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Duty Petty Officer

Law and order in the Colony with the stretched facilities of the Fleet were precarious and thieving and looting by often Chinese in Sampans was rife. One afternoon when I was duty Squadron PO. I heard the Tannoy call out for “Duty PO 812 Squadron, report to the Jaunty’s office” which I did thinking the usual ‘What is it this time’?

“You’re in charge of Airfield Guard tonight - 12 hours - PO. You’ve got six Marines, six seaman and six Naval Airman” said the Jaunty looking at me and my youth and shaking his head “ I don't want no bloody trouble “. “Last nights Duty PO is on a charge. The F****** chinks came in sampans and the Captain’s office was cleared this morning tables, chairs, typewriters, cupboards, carpets - the lot gone. No trouble -see. Pick up your men at 6 tonight. Oh they came with carts past the planes last week”

I looked at him blankly. The perimeter of the airfield was at a guess a mile and a half of shoreline and a couple of miles of land boundary. A watch of 12 hours meant 4 hour shifts of 6 men on patrol at a time. I didn’t worry about the tent Messes but the Captains offices and stores were near the Guardhouse entrance and that hadn’t helped last night. Perhaps they were still empty. With 18 men lined up, issued with Sten guns and ammo, I marched them down to the Guard Mess nearer to the shore. The Aircraft were dispersed out on the airfield and it would be impossible to patrol them. So cross your fingers for them.

Sampans were the real danger so I decided to concentrate along the shore. The Naval Airmen were the weakest squad so I would put them on the first shift 6 to 12, then the marines over the next 4 bad hours and the seamen on the last morning watch. I’d get little if any ‘Shut eye’.

I prayed for a clear moonlit night with no sea mist. The gods smirked and the moon shone with occasional light clouds over its face. The dusk after 10 brought in a varying eddying sea mist which obscured at times the ships at anchor in the Bay and, just offshore, two or three American seaplanes had arrived that morning and swung in the tide with their mooring lights just visible. The marine corporal was a good steady chap and agreed with my deployment and, after I made a tour of inspection in the half light, I stretched out on a cot in the guard house, fully clothed with Sten gun alongside ‘The quiet was broken by the rattle of a Sten gun and we all rushed out and raced along the shore towards the town side when through the mist came a stammering half hysterical NA waving his Sten at us and crying “ Oh God PO I’ve shot ‘im, I’ve shot ’im”

I told him curtly to calm down and gently pushed the nozzle of the Sten away from pointing to the corporal and myself, and we moved passed him and forward to search.

“ You Goddamn F****** Limeys. You‘ve F****** shot me” and a figure of what we later identified as a drunken US pilot from the anchored seaplanes wove his way out of the darkness and pushing one finger through a neat hole in the brim and crown of his hat. “My dinghy is here and that stupid B****** fired first when he saw me. You’re all crazy “

We calmed him down quite relieved but a bit chastened although I pointed out to him, taking a positive line in what could be an inter Allied incident, that he had entered a Restricted RN area without permission, but as no harm was done ,we would not take him into custody! We helped him to float out his dinghy. And the night was quiet again with only the distant noises of the city. The NA was relieved of his Gun and sent off duty to the Guard hut. It was well past eleven thirty and I told the corporal to get his men to relieve the other 5 Naval Airmen and then take over this sector. He did and half an hour later I was back in the hut half dozing.

I was shaken awake by a marine who said “ The corporal wants you but its OK” and I followed him down to the shore where the marine dropped to a crawl and slipped silently between rocks to the corporal crouched behind a boulder. The light cloud cleared from the face of the moon and I followed his pointed finger out to sea where two sampans were moving smoothly towards the nearby sandy beach.

“Let’s discourage the B****** eh PO!” And he lifted the Sten gun took careful aim and put a burst of fire into the waterline of one of the sampans. The boats spun around rowing frantically away from the shore with one figure standing up shouting at us as he alternately held what looked like a bleeding arm with one hand , then letting go to shake his fist at us. I was awake until the watch changed having had a walk to check the silent parked aircraft. The rest of the night passed, to my nervous relief, without further incident. I felt I had done well but there were no comments or “Well done PO” from the Officer of the Watch. Why - well because the Navy expected you to do your duty without complaint, or comment, or thanks.

Another incident as Duty PO has left me with a clear unforgettable memory. I answered the Tannoy message to report to the Jaunty's Office and was told to pick up a prisoner from the Cells and take him to hospital and leave him there in custody. I took charge of an insignificant scrawny Naval Airman and was handed an envelope to be delivered to the Hospital Authorities and told which Hospital it was. It was the guarded Venereal Diseases Compound. We drove into Kowloon in a Naval Truck to the Hospital and I marched the Prisoner, following directions, into a small office with glass windows in one wall looking along rows of Hospital Beds some occupied others with men sitting on them. I gave the letter to the Sick Berth Attendant sitting at a desk.

After reading it he shouted down the ward and a small grinning rating, naked except for an open Dressing gown, came into the cubicle. " New Boy said the SB 'Tiffy' " give him a bed". I was standing stiffly upright, scared that the old Naval Saying 'Don't go near the Sick Bay unless you are Dying - you might catch something' would be true. Servicemen and my generation had been indoctrinated by films with fear of contracting the then practically incurable disease of Syphilis.

The rating saw my fear and revulsion and he threw open his gown exposing festering private parts and sneered " You think that’s bad, PO, look in there" and he nodded down the ward. I did and went white.

The Sick Berth Tiffy held out papers to take back to the Disciplinary Officer and I didn't move and he laughed. "Come on PO, you won't catch anything this way" and I gingerly took the letter, delivered them back to the camp and went and showered and scrubbed myself from head to toe.

I spoke with a seaman PO who had joined us in the Mess. He was regular RN and had had Gonnorea twice, and had finished a treatment course of Bismuth, I believe for Syphilis, which he said it was hell and at times after injections he could barely move. This was before Penicillin and Antibiotics. Today I can understand the fear of Aids. VD then was just as bad and very widespread.

Another Tannoy at Kai Tak and another order. This time it was to report to the CPO near the Star Ferry docks in Kowloon. I would get a lift on a Shore leave lorry from the camp to there. When I reported to the Chief I got the familiar faintly puzzled stare that I had grown accustomed to from RN personal which said "It's a No Badge  PO ?"[that is the arm badge of the crossed anchors on my sleeve had no 'Good Conduct' chevron underneath it. In short I had not yet served 3 years undetected crime in the Andrew as the Service was called by sailors] Therefore how could I be a PO, a rank which was only given to long service mature Regular Navymen or RNVR, seldom a Volunteer Hostilities Only Rating such as I myself" Also I was too young, only 20 and a youngster in their eyes!

"Follow me" he said , and we walked down to the nearby jetty where, tied up alongside, was a twin prowed converted Japanese Landing Craft about the size of a Seine Net Boat. "You're Fleet Liberty Boat to the Queens Pier. You know it, the Main landing quay for Hong Kong Island" I nodded and he continued, "You got four Chinks who don't speak no English. Here's a whistle, now listen, one blast - full ahead, two - full astern, three - cut engine, four - secure Got it ? Start round the Carriers first. " and he stared at me, sniffed and walked away, then stopped and turned saying. "It's twin bowed so, the tide flows strong either way past the pier. Head full speed at the gangplank until you're 1 1/2 boatlengths away, then hard over and blow three; OK".

I boarded the craft. The four Chinese stared at me. I called out to start the engines, pointing to them and indicated to cast off blowing one clear blast of the whistle. I swung the wheel tentatively to get the feel of the turn then rather excessively correcting back quickly to clear the boat into open water. I had that resigned feeling in my stomach that I had so often experienced in the Navy, a feeling that I first felt as a newly joined LRM when the radio in a Barracuda packed up just before take off and when I scuttled out of the plane and raced to the duty PO panting " The set's U/S " ie Unfit for Service and was given an icy stare and a quiet "Don't panic, get back aboard and fix it". I had never handled even a dinghy before, although I had so called boat training i.e. rowing a cutter in a large pond.

I was worried most of all if I were to get in the path of some larger boat, naval, Junk or Sampan. I knew I would give way. I experimented with tidal and wind correction steering and, too soon the Queens Pier loomed up and I saw faces of Naval Officers and Ratings looking at the approaching boat waiting for transport back to their respective ships. Full speed ahead he said. The tide flowing out to sea was strong, the boats way was steady but slow -3 lengths, 2 lengths and the piles of the quay loomed over and my resolve faltered as I thought of the bows crashing into the seaweed covered wood and gangplank, and I spun the wheel over and gave 3 blasts. We cleared the quay by 6 feet and shot out to sea in the ebb tide with the engine stopped.

It seemed ages before I blew one whistle chugged back in a wide curve towards the quay and although almost too late this time, did tie up safely with the whistle for 'full astern' and 'cut' and the skill of the nimble adept Chinese crewmen. I avoided the glances of the embarking Officers and men and headed for the nearest Carrier and somehow, in a haze, got safely alongside and discharged the returning Libertymen and carried on to the next ship. Slowly the boat emptied until I was left with 2 or 3 sailors who, when I said 'where to ?' pointed to a minesweeper. I headed back to the pier.

The tide race had eased off and the next boatload was embarked after a break alongside, without any problems. By the time we had dropped off the last passenger and returned to the now quiet dock I was cold and shivering with tension and handed over my 'command' to a relief PO who eventually dropped me off at Kowloon . After an hour or more I found a lorry going to Kai Tak and got under my Mosquito netting into my bed in the small hours of the morning thinking " God what next ?".

I woke up one morning with my foot kicked outside the net. It was swollen and , although I had been taking Atrabin or Mepacrin regularly, went down with Malaria soon after. It was many years before the attacks of Malaria, usually at night, tailed off. I grew up with stories of Malaria for my father, Uncle Bill and my Army Great grandfather, were all said to have been sufferers.

At that time I was the youngest non Aircrew PO and I knew that I was often given the heavy end of duties when the rotas were made up. I have to say that I had been Duty PO when nothing happened but often found myself nominated for awkward jobs when Lofty Locke, also a PO but in his late 30's had seldom, if ever, been called upon. I must say that I never worried about it other than I did not escape my notice that the most senior Air Radio PO Merrit in 812 Squadron appeared to avoid all but the odd quiet duties

I had, as most PO's had, duty as Shore Naval Police which entailed marching through Hong Kong proper with a squad of strange non Fleet Air Arm Ratings. I seem to remember that I wore a Khaki belt and gaiters and a whistle on a lanyard, and that the seamen carried polished pick handled as I had first seen in Alexandria. I recall marching alongside the squad up a side street and a one badge seaman in the front row calling out in a low voice "Chink trouble up ahead PO" and as expected I sang out " about turn! and "left wheel " at the next intersection. We did check any sleeping bundles in the streets and door to be sure that they were not drunken or unconscious servicemen. Starvation was widespread the patrols called on the Official Chinese with hand carts, if we could see them, to cart off the bodies for burial in lime strewn graves. The Navy had an arrangement with Rickshaw Coolies to pick up any drunken or unconscious sailors and run them down to the Queens Dock. There the Duty PO paid the driver with any money from the pocket of the sailor (or from his neighbour if 'skint' and the bodies were laid out in rows and returning sailors were asked if they could identify any 'bods' from their ship and they were carried aboard the next Liberty boat. If 'unclaimed' they were all carried aboard the last Liberty Boat and at each ship the Duty Officer picked out known faces for transfer to the Cells.

There was one humorous incident with such a drunken comatose sailor at the Queens Dock or Quay. Liberty Men that is Officers and Ratings on Shore Leave, were addressed while lined up aboard their ships prior to going ashore when they were warned that certain places were 'Out of Bounds'. These locations were carefully memorised by a certain minority of  matelots who customarily murmured in the back row of the lined up Liberty Men. " It's good of the 'Andrew' to tell us where the Brothels are". In Hong Kong all were warned off drinking 'Red Dragon Brandy' which could be lethal and in the early stages caused the face to go red and puffed and the drinker passed out. Notwithstanding the warning there was usually a few of such experimenters laid out with the drunks.

The story went round the Fleet amid great amusement that the Rear Admiral and entourage were on the Pier about to go aboard the Admirals Barge with the Duty Pier PO and all ratings there at 'Attention' , when a Brandy drunken AB came to and staggered to his feet as all were at attention as the Admiral walked by. To everyone’s frozen disbelief, he stepped out in front of the Admiral [Harcourt ?] and said " A F****** Admiral. I always wanted to sock a F****** Admiral , swung his fist out ineffectively and collapsed on the deck.

“Put him on a Charge PO" said the Admiral's accompanying Officer.

One duty of the Shore Patrol was checking the known and not 'Off Bounds' Brothels where they were welcomed, for trouble cut into the profits of the 'Mother Superiors' or Madam who ran the establishment. There was one which might have been a converted Church or Chapel in that there was a Balcony fitted out in comfort by the Madam as a combined office and sitting area and where PO in charge was offered a glass of Chinese wine and looked down onto a hall divided up into cubicles by 6 foot high curtains. In that way the Mother Superior could see that all below was going on peacefully and profitably.

So much for official activities.

Domestic Life in Hong Kong

As the weeks passed by and things became calmer, we had one or two afternoon Bathing Parties to a beach in the New Territory and, on one of these after a swim I had time to climb up from the shore and sit admiring the neatly terraced fields stretched out inland. As I watched Chinese peasants harvesting a rice crop with sickles I noticed that one woman had stopped harvesting and walked to the shade of a tree just below me and sat down. One of the work party, a girl, set off running to a nearby building. The girl ran back to the woman with something like clothing in her hand and after perhaps 5 or 10 minutes as I watched unobserved the woman handed a bundle to the girl who carried it carefully and slowly back to the house. The woman sat for a little while longer, picked up her sickle and rejoined the workers who after some talk resumed the harvesting. I realised that what I had seen was a straight forward birth of a child in a Chinese Rural context.

Another experience I had a few weeks after going ashore to Kai Tak. I had heard that a Restaurant serving chicken was open in Kowloon. This in itself was remarkable in that famine was widespread and that, for example, when the ships messman threw the "Gash" or waste food over the side of the ship, the hovering sampans fought over the debris in the water. It was so bad that one sampan was made official gash collector to stop the fights and one woman and her 2 kids, who worked lived and slept aboard the 12 foot boat was allowed to be dhobi woman. I used the dhobi woman in that you lowered your laundry in a bucket on a rope with a full bar of coarse 'pussers ' soap and she washed everything in the sea water and the payment when you lowered your bucket to get your laundry back was -- what was left of the bar of soap.

We asked out Chinese Messman about the rumour and he came back and said that it was correct and gave us an address and a map to find the place. One afternoon we had our tot of rum and went ashore walking well into Kowloon from Kai Tak. Later I found that we must have skirted the 'Hidden City', a warren in the centre of old Kowloon said to be still Chinese territory and "Out Of Bounds" in no uncertain way. But Taffy and I found the 'restaurant' which turned out to be a room in a quiet tenement in a back street. We were the only clients that afternoon. We sat in a small room served by the waiter, who was the owner. In a little room leading off, was the kitchen with his wife as cook. We ordered chicken and he nodded, bowed and disappeared.

The chicken came beautifully cooked, tender and fragrant served with the best lightest rice that I had ever tasted. It melted in my mouth. We also had a bottle of white Chinese wine. Portions were small by todays standards but very filling for, having been on small ships rations for so long, our stomachs had shrunk. I have been from 11 to 111/2 stone for the last 50 years and I can still get into my No 1 naval uniform but my official weight then was 7 stone 8lbs.

At the end of the meal we sat back and felt that we were completely satisfied after months, years of indifferent scarce rations.

" That was superb Taffy, but it was not chicken. Maybe it was goat", I said to Taffy, "Get away that was the best chicken that I have ever tasted", replied Taff.

And so we argued until I turned to the watchful attentive Chinamen and asked if our meal was chicken. He smiled and spoke in Cantonese and we realised that he did not understand English. His wife had come to the door of the kitchen and was smiling and bobbing. So I stood up and with a big smile pointed to the plate and said questioningly "Chicken ? " and I put my hands on my hips, stuck my elbows out as I flapped them crowing " Kook-a-doodle doo".

They froze looking at each other, then they laughed and exchanged a burst of Chinese. The husband turned and copied me shaking his head, then went "Bow-wow, Bow-wow".

Taff and I swallowed, then we thought of the jam at sea with more cockroaches than jam. Originally we had picked out the first cockroaches then found it impossible and if we happened to chew any we would pick them out of our mouths saying" It's good of the Navy to give us fresh meat this week "The chicken was Chow and we joined the Chinese laughter, paid up and left.

It was early evening and as we picked our way back to camp through the maze of back streets we were stopped by a bunch of young Chinese with knives obviously out to rob us. We turned tail and ran and ran until by luck we found ourselves out in a busy street which we knew led to Kai Tak and eventually, exhausted and sobered, we trailed into camp.