The Summer of '42
Back to index
On the morning of May sixteenth, 1942 the USS Chateau Thierry lay alongside the dock in the Charleston Port of Embarkation. Further down and across the dock, the Grace Line passenger ship SS Santa Rosa, also lay waiting. She was painted wartime gray but she still flaunted her nubile twin funnels, sweeping bow and long, beautiful lines; She exuded an aura of speed, luxury, and moonlight tropical nights. The SS Santa Rosa was sexier than Rita Hayworth in a travel poster.
At about 1030 there was a commotion at the dock head; a train was pulling in. We would now get our troops. But there were no troops. The men piling off the train were in civilian clothes. We joked about the army having one-day boot camps as we watched the approach of a bedraggled straggle of men clothed in summer-weight suits, straw hats, sport shirts and seersucker slacks. Some wore white or two-tone shoes. All carried little white canvas drawstring bags. They were laughing nervously, gawking, and commenting on the beauty of the Santa Rosa. Eagerly they marched toward their sweet cruise of summer.
A couple of dozen men who strained the seams of the largest sized uniforms that the United States Army could find had been standing near our gangway. They were men born before their time. Fifty years later, they would have formed the hard core of the World-Wide Wrestling Federation's cast of bastards.
Helmets, leggings, brassards, and clubs proclaimed them to be members of the Military Police. They stood in the shadow of the ship where it was relatively cool but they were still red-faced and sweating.
As the fun-cruise passengers coming down the dock began to drift across the pier toward the Santa Rosa, the gargantuan MPs finished their bananas and left the shade. They formed an extended line halfway across the dock. They all pointed to the gangway of the Chateau. The gaggle of men halted; the discussion became animated, with much waving of arms, shaking of heads, pointing, and loud shouting. Voices were raised and profanity was heard in greater volume.
Our passengers, hereinafter referred to as "The Civilians," had been told that the voyage would be accomplished on a "regular cruise ship", with no more than three men to a stateroom. Most staterooms would have individual bathrooms but, considering the exigencies of wartime, a very few of the cabins would have to share bathrooms. The passengers were to take clothing that was relaxed and casual, in keeping with the tropical nature of the cruise. Their luggage would be taken from the train and waiting for them in their staterooms. Each man was given a little canvas ditty bag to hold his toilet articles and one change of underwear.
The atmosphere on the dock assumed a bluish hue. A number of the passengers were assisted up the gangway to the Chateau.. The rest milled about at the foot of the gangway until the melee on the gangway was resolved and they could be hustled board. They were herded below at once and did not again see daylight until four days later when the ship was well offshore.
There were far more than three passengers per compartment on the USS Chateau Thierry. The number of bunks stacked one above the other differed in each particular berthing space. The Chateau had been built with four decks or levels of troop spaces in each hold. The upper tween-decks compartments had as few as four bunks in a stack. The lower tween-decks and upper troop hold were more likely to contain bunks stacked six high. In the deeper compartments of the lower hold, most compartments held bunks that were eight high or even twelve high.
The lowest bunk in each compartment was four to six inches above the deck. There was a vertical space of 18 to 24 inches between bunks. Passageway between stacks was twenty-four to thirty inches. The actual bunks were pipe frames six feet long and two feet wide with a canvas bottom laced in place. This was the allotted space for each man and all his gear for as long as he was aboard.
The Chateau was equipped with a fresh-air ventilation system which drew good sea air from the atmosphere and used the forward movement of the ship and a bank of electric fans to keep the passengers cool. In the troop holds ventilation was supplied by a network of ducts as small as four by eight inches in cross section. Four decks down, they weren't powerful enough to refresh the air of a chicken factory. The troop holds were fetid and stifling under the best of circumstances. The moist and soggy stench in those holds was enough to make a hungry buzzard puke.
Fun in the Sun
Once the passengers came aboard, the ship's crew saw no more shore leave. The Civilians were part of a scheme of Global Politics and Grand Strategy that had been hatched before Pearl Harbor.
We found that our passengers were on their way to Eritrea, the former Italian Colony from which Mussolini had launched his glorious aerial and armored attacks upon the callussed-footed, spear-wielding Abysinians.
Before Pearl Harbor the idea of the Asmara field was part of Pan American Airways' inchoate string of round-the-world flight stops. It had been constructed by Morrison and Knudsen, under contract to PanAm. The Chateau's cargo of fourteen hundred American aircraft mechanics and support personnel had been recruited from aircraft factories and fixed-base operations all over the United States
A question that I have never heard answered is this: How long had that field been under construction? The British had not captured Eritrea until May of 1941. Large airfields are not built overnight. The Civilians boarded the Chateau Thierry in mid-May of 1942.
Now that the war was raging in North Africa, Asmara would be an important terminal and refuge for British flying operations. The original plan apparently had called for American civilians to operate the field to provide a cloak of neutrality. Now that the cloak was off, the American civilians would be used anyway. This took valuable skilled men away from the American war effort. Their civilian wages presented a cost equal to twelve to twenty times what American soldiers would have received for the same work.
Someone must have been being compensated on a cost-plus basis.
Face to Face with the Fucked
The Civilians left the train and rambled down the Charleston dock with their innocent eyes on the sweet, flowing lines of the SS Santa Rosa only to be herded into the troop compartments of the Chateau Thierry. Their luggage was tossed into cargo slings and dumped into Number One Hold. That was on the fifteenth of May. The poor bastards finally gained access to their suitcases for a few hours on the fifth of July after which the luggage went back into the hold.
After the civilians left the ship at Massawa on the fifteenth of August, their suitcases were trucked off in the direction of Asmara. I trust that the Civilians and their suitcases found each other somewhere in the desert of the former Italian colony of Eritrea.
The First Feeding of any load of troops always created great hilarity in the mess hall of the Chateau Thierry. The ship served two meals a day. The crew, as long as troops were aboard, also received two meals per day. When the ship was not carrying troops, the crew had three meals per day.
The mess compartment extended the full 58-foot width of the ship and was about 80 feet in length fore and aft. This meant that the mess compartment occupied about five thousand square feet. Along the port side was a six or eight-foot-wide passageway, separated from the mess compartment by a sturdy wire mesh of the kind used in maximum security prisons and zoos. Along the bottom of the mesh was a five-inch-high fishplate. The troops lined up for meals in the passageway. As they waited outside the approximately fifty feet of wire mesh they could look into the mess hall and hear the clamor of steel trays and fighting gear (eating utensils). The passage was filled with the humid, greasy smell of the food, the steam and the bodies of the packed troops. In rough weather this passageway became a river of vomit that sloshed from side to side with the rolling of the ship. At times it would surge over the fishplate and into the mess hall..
Once inside the mess hall, each man took a steel tray and utensils and passed from port to starboard along the serving line. Alternately struggling uphill and bracing themselves against the downhill slide as the ship rolled, each man would receive his rations. At the starboard end of the serving line, the men would turn toward the main portion of the mess hall and find a place to stand at a table. There were no seats.
As each diner finished, he took his tray to the garbage-grinder on the starboard side and dumped his food scraps and placed the tray in racks for the washing machine.
Ham was served one day a week. The bones and skin were set aside to give flavor to the breakfast beans that were served on Wednesday and Saturday. The Chateau Thierry cooked a hell of a lot of beans in those fifty (I think) gallon cookers. From the cookers, the beans were ladled into rectangular steam table containers that each held about fifty servings. It took two men to wrestle those full containers, especially in a rough sea.. The contents of the next container were simply dumped into the one already in place. Thus, several times during breakfast, our collection of ham bones and skin accumulated in the serving container to the point where it became difficult to get a ladle past them.
The first morning Feeding of the Civilians was Bean Day. None of the Civilians had ever had beans for breakfast and they were skeptical. After all, they were locked in the bowels of the Chateau Thierry without light or air …….and now, beans for breakfast.
I was dishing out the beans. Dip, lift, pour, dip, lift, pour…dip, lift.
"What's that?" An unhappy civilian asked.
"Beans, do ya want 'em?"
"No, not the beans; what's the other stuff in there?"
Several good-sized swine had given of themselves in order to flavor that morning's beans. Their sturdy bones and thick skin were gathering in the container. I was afflicted with an unworkable mess of ham scraps. I didn't bother with the standard explanation I had given so many times that morning.
"Dave Bixby, Ship's Cook Second Class. He slipped."
The beans were already on the Civilian's tray. He shook them back into the container. "Think I'll skip 'em."
I yelled down the line of mess cooks toward the galley, "Beans! New one!"
The Middle Passage
About four days out of Charleston we anchored in the harbor of Hamilton, Bermuda for part of a day. I had never before and seldom since, seen such clear and blue water. We had a boat drill and lowered all lifeboats into the water. One of our more rotund Civilians showed his defiance of regulations by leaping into the water while wearing a lifejacket. He almost became the first and only casualty of the voyage. First, he almost tore his arms off. Then he bobbed there for a while, glorying in his freedom and defiance.
A large fish rose slowly from the deep to examine the menu. The fat guy thought everybody was fooling him when they began shouting at him. He was not going to get into the lifeboat until he was damned good and ready. Then he turned and saw the big fin. It is remarkable how agile such a large man can be when he is properly motivated.
That evening we began the long voyage across the Atlantic. We sailed the latitudes of the old Middle Passage, the slave latitudes. We were bound for West Africa, for Sierra Leon and the harbor at Freetown.
Nothing unusual marked the passage. Nothing unusual except the unending heat, the restlessness of the Civilians, the monotony and the boredom and the beans. The Civilians got used to beans for breakfast each Wednesday and Saturday.
I was stuck in the mess hall. One morning the ship was riding through a period of rough weather and I was dishing out the dog turds. They were called dog turds because of the remarkable physical resemblance to dog turds. They were Navy model pork sausages. They tasted as though they had been captured from the Confederates at Gettysburg and were composed of some sort of stale meat, grade A sawdust and lots of liquid grease. We had a problem with the sausages, similar to the one we had with the ham bones in the beans. As successive serving pans of sausages were poured into the pan on the steam table, the grease level increased. It was yellowish brown, transparent and oily, looking somewhat like low-grade cooking oil that has served its time. It smelled like the run-off from the burning ghats besides the Ganges River.
When enough grease gathered in the pan it was supposed to be carried away, but this wasn't happening. No one wanted to risk spilling gallons of liquid grease on the way to the slop chute. No matter how often I called for a replacement container, I was ignored and a full container of dog turds and grease would be dumped into the sloshing mess in the bottom of the one that was already in the steam table. I speared each dog turd with a serving fork and lift it, ejaculating and dripping grease onto the tray of the next gourmet. Two turds for each gourmet.
Now the smell and sight of the grease were affecting me. The brown-grey sausages floated and swirled in seven inches of liquid grease in the bottom of the pan They had no sense of decency. They would not hold still; each one had to be individually harpooned. I was getting seasick. I called for a relief but I might as well have been begging for ice water in the bowels of Hell.
My stomach reached the limits of its ability. In a paroxysm of approaching sickness, I reached behind me and snatched a soup bowl from the rack. I filled it to the brim with vomit in record time. I seized another bowl and filled it while holding the first bowl of puke in my left hand. I filled the second bowl and prayed that I would not need another.
My prayer was answered but both bowls were full to the very brim. Not one more ounce could have been forced into them. The ship was in a heavy sea and the deck was slippery. I had to make my way to the grinder/slop chute through a crowd of men who were busy looking out for themselves and trying to maintain their balance. Carefully I made my way along the back of the serving line; carefully I started for the slop chute. Fearful of spilling the puke, I had both thumbs hooked over the edges of the bowls with the first joint of each thumb submerged in vomit. One of the Civilians saw that I was carrying something that he did not recognize as being on the bill of fare.
"Aha! I knew you sunsabitches don't eat the same shit you give us! I knew it! Goddamnit, keeping the good stuff for yourselves!"
I held one of the bowls under his nose. I lifted it as high as I could without spilling the contents. I pushed it as close to his chin as possible. "Hey, Mac, you want it? It's all yours."
With a shock of recognition, the Civilian turned and rushed for the slop chute. He got there before I did and was rendering up his breakfast as I carefully poured the contents of first one and then the other bowl into the grinder.
Freetown, Sierra Leone
The Chateau Thierry anchored in the port of Freetown in the British Colony of Sierra Leone on a sweat-wet day in June, 1942. It is the season when the tropical sun hovers directly over the latitude of Sierra Leone, hanging there like a huge glowing coal that rises directly in the East and travels directly overhead to set directly in the West. The heat never stops in Sierra Leone. There wasn't any wind, day or night. Dawn begins with the first blast of sunlight, brilliant, hot and humid. Until the sun goes down, the sunlight is an oppressive entity that presses downward with a palpable force that weighs on the body like a cloak soaked in near-boiling water. The steel body of the ship is burning to the touch. The deck is impossible to walk on with bare feet and it burns even through the soles of shoes. The jungle humidity steams up out of the river, the dark brown turgid river full of the rot and decay of the jungle, the foul waters stinking of fevers and agues and plagues that strike down the stranger even as he walks. We were forbidden to touch the river water for any purpose.
Sunset brings no relief. If anything, the night is more oppressive than the day. Sleep is almost impossible. Sweat-soaked mattresses stink of mildew and damp. We lay at anchor for a period of more than two weeks. No liberty, no time ashore. Unbroken boredom, sweat, jock itch, and jungle rot. And only one half hour of fresh water time for showers for twelve to fourteen hundred men. We couldn't wash with the river water.
The Chateau Thierry had to get water from the port authorities and it arrived by tanker. It came via a small and ancient vessel less than two hundred feet long, painted shiny black. She had a tall, tall smokestack above a polished engine room that could be glimpsed through an open fiddley. The tanker was commanded by a lone white man past middle age. He wore impeccably white shorts and knee-length socks and a short-sleeved white shirt with four bars on the epaulettes. His closely shaven face was gin-red and he stayed in the shade of the awning on the tiny bridge as the tanker made fast to our port side. Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the mid-day sun.
The tanker remained alongside until well after dark. The main deck of the Chateau Thierry was just above the small officers' saloon of the tanker. Crew and Civilians crowded to peek through the open porthole at the tanker captain as he sat alone at a table laid with heavy English silverware and china upon thick white linen. He had changed to a short white mess jacket and a bow tie. His steward stood by with towel over forearm and served him from covered dishes and a silver tureen. Between ourselves, being young and unknowing, we mocked him. We were looking at the essence of the British Empire.
During the purgatory of our stay in Freetown, it was revealed that we were to be visited by a British Admiral. We had two days in which to spruce up the weary old Chateau Thierry to receive this most prestigious man. Grey wartime paintwork had to be soojied (scrubbed); there was brass to polish. The teakwood of the promenade deck must be holystoned. Holystoned? Holystoned? We were suddenly transported to the Navy of cordage and canvas. Wooden ships and iron men. How the hell do you holystone a deck? We found a bit of sand but no holystones. The engineers loaned us some firebricks to be consecrated to a higher purpose. Only a few of the oldest sailors knew the first damn thing about holystones. We looked in the Bluejackets' Manual. Those of us desiring to be ever saltier than we fancied ourselves to be were eager to learn. We had to modify the firebricks by carving a small dent or impression into the top of each brick. We read on.
The handles of deck scrubbers are placed under the sailor's right armpit. The right arm goes beneath the scrubber handle and grips the left wrist. The left hand grips the scrubber handle. The sailor bends over from the waist and places the round end of the scrubber handle in the cavity in the top of the holystone. The seamen form a line across the deck, and in unison swing from left to right along each plank of teak, smartly moving the firebricks across the wet sand-sprinkled deck. Left, right, left, right; five times on the same plank and then at a command, move one plank and do it again.
Since it was something that would break the monotony and it was being done in the sheltering shade provided by the Boat Deck above, the holystoning of the Promenade Deck became an occasion for enthusiasm and celebration. In reflection, it reminds me of Tom Sawyer's fence. We soon tired of it.
That first holystoning in twenty years didn't do much good for the deck, It still looked gray and muddy, but some few of us had acquired valuable traditional knowledge. Perhaps it would be useful in our civilian careers after the war.
On the day of the Admiral's visit, it was announced that the Admiral would arrive for lunch at 1300. All hands changed into undress whites. The Officer of the Day wore a dress uniform and the quarterdeck watch wore neckerchiefs. Six men were designated as side boys and stood ready. The Civilians, grimy, unwashed, sweating and stinking; their unchanged clothing reduced to tatters, were held away from the quarterdeck by a white rope made for the purpose. It was impossible to hide the Civilians from the Admiral's eyes. All that could be done was to keep them beyond smelling distance.
At 1300 precisely the Admiral's venerable black steam launch came alongside. The gleam from the polished brass was dangerous to look upon in that fierce sunlight. Every opening to the interior of the Admiral's barge was festooned with the finest of traditional knotwork. Turksheads and precisely served cordwork covered the rails, the wheel, and the shafts of the boathooks. The smokestack was a slender tower of shining black and eye-endangering brass. The crew of automatons wore Royal Navy tropical uniform of starched white shorts, knee-socks, bulky black shoes and square-necked shirts, all topped with pith sun helmets of snowy white. There was a coxswain in command and an engineering rating in the engine compartment to answer the bells. Two other crew members stood by to handle the bow and stern boathooks. It was the same system used by small boats of all Navies but they did it with much greater panache, with flair and precision; the Limey bastards.
As the boat approached, we could hear the engine bells. The seamen who were bowhook and sternhook took their places and stood ramrod straight as the boat made a perfect landing at the gangway platform. Bowhook and sternhook made well-drilled flourishes, hooked on or fended off with great precision as the Admiral in starched and spotless whites debarked and made his way up the gangway. Two bosun's pipes skirled, the sideboys lined up on both sides of the gangway and saluted. The Admiral saluted the American flag, the quarterdeck, then the OD. "Permission to come aboard, Sir".
"Permission granted, sir."
The Admiral turned and saluted the white-uniformed Captain Benjamin Watkins (known to the crew as Bulkhead Benny) Cloud who was waiting to greet him. The salute was returned. "Welcome aboard, Sir".
From the tattered crowd of Civilians a single voice rose loud and clear. "All together, boys!" And the crowd roared back, "SOME SHIT!!"
It seemed that even the ship's machinery fell silent. Then it was heard again, whirring away in the blasting noonday heat. The first human voice was that of Captain Cloud. "Commander Broussard! Run them all below and close the hatches!"
The word was passed for all passengers to lay below to their berthing spaces. They did so and the entrances were all battened down. That was just after 1300. After dark and after the Admiral had been gone for several hours, the Captain addressed his passengers. He told them that they had participated in what might well become an international incident. They had insulted our ally. He said that he was ready to mount machine guns to cover all entrances and he had crew members who would be glad to use them. He wasn't looking at me when he said that.
About 2230 a delegation from the Civilians convinced the Captain that some of the men were likely to die if they weren't allowed to get some air. An apology was drafted by the Civilians and made ready for presentation to the Admiral.
A short while later, the hatches were opened and the gasping Civilians staggered onto the open deck. The night air was like a warm, wet velvet shroud that closed you in and stifled every breath, but it was like a windswept mountaintop compared to the fetid troop spaces in which the Civilians had been confined for the past ten hours.
Not only did the Civilians come up into the night air, they came up with a vengeance and defied yet another rule. They turned on the fire hoses and had a water fight in the tropic darkness, drenching each other with the septic sludge from the river. We well disciplined members of the crew expected to see dozens of Civilians fall dead on the spot. For the next few days we approached them carefully lest they contaminate us with their feverish breath. Remarkably, none of them died.
We meet Poseidon
After a couple of jolly weeks in Freetown, we joined a six-knot convoy bound for Durban, South Africa; southward, toward the Cape of Good Hope. Before us was our encounter with Poseidon, sea-god of ancient Greece, fearsome ruler of the Equatorial line; patron saint of exalted shellbacks and nemesis of pollywogs.
The Chateau Thierry was fearfully short of exalted shellbacks. I don't think that we had more than two dozen of them on board. There were mutterings of a pollywog mutiny but most of us secretly looked forward to the ordeal of entering the mystery of the brotherhood. As the Chateau came ever closer to the Equator, a number of Civilians produced proof of having crossed the line and joined the Shellback cabal.
On board the Chateau, between crew and Civilians, we carried above twelve hundred pollywogs. The day of crossing the Equator would be a busy one for Poseidon and his henchmen. Poseidon's Royal Court requires a Queen of the Deep adorned with a seaweed wig, a Royal Baby, a Royal Barber, Royal Painter and a Princess, as well as assorted sturdy types to hold down the victims. In our case, we also had a Royal Electrician. His most important tool was a hand-cranked magneto that was used for testing artillery firing circuits. It could give a very respectable jolt when applied to a dry body. If you were wet, it would knock you on your ass.
On the eventful day, the canvas swimming pool was flushed out and filled with clean sea water. Then sounded a royal flourish from both of the ship's buglers. Came forth the Royal Court, led by His Majesty King Neptune and his beauteous Queen. They seated themselves in their thrones, and, with another flourish from both buglers, the assorted courtiers entered in array to pass their judgement upon foul pollywogs.
As each pollywog's turn came, he was seized by the Royal Policemen. The Royal Baby's diapered, mustard-smeared butt was presented for a kiss. The Queen's oversize breasts were flaunted in his face, the Royal Painter smeared him with some obnoxious mixture; the Royal Barber lathered his face and scraped it off with an oversize wooden razor and tipped him backward into the pool. As the pollywog struggled to the surface and headed for the exit, the Royal electrician zapped him with the wires from the test magneto. It generated a new flow of energy in all but the most lethargic
Most of us never even touched the edge of the railing as we leapt out of the pool.
About halfway through the ceremonies, one of the Civilians went ape-shit when hit with the electricity and Bulkhead Benny sent down from on high and ruled out the electric zapping. Some felt that the zapper was inhumane and vicious, but those of us who had suffered it felt cheated by the prospect that others might escape. This is a peculiar mark of the American citizen.
Those who had not yet been through the ceremony tended to be of the more chicken-hearted opinion that further use of the magneto was against the Geneva Convention.
The line-crossing ceremony did a lot for whatever morale existed aboard the ship. There never had been much hostility between crew and Civilians but what there was faded away. The problems at Freetown became funny.
The Civilians' clothing and shoes had worn out and many were barefoot. The store of clothing for the crew in the slop chest and lucky bag had long since been wiped out. Crew members who had access to such things saved bits of cloth and canvas and wood for the Civilians to use in making shoes. The Civilians haunted the refuse pile near the stern where trash was collected for night-time disposal. Everybody had scabies and crotch-rot.
I found that the cure for crotch-rot was sunshine. I left off wearing skivvies and wore cut-off dungarees so that, from time to time, I could pull them aside to expose the scrofulous skin of my scrotum and inner crotch to the tropic sun. The vampire grade jock-itch could not stand the sunlight and died after a week of exposure. I avoided scabies, probably because of those same cut-off shorts. Scabies is also known as dungaree-itch and we believed it to be the work of microscopic parasites that reside in unwashed clothing.
Each man was responsible for his own laundry. We had something out of the Civil War Navy that was known as "salt water soap". It was just plain lye soap and it didn't work very well. Some men swiped the dish-washing soap from the scullery. It was tri-sodium phosphate and any dungarees left to soak in it would be streaked in colorful, tie-dyed patterns. Some of us also dragged dungarees astern on heaving lines where large pelagic fish sometimes mistook them for trolling bait.
One of the Civilians who had skill in such matters offered to make commemorative medallions of the voyage. The snipes gave him work space and lent him tools. The medallions were ready within a couple of weeks. They were made from melted-down coins and they were quite good. The medallion showed a bas relief of the Chateau Thierry with some sort of inscription on the reverse. They were relatively expensive but we all bought them. I sent mine home when we got to the states and I wish I had it now.
Durban, South Africa
The Chateau Thierry arrived at Durban on the Fourth of July, 1942. We arrived a little after noon but lay offshore while other ships went in before us. By all rights, a troopship and a Naval vessel should have gone in first. There were several reasons for this. First, a Naval vessel deserves the honor of early entrance: Second, a troopship should not be left lolly-gagging outside the harbor to attract the attention of enemy submarines.
Bulkhead Benny made no attempt to hide his belief that the incident with the Admiral in Freetown had cause the Limeys to disrespect us no end. I imagine that he was at least partially correct.
Durban was in early Winter but still not very cold. Whites were the uniform of the day.
Hatch #1 was opened and the Civilians' suitcases were spread out on deck. Ragged scarecrows reclaimed their summer cruise clothing, grabbing whatever they could and cramming it into their bunk spaces. We had fresh water all day, not just for a half hour in the morning.
The crew had port and starboard liberty, one night ashore for each watch. Liberty ended at midnight. The Civilians had no such restrictions and tumbled down the gangway to visit genteel cultural centers. One of the more interesting sights was the rickshaws which we all thought had never found their way to this part of the world. Even more interesting, the rickshaws were drawn by Zulu warriors in full ostrich feather and lion skin regalia. Tall, thin, muscular men, they loped along the streets, drawing the large-wheeled rickshaws behind them. We were warned to avoid their exotic conveyances, or, if we did patronize them, to be sure that the rear safety props were in place. The props were rods of iron designed to keep the rickshaw from tipping over backward if the rickshaw man lost his grip.
The problem was that the "tip up" was a common form of robbery in Durban. The loping warrior would suddenly turn down an alley, release the shafts of the rickshaw, and dump his passenger just where an accomplice was waiting. We were told that a British warship had recently lost six men in six nights. The bodies were always naked when discovered.
Several crew members and Civilians were robbed, One of the Civilians was robbed to the point of nakedness. He still had his socks on when he staggered into a police station. Just his socks. The police lent him a blanket and brought him to the ship. He caused quite a stir when he came up the gangway. Luckily, his suitcase was still available so that he could dress again and head back to the fleshpots.
On to Aden
Our course to Aden took us outside of the island of Madagascar, well out into the Indian Ocean. In late July we met the Indian Ocean Monsoon. It kicked up seas about force four or five. The winds are seasonal. They blow steadily for a period of months then reverse direction. They are infinitely predictable. The sailing dhows of Sinbad's time rode the monsoon between Arabia, Africa, and India. They still do. And they still carry spices and gold and slaves.
During part of the voyage, the monsoon winds were strong enough to keep the Civilians on the leeward side of the ship. One Sunday a ship in the convoy struck a whale and the sea was dyed red. Another day we sighted a drifting lifeboat with its dismounted mast looking from a distance like a harpoon sticking out of Mobey Dick. The Chateau made a high speed circle of the possible bait and we saw a still figure under the slack, collapsed sail. There was nothing but death there. We rejoined the convoy.
A new division had been formed. It was made up from the greenhorns who had come aboard on that drizzly night in Brooklyn. The gods of the Bridge felt that we youngsters had better eyesight so we were formed into L for Lookout Division. That's all we did and it wasn't so bad. The problem was that some idiot of an officer had decided that our eyes would be better used if we went on a watch rotation of two hours on and four hours off. The four hours included the half hour it took to get from our bunks to our stations, then the half hour it took to get back to our bunks; the time it took to eat, wash, defecate and whatever. We actually had a lot less than two hours of interrupted sleep between watches. It was a lousy system and lasted for about three weeks.
On lookout we were supplied with Navy spec. Bausch &Lomb binoculars. They were the finest binoculars I ever used until years later when I was sailing as Master and bought a pair of 10 x 60 Leitz glasses.
The Bausch & Lomb glasses had a power of 7x50. This meant a magnification of seven power and an objective lens of 50mm. Divide the diameter of the objective lens by the magnification and you get a figure of slightly more than 7.
The human eye has a maximum capacity of accepting an exit pupil of 6mm
Massawa, Eritrea was a former Italian naval base. Italy had occupied Eritrea only since the 1880s. The British took it away from them in 1941.
The port consisted of three basins and the supporting facilities for the Italian fleet. As the Brits were moving in, the Italians did their best to destroy anything that the enemy would find of value. In the workshops, they destroyed machinery and tools. Thirty-seven ships were scuttled in the three interconnected basins. The place was left in a pretty sorry state.
However, the Italians hadn't been methodical. With electric motors, for instance, bell housings were smashed, but not all power-end bell housings. The Brits and Americans were able to cannibalize what they found and succeeded in salvaging about one motor in three.
The clearing of the harbor basins was a little more difficult, but it was not beyond accomplishment. The Italians has simply opened the sea valves on most of the thirty-seven ships they scuttled. From a salvage point of view, much of the work was just a pump-out. The work went to American salvors and with a man like Edward Ellsberg in charge, success was a foregone conclusion.
When the Chateau Thierry entered the port on August 15, 1942 there was no lack of working dock space and about half of the scuttled ships had been re-floated.
Massawa is the hottest seaport in the world. Sustained daytime summer temperatures of 115º F. are not uncommon. The port is situated in a desert country with a breath like a furnace door and a perpetual haze of fine brown dust. Most of the streets were unpaved. The buildings had a depressed and defeated look about them, the look of a captive colony. Pairs of African Colonial troops, someone said that they were French, guarded gates near the edge of town. They were very tall and extremely thin men, often barefoot, dressed in shorts and a sort of bush shirt. They wore the red fez and carried lengthy, obsolescent rifles with yard-long bayonets attached. They were the blackest men I have ever seen, whipcord-thin and whang-leather tough. They also gave a definite impression that they were very bad people to cross. One member of the pair would challenge in a strange language while his partner assumed the kneeling position and drew a bead on your belly button. We had no common language and it was said that they would call for an interpreter while your body cooled. We avoided them.
There were very few white women in the town. Most of them were the spoiled wives of the few Italian officers who had been trapped and paroled by the British forces. At the cool time of the day, just at sunset, the Italian officers self-consciously carried on some sort of daily promenade. In starched khaki uniforms, polished leather and fine boots, they walked slowly around the piazza with their frumpy, sweating, petulant-looking women, refusing to relax the customs of Fascist rule. The women looked as though they would not have held high social position back in Roma or Turino.
As paroled officers, the Italian men wore tiny holsters high on their Sam Browne belts. They had fixed-jawed and determined faces, like Il Duce when the German paratroopers snatched him from the mountain top like a sack of semolina
I turned away from the piazza, down a dusty side street with sloping sidewalks, undermined by the constant wind and infrequent rain. I had no idea where I was going. Ahead of me was what passed for a sidewalk café. Under a wide umbrella, sat a lone woman. As I approached her I saw that she was probably in her mid-late twenties, breathtakingly beautiful with a gaze, a face, and a figure that would have dominated Hollywood. She looked like Hedi Lamar at her best. Wonderful black hair set off her light olive skin, full lips and dark, sensual eyes. Her features had no hint of Africa, her skin no Afric tone. She was European, Middle Eastern, Arabic, Hamitic….all of them possible in an impenetrable and enigmatic mix of beauty and blood. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. That was true when I had just turned eighteen and it is true today. She reigns unopposed.
She sat at a rust-stained tin table, in the shade of a decaying colonial building. She was uncaring of her surroundings; aloof, majestic and unattainable. She could have, she should have, been seated in Venice's Piazza San Marco or in a Parisian café. Her low-cut dress of sheer patterned silk clung to her perfect torso and the long thighs of her languidly crossed legs as though pleasure-seeking silkworms had woven it in place. On the table before her was a glass with a drink of some sort, a package of American cigarettes, and a small purse. I tried to walk past her without staring. She glanced up. I was completely stunned. A field, a cloud of invisible charged particles surrounded her. I could feel myself blushing, feel a rivulet of sweat run down my spine. My scalp tingled. If she had beckoned to me or spoken to me I would either have crawled on my knees toward her perfect ankles or run blindly down the street. I stumbled as I hastened past.
In the years that have passed I have said many times that that incredible woman looked like Sophia Loren's sexy sister. I was guilty of understatement. Who was she, from where had such beauty come, and what in Hell was she doing in Massawa?
Later that evening I discovered the Club Turino. It was the sixth-floor roof garden atop the Hotel Turino. For a small-town boy, that first roof garden was a magnificent, exotic place. It was open to the sky and lit by a bright moon, dim lamps, and the sparkling stars. The dance floor was of terrazzo. At the far end of the dance floor, a six-piece orchestra was playing. It was the first time I saw an orchestra playing behind a chicken wire fence.
I found a seat near the orchestra and ordered something to drink. The band played that old American hit called "Dinah". Then they played something unfamiliar and European followed by a rendition of "Dinah" in tango rhythm. To honor the next shouted request to "Play an American song!" "Dinah" took on the swirls and sweep of a bit of old Vienna. I took note of the great number of beer bottles on the tables and began to see the value of a chicken wire fence.
The musicians were Italians, stranded by the fortunes of war. It was easy to see the trepidation in their faces. They could have gained new stature, greater income and done away with the need for the chicken wire if someone could have found copies of a few of America's greatest hits.
We all were very careful to do as we had been instructed and to drink only bottled "aqua minerale". This was, of course, served warm. We filled our glasses with ice in order to cool it. Then someone caused our collective entrails to writhe with the speculation that the ice was made with branch water, right out of the tap. Whatever harm it did to us was lost in the general and universal hangover of the following day.
The night was stiflingly hot, the bored musicians tootling and thumping and fiddling away. The Club Turino was about half full. I was sitting with my back to the entrance. I felt a flash of heat as hot as the breath of the desert at noon. The hair on the back of my neck bristled. I caught my breath. The orchestra missed a beat, two beats. The players were glancing at each other and toward the entrance. The half-drunken conversation dropped to silence. All of these in an instant flash of time, as though the entire population of Club Turino had been struck by a bolt of lightning.
Every head swiveled toward the entrance. The band made a ragged resumption of its music, conversation started again, bottles and glasses clinked. I turned further to get a better view. It was the beauty from the scraped tin table. The woman with the sheer silk dress and the seductive eyes. With her entrance had come a flash of sexuality, of animal heat that burst over the roof garden, affecting every man in the place. I have never again felt such a thing. I know I was not alone in my reaction. Others mentioned the flash, the heat she exuded and the effect she had on all men. Over two years later, I mentioned her to two salvage divers who had worked in Massawa. They had never been closer to her than six feet away. They knew well the power of her aura. The divers spoke of her as Rosita, but that is another part of this Odyssey .