Stamps commemorate the 1948 Wyatt Earp Expedition

Australia Post released the long awaited HMAS Wyatt Earp Australian Antarctic Territory (AAT) stamps in March, correcting the omission of the ship from their earlier 1979–82 AAT definitive’ Ships of the Antarctic’ series.

The HMAS Wyatt Earp holds the proud distinction of being the first Royal Australian Navy (RAN) commissioned ship to have sailed to Antarctica, and the only RAN ship that has ever ventured to the continent.

The three-stamp issue depicts, among other things, the Wyatt Earp with her orange painted superstructure and black hull, the ship moored in the sea ice in the vicinity of Commonwealth Bay, and the gold coloured Vought-Kingfisher float plane that was carried on board, in flight over ice strewn seas, piloted by RAAF Squadron Leader Gray with Observer, Jones.

The stamps reflect the ship’s Norwegian origin, being designed by the celebrated Norwegian engraver Martin Mörck using traditional intaglio techniques and offset printing – this was undertaken by the French specialty stamp printing company, Cantor.

The 1948 Antarctic voyage of the HMAS Wyatt Earp was the result of geopolitical tensions and national interests in the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic, which emerged after the Second World War. It motivated the Australian Government of the time to establish a presence across the Australian Antarctic Territory, and stations on the sub-Antarctic Heard and Macquarie islands.

The Wyatt Earp’s proposed voyage was to travel along the coastal length of the AAT, then arrive at the recently built station on Heard Island. It would then voyage to the Isles de Kerguelen for refuelling, before returning to Melbourne. The proposed voyage proved to be beyond the sailing capabilities of the ship, having left Australia in January 1948 – too late for such an enormous and hazardous sea ice voyage during the closing months of the Antarctic summer.

There is an interesting epilogue to the naming of the ship during her costly refit at the Birkenhead Naval dockyard in South Australia in 1947. After her launch in Norway as MS Fanefjord in 1919, the ship was subsequently purchased by American adventurer Lincoln Ellsworth, and renamed Wyatt Earp after the American Wild West gunslinger of the same name. After a series of successful voyages to West and East Antarctica, the ship was bought by the RAN and subsequently named HMAS Wongala and later, SSTS Wongala (see Australian Antarctic Magazine 26: 28-29, 2019).

With a new Antarctic voyage imminent, RAN Commander Karl Oom proposed to the Naval Board that the ship be re-named HMAS Wyatt Earp, given that she had achieved international fame and a reputation for Antarctic exploration under that name. The Naval Board agreed and announced the name at the ship’s formal commissioning ceremony on 17 November 1947.

An old sailor’s superstition suggests that if you change the name of a ship you change her luck. The Wyatt Earp had seven names during her 40 years of service. Her luck finally ran out after she became the Natone in 1956, with her wreck on the Queensland coast in January 1959.

David Dodd