

We certainly have our ups and downs, but there is a basic community of interest and fellowship which no adversary should doubt.

Featured Photo: Senior Australian Defence Force Officer – Edinburgh Defence precinct Air Commodore Brendan Rogers presents a US Army Small Ships Section medallion to World War II veteran Thelma Zimmerman. Photo: Leading Aircraftwoman Jacqueline Forrester


  1. Pages 3-4.