A Middle Class Man: An Autobiography

Chapter 26

I returned to Milne Bay by air and was drafted onto the Amohinie, a craft over twenty-five metres in length that was being refitted for duty in Dutch New Guinea - an active war zone. Its crew had been idle for months, and the whole scene was one of dirt and decline. Fred Appleford, the coxswain, was in charge. I knew him well because he was from Melbourne. His slow speaking voice concealed a logical mind. He confided to me that ever since the Amohinie had been tied up, he had been in the jungle-juice business. His manufacturing methods were simple, but when he was distilling his brew the odour was detectable by standard smelling equipment for one hundred yards in all directions. Fred introduced me to the enormous foc'sle area of the ship, where I was nearly asphyxiated by the stench of humid, rotting vegetable matter. He kept his stock in a kerosene tin, and when he thought the juice was ready, he would place it in the ship's stove, where he had a small copper pipe readied. He had extended the pipe into a nearby cupboard, and from there it dripped the distilled brew into a bottle.

Jungle juice was primarily an American commodity because it was quite expensive and we just could not afford to buy it it. Fred would arm himself with a couple of bottles and then venture out under cover of darkness in search of customers. A few days after my arrival, a pompous new skipper arrived to take command. He had few, if any, of the seamanlike qualities of our old skipper. The first thing he did was lose part of the sextant he was training overboard with while we were tied up to the wharf. His one redeeming feature was that he swiftly declared war on the Amohinie's rats and cockroaches - although it was old Fred who actually devised the strategy - a trap that would catch three prime rats at a time. It would go off with a clunk as its lead-weighted shutter fell at roughly two-hour intervals; after three nights, the rat plague disappeared as they were lowered, one by one, over the side to drown. I quickly realised how efficient a craft the Martindale had been - as soon as I took over the Amohinie's motors. It took weeks to get her mobile, and she blew up again on her first trial. I, too, became unseaworthy and was sent to the hospital, six miles up in the mountains. Once I was discharged, I was pleased to discover the Amohinie had already left for the fighting zone without me. I was drafted onto the Stingray, which was the pilot ship for Milne Bay and the hospital ship for the war-weary, overworked crews of the NAP squadron. The war had lost its impetus. It had been a waiting game: waiting for the Germans to surrender, the Japanese to be defeated, or old age and disease to bring about a discharge - whichever came first. The pilot station was on a tiny island near the top of Milne Bay called Lau Lau. The effluxion of time had wrought a variety of amenities that helped us pass the weeks in feckless indolence. It was the dry season, which meant that each day the temperature was about ninety degrees, and each night only a degree or two lower. There was a primitive, shark-proof swimming pool that we'd dive into every half hour, but as the water's temperature was only two degrees lower than the air's, it was a fairly academic exercise. Our duties, which were minimal, included taking the pilots down to the entrance to Milne every day or so in a fast-duty boat and making a trip to the naval depot three times a week for stores. As engineer, I was in control of the jeep; this allowed me to explore the whole area on my own and escape the dreary conversations most of the crew indulged in to relieve the boredom. I realised how trapped most of the men must have felt during this time: here I was, free to make colourful trading excursions and cruise about on my own adventures. There were movies shown on the mainland every night, and we all went to see them. We resurrected an old open boat that had a putt-putt engine; we used it to ferry us from our island to the open-air screenings after dark. The journey was fraught with many risks because our boat was always packed to the gunwales. It also took on a lot of water and was always in danger of sinking halfway through our trip. The other hazards included the fast, motorised lifeboats from American ships that appeared out of nowhere in the darkness and would often nearly run us down. Our only defence was a hurricane lamp, which we urgently swung over our heads to signal our presence. This made me conscious of how pathetic we must have seemed to our allies, who always seemed to have equipment that functioned well. On our return to Lau Lau after watching Betty Grable's legs for a couple of hours, we would console ourselves in a great, open-sided barn building that housed a kerosene refrigerator, some bread and butter, and very little else. We would comfort ourselves with cheese-and-onion dogwoods, and then return to do it all over again the next day.

The war in Europe was gradually coming to an end. The second front was nearing its crisis point as the Allies approached the Rhine and the Germans responded with flying bombs. We received a daily news-sheet of the position, which made us feel even more remote than we had back in Australia. The war had passed us by, and we all wanted to get it over with; but the Japanese still posed a formidable problem because they would rather die than surrender. We knew that the Americans were getting close to the Japanese mainland, but there were still fifty thousand of them in New Britain alone. From Milne Bay, we felt the Pacific war would continue for years: we would be going home for leave after eighteen months' service, but we would be back soon enough.

We eventually heard that NAP personnel were being discharged in Australia because they were no longer necessary, but those in New Guinea were to be transferred to general service because of their experience. There would be a new medical examination, and only those who were genuinely unfit would be released. We waited with apprehension for the great chance of liberation to eventuate. I had been well below my normal physical condition for months; as I carefully counted all the visits I'd made to the sick bay and hospital, I felt there was a fair chance I would be discharged. But when I went for the examination, the joy of possible discharge got my adrenalin racing: I momentarily felt well instead of morbid and distressed. When I was asked how I felt, I answered that I had been a bit off, but that I now felt much better. As I responded, I wanted to cut out my tongue, especially since I knew how arduously some of the crew had been rehearsing their answers. I had spoilt what chance I might have had by appearing anxious to continue in the service. All the ships' crews were examined except the Tangalooma's (which was on the Trobriand Islands station), and it had been announced that those who were to be discharged would not know their fate until the signal came up from the navy office in Melbourne. I made another trip to the hospital about two weeks after our medical examination. I could feel that the building's usefulness would end in less than a year, and it was hard to remain optimistic in these circumstances. The hospital was a simple tropical structure of thatched palm roof, and split-bamboo walls that started a foot above the floor and terminated at six feet; this left the remainder open to the elements. It was essential to sleep in a mosquito net at night in order to avoid malaria, which I now felt certain I had contracted despite the fact that the doctors were unable to obtain a positive bloodslide. I sank back into the luxury of a sleep free from the struggle of having to battle on-board HMAS Stingray - despite its light duties. I was awakened in the morning and told the sister was making her rounds. Female sisters were a great rarity, and in fact we had not seen a white female since we'd left Australia. There were two new patients brought in overnight following a jeep accident. They were from a permanent New Guinea Administrative Unit. One of them had an enormous face and body, and his feet stuck out a foot beyond the bed like great railway buffers. When the sister saw him, she thought he was some sort of prehistoric joke. He was seven feet four inches in height and was employed as a cook. After she recovered her equilibrium she went on to his companion, who was barely able to stop laughing himself. 'And what's your name?' she asked, trying to regain her composure as she avoided the great railway buffers. 'Angelo, Michael Angelo, Sister', he replied. 'That's Italian, isn't it?' she asked unbelievingly, because we were still at war with Italy. 'Are you Italian?' 'Yes, Sister', he said. 'What part do you come from?' she asked. 'From the south, Sister, right down near the toe'. Michael Angelo's face turned a little purple in his attempt to remain serious as he spoke. The sister's round finished quickly, and she made an undignified exit. The patients watched her go with impassive faces that concealed their amusement. The giant cook was discharged in a few days, and Michael Angelo and I stayed on and became great friends. I laughed so much over our hospital escapades that I seemed to grow weaker by the day rather than stronger. Michael Angelo was of Irish descent, and his name actually was what he had said it was. He had spent many years in New Guinea, and he treated the natives as if they were sub-human. His whole life appeared to revolve around whisky and schoolboy games, but he had a quixotic sense of humour that turned hospital life into a great 'Empire lark'. The day before I was discharged to report back to the Stingray, I heard that the doctor had returned from the Trobriands, which meant that all of our squadron members would have been medically examined and that their individual fates would now be in the hands of the NAP executive officer, to whom I had to report before going on board. Every nerve of my body and mind was bent on settling the issue once and for all. It was common knowledge that of the forty-four members comprising the crews of the six craft in New Guinea, eleven were unfit. The dark secret was, which ones? As we were the only really experienced personnel, we knew that they would retain whomever they could to the end.

I arrived at the executive's office to find him not there, so I went outside to see whether I could spot his head and shoulders moving among the hundred naval clerks and officers the half-height bamboo walls made it impossible to see at the one time. My dit-gathering days at Port Melbourne convinced me that the information I sought would be somewhere in that office. I had another good look around the outside for him, and then returned and started a systematic search through every paper and document. It was soon clear this would be no easy task. The executive officer had also been trained at Port Melbourne and may very possibly have been the NAP office-cleaner in his training days. Every two or three minutes I made another scan of the sea of faces outside, but his was not among them. My heart was racing because I knew that if I were to be discovered, my actions would be taken seriously. In a few minutes I had examined every file and paper in sight and was about to give up when I saw a thick block of files in a corner, carefully concealed. I leapt on it, realising that it contained the health and hopes of every NAP volunteer in New Guinea. I opened the first file, noted the name of the ship, and started going through the report. I found that, regardless of any illness or disability, there was a column on the right-hand side which was marked simply either F or U. F stood for 'fit', U for 'unfit'. Nothing else mattered. I raced through the first three ships' company files noting the 'unfit' members until I came to HMAS Stingray. My eyes could barely focus on the page. Freedom hung on one letter. I was so sure I had messed up my opportunities at the physical exam that I looked for F beside my name; but when I saw it was U and that I would soon be emancipated, I almost threw all the records up in the air and walked out. Common sense restrained me, though, and I remained calm enough to continue until I had confirmed each mate's status. I put the file back, hurried outside in a state of intense exhilaration, and ran down to the jetty - where I thought the ship was probably tied up - to inform the men of their futures. To my amazement, not only was the crew of the Stingray there, but that of every other patrol boat except the Tangalooma at the Trobriands station. Most of the men were lolling around on the deck, and when they caught sight of my excited appearance they knew something important was afoot. 'I know who's fit and who's unfit', I shouted, and they arose as one man and said, 'Who?' I reached the first ship and pointed at each member individually: 'Fit, fit, fit, unfit, fit, fit', I stated with an exhilarating sense of power. It was by far the greatest dit in NAP history, and no one doubted its veracity because this kind of thing had always been my specialty. Within a minute, every person knew his official classification: either he would be discharged, or transferred to general service. The reaction was galvanic. Those who were declared unfit began to leap up and down, demented with joy; and those who were 'fit' groaned and pointed out sores on their bodies, or patches of dermatitis, tying to look as though they were suffering from an advanced case of leprosy. When the excitement had died down, we started to discuss our futures, as though they we going to begin the very next day; but nothing was to happen for still another month.

The Stingray was sent out on tours of Milne Bay and the surrounding areas to keep us from dying of boredom. The new skipper asked me to organise a trading group to make our time profitable. I had each crew member write home to request packets of dye, which we would sell to the natives in return for one grass skirt; they could then make skirts for their own purposes with the balance.

The skipper was a young blonde South Australian. He was quite adequate in his duties and had an obsession for fresh fruit, especially watermelons - which were fairly hard to come by at the time. Our trading areas with the Yanks were limited to the roads that ran along each side of the bay. Our tactic was to come alongside one of the many jetties available, hang out grass skirts and other native goods, and wait. The grass-skirt season had long since passed, and our general stock had a somewhat secondhand look about it that failed to stop the passing American trucks. The skipper had specifically stated that the watermelons were not for sale. They were strictly for anti-scorbutic use, as if we were the successors of Captain Cook and likely to be stricken with scurvy at any moment. As soon as he would go below we would cut open a melon, eat some of it, and throw the rind into the middle of the road. The response was as dramatic as it was instantaneous. The next truck would approach us at about one hundred kilometres per hour; but as soon as the watermelon skin was sighted, there would be a violent screeching of brakes, the vehicle would skid to a swaying halt, and three or four GIs would jump out, come over to us, and ask whether we had any melons for sale. We would uncover our stock, explain our predicament, and sell them a melon: but they would also have to purchase a grass skirt. The lure of the watermelon is something that should be written into the history of the United States. Its effect reached its zenith if the GIs were black. One felt its power may possibly have affected the course of the Civil War.

We made a weekly circuit of the area which included Samarai, a small island near the entrance that had once been the summer capital of Papua. It was deserted except for one Angau sergeant who had been living too long in the tropics and occupied the basement of the only inhabited house. He was waited on by a couple of native servants at mealtime at a large round table with half a dozen cats sitting on chairs around him. He would wander down to the jetty every day and stare intently into the distance at Milne Bay. He would explain that he was waiting for his relief to come so that he could go south on leave. When I saw him do this during two of my weekly visits, I thought the tropics must have got to him altogether - until he told me that the name of his relief was Michael Angelo, who had last been heard of a week earlier attending a farewell party. I do not know whether he ever turned up, but the last time we left Samarai the 'troppo' Angau sergeant was still waiting and gazing up Milne Bay with a pale and forlorn face.

26

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