(Also for Magpie 95 and Sunday Scribblings)
"V" for "Victory"
The above picture might rather nicely, if surreally, suggest a war adventure ol’ Berowne had a few decades ago.
You see, truth is, ol’ Berowne is just that: ol’. He’s been on this earthly planet for an impressive number of years. He served, perhaps not as heroically as some of the others, but he nevertheless served in World War II.
And that war adventure took place in the South Pacific in 1943.
My ship, which was heavily loaded with huge drums of aviation-octane gasoline, was scheduled to leave Australia for New Guinea, where large numbers of aircraft were waiting for us so they could get on with the war.
However, we had earlier on this assignment committed the faux pas of running smack into the Great Barrier Reef, leaving our vessel with an enormous hole in the bow that you could have driven a jeep into. This rendered us almost immobile; actually, it meant that we were forced to creep along at about three knots – about the speed of a tired man walking – to return back to our Australian port.
I was just a kid then and, along with the other crew members, we weren’t feeling all that bad about the hole in the bow. After all, it meant the ship would have to go down to Sydney into drydock while they fixed things, and that meant the crew could enjoy a week or two of Sydney high life while the war was put on hold.
However, an official, some sort of grand panjandrum who was in charge of things, came aboard with news. It seems, he said, they were so desperately in need of our drums of gas up there in New Guinea that authorities decided to send us anyway.
This seemed, to everyone on our ship, simply insane.
Not only did that hole in the bow slow us to three knots, but the Australian coast at that time was looked upon as a happy hunting ground for Japanese submarines. They were sinking ships there in '43 about as fast as they could be built.
And did this geezer realize what our cargo was? This was before jets; warplanes then used gasoline – and aviation-octane gasoline was one of the most volatile and dangerous substances on earth. A sub wouldn’t even have to use a torpedo; one well-placed machine gun bullet could easily blow up our ship.
Well, it seems he had thought of that.
They were going to provide us with our own personal Australian corvette. A corvette was like a small destroyer and its job was to hunt subs. Usually, since they were in short supply, they were restricted for use only with large convoys; however, in this special case – i.e., a ship with a vitally important cargo that could only limp along at three knots – they’d let us have one.
He thanked us all for volunteering for this dangerous mission. None of us could remember having volunteered, and we didn't quite know how to un-volunteer. :-) He made the V for Victory sign and left.
The plan was for the corvette to tightly circle our ship continuously, 24 hours a day, while we crept north. Having a corvette in such close proximity to our ship would hopefully discourage any ambitious Japanese sub commander from trying anything.
It seemed to work. We inched our way along without being attacked. How those Aussie corvette guys must have hated us: endlessly having to circle, circle, day after day.
Anyway, long story short, we finally arrived at the harbor in the New Guinea jungle and anchored. Our captain went ashore to report to the general. Loud shouting was heard from his office.
Seems the two-star guy was angry. Why did they keep sending him all that gasoline? He already had plenty and he didn’t have a fuel depot or any other way to keep more in the jungle. He ordered our skipper to turn around and take it all back to Australia.
The cap’n pointed out we had this big old hole in the bow, and the Aussie corvette had taken off in a hurry once we got there. The general wasn’t interested. “Take it back!” he said.
The skipper, pretty angry himself when he came back aboard, seemed to be bent on retribution. He had us take off the hatch covers and fire up the winches. He began to pick up the drums, one by one, and just dump them in the harbor. (Gasoline floats.) Once the army saw this happening they had a change of heart and sent ducks – the large amphibious trucks – and we loaded it all on to them.
The above may seem to be fiction, an old guy's fairy tale, but it's what happened.
At any rate, I didn’t get to Sydney on that trip but I did on several others. That city was then, I can personally assure you, paradise for an American serviceman. Ah, those beautiful Australian girls; they're grandmothers now. I’d like to think that a few of them look back and remember Berowne fondly, just as he fondly remembers them.
1 year ago