"The MV Malabar sinking was a huge event in Sydney over Easter 1931"
FS-172 - formerly thought to be USS Boston
Michael McFadyen's Scuba Diving - FS-172
The town of Madang is often called the "prettiest town" in the whole Pacific. I must say that I agree with this description as it is very beautiful and ideally located on the shores of Madang Harbour, a harbour that comes close to Sydney Harbour in terms of size, protection and beauty. Numerous parks, lagoons and creeks are found in and around the town and there are plenty of trees that add to its appeal. To the north there are three other harbours, Nagada, Mililat and Sek Harbours. In reality, these are really just parts of the one, huge harbour protected from the open ocean (not that there is any real big seas) by a barrier reef and a number of small islands. The vast majority of the diving here is carried out in and around these harbours. Just north of Madang is a very interesting shipwreck.
This ship has been known as the USS Boston or SS Boston since 1946 but this is, in fact, not correct. It has also been said that it was a minesweeper but there was no minesweeper by this name in the US Navy. See later for details.
Before World War II the US Army had a number of small oceangoing vessels classified as "Freight and Passenger Boat" (FP). During the war this designation was changed to "FS" for "Freight and Supply." The designation was applied to numerous small vessels of widely different designs and sizes and also to converted merchant vessels. The sizes ranged from 180 to 573 gross tons and construction from wood to steel.
One of the designs was called Design 330-D. These carried the designation FS-162 to FS-234.
A photo of FS-177, identical to FS-172
The stern of two similar ships - FS-525 and FS-291 Photo by Ken Elslip
One of the Design 330-D ships was FS-172 which was launched in early 1944 from the Higgins Industries shipyard at New Orleans, Louisanna. It was about 180 feet (54 metres) long with a beam of about 33 (10 metres) and a draft of 10 feet (3 metres). The new ship was built of steel with a gross tonnage of 573 tons. It was powered by two 500hp diesel engines turning twin screws. Many references state that the engines were General Electric but I think that they were actually General Motors diesel engines. The engines were probably General Motors Model 6-278A V6 engines, with a serial number range of 15901 to 16451 inclusive used. Speed was 13 knots.
It appears that this class of ship had about 24 crew. This consisted of six officers in the superstructure on the Main Deck, 12 crew members on the First or Platform Deck aft of the Engine Room and six crew members forward in the forecastle (used during World War II for the gun crew). Most people have probably seen a ship like this as in the famous movie, "Mister Roberts" (which starred James Cagney, Henry Fonda and Jack Lemmon) was set on a ship almost identical to the FS-172.
FS-172 was commissioned on 19 May 1944 and assigned to the South West Pacific area. Most of the FS ships were crewed by US Coast Guard personnel. The FS-172 also had a Coast Guard crew. It appears that it may have been used in the Australian area as a book called "Forgotten Fleet" (see references) says that James Francis Savage from Port Kembla (just south of Wollongong which is about 80 kilometres south of Sydney) joined the FS-172 as a crew member. Apparently he was on the ship in the 1945-46 period. As an aside, over 3,000 Australian men and boys served on US Army small ships during the War.
After the War was finished, the ship was still in use. Anyhow, in July 1946 the ship was being used to transport surplus US supplies and war records from Sydney to Guam (I was told but it may have been to Guam and then onto Manila). It is also possible that the ship was carrying all the records for the small ships operations in the South Pacific as they all appear to have been lost. The US Transportation Corps Museum apparently has very few items about the South West Pacific Area operations. It is implied in the book that Mr Savage was still on the ship on this voyage.
On 4 February 1969, John E. Cohill, SVD, the Catholic Bishop of Goroka in Papua New Guinea wrote a report about the sinking of this ship which he calls the Boston. This occurred when he was the Parish Priest based at Mugil, just north of Madang. He was about 39 in 1946. This is his full report:
I was stationed at Mugil as the Parish priest in 1946 when the American ship, the Boston, went ashore on the coast near the village of Bonu, just some miles of the Mugil Plantation.
The skipper of the Boston had miscalculated the set of the tide and hit the rocks on the shore line. This happened between 5:00 and 5:30 AM. A report was immediately brought to me by a native who was much perturbed and thought the Japs were making a landing to assault the village.
When I arrived at the scene, the crew members and some of the Army personnel were trying to get ashore by jumping from rock to rock. They did not know where they were and were extremely frightened of the natives, who were watching them from behind the coconut trees.
They were completely astonished when I approached them and told them I was an American, a Catholic priest and assured them they were in good hands.. By this time, the Boston was being knocked around. Some of the officers went ashore for some sort of equipment. The natives, of course, had come into the open upon my arrival. I had the Americans meet the natives and everyone seemed happy.
The Natives wanted to go aboard the ship and take out all the supplies but Captain de Santo, the skipper, refused saying that he would not want to be responsible for the death of any native. The Captain declared the Boston abandoned. Then the party of eighteen men came to my house for whatever lunch I could give them.
Immediately, I sent a runner to the Kiap in Madang with a message for the U.S.A. Authorities in Guam. In about two days a small boat arrived in the Mugil Harbour. It was the small skip, Pius, owned by the Catholic Mission in Alexishafen.
The Americans were brought to the Government headquarters in Madang.
Within a day an American plane, I think it was a B 25, landed with great difficulty in Madang, after having paid their respects to me by flying over my residence in Mugil.
I recall the plane was loaded with cigarettes. I was told American cigarettes were being smoked by Europeans and natives all over Madang.
I may be of interest to know some of U.S. Military personnel knew friends of mine from my China days with the Marines in Peking.
Some weeks later an American party from Manila visited the scene of the wreck, handed me a letter or commandation and told me no one was allowed to investigate the wreckage, which at the time was in ten fathoms of water.
I recall later of some gentleman wanted to explore the wreck, but the Government (Australian) refused permission. However, I cannot vouch for it.
Over the years, I have kept in contact with members of the crew and several officers, in particular Captain de Santo, a native of Boston.
As far as I remember, the Boston was about 500 tons, carrying office equipment and files from Sydney, Australia to Manila.
Some years later a rumour reached me that this was a put up job, because some of the files were detrimental to some prominent U.S. personnel. However, I would not like to repeat this in print (sic).
The Americans were always grateful for the help I was able to give them and I am sure Mugil and the days they sent there will never be forgotten.
To add a religious note to this missive, I shall tell you a touching incident that came out of this wreck.
After the Americans came to my house, I suggested we have a Mass of Thanksgiving to God for their rescue. I naturally invited the Catholics among them to attend, at the same time extended the invitation to the Protestants, too. All to a man showed up at the services.
Among them was a fellow, Doris by name, the chief engineer, a really tough, big man, who had shipped all over the world. Religion made no impression upon him whatsoever; but he said he might just as well join the boys at Mass.
About seven years ago, I received a note from the Sister Matron of a San Francisco Hospital telling Mr. Doris had died. Before he died, to the a amazement of all the Sisters, nurses, and everyone else in the hospital, he called for a priest. When the priest arrived, he asked to be instructed hurriedly in the Catholic Faith and be baptised before he died.
Later the sister in charge asked Doris why he had made this unexpected decision. His only answer was that Mugil did it.
Evidently, there was something that took place within him at Mugil. Was it the kindness of the natives, perhaps of me. Was it the attendance at Mass? Anyway, God moved him some way, somehow. We shall never know in this life, but perhaps in Eternity.
I had many notes on the Boston episode; however about twelve years ago when I was staioned at Annaberg, Ramu, a fire destroyed my residence and with it all my belongings.
Sometime in the near future, I shall visit Madang and supply you with some interesting side lights of the Boston incident.
The U.S. Navy divers told me the Boston was projecting on a ocean ridge about ten fathoms below. However if the Boston were to topple over this ridge it would fall many fathoms more. The divers also told me there were molested by "gropers". I believe that's what they called the fish.
As I write these lines, I cannot help but recall with the greatest delight the days I spent with the Boston crew. Our trips through the Mugil bush. The stories and simplicity of men who had tasted of the crude things of life. Their utter concern that no native would be inconvenienced by their presence among them. Then there was their exemplary behavious in their association with the natives.
About three months ago, I revisited Mugil and reminisced with the older natives the day on which the Boston was wrecked.
As can be seen from this firsthand report, the ship was certainly known to people as the Boston. It is not stated in Bishop Cohill's report, but it is said that the ship sank in a storm. Bishop Cohill died 16 June 1994 aged 87.
Gavin Grant emailed me:
I used to run the dive shop at Madang Resort back in 1994/95 and the "USS Boston" was a great dive. No one ever seemed to question its name and it was thought of as a minesweeper.
On one occasion I met an old guy at the dive site who was walking over the coral in bare feet! He remembered the day it came ashore. From what I remember he told me it came bow up onto the shore. When they went up to the ship, several soldiers on the bow who I think were just scared, started pointing guns at them and they ran back into the bushes. Later the situation pacified (maybe when that priest arrived?).
They helped them secure a bow and stern line to the shore and he pointed to some trees which they used! The ship then went into reverse to try and bring the ship parallel to shore. The cable or rope got wrapped around the prop and caused all engines to stop. (On a dive I remembered seeing one of the prop shafts bent)
One of the two bells of the FS-172 Photo courtesy of Volker Leidner
Gavin Grant and a porthole from the FS-172 About 1994/5
I have noticed that many of the FS ships also appear to carry the name of a US city or locality. I am not sure that this was an official name, perhaps it was a nickname. The name appeared in the format FS-xxx abcdef. Many that I have seen have had names beginning with B or C. Therefore, it is possible that the FS-172 was also known as FS-172 Boston, but there is no evidence apart from folklore from Papua New Guinea. Note that the skipper of the ship was from the US city of Boston, perhaps this is why the ship carried the name Boston, at least with the crew.
Volker Leidner lived in Madang from 1966 till 1970. He and some amateur diving friends (including John Dean - now resident in NZ) rediscovered the wreck of FS-172. As mentioned above, it is located north of Madang at a place called Cape Croislles. While there, Volker and others salvaged many items from the wreck. He and his wife and some friends found a spare prop on the deck between the front portside railing and the adjacent hold. They prepared well, taking spare air tanks and empty drums leading up to the recovery day. The prop was loosened (not sure how it was attached) and the drums attached to the prop. The spare tank's air was emptied into the drums and up went the prop. The plan was to use a small dingy with a 15 hp engine to tow the prop to a nearby beach but upon surfacing, Volker found his wife and a friend in the dingy going around in circles. The current was far too strong for the small dingy's engine and there was no way they were going to get it ashore.
They let the prop drift northwards for a while and eventually they sank it in four to six metres. Volker covered the prop with some coral blocks to hide it. The idea was that they would come back and salvage it from its new location. However, Volker was transferred for work from Madang to Rabaul and then onto Noumea in New Caledonia. It is assumed that the prop is still located where they left it.
Volker and his wife recovered many other items from the wreck. As well as the bell which is shown above, he salvaged two clocks (see one below), a barometer, an oil lamp which was on the telegraph, a glass ink well and one Corning dinner plate.
In March 2005 I received an email from Fritz Herscheid. Fritz had a salvage company in New Guinea from 1967 to 1976 and one of the wrecks he worked on (in 1970) was the "Boston" before ultimately working the Hansa Bay (Japanese) wrecks. He originally told me that he was taken to the wreck by Volker Leidner but further investigations by Volker (who could not remember him) revealed that an Austrian signboard painter called Rudy Caesar (who Volker reckons spent 80% of his time in his wetsuit - or at least his wetsuit pants) was the person who took Fritz to the wreck.
Fritz said that when he dived the wreck the forward hold contained filing cabinets and office equipment. This included ink wells, paper weights etc. The second hold contained white goods such as freezers and refrigerators.
Fritz salvaged one of the spare props (I assume this is a different one to the prop Volker attempted to salvage) as the ship's propellers were buried in coral and he figured that it was too much work. He also found one of two bells from the ship. This bell is the key to discovering the name of the wreck. Until Fritz emailed me he was of the opinion that the ship was the USS Boston. Once he read this page, he realised that the name of the ship had been staring him in the eyes for over 35 years. The bell that he salvaged contains the inscription "FP 172 1944" (see photo below). Until reading this page he "just didn't know what it meant!". This confirms that the ship was the FP-172 later changed to FS-172, a US Army ship rather than a US Navy ship.
One of FS-172's clocks Photo courtesy of Volker Leidner
The bell of FS-172 which led to its identification Photo courtesy of Fritz Herscheid
Fritz also told me that Dave Barnet and Kevin Baldwin who visited the wreck some months after him took the two little "piss ant" propellers. Dave apparently swore that it took more explosives then it was worth.
The wheel was salvaged in the late 1960s. An earthquake in October 1970 caused the anchor chain to break in several spots, damage to the coral on and around the wreck as well as causing many doors to fall off their hinges and some previously jammed doors to open.
The wreck is about 45 minutes by mini-bus north of Jais Aben Resort (about 50 km) at Cape Croisilles and is normally done as a double dive with nearby reef dive (more about this in another article). The wreck is fully intact, with a maximum depth of 39 metres below the stern. It is normally done as a drift dive by starting off up current and drifting a short distance back onto the wreck itself before surfacing in the nearby shallows.
In the two times I have now dived FS-172, I saw sharks, barracudas, turtles and other big fish. The wreck has winches and cables on the deck. The bridge is at about 33 metres as is the bow which has some damage above the waterline. The port hull is also badly cracked amidships. The front hold contains filing cabinets, ink wells, pens, hole punchers and paper weights. As mentioned above, there used to be a spare prop (or props?) near this hold but it was lost during salvage in the late 1960s or in 1970. As stated above, an earthquake in October 1970 caused the anchor chain to break in several spots, damage to the coral on and around the wreck as well as causing many doors to fall off their hinges and some previously jammed doors to open. This damage can still be seen. The anchor is alongside the wreck. It has very nice growth on it.
The bow of FS-172
Inside a hold of FS-172
The second hold has some other objects. I am not sure exactly what they were, but they looked like whitegoods. That is, they might have been refrigerators or freezers as they had electric motors and a large cabinet. Unable to spend too long looking at them, I could not exactly make out what they might be.
From here I went into the engine room before going into the area under the bridge. This has numerous cabins and corridors that can be examined. I then went though the bridge before finishing off the dive on the wreck by spending a minute or two on the top of the bridge.
It is about a 40 metre swim to the reef. I did 23 minutes on the wreck which entailed a five minute decompression at three metres. In fact, we ended up spending 20 minutes on the reef and found it quite an enjoyable section of reef.
This is a very enjoyable wreck dive, worth doing a number of times. However, its distance up the coast makes it a bit hard to do more than once on a trip.
16 February 1995
20 October 1996
YouTube Video -
Below is a short video of the wreck that I filmed in 1996. Enjoy!