Sunday, July 22, 2012

Berowne's 127

(For Three-Word Wednesday and ABC Wednesday: "B" is for "Bizarre")

When I saw that number eight in the prompt, I thought great, it’s going to allow me to recount another of my heroic adventures during World War II.
Which turned out to be more adventurous than heroic. Among other things, I loaded a tanker.
Might not sound like much, but it was an adventure, believe me.

Tankers, in those days, were often loaded with airplane fuel. Not jet fuel, because we didn’t have jets; the fuel was gasoline, juiced up into a special aviation-octane type of gas. It was one of the most volatile and hazardous substances then in existence.
Here’s the story.
Because there was a war on, people who would otherwise be college kids working as grocery clerks – like me - were cut from their monotonous, humdrum existences and thrust into the war’s maelstrom.
Ship’s personnel were desperately needed so they made me a ship’s officer. I didn’t tell anyone that my training had been mostly how to stock grocery shelves.
So I found myself in the middle of a war sailing about in a tanker.
Somewhere in a place occupied by guys with stars on their shoulders, a decision was made. A large tanker, similar to the one in the above picture, needed to be loaded, and there would have to be a tanker officer in charge.
You see where this is going?

The tanker in question was in Aruba. Today Aruba is a treasure, a beautiful vacation spot; in wartime it was a gigantic gas station, ships from all over were loading and unloading the stuff.
Since I was on someone’s list as a tanker officer, they decided to put me in charge of the loading.
Now, mind you, the regular job of calmly standing watch on a tanker at sea wasn’t all that difficult; you handled it pretty much as any other ship – staying on course, keeping lookout, trying not to screw up the navigation, etc. I could actually do that.
But loading a tanker? With aviation-octane gas? I was as qualified for that as I was for space travel – especially since there wasn’t any then. I not only didn’t know much about it, I had never actually seen a tanker loaded, from close up. I got a number of bizarre orders during that conflict, but this one beat all.
At first, all I knew was that I should report to such and such a tanker in Aruba. I showed up, bright-tailed and bushy-eyed, and my world started falling apart.
One fact of maritime life is that the officers of any ship who’ve been at sea for a month or two will do almost anything to get ashore. If a totally-unqualified 21-year-old shows up to take over, wish him well and take off fast.
Which is what the officers of that ship did.
By the way, the gas came up from the dock in a huge pipe and once started, thousands of gallons of it kept rushing in. Scary.
My crew for this loading operation was made up of an ordinary seaman, a kid of about seventeen, and one guy who actually knew about tanker-loading.
Aboard ship, people were then often named for their jobs. A radio operator might be known as “Sparks,” a signalman as “Flags,” etc. Well, this old guy was in charge of something important on a tanker, the pumps, so he was known, inevitably, as “Pumps.”
Trouble was, Pumps was elderly; he seemed to be in his early nineties, which meant that he sat in one place and never moved. And since he was born in Germany he spoke English with an almost incomprehensible accent.
Trying to help me, he talked quite a bit about “walfs.” Since I didn't know what those were it wasn't much help. It took me a while to understand he was discussing “valves” - valves were walfs - the things you turn to direct the gas flow.
I must tell you that you don’t just pump the gas into the ship; that would be too easy. I had eight tanks to deal with, four forward and four aft. I knew that I had to load the stuff into a forward tank, then shift the stream to a tank toward the stern, feverishly turning walfs on and off all the while.
I worked out signals with the young fellow; he handled the after tanks.
At first things seemed to be going well; I thought everything was hunky-dory. Well, it was hunky, for a while, but we never got to dory. Because suddenly, to my undiluted horror, I saw a mountainous jet of the stuff shoot high into the air. I had sent this constant stream of thousands of gallons of gasoline into a tank that was already nearly full. The highly volatile, even explosive, liquid was pouring all over the deck.
I nearly collapsed. I realized I was endangering the whole port of Aruba, with the other tankers in it; it could possibly turn out to be one of the biggest conflagrations of the war. Realizing this, I sat down pretty much like Pumps, unable to move.
Previously, I hadn’t been able get help from anyone ashore; suddenly the ship was filled with twenty or so guys who appeared out of nowhere and who were pumping foam and turning walfs all over the place. Two fire-boats quickly showed up and joined in with more foam.
Well, I didn’t blow the place up. Later, they had some sort of court martial; I was relieved to learn that I wasn’t blamed. The guys who sent a grocery clerk to load a tanker, however, had a bit to answer for.
(Also submitted to Sunday Scribblings)

47 comments:

Tess Kincaid said...

I'm glad you didn't get blown up...or court martialed Mr. B...

zongrik said...

i love "was qualified for that as for space travel" GREAT LINE!!

dark feathers dead crows

Roger Owen Green said...

Yes, you might have been FIRED, in one way or another.

Kay said...

fantastic story....so glad you survived to tell it!!

Leslie: said...

Whoa! Scary situation! I like Roger's comment...and glad you survived without a court martial.

oldegg said...

I just have to assume that being on a tanker that smoking was definitely banned! Clearly you took your mind off the "walfs".

Berowne said...

Old Egg: "I just have to assume that being on a tanker that smoking was definitely banned!"
Yes, and not only was there no smoking, you had to wear special shoes with no metal studs in them; one healthy spark could cause the whole vessel to disappear.

Kathe W. said...

holy smokes!

chiccoreal said...

Dear Berowne OMG~!!! Total insanity~!!! You are one smooth operator my boy~!!! Great story btw~very memorable~!!!

Brian Miller said...

it is always fascinating to see where the prompt takes you...you never take it at face value....yikes...that was quite the situ...

Lyn said...

Hope you learned your lesson...be careful with certain walfs..

Berowne said...

Lyn: Save the last walfs for me. :-)

Berowne said...

Tess K, zongrik, Roger O G, Kay, Leslie, oldegg, Kathe W, chiccoreal and Brian M - my thanks for some fine comments.

Josie Two Shoes said...

A great story, and a fun read, thoough I'm certain it was pretty terrifying at the time! I know that many enlisted men who were drafted to serve could tell stories such as these, being assigned to duties that had no clue of. It is a good thing it all turned out ok for you, no explosions or lives lost!

Helena said...

Berowne - that was one heck of a story! I'd have been well shiting myself, too! All's well that, thankfully and foamily, ends well!

ps....." If a totally-unqualified 21-year-old shows up to take over, wish him well and take off fast "

....is actually a situation I've partook in before. I'll tell the story one day...!!

Rinkly Rimes said...

A great account! I'm so glad you weren't blamed!

Cat or Dog said...

Berowne: I had to go read your bio after reading your story to make sure you hadn't created an imaginary story. Congratulations on your exceptional communications skill. My father was a World War II fighter pilot in the Flying Tigers and we lost him 21 years ago about a month before I got married. He would be 92 this year.

I hope we can exchange some email. Don't need to bother all other readers with this personal blabber. But I'm very interested in more stories.

In foreign film it is hard to beat Felini but so many to love including Truffeau. I agree, if stuck on a virtual island with only blogs to read and one YouTube artist to listen to over and over it with have to be Wolf. Not a bad lick in any of his compositions.

Great story. Hope we can chat on email.

Cheers,

ninotaziz said...

Sir Berowne,
I love your WWII stories. And I felt your undiluted horror right about when you mentioned you had to work with 8 tanks!

izzy said...

Wow quite the tale!

Kutamun said...

Ha, this was a very "tricky" operation , it sounds like. I emjoyed it very much . Stone the Crows !

Berowne said...

Cat or Dog: "I hope we can exchange some email. Don't need to bother all other readers with this personal blabber. But I'm very interested in more stories."
Great to hear from you, C or D. Sorry; I don't agree about email. I want to stay on line with these war stories. Bloggers have been very generous with their interest and response.

Chris said...

Wow. Getting ordered to do stupid things by fools is still part of the military culture as far as I can tell. One guy told me about how an NCO in Afghanistan told him to get a truck loaded up and then directed him to drive across Afghanistan with no armed guards and no body armor.

Yours is a particularly foolish one, though. "Pretend like you know what you're doing" doesn't work so well with explosive liquids.

Tigerbrite said...

An amazing story. And there were so many in WW2 weren't there. My dad who died 2 years ago, would now have been 91. He was on one of the first boats on the DDay Landings. He was Royal Signals and sent the first message back.

Wayne Pitchko said...

what a nice read Mr B.....nicely done and thanks for sharing your words

Catfish Tales said...

OMG, that's just an amazing story. Now I'm curious. What nickname did they give you after this incident where you almost blew up half of Aruba? What a story!

Kate said...

That's quite a story to relate. I particularly like the caligraphy at the beginning of your post.

Doctor FTSE said...

Bet you've been terrified of walfs ever since? Another great story.

Helen said...

You have led the most fascinating life ...

Berowne said...

Catfish Tales: "What nickname did they give you after this incident where you almost blew up half of Aruba?"
I never learned it, and I'm just as glad I didn't. :-)

Berowne said...

Doc FTSE: "Bet you've been terrified of walfs ever since?"
Yes, modern science has proved that walfs are to be avoided at all costs.

Linda said...

After reading all of these stories every week, I am just very happy you survived long enough to share your stories at the Mag. Another brilliant tale, Berowne. Thanks. =D

Mara said...

Oh my, that is bizarre indeed. And thank you for not blowing up Aruba. We might have only had five islands that way!

Laurie Kolp said...

Wow... that's scary, but as always, told so well Berowne!

Berowne said...

I always enjoy your comments, Laurie - thanks.

Sheilagh Lee said...

thank you for these treasure memories.Your story of that time is like peeling back the layers of time

Lmkazmierczak said...

Another great post. Glad you were scared enough to realize how out of your depth you were. I tank you♫♪

RMP said...

That is absolutely crazy! I can't even image.

I will admit your telling of the tale had me smiling, but I highly doubt at the time it was even remotely funny.

Berowne said...

"I tank you♫♪"
Clever, Lmk - and tanks to you too.

Berowne said...

Linda: "Another brilliant tale, Berowne."
And another great comment, Linda; thanks.

Ellecee said...

What a great story, I am always amazed at the stories that come out of WW II, it's a blessing anyone survived after being "thrown into" such situations. Really good read.

hyperCRYPTICal said...

What an excellent tale Berowne - must really have been scary stuff once the gasoline started pouring all over the deck.

Thanks for this enjoyable read.

Anna :o]

Stafford Ray said...

You were ferry lucky you vasn't blown up mit you und der kinder in charch of der after walfs!

Sharp Little Pencil said...

Once again, I learn from you, Obi-Wan. Good lord, I'm glad you made it through all this, but I particularly appreciate your comment about the special frictionless shoes, as they were required on zeppelins as well. Great write, Berowne! Amy
http://sharplittlepencil.com/2012/07/27/bleed-warning-precedes-poem/

Cad said...

Sheesh! :)

Berowne said...

S L Pencil: "...the special frictionless shoes, as they were required on zeppelins as well."
Yes, and I was fascinated to learn that the Hindenburg, which a minor spark could blow to smithereens (and maybe did), had a smoking lounge.

Berowne said...

Stafford R: "You were ferry lucky you vasn't blown up..."
Ach, ja, das ist klar. :-)

Cat or Dog said...

Sorry I didn't make my point well Berowne. I meant I DON'T need to bother people with all my comments back to you. As for your story it is fantastic and I strongly endorse you telling it. Sorry about that, my response was too cryptic.

Yesterday a man from California called me to say he met someone whose family in China has been searching for my family because his father helped my father to safety after he was injured from being shot down in China.

These are amazing stories and it is such an honor to be able to hear them from living survivors.

Thanks again for your service and for blessing us with the lessons and experiences.

Best wishes,

 
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