Darwin war history
Written by Garey Neenan
Marsh was the son of a well-known Darwin family, Cecil Henry Marsh and Belle (nee Kelsey), an early pioneer of Darwin. His maternal grandfather was John George Kelsey, Clerk of the Palmerston District Council and Kelsey Crescent in Milner is named in his honour. Belle Place, off Kelsey Crescent is named after his mother.
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, enlisting in Adelaide five days after his 18th birthday, with his parents' permission, citing his date of birth as 7 April 1900.
He was assigned to the 6th General Service Reinforcements and after undertaking basic training, his unit embarked from Adelaide on board HMAT A36 Boonah on 22 October 1918. The HMAT Boonah was the last Australian troop ship to leave Australia for the war in Europe.
Carrying over 900 troops, the Boonah was just days out from Durban South Africa, word was received that an armistice had been signed, bringing the hostilities of WW1 to an end. Orders were received for the ship to replenish its supplies in Durban and return to Australia.
While tied up in Durban, local stevedores loaded supplies onto the ship and were billeted on board with the troops. Unbeknownst to those on the Boonah, the stevedores were infected with the Spanish Flu.
The 1918 Spanish Flu was a strain of the novel H1N1 influenza that spread across the world in 2009 under the name of the Swine Flu.
The first casualty was Sergeant Arthur Charles Thwaites who jumped overboard on the night of
9 December 1918. A later investigation by a Court of Enquiry found that he committed suicide, most likely as a result of being delirious from the fever of the flu. A later investigation by a Court of Enquiry found that he committed suicide by jumping overboard, most likely as a result of being delirious from the fever of the flu.
By the time the ship 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, and which had until then spared Western Australia.
The ship anchored in Gage Roads of Fremantle while authorities considered Rottnest and Garden Islands to quarantine the soldiers. Public outrage grew against the refusal of the immigration authorities to allow all of the soldiers ashore with casualties growing each day. Perth newspapers attracted many angry responses to government’s inaction with comments like...
"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."
After some delays, approval was granted for about 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. Vernon Marsh was one of them.
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.
Public outrage grew against the refusal of the immigration authorities to allow all of the soldiers ashore with casualties growing each day.
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.
The situation continued to deteriorate further with more soldiers dying and more than 20 nursing and medical staff becoming infected. By 20 December, Woodman Point was housing over 600 soldiers and after nine days of acrimony, and despite breaking quarantine regulations, the ship sailed east with the remaining troops, 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, just north of Adelaide. No further deaths occurred and after being given the all-clear, the remaining men returned to their homes.
Marsh was released from Woodman Point in early January 1919, entrained at Fremantle for Adelaide where he was discharged on 23 January 1919. He was luckier that the twenty-seven soldiers and four nurses at Woodman Point that died and were buried at the Woodman Point quarantine station, and later interred at Karrakatta Cemetery.
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 died on 22 October 1984, exactly 66 years to the day the overcrowded Boonah left Adelaide, and now rests in the Darwin General Cemetery in Jingili. His headstone records his age as 83 years making him just 17, and underage at the time of enlisting, which may have provided him with a better chance of survival.
In the absence of modern communications and reporting, it is believed that as many as 500 million people around the world contracted the Spanish Flu with an estimated death toll of between
50-100 million, making it the most world’s most deadly epidemic.
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.
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