‘Anthropologists, Spooks, and the Boys Who Went To War’ by Rowan Cahill

The Fahnestock brothers and crew of Director 11

Rowan Cahill: I became aware of the rudiments of this story during the 1970s and 80s in my various associations with the former Seamen’s Union of Australia (now part of the Maritime Union of Australia), and the now defunct Communist Party of Australia. It was in these environments I first heard about, and met former members of, a strange Pacific War outfit and its links with Sydney (Australia), the US Army Small Ships Section. The legacy and memory of this outfit remained on the Sydney waterfront as part of a cultural memory, while forgotten or ignored elsewhere. Indeed the rallying point and meeting place for survivors of this outfit was, for a long time, a seafarers’ mission in the Sydney maritime precinct.

Life and work intervened and I was not able to follow the story up. However in 2009 at a seafarer’s funeral, I personally held and examined the American passport of (Captain) Sheridan Fahnestock, American adventurer, amateur anthropologist, that had enabled him to travel to  Australia in 1942 and open many doors. It was authorised by US Secretary for State Cordell Hull, and Fahnestock was described as being on ‘special duties’.  I resumed investigating……

In a sense this piece is not radical history, but it is an account of people who have, by and large, been written out of history, and it is an account of Australian warfare that does not easily mesh with traditional accounts of Australia at war. And it is an account of ordinary civilians caught up in the front lines of war, and their subsequent relegation to obscurity by authorities.  For those interested in this story, some of my sources are evident in this account; the best starting place otherwise is the splendid Australian online site dedicated to the outfit, the US Army Small Ships Association Incorporated. This should be backed up by reference to the trove of The Fahnestock South Sea Collection held by The American Folklife Center (US Library of Congress).

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