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Basil Helm


Basil Moffitt de Bohun Helm (1903-1996) was born in Sydney and went to sea at the age of 15, in 1919. He served his-four year apprenticeship with Burns Philp on the auxiliary sailing ship MAKOA, trading to Tonga and the west coast of America. As a junior officer he served in sailing ships in the Pacific Island region until 1925, when he went into steam ships. He served in various Australian coastal ships with Howard Smith Company until 1928 when he went back to Burns Philp. He served on several well known ships in their Main Line fleet, on the services between Australia and Papua, New Guinea and the Pacific Islands. At some point he gained his foreign-going square-rigged Master's Certificate (ie for sail and steam), No 0066, Commonwealth of Australia, issued in Sydney. (This certificate is not in the collection, but is referred to in a letter, without date.) In 1938 Burns Philp sent him to Scotland to attend the fitting out of their new liner M V BULOLO, and to return on the commissioning voyage as Chief Officer. His first command was MV MAIWARA in 1939, back in the Pacific Island routes. He brought his wife and two children from Sydney to live in Rabaul.

As World War II escalated, Helm evacuated a large number of expatriates in his ship MULIAMA. His family returned to Australia in separate ships. At this time Burns Philp ships were beginning to be requisitioned for naval and military purposes. Helm declined to join the RAN (according to his daughter he did not want to be told what to do) and instead applied to join the Queensland Coast and Torres Strait Pilot Service. By now he was exceedingly experienced and knowledgeable in navigation of the eastern coast of Australia, the Barrier Reef, and particularly the ports and waters of the Pacific Islands. In his letter of application in 1941 he wrote 'I was in command of a motor vessel of 700 tons for 18 months in the inter-island trade of Papua, Mandated Territory of New Guinea, Bougainville, Solomon Islands and know all the ports in those areas well. I have also been in command through the Torres Straits as far as Cook's Passage for about 8 months. I have been through and know well the following openings in the Barrier Reef....I hold pilotage exemptions for Sydney, Newcastle, Brisbane, Cairns, and a Compass Adjuster's Certificate.' He was accepted into the Queensland Coast and Torres Strait Pilot Service in October 1942.

Helm, like other Australian merchant seamen with experience in this region, provided valuable help as a pilot to USA naval and military officers, many of whom had been recruited in large numbers, had only basic training and no knowledge of the seas and islands where the most intense conflicts of the war against the Japanese took place. Furthermore, charts did not exist or contained little information for most of the inter-island routes and ports. Burns Philp masters knew the reefs, shoals, tides and weathers for the places and made their own charts. A large notebook in the collection contains hand-drawn charges for many of these areas.

After the war, Helm continued in the Torres Strait Pilot Service until he resigned in 1954 to make a new life as a grazier, at a property named 'Jillamatong' near Braidwood in New South Wales.