Written by Garey Neenan
In 1995, Kelsey Place was renamed to Belle Place, after Vernon’s mother following a petition from residents citing confusion between the two streets. Belle was a pioneer of early Palmerston and one of the first women to in the Territory to vote.
Vernon attended Darwin Public School and was a member of the Darwin Cable Guard. He followed his brother Keith who had enlisted in late 1916 and enlisted in Adelaide five days after his 18th birthday, with his parents' permission, citing his date of birth as 7 April 1900.
Carrying over 900 troops, the Boonah arrived in Durban, South Africa just days after the armistice was signed. As a result, the ship was immediately prepared for the return to Australia.
While tied up in Durban, local stevedores loaded supplies onto the ship and were billeted on the ship with the troops. Unbeknownst to those on the Boonah, the stevedores were infected with the Spanish Flu, or as we have known it from 2010, the H1N1 Swine Flu.
The flu was transmitted to the Australian troops and in the close quarters of the overcrowded Boonah on the trip back to Australia, the perfect environment existed for the flu to spread. Five days after the Boonah departed Durban, rough seas and cold weather ensured that the troops remained in close confinement and the first flu-like symptoms began to appear.
The first casualty was Sergeant Arthur Charles Thwaites (serial number 21044) who jumped overboard on the night of 9 December 1918.
By the time the ship had arrived back at Fremantle on 12 December, more than 300 cases had been reported and Commonwealth immigration authorities refused to allow the soldiers to disembark, knowing of the global pandemic which was underway but which had until then spared Western Australia.
The ship anchored in Gage Roads of Fremantle and after some delays, approval was granted for nearly 300 of the sickest soldiers to be moved ashore to the Quarantine Station at Woodman Point, south of Fremantle. Three of the men died on the first day at the station and it took three days for 337 men to be brought ashore. The situation continued to deteriorate further with more dying and more than 20 nursing and medical staff becoming infected. By 20 December, Woodman Point was housing over 600 soldiers.
For those left on board the ship, conditions were believed to be deplorable. Authorities insisted on a seven-day incubation period with no new cases being cited to prove that the disease had burnt itself out. Unfortunately, new infections and deaths continued in the cramped and close living conditions, which proved to be the perfect environment for the flu to spread.
Public outrage grew against the refusal of the immigration authorities to allow all of the soldiers ashore with casualties growing each day.
"How many cases of sickness and death are required to make the authorities do a commonsense thing?".
"Enough of this inhuman incarceration of soldiers in the disease-stricken cubby-hole of a floating hell."
Wrangling between the State Minister for Health, Sir Hal Colebatch and the federal immigration authorities continued and tensions increased to the point that the Returned Servicemen's association made threats to storm the ship to return the sick men to shore.
After nine days of acrimony, and despite breaking quarantine regulations, the ship sailed east on 20 December, presumably to defuse the situation. Another 17 cases were discovered between Albany and Adelaide and the remaining men were disembarked at Torrens Island Quarantine Station, a similar facility to Woodman Point and just north of Adelaide. No further deaths occurred and after being given the all-clear, the remaining men returned to their homes.
A total of twenty-seven soldiers and four nurses at Woodman Point died of influenza during the crisis and are buried at the Woodman Point quarantine station, later to be interred at Karrakatta Cemetery.
The Spanish flu pandemic infected about 500 million people around the world between January 1918 and December 1920. In the absence of modern medicine, it is believed that between 50-100 million deaths were recorded, or around 4% of the world’s population.
For Marsh, he ended up at Woodman Point and was released having been cleared to continue his journey home. He had escaped the flu and on 9 January and was entrained at Fremantle and transported to Adelaide for discharged on 23 January 1919.
He returned to the Northern Territory, living in Tennant Creek and working as a linesman before moving to Alice Springs where he managed the Memorial Club until 1951. He married and settled back in Darwin in the 1960’s living in Fannie Bay and finally Parap.
Marsh’s headstone records his age in 1984 as 83 years making his actual year of birth 1901 and more importantly, making him underage at the time of enlisting. His enlistment record for WW2 also recorded his birth in 1901.
In the wake of the armistice of WW1, the Boonah incident, despite being recorded widely in the press around Australia, has gone relatively unnoticed. In 2004, Ian Darroch published the book “The Boonah tragedy” detailing the incident.
As for the Boonah, she was sold to a German steamship company in 1925 and was taken over by the German Kreigsmarine (navy) at the outbreak of the Second World War.
In 1940, she was torpedoed and sunk by the British submarine HMS Narwhal off the coast of Norway.
 The Daily News, 14 December 1918.
 The Sunday Times editorial, 15 December 1918.