A Middle Class Man: An Autobiography

Chapter 25

There were times when we received signals that took us into uninhabited places where there were only primitive charts, causing us to report some islands several miles out of position. Minor dots on the charts designating the Group took on personality and intrigue as we explored them. I sometimes wonder whether the executive had any real purpose in sending us out on some of these searches, or whether it was just an agreeable way to keep us occupied. In all the long-range air-sea rescue missions we undertook, we never once saw an aircraft or heard of one coming down in our vicinity. In any case, it was very friendly of them to think of us at all. One afternoon just after lunch when we were tied up at Kitava eating paw paws, we received a signal that a hospital ship was sinking east of Woodlark Reef; we were directed to the scene of action. Our course lay between two small islands named Egum and Egap. We first skirted Kurawina and Kuralina, and then set out on a course that would take us between them at about two hours after midnight. The skipper and I were on the flying bridge from about 9 p.m. I was trying to look wise, and he was acting wise. He was a remarkable navigator, and we would all have gone go anywhere under his command with complete confidence. He had the chart set out before him, with only a pinprick of light, so that our eyes could penetrate the darkness. I watched him take a point-bearing from the stars and perform several other calculations beyond my comprehension. A little after midnight it was clear that we were close to land, so we proceeded at slow ahead. I could hear the waves breaking on the shore, and I smelled that the trees and the grass, which were very close. I kept peering out into the blackness because we could not use lights due to the possibility of alien intervention. I believed I could see the silhouette of Egam, the island that should have been on our starboard hand, looming dead-ahead. There was no moon, the stars lower down in the sky were being hidden by the steep land masses we were now right on top of, and it was inky black. I told the skipper I thought we should go to port to avoid a catastrophe, but he just said we should be in the middle of this two-hundred-yard passage. I looked and looked again until I was certain we were too far starboard, and repeated my fears. 'We should be in the middle', he repeated in a matter-of-fact manner, so I just said nothing and hoped for the best. About five minutes later, I felt the wind in my face and knew we were through. 'How did you do it?' I asked in genuine wonder. 'Well', he said, 'I had six methods of ascertaining my position. When four fell into line, I took no notice. But when the other two followed, I knew I must be pretty right'.

The coming day brought us to where the hospital ship was reported to be sinking, but we saw no sign of it. Even the reef on which it was supposed to be aground was not visible. We did notice two small, stationary vessels a mile to the south, but we presumed that they were also looking for our vanished rescue operation. We reported this information to base and were then told to proceed east to look for an aircraft reported missing. We soon left the other craft behind and out of sight as we set off on a week's adventure among uninhabited islands and uncharted reefs. We would sail around the island at close range, hoping to see the tail of a wrecked aircraft with its naked survivors cooking turtle soup on an open fire. We continued hopefully from point to point until sunset each day. The sea remained very calm, and the sense of being alone in the gathering dusk prompted us to become a spontaneous choir as we sat together in the wheelhouse. Most of the crew sang in tune the nostalgic songs we rendered, such as the 'Maori's Farewell', which made us think of home and family and vaguely wonder what we were doing out in this uninhabited quarter of the globe. We would anchor as it became dark, and start off again when daylight returned. George had left the ship the day before we set out; he was on an unofficial trip to Milne Bay to purchase cigarettes in quantity for our island trading customers. Supplies had fallen off, and anything in excess of our weekly ration had risen from about 15 pounds to 50 pounds a case. We expected him back the day after we left; instead we kept getting signals from various shore stations and aircraft that they had our leading seaman Sangster with them, and indicating his whereabouts. It was very peaceful with George elsewhere, because he was never happier than when he was setting us at variance with the skipper and representing himself as the peacemaking go-between. When I took over in his absence, we found his stories to be without merit, and the long-hoped-for seaboard fraternity did become a reality. As we approached one small island, the skipper called for a volunteer to swim ashore to save us having to lower the ship's boat. It was very hot on deck, and despite the fact that I had a phobia about sharks I assented, kicked off my khaki underpants, and dived in within a few seconds. As I approached the shore with the light wind blowing from behind, my eyes, open under water, took in the fairyland gardens of coral and the tiny blue fish that inhabited them. Every childhood recollection of tropical islands flooded back, and I seemed to cover the one hundred yards in an instant. As I climbed ashore I noticed the yellow rocks I had to step between, smooth and polished by the restless sea. I waved to those on board as I stepped into a division between the main rock formation that formed the island, and then set off along the two hundred yards that led to its extremity. Once out of sight of the ship and on the lee side of the island, I was suddenly gripped by an intense fear that I had been cast away and left to die of thirst and melancholia. I forced myself along the sand because I could see some wreckage further on, but it turned out to be useless flottsom and jetsom. My loneliness reached its high point when I found the shell of a great tortoise lying across my path. Its outer shell was, of course, a trade commodity. It was prized by Australian servicemen in the manufacture of 'doovers', which they made in an effort to turn their weary hours to some useful purpose. The unearthly rasping cry the tortoise made as it came off the shell it had been part of for a century was evocative of the sound of a crusty lock being turned in a medieval sepulchre. I hurried back to where I had landed and waved to the crew, who could now see me - and that I was on my back. It was no longer dreamy and still because the light wind ruffling the waters was now blowing into my face. I waved to show the tortoise shell, gesturing for them to come as close as possible because it would not be easy for me to carry it while swimming, and then stepped back into the sea. I slipped and cut myself on the coral, which is often poisonous, and even the lukewarm water felt dark and chilled. As I struck out towards the ship, I started thinking I saw sharks swimming towards me with every wave. I soon let the tortoise shell go and set out, determined to die gallantly as I was ripped limb from limb by the marauders of the sea I so much feared. I tried to swim as fast and effectively as possible, expecting every stroke to be my last. Eventually I drew close to the ship and grabbed the ring of the anchor with one final effort and stuck there, waiting to lose a leg. A few moments later big Harry Spratt leaned over the side, grabbed my free arm, and hauled me on board. I was so relieved - my sentence of execution by shark bite had been commuted to merely stretching out on the deck - that I did not notice what the others might have been thinking. It was months before anyone told me that the moment I stepped back into the water, they turned the ship and started heading out to sea; it was as if my fears of being marooned had been telepathised to them. Most of the jokes amongst crew members were of this nature. No one who was in the know let on, nor did the one who was the victim. We were all in such close confinement with one another that we read each other's thoughts automatically. The sardonic enjoyment of another's discomfort provided additional pleasure when it wasn't mentioned and when he wasn't certain whether it was intentional or not.

It was impossible to think of a freer existence than that of chugging around small, romantic islands and coming upon odd atolls inhabited by a hundred natives living in a truly primitive state and cut off, by the war, from those living within fifty miles of them. These natives had skillfully made ocean-going outrigger canoes that consisted of three long boards on each side painstakingly hewn from the hearts of trees, but they were afraid to take them far in wartime. The side of each canoe consisted of boards over one inch thick and a foot wide, joined together with vines lashed through holes drilled through them and packed with mud. They were remarkably seaworthy and could accommodate about thirty men. The inhabitants' delight at seeing us was so affecting, and it gave us a deeper understanding of the precarious nature of our own lives.

Most of our daily adventures were usually filled with humour. There were the excursions we made to Salamo to buy out natives who were returning from their annual fair laden with grass skirts, baskets, and all the other native accessories for which we found such a good sale to American GIs. The Martindale, with a dozen grass skirts hung up on deck, would take on the appearance of a floating bazaar. We would come alongside a jetty and wait, watching our clients as they drifted towards us one by one in a state of studied indifference. They would be invited on board, and wouldn't ever refer to our wares. Sometimes they would even suggest they had sent home dozens of grass skirts and that nothing was further from their minds than making further purchases. This would be George's cue to exercise his exceptional gift of exaggeration to make a sale. He would explain how good this or that skirt was and how he had practically snatched it off the otherwise naked body of a Melanesian princess; and he would wrap it around himself and add a few actions for effect. Then quite suddenly he would name a price of five dollars for one, eight dollars for two, and ten dollars for three. The money would change hands, and the market was open for business. There were times when we would sell more than forty skirts in two hours and, as a final gesture, sell the remaining two wrapped around a bottle of beer as we left the jetty.

Trading was quite exhausting work because we were always going up on deck or returning below for further supplies. I found myself getting weaker and subject to carbuncles from time to time, which could put me in hospital for a few days; but such was my ill-gotten reputation as an engineer that they waited for me until I recovered. Malaria was the great scourge of the soldiers on land, but it was much rarer at sea. We all took daily doses of quinine, which turned our skins as yellow as saffron. We were to learn later that the medicine did not actually prevent malaria, it would merely inhibit its full effects until we left the tropics and stopped taking it. The permanent sense of tiredness was called 'tropical fatigue', and it made our daily rounds much more difficult.

On one occasion, we went to sea at dawn on a short trip where we all took one-hour turns on the wheel. I attended the engines; when they were set, I went into the Saloon hoping things would remain calm enough for me to get some breakfast. I knew I was not due on the wheel for hours, and I did not worry about who was. At eight o'clock Ross, the telegraphist, went up to the wheelhouse on a routine listen-out and signal-sending. Within a minute the swing doors that led to the wheelhouse via the engine room burst open, and the body of Don - who with his curly black hair and dark skin looked like an ancient Assyrian warrior - was propelled towards us horizontally, four feet above the deck; his hands were stretched out in front of him - and directed at George's throat. George saw his own predicament in a flash and started to talk fast; but no sound came out of his mouth because Don's hands were fastened round his throat in a grip of death. Don was a quiet crew member in general, but his cursing and abuse on this occasion spelt nothing less than instant death. George had been pushed onto his back, and he closed his eyes because he was unable to breathe. Some of the crew thought I should get the skipper, but I was quite calm as I watched George get his 'comeuppance'. Don relaxed his grip slightly when he saw him starting to turn blue, and after about half a minute George cautiously opened one eye. This prompted yet another attack on his already bruised neck. Don relinquished his grip gradually, and after a suitable pause George's torso slowly appeared above the table once more; we could all see the beginning of a black eye. He started to talk, but he did not ask Don what the matter was, because he so well knew: it was George's trick on the wheel when we cast off at six o'clock. He had seen Don go past after having tidied up the deck and asked him to take the wheel for a couple of minutes while he went below. Two hours later Don was still waiting at the wheel; the first person who appeared and could relieve him was Ross. George's feckless behaviour was so contrary to Don's own consideration of his fellow mates that it tore Don apart, and George received the treatment he deserved.

There were countless incidents that coloured our shipboard experience, but one in particular finally led to me going on draft. We anchored off an island that had an RAAF station somewhere inland. We called them up and the skipper arranged to dine with some of the officers. We had been at sea and were tired, so we arranged to sleep on deck and get to bed early. At about midnight, we were awakened by the jeep bringing the skipper back to the dinghy he had left on shore. We could hear him talking with two RAAF officers in tones that could mean only one thing to us: the three of them had imbibed fairly copiously. The air-force officers were offering to go out to the Martindale to get some of the skipper's liquor supply. It was a still warm night, and the voices came over the water as if they were only a few yards away. I determined to send them packing the moment they arrived: the hour was late, and we were very tired. They called out 'Martindale, Ahoy', 'Turn to starboard', and other gauche remarks; as they came alongside, I bluntly told them to go home. They were full of apologies and rowed back to shore, said goodbye to the Skipper, and set off for their station. The skipper turned his attention to us and started shouting 'Martindale!' at the top of his lungs. I responded by getting up, starting the main engine, and putting on some lights. I went up to the bridge and turned on the searchlight to reveal our irate skipper, waving his arms wildly in the air. I turned the light onto the dinghy, then turned it out, turned the motor off, and went back to bed. The next thing we heard was the sound of the oars in their rowlocks, sounding clear and sharp and approaching us at full speed. The skipper immediately asked who had turned on the motor and the searchlight. I acknowledged my guilt. 'Why did you do it?' he demanded. I could not say that it was revenge for the way he treated me in front of other officers - even though both of us knew it was simply his ignorance of how to handle me - so I lied and said, 'I thought you were calling us because the dinghy was adrift, and I was looking for it for you'. 'Oh', he said, and then clamboured on board and disappeared into the stateroom; he was not seen again until late the next day. We returned to base a day later, and I discovered I was on draft. Ross told me he had sent signals to the officer-in-charge of our operations in Milne Bay. I did not feel any regret at leaving the ship, because I had become very exhausted, especially as the sick bay had not yet been able to get a positive malarial blood slide on me. All I wanted was somewhere to sleep for a long time.


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