Microfilm is not the recent invention that we might imagine.  In fact, its use dates back to World War II!  Jock Thompson, long time Queensland Processing manager for Kodak (Australia) recalls his wartime experiences with the new process:

 “With the fear of an imminent Japanese invasion, a large American force was sent to Australia to aid its Australian ally.  Supplying mail to the US servicemen was a major problem, and Kodak (America) was asked to come up with a solution.  This they did by borrowing a new invention of the British navy – Microfilm.  They called their version V-MAIL.”

V – mail sample (photo courtesy Jock Thompson)

When General Macarthur set up his South Pacific Headquarters in Brisbane, the V-MAIL was set up immediately opposite in the upper floors of the Kodak building in Queen Street.  Jock Thompson, because of his previous civilian photographic background, was placed in charge of the 150 staff required to man its operations.  There was a similar unit set up in San Francisco.

 When an American soldier wrote to his girl back home, he would have to do so on a specially issued pad of a particular size.  This letter would then be forwarded to the Brisbane V-MAIL office where it would be sorted into one of three grades according to the way it was written: light ink, dark ink, or pencil.  Then it would be sorted into batches of 100 similarly written letters, and photographed onto 16 mm film – each page occupying one frame of film.  1700 such copies were possible on each roll of film. After processing, the films were sent under strict security to Amberley Air Force Base where they were flown to San Francisco for enlargement onto long rolls of photographic prints, which were then cut up into individual numbered photographs of the original letters.  These ‘letter photos’ were then given to the army for distribution. The same enlarging process applied in Brisbane for films received from San Francisco. A test strip was placed at the beginning of each film.  This helped the print operator adjust the printer’s focus and exposure time to ensure clear pictures, which were of correct brightness.

splicing the rolls of photographic prints (photo courtesy Jock Thompson)

 Statistics for the amount of V-MAIL handled by Jock’s employees were impressive – even by today’s computer-generated standards: Total production of enlargements and copies from April 1943 to arch 1945 was 90 million! Production averaged 5000 per hour or 120,000 per day. The highest monthly output was in May 1944 when 3,671,399 copies and 3,730,461 enlargements were produced. The highest daily total also occurred during this month (on May 5th) when 129,420 copies and 194,258 enlargements were produced. There must have been many homesick American Troops in Brisbane at that particular time! It was a 24-hour, 7 day a week job, and the 150 workers were divided into three shifts to keep the mountains of mail under continuous process.

 “Quality control was of the utmost importance,” Jock recalls, “for to ruin even one film would mean the loss of 1700 letters!”

 Jock remembers that after 18 months of continuous ‘on call’ supervision at V-MAIL, he was given a well-earned holiday.  However, when he came back to work, he was greeted with 10,000 feet (3 kilometres!) of film that had been ruined during processing.  Pin pointing the source of the problem was difficult, with one department blaming the other. “I thought back to my apprenticeship days and the importance my boss placed on the purity of the processing chemicals,” says Jock. “So, despite protests from the experts, I drained all the tanks and used fresh chemicals.  The next batch of film we processed reproduced perfectly.” Further investigations into the offending chemicals revealed a high proportion of salt.  Then the truth became clear: the original chemicals had been sent from Sydney to Brisbane in Hessian bags as deck cargo on a coastal freighter.  On the journey, the ship had run into a storm and the deck cargo had been saturated with seawater from waves breaking over the decks.  The Hessian bags being porous had let in the contaminating salt – hence the 3 k of ruined film!

 When V-MAIL finished in 1945, Jock’s services were retained at Kodak, and he was made Queensland’s processing manager, a position he retained for many years until his retirement and move to Bribie Island.        

Jock Thompson at Woorim, Bribie Island in 1989

(Extract from ‘Moreton Bay Letters’ Peter Ludlow 2003)

The Crebers of Early Bribie

Doris McPhee (nee Tubman) of Scarborough writes…

My uncle was John Creber.  As a child, I went with my family to visit him.  Bribie was very undeveloped then.  Most of the people there were workers at the cannery, numbering no more than 50 in all.  They were all middle aged to elderly and didn’t mind a drink after work!  When the mullet were cleaned and gutted, their innards were disposed of in the Pumicestone Passage and this ‘burly’ attracted many sharks, with the result that we kids were not allowed to go swimming. 

On one of our visits, a carpet snake was found in bed with my brother, and was removed with much commotion.  Fishing, of course, was great at Bribie then and it was easy to live on fish and oysters from the Bay or by slaughtering kangaroos on the island.

John Creber’s daughter, Joyce, was the first non-indigenous person born on Bribie Island (Joyce arrived before John’s wife, Eva, could be taken to the mainland for her delivery!) When John Creber died, his family was destitute because there were no social services then, however other Bribie locals got together and built her and her family a new house.

A frequent visitor to Bribie in those early days was Canon Miles, an Anglican Minister whose Parish was at St. George’s in the Brisbane suburb of Windsor.  However, he often visited Bribie and held church services there.  Peter Ludlow has also mentioned that he went to Peel Island and held services for the Leprosy patients there.  He was held in great regard by all who knew him and some of his other activities included the Mission to Seamen and camping holidays that he organised at Coolangatta for all the newspaper boys of Brisbane.

The huts known as the Twelve Apostles on the beach at Bongaree were built for pensioners (many of whom were Remittance Men) and as they died the huts were pulled down.  Bribie is a different world today. 

Bribie Island – Bathers at Bongaree, showing also the dance hall and Twelve Apostles, 1920s (Photo courtesy Jan Burge)

(Extract from ‘Moreton Bay Letters’ Peter Ludlow 2003)

Under the Boardwalk

‘Snow’ Portone told me this story…

Manly Jetty on Regatta Day 1914 (Photo courtesy State Library of Queensland)

When the Port family moved to the Bayside suburb of Manly, they leased, and lived in, the Kiosk on the end of the Manly jetty.  As well as fishing, the family was also heavily involved in sailing 18 footer skiffs, and it was not unusual on a Sunday night for skipper Bert Port to generously invite home his entire crew for dinner. This would naturally throw his wife into a panic trying to roust up an impromptu meal for an extra dozen or so mouths.  However, she knew she could always depend on her youngest son, ‘Snow’, to come up with a haul of fish at short notice.

You see, ‘Snow’ had this secret fishing spot where he knew he could land a good haul of Bream whenever he wanted.  However, he kept its location a secret from the rest of the family, and, being a fishing family, they respected his right to secrecy for his ‘good spot’. 

For years ‘Snow’ kept the location of his fishing spot a secret from his mother, but perhaps his reasons were more than for mere professional secrecy.

It was before the days of sewerage, and the plumbing for the men’s public toilet at the end of the jetty was just a short pipe above the water, and, yes, you guessed it, all ‘Snow’ had to do was lower his line through the urinal pipe and down into the water below. The pipe was just wide enough to pull up a decent sized Bream through it, and there always seemed to be a school of fish there!  The burly must have been good!

(Extract from ‘Moreton Bay Letters’ Peter Ludlow 2003)

After the ‘Kaptajn Neilsen’ Disaster

Following on from my blog of 29.01.2022, here is a photo of the ‘Kaptajn Neilsen’ dredge before the disaster of September 18, 1964:

‘Kaptajn Neilsen’ at work (photo courtesy Brian McGrath)

After the disaster, and her righting and refloating following patching and essential work in Cairncross Dry Dock, she departed Brisbane under tow by the powerful Dutch salvage tug ‘Tasman Zee’ for repairs in Holland, after which she was put back into service by her owners.

‘Kaptajn Neilsen’ in Cairnscross Dry Dock (photo courtesy Brian McGrath)

The ‘Good Neighbour’ Tues 1 February 1966 further reported:

Diver Joe Wins George Medal

Diver Joe Engwirda, from Sittard, the Netherlands, who rescued ten Danish seamen from a sunken, capsized dredge off the Queensland coast received the George Medal from the Governor of Queensland, Sir Henry Abel Smith, at an investiture at Government House, Brisbane, last month.

The George Medal, one of the highest decorations in the British Commonwealth for civilian bravery, was also awarded to two other men concerned in the rescue of the Danish seamen. They were Constable Ivan James Adams of the Queensland Police diving squad, and Erik Viktor Poulsen, 22, of Copenhagen, a member of the crew of the dredge. Seven other Australians who helped in the rescue work also received awards.

Said Joe of his George Medal: “I am surprised at receiving the award. Naturally, I am delighted, and am pleased that those who worked alongside me have also been honoured”.

The dredge, the 3,000-ton “Kaptajn Nielsen”, capsized suddenly when fully laden as its suction equipment was being lifted. Fifteen of the crew of 24 survived.

After the sinking, Erik Poulsen dived down to escape through a hatch, rested on the upturned hull which was awash, and then swam four miles across Moreton Bay to Moreton Island to raise the alarm three and a half hours after the disaster. Joe, awakened by police at his Brisbane home, took Constable Adams with him in his 16-foot speedboat 25 miles down-river to the scene. Joe, who concentrated on the crew’s quarters in the bow, rescued ten. The rescue of two of these was accomplished with help from Constable Adams.

Joe with his main souvenir of the dredge – its barnacle encrusted wheel from the bridge.

Trevor Jackson, master of the Brisbane dive boat ‘Esperance Star’, discovered the ship’s wheelhouse on the seabed in 13 metres of water off Tangalooma in 2001. He surmised that when the dredge rolled over, the wheelhouse was sheared off in the shallow water. Looking at the photo at the top of this page, you can see that the tall bridge would have been included in the shear.

Since that time, many dive boats have visited the wreckage. You may have a virtual dive there too if you click on the link below: