A Middle Class Man: An Autobiography, Chapter 27: The trip home

Chapter 27: The trip home

Author: Alistair Knox

At the end of the month, I felt I was enjoying my last day at sea. The signal would almost certainly be waiting for us on our return to base. The best feature of the Stingray was the fact that her radio facilities never functioned once during my short sojourn; this meant that once we sailed out of sight of our shore station, we were entirely free from official restraints and communications. My health had continued to decline and I was getting desperate to go south; so I passed the afternoon on which we left Samarai, sailing a few miles across the entrance to Milne Bay to Kwi Ara, sitting on the bow of the ship and determined to remember the special gifts that living on a small ship had given me. Its total and unique domination by the elements, especially in wartime, had ensured that I would no longer accept that middle-class value - convenience - and that I would be setting out on my life's work nearly twenty years later than the norm. The trip to Kwi Ara was made on a perfectly still day in bright sunshine, and the water that came over the graceful bow as we cut through it had a pellucid quality. It hung in the air like fragments of delicate lace. My recollections of the previous two years produced a sense of wonder and nostalgia in me. The real men I had met who came from the lower class made the pretentiousness of unearned authority sardonically laughable and to be resisted at all costs. The practical reality of staying alive in 'the place of great waters' had developed something new in me - I now thought only in terms of survival - and it had transformed all of my mental processes, hopes, and ambitions. As we cast off and headed up the bay, evening was descending and I took the wheel for two hours while the crew had dinner. I watched them through the hatch as they masticated tropical fish. They deliberately served one that was palpably bad to the fresh young skipper so obsessed with the anti-scorbutic qualities of his daily diet. He was delighted that the large blue parrot fish had been allocated to him. One of the crew laughed out loud when the slipper caught a whiff of it; they watched his face turn grave. 'This fish is bad', he said. 'Are there any more?' 'No', said the phlegmatic telegraphist, who had done the cooking and who wanted to pay him out for having been forced to clean hundreds of fish we all knew from the outstart we could never eat before they rotted in the tropical conditions. The fish had been caught by dropping hand-grenades overboard; they could remain fresh for only a few hours, a much shorter time than if they had been caught by normal fishing. I watched the skipper leave the table and come on deck where he went to the ship's boat, which contained bunches of bananas under the canvas cover. He consoled himself with about eight of them, throwing the skins overboard; they lay like deformed flying fish as they drifted astern. I was still on deck as we approached the naval jetty, and I could make out the glow of two or three cigarettes. Someone called out, 'Is that you, Knoxie? The signal has come through, and we are all going down tomorrow on a fast English ship. We tried to get you on board, but we couldn't. You'll be missing a great trip. We have no duties, and should be in Sydney in three days'. I thanked them for their concern and said we would no doubt meet again down south. After we had docked, several of the others came over and we discussed our impending discharge from the service. I did not think they should expect too much from their fast English ship because they were only ratings: I was aware of the distinction, between the commissioned ranks and us, which still existed in the Royal Navy.

< id="homeward_bound"> The next morning I lashed my hammock, picked up my kit bag, and got a lift up to the depot. I bequeathed my shares in the trading company to the crew as I said goodbye to them. It was a strange sensation because it was so final. I joined two ratings who were going south on leave. We were taken to the airstrip to wait for a plane not loaded to capacity - a very rare occurrence indeed. The planes landed every fifteen minutes, and we knew their space and weight limits. We would count each man as he came off, and if the full number permitted were fifty we didn't stop counting until we reached fifty-three, with still the odd one struggling off with an overloaded package. As the afternoon wore on, we discovered that some men had waited without success for several days to get out of Milne Bay by ship or plane; our hearts sank. Just as we had decided to return to the depot for the night, a jeep drove up and the driver shouted, 'Get your gear! There's a flying boat landed in the bay that can take you as far as Moresby'. We were down on board within a few minutes, and the flying boat departed. It took some minutes to lift off, and we could hear the engines almost sob with their effort to just barely scrape over the masts of ships moored on the other side of the water; but all I felt was a cloud lifting off my head as we swung around and headed west.

A short Sunderland flying boat of 1930s vintage A short Sunderland flying boat of 1930s vintage

We knew that Port Moresby was as difficult to get away from as Milne Bay and that they would be taking on some officers. Though there would not be sufficient room for us to continue our flight back to Australia, the relief of knowing that we were underway was still very stimulating. My papers directed me to hospital as soon as I returned, so I had a high travelling priority; this caused me to hope against hope that something unexpected would happen. I found myself in the same cabin as the two ratings with whom I'd shared the waiting time at the airstrip. What I did not know was that they were attached to the regulating office at Milne Bay and had the power to change flying priorities on their own account. They were called at 3 a.m., and my enquiries made it clear that they had wangled themselves onto the plane and I had not. 'I'm going down with you', I said, jumping up and dressing. 'It's no use, there ain't no room', came their reply. Nevertheless, we all drove down together in the duty truck and arrived at the flying-boat terminal. There was considerable activity, so I went straight up to the air-transport regulating officer and stated that I should have first priority. He asked me to wait while he weighed his officer passengers and their kits. I noticed he would not allow them to take on even one extra pound over their quota. To their great resentment, beautifully polished boots and other extraneous baggage had to be taken out of their packs and given away. When the official finally totalled up his manifest, he was fifty-five pounds below his limit. 'How much do you weigh?' he asked me, and when I said exactly fifty-five pounds he said, 'OK, where's your ticket?' 'I've not got one', I said, to which he replied, 'I can't let you on without one'. 'How long have I got to get one?' I asked, and found out they were taking off in five minutes. I rushed out into the warm pre-dawn air, jumped into the truck, and told the driver to break all speed limits back to the depot. We roared through the silent town and up the hill sounding like a Panzer tank making its last charge. We burst past the guard, through the gates and sped up to the transport officer's cabin. The deafening noise caused lights to be switched on, and the surprised officer leaning on one elbow was told to sign the form I had brought; we were gone again in less than a minute. Back to the jetty even faster down the hill, and when we arrived I saw to my horror that the duty boat was just casting off. With an urgent cry, I thrust the ticket into the RAAF officer's hands and sped back to get aboard. The duty boat was already a few feet away from the jetty, so I just threw my hammock and kit bag in and leapt in after them. I fell on top of three or four men, but I had made it! Ten minutes later, our four-engined aircraft was skimming over the surface of the water as we silently prayed that it would lift off. It was a long few minutes; but it finally happened, just as first light became apparent. The waning stars and the receding shore lights cast a mysterious aura as we flew into the beautiful morning that would lead us back to Australia. It was memorable to watch the Barrier Reef from the air at a low-enough elevation to be able to read the outline of the coast like a great map, and to review how we had come up from the south and how little its history had ever changed. Our aircraft was a short Sunderland flying boat of 1930s vintage. It had a two-storeyed interior for the crew, and in wartime the remainder of the hull had been gutted for very practical service. It was possible to sit on the ribbed aluminium deck and gaze out the windows to see the Barrier Reef below, stretching into the limitless distance, with the Pacific gently washing over it in the pristine atmosphere. Flying speeds then were only a fraction of those nowadays, and it took as all day to reach Brisbane after refuelling at our old stomping ground at Townsville.

A Brisbane Teahouse during the war A Brisbane Teahouse during the war

Some of us walked along the streets of Brisbane very aware of the unique smell of Australia; it is so reminiscent of aboriginal folklore, eucalypt, wattle, and dust. The apprehension I felt for the aircraft proved well-founded. She blew the spark plug out of one of her exposed radial engines, and the air crew were making every effort to make her airworthy by the next morning so that they could be in Sydney for the weekend. No doubt, because I had been unconsciously listening to the Martindale and other ship's motors for more than a year I was sensitive to the strain the elements could put on mechanical equipment in that epoch that straddled the very beginnings of air travel and the supersonic effortlessness of today.

We managed to get off mid-morning, and flew right into the teeth of a southerly buster between Brisbane and Sydney. It was very cold in the uninsulated hull, and most of the other passengers were huddled up trying to keep warm, but my mind was obsessed with the scream of the motors. I looked through the window, but everything was all misty and opaque. The whole craft was vibrating ominously, and as I looked out again I suddenly saw the foaming waves only thirty feet below. We seemed about to crash into a watery grave. Imperceptibly the plain climbed foot by foot until a safer altitude was reached; the crew cabin door opened, and one of the observers appeared, his face strained and green with apprehension. A few minutes later the Sydney heads could be seen well below, and we thought our troubles were over. Within a minute, however, the headwaters once again appeared through the mist, looming above us as we headed directly towards them. Somehow we climbed over them and flopped like a lame duck into Rose Bay, greatly relieved.

Naval personnel always enjoyed special privileges in transit from one ship to another. As the senior service, they were always served first at mealtimes and, because of their small numbers, they took them out of the hard-working 'cattle' class. But the war was coming to an end, and the depot systems were beginning to take over once more. We all felt insulted when the rail-transport officer told us we would have to report to the Balmoral depot to get our rail passes instead of demanding them like gentlemen at the station. They arranged to send a van for us, but we still had to wait on other men who were coming off a ship and would be accompanying us. It was a cold, wet day for returning in khaki cottons from the tropics, so we slumped back, grumbling, to wait for these troublesome arrivals. The moment I glimpsed several desperate-looking matelots in tropical rig running across the wet windswept road, I recognised my mates - the ones who had failed to get me aboard their fast English ship in Milne Bay. They nearly dropped dead when they saw me as I lolled back trying to appear as relaxed and urbane as possible. They told me of their experiences - they had been half-starved and worked like dogs - and I thought once again of the prayer life-protection of my family; it so often led me through such events despite the fact that I knew nothing about it until it was over.

We boarded the troop train after buying hot pies and other nostalgic food; nestled back in a swathe of blankets the navy supplied; and waited for that Sunday morning to arrive, when we would see those old familiar sights once more. The day dawned clear and frosty. The pungent cold purged the tropics out of us as we watched the countryside slide past through the open doorway at the end of the carriage. Melbourne was practically deserted when we arrived and found taxis to take us to the suburbs. I arrived back at Mosman Drive, Heidelberg, which I had left a lifetime earlier, and resolved to develop a new lifestyle. It was to start sooner than I expected. After the initial welcome, and when the kids had gone outside again, Mernda announced that she did not intend to sleep with me anymore. Our marriage would have to take a new direction. I had neither the time nor the ability to discuss this unexpected turn of events, as I had to report to the Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital the next morning. In my mind, I knew Mernda meant what she had said. Her high-born Spanish antecedents ensured that she, like Cortes and the conquistadores, would burn her bridges and never turn back. I don't think she had a lover; it was just her true nature evidencing itself. My background had been soft and overindulged, so it was probably the perfect time for her to have taken this decision.

West Wing Balcony, 115th Australian General Hospital, Heidelberg, Victoria in November 1943 West Wing Balcony, 115th Australian General Hospital, Heidelberg, Victoria in November 1943

I spent the next six weeks in the Repatriation Hospital suffering through several bouts of malaria and dermatitis. Two days after my admission I stopped taking quinine, the universal panacea for malaria, and almost immediately the symptoms began to re-appear. There was no doubt in my mind that all my tropical fatigue had been due to the blanketting effect of this drug, which turned every serviceman's skin bright yellow and reduced him to a life of varying degrees of apathy. The sea life had kept it to a minimum, but as soon as the symptoms re-surfaced in hospital, I entered a twilight zone for more than two days. I lost awareness of everything around me as I lay in a semi-conscious state with my mind completely blank. The treatment of malaria was still in its fairly early stages in 1945, and large doses of quinine were the only available remedy. It was strange to go back into civilian surroundings and have to start deciding what a normal life was after emerging from a coma. The children had grown considerably in my absence. Tony was seven; Gay five; and Janie three. They were all outrageously healthy and normal, and Mernda was poised and outgoing. It soon became evident that she had used her war-time hiatus to renew some dancing activities, which she intended to continue more fully. My hospital sojourn gradually improved my health, and I became one of a hundred dermatitis patients who made their way down to the treatment room and applied their own courses of treatment. None of us ever seemed to improve much despite ointments of every colour being applied to all parts of our bodies. Some men who had gone bald saw their skulls coloured magenta with gentian violet, red with mercurochrome, or white or yellow, depending on their particular therapy at the moment. The doctors came and went, and after a month it all became pretty lonely and endless. Germany was still fighting, but the end was very close. Japan, though, seemed another issue altogether. The Americans were approaching the Japanese mainland; but there still were all those bypassed islands from New Britain upwards to be recaptured, and the Japanese died one by one and seldom surrendered.

I healed from my dermatitis very quickly when they took away all my patent potions and thoroughly cleansed the infection, so I decided that I should take some qualified medical advice after all.

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