Despite being 94 at the time, the person known as “Sully” to his friends and acquaintances within and outside the crane industry probably surprised many with his mortality. He had survived the vices that claim lesser mortals for so long that many probably thought he was bulletproof, writes Greg Keane.
Born Ron O’Sullivan, he pushed the boundaries by signing up to fight in WWII as a 16-year-old (NOT his declared age). When his parents found out, they fought to have him discharged as in their eyes he was too young to go to war.
Undaunted, a little while later Ron caught a train to Queensland where he enlisted as a 17-year-old under an assumed name. Not having thought of a name, he saw a Vaughan’s Transport truck driving past when he was asked his name and joined as Ron Vaughan. He was almost brought undone when asked to spell his surname – Ron was many things but academic was not one of them!
He was posted overseas to Alexandria where, fearing that his deception was catching up with him, he volunteered for a posting to Greece, where he was captured by the Germans. Despite escaping four times, he was treated relatively well because of his youth.
He returned to Australia and re-enlisted, but under his real name. His service record is unusual in that he had three enlistment numbers, but remained a private in all of them – perhaps a “tell” for his unwillingness to blindly follow authority in later life.
In civilian life, Ron worked as a crane operator at the Commonwealth Handling Equipment Pool depot in Albion (Brisbane), and was one of the few remaining people to have worked for both CHEP and Brambles, which bought CHEP operations from the Australian government in 1958 as part of a syndicate with Dickson Primer (Consolidated) Ltd, Breckett Pty Ltd and Development Finance Corporation Pty Ltd. Later that year, Brambles bought out its partners.
The cranes, forklifts and pallets that US forces brought to Australia for stores handling during the War exposed Australia’s deficiencies in materials handling capabilities, and the government took these over after the war and hired them to industry when the equipment would otherwise have been destroyed.
Ron rose through supervision to management in Brambles’ Queensland operations, and was instrumental in establishing branches in Gladstone, Mackay and Townsville, coinciding with the start of a resources boom.
He was a strong supporter of Kato truck cranes with locally manufactured carriers using Mack drivetrains, making them capable of maintaining highway speed limits: a benefit when there weren’t many cranes in regional areas.
However, he pushed the other end of spectrum when he bought a Manitowoc 4600 crawler crane – the largest in Australia at the time. This was built up in a paddock at Murrarie (Brisbane) and demonstrated lifting a 150t Manitowoc crawler and a Cat 988 wheel loader (not at the same time, though he was probably tempted!). A keen photographer, Sully rode the boom to get aerial pics of the lifts.
In some respects, the 4600 was probably too large for the market but it did service at Yallourn Power Station and worked from a barge using a clamshell to dig the trench for the North West Shelf gas pipeline.
The Sully box was a creature of its time, being a man box with 180° slew fitted to the fly jib attachment points of a 50t crane. This was at a time when the largest platform had a height of 80ft (25m) so the Sully box provided a safe means of accessing greater heights. The first football broadcast in Australia using aerial vision is believed to have been made from a Sully box. A later variant could be attached to the end of the fly jib to gain additional height.
Whether as a reaction to his wartime experience or for other reasons, Sully loved getting away to spend time in the desert, taking with him his Toyota Landcruiser and trailer, a swag and a pet cattle dog. It wasn’t a solitary experience – Sully was well known at the Birdsville Hotel and made an impact wherever he went. His custom hollow bull bar, with separate tanks for storage of beer, rum and scotch, and taps to discharge each into waiting cups, was the stuff of legends.
He enjoyed sharing the desert experience, as Dennis Fernan recalls. Dennis worked with Sully for many years and was often Sully’s “go to man” when there was a challenge to beat into submission. When a permit to take a GCI trailer-mounted tower crane through NSW could not be obtained despite Sully’s belligerence, he resorted to “Plan B” – taking the GCI from Renmark to the Birdsville track and into Queensland the back way, with a Ford F100 as escort.
Sully’s instructions were to drive to Maree and then wait for him to arrive – he thought that Dennis would get lost if he tried to go through to Birdsville without Sully’s local knowledge.
Dennis waited five days until Sully turned up in his Landcruiser, along with the supply of tyres that was asked for as there had been 40 punctures on the trip to Maree and the tyres were almost bald.
The hard yards then began. On average, it took 12 tries before the GCI could climb each sand dune. The dolly was chained to the trailer as it created drag if left at ground level. Driving conditions actually improved after some rain during the journey. The trip along the Birdsville Track took three months, but the fun wasn’t over as Sully decided to stand the tower up at Birdsville. A ram was bent in the attempt (later diagnosed as caused by dust entering a seal). Some quick thinking was required to provide a plausible explanation for the damage.
Crane travel and damage seemed to follow Sully – the boom of the Manitowoc 4600 was damaged when it was being loaded on a ship for transport to Karratha for the North West Shelf job. As a host of dignitaries would be there to greet the ship, a damaged crane was not an option.
Sully got his favourite fall guy, Dennis Fernan, to fly to Cairns, get hold of a welder and meet the ship off the coast of Cairns. He took replacement boom lacing with him, found the welder at NQEA, chartered a deep sea fishing boat, climbed a rope ladder onto the ship and helped the welder repair the boom before the ship reached port. A secondary mission was to remove a sign Sully had ordered to be painted on the crane to honour former manager Jack Robbie.
Sully was many things, but he wasn’t dull – he was a lovable larrikin to many. He had his idiosyncrasies, such as personally testing each prospective operator and visiting every site before sending a crane out, but he was regarded as a straight shooter who gave you a fair go.
It is a mark of the regard in which he was held that when Alzheimers started to take hold in later life and his family was worried that he would get lost when visiting the desert, Sully was offered a free room at the Birdsville Hotel and the local policeman kept track of him and his vehicle keys while he was there. That same policeman was among the 200 people who celebrated his life in a wake at the Rathdowney Hotel, which was his favourite haunt in later life.