A Middle Class Man: An Autobiography, Chapter 24: Martindale Trading Company (No Liability)

Chapter 24: Martindale Trading Company (No Liability)

Author: Alistair Knox

Most Australians regarded New Guinea as the centre of our theatre of war in 1943. Some months earlier, Milne Bay had been under intense threat from Japanese invasion. The extreme southwestern Nipponese advance had been halted on the Milne Bay airstrip. We first sighted Papua near the China Straits, the entry to the twenty-three-mile long Milne Bay. Papua consists of small pointed rock islands rising sheer out of the sea - very Chinese indeed. We proceeded past these physical interpolations, with the outgoing tide running against us at over six knots. We had ample time to examine them as they went by at only two knots. It took us several hours to pass Mei Mei Ara at the official entrance to the bay, and it grew dark as we steamed along its main course. Instead of finding everything blacked out, we saw the whole sky lit up with electric-welding-arc lighting as a hundred welders repaired the enemy damage in apparent safety. The war was moving north again!

First thing next morning, we received visitors from other NAP craft. They all wanted to sell us articles of American service clothing - especially khaki underpants and singlets, which we quickly guessed were the general rig of the day. American cigarettes were also cheap and in good supply, so that in less than thirty-six hours we were looking more Yankee than Australian and feeling symptoms of exhaustion and battle-weariness a thousand miles from the front. Winning the war involved more than shooting. The battleground on which the Japanese had been halted less than a year ago was now the gambling capital of the world, where many thousands were lost and won each Sunday afternoon.

The officer-in-charge of the NAP operations north of Australia informed us that he would take us on a tour of our various stations to accustom us to our operations and, of course, to assist him privately in the gathering of native carvings - a basic commodity in the private war,< id="trading"> 'the trade war'. The day before we left, a rifle had been stolen from another NAP craft; it was then that we discovered that the officer-in-charge of a ship was responsible for it and for everything and everyone else on board. Our skipper's reaction was extreme. He tried to impose on his gallant crew the discipline normally required only for a cruiser and upwards. My experience as a depot stanchion rebelled against such draconian and unenforceable regulations being imposed in our cavalier circumstances. We were all ordered to take watch as quartermasters and to administer all movements over the ship's gangplank, all in an attempt to make us responsible for any thefts or irregularities. Our hoped-for 'new deal' inaugurated at Townsville had become very much a dead letter. I also recalled how Jock and Joe had made Williamstown a home away from home with intelligent rule-bending that a matelot would not abuse. Common sense was the key to gaining loyalty in our sort of Dad's Navy. On the day we set off on our tour of forward stations, I decided to play it by regulation. I donned a cap, hung the bosun's pipe around my neck, wandered round the ship calling all the pipes 'Hands to dinner, after watch fall in' and the hundred others it was impossible to implement. The new rules lasted about four hours and were never heard of again. We discovered how naval ratings had obtained their rights in the Royal Navy: at a price paid by hundred-lash floggings. When we then thought about our own relatively carefree life aboard ship, we also discovered how secure we were in the service if we just kept within the rules. Nelson became the greatest liberator of the humble Jack Tar when he articulated, 'Behind the Mast the more quality. Before the mast the better man'. We also learnt that Captain James Cook, the great Prince of Navigators, served for years in the Royal Navy as an able seaman and would not accept promotion. It became possible to see how national destinies are, in the final analysis, the result of the careers and lives of special individuals who can see beyond the immediate. The apostle Peter put it perfectly when he started speaking to Cornelius, the Roman centurion: 'Of a truth I perceive that God is no respector of persons; but in every nation he that feareth Him and worketh righteousness, is accepted with Him'. And Paul's statement 'The letter killeth but the spirit gives life' speaks to the same end. The first night out was one of tropical magic and a mission. Harmonious gospel-singing in the firelight under a full moon, along with bananas served from banana leaf-trays, immediately emphasised the difference that existed - between, on the one hand, stone-age man accepted into modern society before he has had a chance to be ingrained with its greed and personal ambition, and, on the other hand, the society that even the Martindale had been called upon to protect. We sailed for two more weeks, which included an overnight visit to the matriarchal society of the Trobriand Islands, set midway between Papua and New Britain.

Foreground L to R Don Deasey, Alistair Knox with the Martindale in the background

Trade had already become our main topic of conversation, and it was decided that those odd crew members who hoped to make a killing with a few odd packets of needles and the like trade them privately, but that from henceforth the Martindale Trading Company (No Liability) be formed and that we all work unitedly to a common end. George immediately came into his own. As an insurance agent, he could name all the strategies and set out all the targets. Our combined efforts got off to a wonderful start when, with much trepidation, we were persuaded to buy some boxes of betel nut to sell in the Trobriands by some RAF personnel who could not get there themselves. Contact was made with a chieftain, and some of the crew set out at night to trade. The price was set at twopence a nut, and in less than three hours our supplies were exhausted and over £100 had been made - a sum beyond our imagining. We now saw the war in a very different light. Our great advantage was our continual movement at sea within a short circuit. It kept us in frequent communication with the wealthy Americans and the natives with whom they had been dealing. In a short time, we would become a junior 'McHale's Navy'. We didn't carry torpedoes like that infamous P.T. boat of TV fame, but all other social and wartime opportunities were there.

The skipper's great navigational skills were called into play as we threaded our way through narrow waters in order to gain a few hours for indulging in our illegal trading passion. I fitted an auxiliary engine we found on a tip to the second dinghy that already had a mounting and the other requirements necessary for this new form of adventure. We would study our charts to locate native villages on the coast, and then send our No. 1 trader George Sangster and one of the other crew members off for the day while we did our legitimate jobs. We would locate our position by using visual natural features on adjacent islands, and then leave them to their trading fate.

The dinghy was always set ready for business. It could be lowered at a moment's notice. A drum of kerosene, taken from the ship's supplies and fitted with a tap, was applied on the bow for easy distribution. Amidships was a wide variety of goods arranged in boxes designed to attract the local inhabitants intent on turning their American dollars into useable commodities. The Papuans had not yet fully learnt the power of the greenback and when we first offered cigarettes, flour, rice, meat, and vegetables and all the other goods we negotiated from stores, they were hesitant. Our personal embarrassment was the great quantities of silver we acquired and found it hard to dispose of. George hit on the idea of changing their notes into silver, and immediately we found ourselves with a dwindled silver supply and an increasing bundle of pounds and dollars that always smelt of natives and palm oil. Then they would begin to trade, and we would sail away with both the notes and the silver. Every third or fourth day, we would hold a directors' meeting to declare a dividend.

Directors' meetings were conducted with official solemnity at the conclusion of a meal we would have in some secluded topical haven after a two- or three-day duty run. The prevailing southeasterly trade winds caused high, short seas that made it almost impossible to cook while under weigh. Eating tinned meat, pumpkin, onions, peas, beans, and other vegetables in plentiful quantities satisfied the great hunger of having starved at sea. Quantity took precedence over quality. After Keith Collison was sent south with dermatitis, we all took our turn at cooking; before long, Don and I, who really liked it, became the mainstays of the culinary arts. We prided ourselves on having great messes of steaming-hot food ready the moment we dropped anchor. We would order the return to base in the lee of an island, which enabled us to throw a dozen empty tins into the sea through the galley skylight and leave a wake behind us that advertised the menu for the day. As soon as the engine stopped, the silence would be broken by the stampede of bare feet on the teakwood decks, racing for the aft companionway. Bronzed figures wearing nothing except khaki underpants would burst in and take their prepared places to consume these mountains of naval provender. Beer would come out of the lockers, and verbal silence took over until mortal men could eat no more. Don and I did not drink at this stage, and the others would offer us a £1 for the bottle of beer we received in the form of a weekly ration for two shillings and sixpence. Our inevitable answer was, 'You can have the beer free if you give us a pound note in exchange for twenty shillings of silver'. Their cries of 'Shame!' and 'Shylock!' moved us not one whit. We could send notes down south in letters, but silver was a weighty giveaway, and only the increasing thirst of the drinkers caused them to cave in. The meal would always conclude with the best Havana cigars, which the Americans handed out very generously, and the stage was set for a Martindale Trading Co. (N.L.) meeting.

George's presidential address naming the villages we had visited would be given without even the hint of a smile. The conclusion of his remarks would be followed by polite clapping as Don, the treasurer, declared a dividend. When a change of crew took place, the incoming member had to find £5 cash to join the company and work until his dividend share had reached £50. Five pounds was more than most of us had ever had in hard cash on the Martindale before the start of the trading activities; but it had to be found, one way or another, by borrowing or selling something. The tenderfoot member would hand his share back to the treasurer, who would divide it again and declare a second dividend immediately. The newcomer would hand his share back once more for a third dividend of two or three shillings, and the meeting would be closed - but not before we had received a pep talk from the president on our future targets and the importance of working together.

Trobriand Islanders Trobriand Islanders

The close of these meetings often caused us to think of our homes and families as we realised how insignificant our ill-gotten gains were compared with the lives we had left behind and the lurking doubt that we might never again enjoy them. There was not much time to indulge in nostalgia, however, as we received signals to proceed north, south, east, and west almost daily because we were the only small ship in those waters with the range and capacity necessary for the task. < id="idyllic">We finally found ourselves appointed to the Trobriand Islands, an unspoilt paradise of elegant Mary's and handsome, light-skinned men with bleached hair. Its peacetime reputation had made it the essential western-Pacific stop for the high living of lone round-the-world travellers. The natives were noted for their carvings and their abilities. They were much more advanced than the coastal Papuans. There were three main islands: Kurawina, Kuralina, and Kitava. We were based on Kitava - the smallest of them, located a few miles west of Kurawina, which had gained wartime significance because it was low-lying and coral-based and had been bulldozed to form an excellent airstrip, becoming one of the stepping stones for planes flying between America and Australia. Both countries had considerable numbers of troops on the island because of its strategic importance but Kitava, removed by an hour's sailing, retained the traditional friendly Melanesian population and style. Prior to the war, it had been a petty principality reigned over by a white planter-gone-native who lived in a western-style house with his harem and native employees. The war had sent him south, and we found ourselves welcomed with every gesture of hospitality. We visited the plantation homestead every day but lived on-board ship. Our diet consisted of chicken paw paw, pineapple fish, and every manner of island delicacy. Some of the crew found the beautiful Marys, clad only in grass skirts, almost irresistible especially as there seemed to be no taboo against 'pom pom', the native word for 'sex'. But we were married men, and the stiff-upper-lip tradition had to remain - which, so far as I knew, it did. Our hopes of a relaxed tropical paradise were not to last long when we found the RAAF attached to Goodenough Island and had been waiting for us to act as long range reconnaissance and an air-sea rescue unit to support them on bombing raids on New Britain to the north. We hardly had time to tidy up the ship before we were off on three-day missions that required us to maintain a given position for the entire period. It was most uncomfortable because the high seas kept us from maintaining steerage way as we slipped over and around in sloppy indecision. Even the hardiest felt the pinch of seasickness between the eyes, while some gave up altogether and fell back into moaning heaps on each side of the wheelhouse. I tried to retain some sort of dignity by taking long turns at the wheel and vigorously spinning it both ways in a vain attempt to maintain a straight course. Between-times, I tried to make tea in the galley by propping myself in one corner in a sitting position with legs spread out at right-angles and holding a pot of water in one hand and a primus burner in the other. The pot had to be continually moved and balanced to compensate for the unpredictable movements of the ship. When it eventually boiled, the teapot had to negotiate a devious journey through the engine room and be handed up the companionway that gave access to the wheelhouse. There was always some scalding as it trickled down our naked arms. Eventually, those who were able to sipped it, between tinned half-peaches, in uninspired silence. Our telegraphic code changed every four hours, and Ross Gourlay seemed to spend night and day sending, receiving, and deciphering signals. Suddenly he would shout out 'Return to base!' and in a moment the seasick and the survivors were on their feet together, revving up the motor and setting a course for Sia, our haven on the north end of Kurawina. We always regarded the Trobriands as our spiritual home because of their unspoilt character and truly island spirit; it fulfilled all our boyhood dreams. Most islands were tall in silhouette and volcanic in origin, but the Trobriands Group with one exception was of coral and did not rise more than sixty feet above sea level. It was this feature that made them ideal for airstrips. Even the extensive American installations and manpower, which were now moving on, would not destroy the scene for long. The thick tropical growth would quickly return. The annual rainfall was enormous and the rain a daily occurrence, but it was so warm and mixed with sunshine that it came and went almost unnoticed.

Our introduction to the Trobriands was preceded by the most dramatic action of our entire stay, and only became possible because of a sardonic circumstance. We well remembered our first betel-nut episode and were determined to repeat it on a bigger scale when we headed there permanently. The reason for the Trobriand Islands betel-nut market was its coral base, which prevented the palm from generating. Ferguson Island, which we passed en route to our destination, had no such problem. There, the palm grew like a weed. We called in and consulted with a Melanesian named Labannai, who had usurped her planter husband's authority when he went south to escape the anticipated invasion. She told us to return in twenty-four hours, during which time she would send her subjects into the bush to collect a worthwhile supply of betel nuts. To justify our slow journey, we went on to Goodenough Island under the pretext of requiring water.

A severe storm had arisen a day earlier, and when we arrived at Goodenough , some RAAF officers came down to consult with the skipper. Six pilots and observers had been missing at sea for three days. They had gone fishing in a Japanese sampan belonging to one of them. Once they were some distance from shore, their engine had given out and no one was able to restart it. They had been blown in the general direction of Japan ever since, at the rate of four or five knots. Air searches had been instituted without success, and the men's survival was becoming more tenuous every hour. Our skipper had a remarkable instinct for navigation, and he gave his opinion that they were on 335 degrees. A Catalina was directed along this line, and within an hour they were located on 334 degrees - a remarkable effort. We were asked to stand by until five in the afternoon while they tried to reach the drifting craft by sending out crash boats. We knew the gale made it almost impossible for any craft less seaworthy than we were to reach them, so we set out an hour ahead of schedule. We almost doubled our normal speed as the following sea generated high-following waves reminiscent of our first night aboard. We were in constant radiotelegraphic communication with 'Vivigani' - the code name for the shore base - and the Catalina, which remained flying around the stricken sampan. Our code name was, by a prophetic insight, 'Ragbone' - the perfect name for such a marine-dealing ship of His Majesty's Australian Navy. As night came on, we enjoyed the fast down-wind run and the warm flying spume the gale whipped up. There was some enemy jamming of signals, which added colour, and when we asked for a flare from the aircraft shortly after midnight, we eventually saw a very light low down on the horizon. We proceeded to that point until in the inky blackness we could make out our quarry, a hundred yards ahead of us. We came up to the sampan from behind going slow astern. The airmen only realised our presence when we were right on them. The ship was breaking up and would not have stayed afloat for much longer, and their chances of survival un-aided would have been few. When we came amidships the ships rolled together, and pieces of timber flew everywhere - a visible reminder of the forces of nature. Men were ordered to jump from the top of the sampan's cabin onto ours - difficult because of the raging seaway. One by one they made it, despite one of them being thrown right over our deck by an enthusiastic wave and caught in the air before he dived into the sea on the other side. The last man to leave was the owner, who was vainly hoping to be taken in tow - a patent impossibility. Once all were aboard, the skipper ordered that we fire the derelict because it could be a danger to shipping, although I felt his first thought was to enjoy a spectacular bonfire. There was high-octane fuel on board, and Norm uncovered one of our machine guns and let fly. Tracer bullets bounced harmlessly against the plywood hull and superstructure for some time, until finally some started to penetrate. Almost immediately, bright yellow flames started to appear. In five minutes she was well ablaze. I was coxswain of the Martindale and I controlled the deck, expecting trouble as we started to go about into the teeth of the gale. I was not disappointed, despite our reduced speed. I felt she could have turned right over. I tried to grab things as they went overboard - rope, fenders, machine covers, oars out of the dinghies. Anything that wasn't properly stowed waltzed past from side to side. It was all over in a minute or two, and with every oncoming wave we were partly submerged. There were six tired men to bed down, especially the owner of the burning sampan, who stayed on the gun mount to talk while he watched the Wagnerian pyre as it rose and fell in the distance - until only timbers remained, like the limbs of a burning skeleton. When I finally got him off I sought rest, but could find nowhere to sleep except on the deck of the stateroom; I gave up when I kept leaving it with every wave. I knew here was no rest there, so I made my way into the wheelhouse, which was awash with some inches of water and the bodies of three of the crew. Don was on the wheel, and I felt fully awake and excited, so I said I would take over for awhile. He replied by telling me the skipper had said there was no need for a watch because there were no other ships in the area. 'Watch out for every ninth or tenth wave', he said. 'It could easily carry away the wheelhouse glass'. The next four hours were the most exciting I ever spent at sea. It was a great experience to feel responsible for all on board. As the ship sunk into the trough preceding the first of the one in nine or ten waves, I felt my heart rise in my throat. I became aware that if I turned the helm three spokes at the wrong moment, the ship could roll over. It seemed a minute before the first wave hit. Green water struck the wheelhouse windows with great force, and the ship stopped and shuddered under the weight. Very slowly she rose, dripping wet from stem to stern. This was the consummation of my love affair with the sea and the elements. As the dawn broke, I awoke one of the crew and shook Don. We had come into calmer waters in the lee of an island, and the gale had started to abate. Don and I got the stove going and produced that wartime rarity - steak and eggs - which we had been given by an American officer in exchange for a short trip aboard. We cooked breakfast for fourteen men before the rescued airmen got to shore. We parted with their thanks in our ears, and the promise that they would come down and get us for dinner that night.

Our minds were much more on sorting out our betel-nut supplies and getting to Kurawina for a killing that night. The Martindale certainly had a knack of doing the wrong thing in the right place at the right time. Who was it that said out of evil good cannot come?

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