Once we were settled at anchor, it wasn't very long before a few Chinese were allowed aboard to collect our 'gash' (odds and ends of food). An old very unhygienic-looking 20 gallon oil-drum was their means of collection. This task was performed by Chinese women dressed in the traditional black 'coolie' garb. They lived on one of the scores of Sam-pans moored abreast to the quayside. I had two women who did my washing, I was a little reluctant at first, thinking I would never see my clothes again. I was wrong!. They were honest!. I still have a photograph of these two women. They washed my clothes for a few scraps of food that I would save for them. Everything was thrown in the oil-drum as they went from mess-deck to mess-deck, including tea leaves from the mess tea fanny. It was then taken ashore and sold to other Chinese for food. It reminds me of another class of people in Britain who are in a similar trade.... cash and carry.... During my time spent in Hong Kong I came across a Chinaman with a barrow full of what I thought were green and white pebbles. They were in fact cockroaches, green shells and white bellies, after being boiled, then sold for food. Maybe after the oil-drum mixtures they would be classed as a delicacy. I decided to give them a definite miss....
The tannoy blasted once again.... 'Air-Repair electricians report to the gangway'.... Something to do at last. We were then instructed to collect tools and three petrol-driven generators and report back: along with reels of cable. We returned to find a Japanese landing-craft our lads had nicked from the shore, hitched to the gangway. Were we going to teach these Japs a lesson, after all the atrocities we had heard about them?. Not bloody likely!. What essential task were we going to perform to help the war-effort and return us home quicker?. We were going to temporarily re-wire the Hong Kong yacht club, a small island in the harbour built for the Colonial-Master-Race. This was urgently required to be used as an officer's club. Ah! The British! Don't you just admire them for getting their priorities right?.
The Japanese were to blame for this atrocity.... they had cut the main cable to the small island. We re-wired the place: the comments we made would have illuminated the island without the generators we had installed.
Rumours were flying around the ship and it seemed pretty certain that our division was going ashore to take on the task of guarding Jap POW's. The RAF had a contingent on another ship and now had the problem of assessing the damage done to Kai-Tak airfield. There was a slight duty to get out of the way. There was the little matter of the Japanese signing the official surrender documents. Wars can not be considered over unless pen is put to paper. That is why we of the lower-deck were feeling very vulnerable when we entered harbour. The signing took place on the flight deck of the Venerable with Admiral Bruce Fraser and a motley crew of officer's, one of which was our own Commander Flying. I have no idea who represented the Japs.... they all look the same to me.
To appease any future historian, I have photographs of the Venerable flight-deck with the Japs and British aboard. Other photographs indicate that the actual signing was in the Governor's residence. One indisputable fact is that the Japs signed the documents in Hong Kong........
Meanwhile the rest of the navy were performing tasks including rehabilitating the British POW's from Stanley Camp. They were in a sorry state. This was the first real evidence of Japanese brutality that anyone of us had seen. It certainly didn't put them on the top of our popularity list. The rumour became fact and a gang of us were taken ashore, kitted out with white-belts, gaiters, rifles and sten-guns. We were then marched up to a five storey block of flats. It was deemed 'Vengeance headquarters' and was to become our home for the next few months. The last time I had seen a sten-gun was when Bill Shankly had instructed us at Henlow. We soon discovered where we were to bed down. In the lobby facing the entrance. We each had a space big enough to hold a camp bed and kit-bag stored at the side. The officers weren't even in our building. They took the block next door. We had the early watch next day. There were two POW camps and a hospital camp, presumably used by the Japs to house their prisoners. The camps looked like any other camps we had seen in photographs. Rows of huts, internal guard-room on one side. I don't remember seeing a watch-tower. Maybe there was one.... I don't remember. I was the first to go with an officer and a PO on an internal camp inspection. As we went down the centre of each hut I saw my first glimpse of the 'Nips'. My skin crawled as two rows of slanting eyes seemed unable to contain the hatred as they stared at us. They were on straw-matting on a raised board two inches from the floor. The same conditions our own people had been subjected to. Pity was a million miles away. It wasn't very far removed from the conditions my own country had made me suffer in Preston. I couldn't help but notice the split boots some of them wore. The big-toe fitted in one section and the rest in another section. Climbing trees....?.
A high barbed-wire fence ran around the perimeter. The main gate had a small sentry-box. We went through every hut in the camp and felt the same feeling of hatred. I wondered what use would a rifle without fixed bayonet, slung over my shoulder and two holstered revolvers be, if they decided to 'die' for the Emperor. My feelings were unreal; feelings created by these human-beings.... or were they?. I returned to the main-gate to join my mates. I had become a soldier for a time, and I unconsciously kept the rifle shouldered correctly. My white belt and gaiters and highly polished boots added to my feelings. (Hell! Surely I haven't become proud of being in the navy?) The rebellion which was always lurking under the surface seemed to be on hold for the moment. Our first watch had started at 8am. and finished at 12pm. Guard-duty was three days on and one day off: split up into 4 hour watches over the 24 hours. The morning watch was a doddle because 600 Jap prisoners were double-marched off by a single airman carrying a sten-gun. He ran them all the way to Kai-Tak airfield to repair the landing strip and buildings destroyed by the bombing raids.
Our first full day off duty found myself and my mates walking down to the Kowloon quayside to sample the delights of Hong Kong: provided we could get across to it. We solved the problem by hitching a ride on a naval boat. When we arrived we thought we had blundered into a colony of ants. It was crowded and everyone seemed to be in a hurry. The Japanese occupation didn't seem to have altered their lifestyle. They lived in squalor and the food on open display made me want to throw-up: particularly when I saw the barrow load of cockroaches for sale. During their occupation the Japanese had issued their own currency: this was now useless. The original Hong Kong dollar had been banned. We had been issued with a new batch and one of the tasks of the rehabilitation force was to re-issue their currency and attempt to create a new stability. We wandered around stalls in a form of open-market, looking for souvenirs. We were aware of conmen this time and kept a watchful eye out for them. I was dressed in white shorts, white shirt and white cap, we retained the white belt and gaiters (probably made us feel more tough) and strolled across to a stall where a souvenir had caught me eye. A souvenir long forgotten, which cost me a few of the new issue Hong Kong dollars and nearly my bill-fold at the same time. I felt a bunch of banana's slide into my right hand pocket (this amateur pickpocket needed more practice) and remain there. It had to: (A monkey trying to nick nuts from a jar has the same problem. It always trapped it's hand.) I did a sharp turn to the right and was about to knock shit out of the person on the other end of the arm that I grabbed. It was skinny and belonged to a decrepit old codger who was probably born around the same time as the 'Boxer Rebellion' took place. His age saving him from a broken nose, but a series of kicks up his backside from the three of us sent him on his way. It also saved him from being banged up if reported. Martial-Law was in force. We exhausted our currency and hitched a lift back to Kowloon. On our walk up from the docks we passed houses allocated to newly-released families held by the Japanese during the occupation.
The day was bright and the sun was shining. Standing at the gate of one of the houses were two teenage girls. We were 'Jack-me Hearties' and thought we would try our luck. Our luck was bad: the moment we heard their upper-crust accents we knew we were playing in a different league. Or maybe they didn't understand what 'proper' English sounds like!. The game came to a sudden halt when 'mummy' came out and said, "Come along in girls.... immediately!". It was difficult to put our finger on anything definite: yet the attitude of these two little snobs was plain to see. Maybe they had a better time with the Japs. Is this why we left our families behind and hadn't seen for over a year?. The British class structure is never far from the surface. Over fifty years later it is still as strong as ever.
We had a few beers in the billet.... Don't ask me where they came from! I can't remember!. A game of crib and words like "balls to them" and "let them get stuffed" put a smile back on our faces. The smiles soon faded when we found out we were due for the watch every sailor hated.... The middle watch.... 12am.... 4am.... Can't sleep before it.... if you managed to drop off afterwards the 6am. reveille soon put paid to that nonsense. I hated this particular watch more than any I have ever done in the navy. We patrolled the interior of the camp in turns. The hair on the back of my neck always stood on end, due to the constant stream of Japs going to the heads. The stench coming from them was unbelievable. (If 'Portaloo' had been invented they would have made a fortune) I never had the courage to look inside them. I can only imagine it was a bloody big hole in the ground. You only became aware of the Japs presence when you heard a shuffle behind. I couldn't rid my mind of a newspaper headline that could have read "Sentry killed on duty by fanatical Jap". That duty always ended with a brew before the watch ended. The cook-house manned by the Japs was a small brick building with ovens down one side and with three large boilers: similar to the old copper-boilers in the terraced houses built for cotton-mill workers not very long ago. The contents of these boilers looked like millions of little grasshoppers. My knowledge of Jap cuisine was nil, so it could have been as popular with them as our fish and chips. Every Jap I saw had a sash around his middle and had a season ticket to the heads. Butterflies in their stomach?. Just a thought!. I handed my kettle to the Jap chef and received a polite bow. A bow that could not cover the hatred in his eyes. A good enough reason for me to stand with my back to the wall and with fixed bayonet. I had managed to survive this war and I had no intention of becoming a casualty at this late stage in the game. Sleep after that watch was impossible so we grabbed what rest we could, played crib, wandered aimlessly around, or strolled down to the quay. The sun always in attendance helped to make life a little pleasanter.
Next time on duty we pulled the late watch and I was on the main gate. A cloud of dust in the distance made me wonder about sand-storms. It was dust kicked up by the 600 Japanese returning from the airfield. The RAF man with his sten-gun was enjoying himself kicking hell out of the stragglers. The ones suffering from malaria were helped along by other Japs. He kicked them also. We had seen the condition of our own POW's, so pity for these people was an emotion I can honestly say, none of us had. Our CO sent a signal to the RAF commander to lay off the rough treatment. We have the Japs at night and they may target us for revenge. The signal curbed the ill-treatment, except for the odd kick in the balls.... Accidentally of course!. One of the few pleasures on guard-duty was returning the fawning Japanese salutes. Every Jap who passed out of the camp, usually on their way to the hospital camp, saluted us. Rank didn't matter, from the lowest soldier to the highest officer: that included an Admiral. We had one in the hospital, a decrepit old bastard who offered to teach me Japanese. They irritated us so much with this obvious insincerity that we returned their salutes with every obscene gesture known to man: including some we invented on the spot.
Our CO discovered we were gaining so much pleasure: his stiff upper-lip began to quiver out of control. We were ordered to return the salutes in the correct naval manner. (God! Eton has a lot to answer for, turning prats out like this) The expressions on the Jap faces were exactly the same as when they were torturing and starving to death thousands of our own people. It stuck in the craw; believe me!. The weeks rolled by and days became meaningless. News from home seemed to indicate we were the forgotten people. Out of sight: out of mind. We hadn't the faintest idea how long we were going to be stuck here. An incident during one of my day time watches created a little bit of excitement. One of our Royal Marine shipmates had been instructed to take four Japs outside around the camp perimeter. They were on a skirmishing-party. They didn't know they were about to be on a beat-up party. His brother had died on the infamous Burma railway, so he decided to part the hair of each Jap with a shovel. He was only out there for a short time. His only regret was "I wish I had killed those bastards". He was put on a charge and confined to quarters. I never did find out what the outcome of that episode was. Leniency should have been the order of the day: with Nelson still running the navy.... who knows?. Generations since those days, have never been able to understand the hatred and anger we had towards those Japs who could kill without emotion. Whether I could have brought myself down to their level I may never know: yet I never judged anyone who did.
The days again dragged into weeks: card schools, trips to Hong Kong: my 21st birthday slipped by unnoticed. Those were the old days where I was now entitled to 'The key of the door'. I had the bloody key to my mam's front door. I was just too far away to use it. Christmas loomed on the horizon and plans were made to hold a party on the roof of our flats. We had a marine dance band formed from the band we had on board. Invitations were sent to English women, nurses etc., or any female the lads could root out. We were all looking forward to a welcome break from a dreary routine. Fortunately I wasn't on duty Christmas Eve and we were looking forward to.... 'A good time by all'. We! the 'sparks' rigged the flat roof up with lights around the edge. A stage was rigged up for the band and Christmas Eve couldn't come quick enough. The tropical sun did it's disappearing act around 6 o'clock and we started to make our way onto the roof. By 7 o'clock we were all there ready and waiting, with the usual air of expectancy created by the thought of women being involved. Where the hell were they?. As the night moved on we began to realise that like Old Mother Hubbard's cupboard.... the female side of our party was bare. Correction! except for one Chinese woman who was probably a Pro. To say we were disappointed was a slight understatement. It was brightened a little by the bottles of beer and the marine band playing all the popular songs of the period.
A noise suddenly floated across the airwaves. Screeching cats?. No! "The bastards have got the RAF pipe band over there". 'Over there' was the roof of the officer's quarters who, true to the unrelenting navy tradition, had neglected to tell us they were holding a party of their own on the same night. We then knew where all the bloody women were.... on the opposite roof with the 'Officer's and Gentlemen'. What a challenge. On our side, one woman of doubtful origin, plenty of beer and a hell of a good band. On the other side: Toffee nosed buggers with their gin and tonics, all the stuck up women and 'Coming through the rye' bagpipes. No contest!. The feelings of frustration and unfair play by 'those bastards' was boiling over inside all of us. Well! back in my own backyard I thought, I have bugged them before, it looks like I am about to do it again except with a few backers this time. So let battle commence. The band played louder and we all got drunker and the mood became more dangerous. What is the name of the popular song? 'Fools Rush In'. A fool was just about to do exactly that. A young naval officer resplendent in navy dress-suit complete with cummerbund was on his way. He had with him a woman who was about to go 'where angels fear to tread'. They were about to attempt 'Mission Impossible' they were going to quieten us down and at the same time rub our noses in it. Flaunting the woman was not a good idea. I could not understand then: I still cannot understand today: why do naval officers never speak with a Lancashire accent?. Is it against the law?.
The chinless wonder came up the stairs and into the lion's den. His accent was so effected I wondered at the time whether each strangled vowel leaving his throat was costing him money. His and his companion's nose had obviously smelt something, why would they be wrinkled in disgust if they hadn't. He was really pushing his luck when he told us to stop being rowdy and to quieten down. He had!.... one of the Scot lads who couldn't take any more of it said, "Why don't you fuck off and take that fucking prostitute with you". He turned and I half expected him to take a bow. We all cheered loudly. The officer realised he wasn't welcome and took the advise of our Scot friend. He ...... off and took his .......... with him. We then carried on trying to spoil their party as they had spoilt ours. The duty-men started to drift away to take up the middle-watch. The rest of us with conflicting moods: Elation at having had a 'go' at the bastards and disappointment for having our party ruined. This left the officers to act like gentlemen and protect the ladies honour by leaving them still virginal. Bullshit! The old navy saying of 'a standing prick has no conscience' is still true today. Although on reflection: those bunch of poofs couldn't do them any harm.
I turned in and I was suddenly awakened by sten-gun fire. Couldn't be! It is! Hell! Don't tell me the Japs are escaping! None of my business anyway, so I snuggled back into my blanket and went back to sleep. The next morning I picked up my sausage and mash from the kitchen and went back to join in the chit-chat about last night's events. It seemed the CO was curious as why the middle-watch had decided to shoot at any Jap who poked his head outside his hut. I hoped the Japs had drunk a lot of water before turning in, just to make their prevented trips to the latrine more unpleasant. This morning's divisions were a little different. The CPO bawled his usual "Parade Shun" and turned to tell the CO himself that we were 'all present and correct sir' as he whipped a smart salute at the uniform. Well that is what they led us to believe. It wasn't the man we saluted: just the uniform.... and pigs can fly.... He did the 'stand easy' routine and then we all thought 'here it comes', "You men last night decided to become an undisciplined rabble and made a deliberate attempt to spoil the officer's party" Eh! Eh! We must have had some success or he wouldn't have mentioned it. He was relishing his power as he continued, "It is obvious to me that you need sharpening up and discipline is sadly lacking. Therefore from now on! Rig of the day (which means being permanently bulled up to the teeth) will be worn at all times. Every morning at seven sharp (he actually said 0700hrs) there will be a full inspection parade. That includes everyone. Boots will be polished, belts and gaiters will be blancoed. Any rating not doing this will be put on a charge. The ratings discharging firearms will be on CO's report and will be dealt with separately". (We did hear that they had fired at the Japs attempting to go over the wire. It seems there was a brothel they used before they surrendered.) We were dismissed and went our separate ways, once again at war with the usual navy way of 'getting their own back'. It made it worse in our minds, because the episode was triggered by the officer corps itself. Day after day this bloody awful unfair routine continued. Trying to get your equipment bulled up after a tropical rainstorm is nearly impossible. Coming off the last watch left virtually no time to do all the things we were supposed to do. Still on reflection it was nearly worth it. We had spoilt their bloody party hadn't we?.
Rumours started to float around our quarters that we were being relieved from guard-duty and returning to the ship. They became reality and we returned to the Vengeance. It had been our home for eighteen months and gave us a sense of security. Starting the normal ship's routine was a refreshing change from the daily grind of the the camp, especially with the enforced bullshit our 'unhappy warrior' had placed upon us. It didn't take long before the boxing team was back on shore rounding up the drunks. On one trip, we had special instructions to clear out the brothels. The Wan Chai area was the target. It should have been renamed the 'Street of a thousand Brothels'.... a slight deviation from the old Chinese adage of 'death of a thousand cuts'. Add a single letter to the last word and that would be a description of the matelots who took one hell of a chance of catching a 'dose'. There were more brothels here than Britain had pubs. We patrolled down each side of the rough dirt covered streets between rows of wooden-shacks (no visions of exotic dancers in eastern surroundings). They were usually first-floor rooms with an open balcony at the front. The PO walked down the centre detailing which of us should enter a brothel. The two story buildings which had probably never had a coat of paint inside or out, since the day they were built. It came my turn to run up the ramshackle stairs of these 'fun palaces'?. I turned right into a narrow room with a single bed on each side and one on the open veranda facing me. Each bed had a single dirty blanket spread around at chest height. The veranda had wooden rails to prevent over-passionate ardour sending the protagonist down to the street below: depending who was controlling the 'missionary position'. I looked over the curtain to my left and discovered who was in control. Definitely the male as his backside was doing an imitation of an horizontal steam-engine. The pair of slanting eyes looking at me over the left shoulder of 'Stephenson's Rocket' was probably wondering whether I was next in line. It was my job to give these lads a break from all the hard work they were indulging in: I hadn't the heart to stop his steam engine suddenly.... he may have blown a gasket. I took my 'Good Samaritan' feelings with me to the veranda. I decided to wait awhile. I could hardly ask the lads to 'speed up' a bit. They were going like the clappers already. The matelot having 'shot his bolt' so to speak, climbed off the bed, whilst his bed-mate didn't think it was necessary to cover up her 'working parts'. The guy on the bed on my right enquired, "Got a light mate?". He must of thought I was the friendly 'Bobby' on the beat. Maybe he hadn't noticed my belt, gaiters and arm-band!. I suppose it is a little difficult to look officious whilst watching three bare arses using up enough energy to get round the Grand-national course. "Sorry mate! I don't smoke!" "Got a light mate?" this question was aimed at the rider who had still not passed the post. He rapidly reversed out and said, "Bleeding hell mate! Couldn't you have waited 'till I finished?". His bed-mate would have probably had a Kit-Kat if there had been one available. He rummaged through his pocket, threw the matches over and said, "Piss off" put himself into forward gear.... no need to look where he was going.... and carried on where he had left off. "For Christ's sake get those bastards out of there". That was the voice of the PO shouting from below, reminding me I had to switch off the pornographic movie I had been enjoying. I escorted them down to the street and one of their dubious tasks in the near future would be to start 'squeezing up' just to see if they had bought more than they had paid for. That is the reason we had to be 'spoil-sports' and prevent these day and night entertainments. The days and nights once again dragged on. The Japanese surrender was in the past and we were all aching to go home. We received news from there that only made it worse for us. Things were slowly getting back to normal: servicemen were being demobbed and we really felt we were the 'forgotten army'. The Vengeance had been anchored up so long the barnacles were having a field-day. 24 hours seemed like 24 days and home-sickness had become a deadly disease.
We heard rumours that we would be going back to sea. It didn't matter where. Each turn of the screw would be going in the right direction and a little nearer home. Fred Day and myself, mess-mates from the beginning, were detailed to start the engines of six Corsair aircraft ranged at the rear of the flight-deck. We used a 'trolley-acc', four 24volt batteries linked together on a portable trolley. Current was fed through a cable which was plugged into a socket at the front of the aircraft just behind the exhaust outlets. At a given signal by the pilot or engine-fitter, we pressed a button until the engine fired. Rather like jump-starting a car. The trick was to unplug quickly and get the hell out of there before the flames from the exhaust or backwash from the prop changed your hair style. We each had three aircraft to start and as I completed each one I moved quickly until I was able to get to the side as quickly as possible. My days with the 'bats' officer had given me a healthy respect for revolving aero-engines. Fred started his three and decided to bask in the breeze as he pushed his trolley away to the side. The beginning of his rest-period was nice and peaceful as he lay down on the coconut matting lashed down to the flight-deck. This matting was given a daily soaking to protect the ammunition-lockers below from the excessive heat generated through the steel deck. Fred was really enjoying himself. the huge grin on his face confirmed it. The persons controlling the planes' engines decided to speed things up a little. The gentle breeze changed to a howling gale and the expression on Fred's face changed at the same time. His grin disappeared completely as he held on to the flapping coconut-matting as one by one the tapes holding it down broke. The change in his expression did wonders for us watching from the side. He should take this act onto the stage: it would be a sell out. Were we wishing for the last tape to break? We will never know.... but it did.... Our Fred! or should I say Aladdin? went backwards on his 'Magic Carpet', airborne and floating over the back of the ship to disappear in the bottle-green water below. If he could have heard the cheers! He would have probably taken a bow on the way down. Fred's unrehearsed exit made me realise that the time spent in this wartime navy was so unreal, we were living on our own 'magic-carpet'. Everything was unnatural: none of us ever realised the danger we were in every minute we spent at sea. Patriotism was not the reason many of us volunteered. It was because many of our mates had been called up. I did it because I wanted to join a service of my own choice.
Someone threw a life-belt over to Fred. They threw a rope over to Fred. None managed to salvage him. Maybe the shock of a 'back-flip' and 'double gayner' put his fail-safe mechanism out of order. A pulling cutter had to be lowered to retrieve him. By the time they had rowed him to the gangway we had all returned to the mess. Sympathy for this kind of funny caper wasn't the strong point of his mates. So-o he didn't get any. He walked through the mess soaked to the skin: the cheers and laughter that greeted him was the kind reserved for people who got top billing at the London Palladium. One thing for certain.... Fred never went behind an aircraft engine again. Once was enough....
The rumours became a fact when the similar call of 'Special-sea-duty-men close up' came through the tannoy. We were on our way at last. I was chatting to a pilot on the hangar-deck. These were hostilities only pilot. They realised we were all in it together so weren't as stuffy as the regulars. "Do you want to come on a strike with me?" a question directed at me by one of the Barracuda pilots. It took me some time to realise it. "Me! What do you mean?". "Yes you! my gunner is ill and I am short of one. We are going hunting for Chinese armoured-junks who are looting the coast-line". "Not bloody likely! I serviced that aircraft, you don't expect me to fly in it?". He was probably only joking: to have embarked on that kind of escapade would have landed me back in jail if I had been caught. Although any pilot who can find their way back to a carrier in thousands of miles of open sea and land successfully as these lads did, were mad enough for anything.
We left harbour and into the open sea, very disappointed we weren't heading in the right direction. The aircraft took off on their mission and we settled down once again to a sea-going routine. A few days later after the pilots had clobbered the Chinese junks, we returned to Hong Kong harbour. I doubt whether the Commander Flying would appreciate the pilots putting Pirate-Junk motif's on the side of their cockpits. Rising Suns? Yes!.
We went back to the monotony of dragging drunks out of brothels, broken only by the odd boxing match. Keeping our minds on training was difficult. They were full of 'wanting to go home'. An offer came, to anyone who would like to do a course on the Maidstone. It was a floating engineering factory. I spent a few interesting weeks learning engineering skills which would help when I returned to complete my engineering apprenticeship. Learning lead-dressing was ideal for the future I had in mind. Today? Old hat!. The Maidstone was used post-war, as an off-shore prison ship.
At long last!. Approximately eight months after leaving Sydney, we heard a very important message over the tannoy.... "Special-sea-duty-men close up. Hands to positions for leaving harbour". This time we knew we were leaving Hong Kong for good. I didn't know at the time, many years later, I would return there, on a business trip. The engines started to turn: the anchor chain rattling up the side: releasing our floating home from the sea-bed: a sound we had heard many times before. This time it was the sound of the bells. We were going home. The cluster of boats which had taken permanent residence around the ship moved away. My two washer women had lost part of their livelihood. We made our slow majestic way between the high-ground where a few months ago we had wondered whether we would have made it past the fanatical Japs. This time the clouds could have dumped their water on us. It didn't matter!. The killing war was over and we all hoped we would never be involved in any form of conflict again. (We weren't: so many more young men have: and still are: the world hasn't learnt it's lesson.) We finally arrived in the open sea, the carrier started it's gentle rolling motion again. The fresh air tasted like honey. Our attitude of mind made everything wonderful. We had nothing to do except pass the time on until we reached Sydney. I cannot remember how long it took us, except every hour took three hours to pass. We had a cocktail of anxiety and delight mixed together. No more dragging drunks out of brothels, No more guarding Japs, No more working with that bloody 'Bats'. The main thing in my mind was a collar and tie, a double-breasted suit and a long trench-coat. During my formative years James Cagney's gear was 'tops' with me.
Why is it there always seems to be a problem waiting in the wings?. We heard that if replacements were not in Sydney to relieve the ones whose demob number had come up: then we were going to stay on the Vengeance and go to Japan. That is one piece of information that didn't sit too well in my dreams. The navy couldn't be so spiteful? Surely! Anxiety was taking the top-spot away from delight. We had all been told the replacements for the ones with the lowest demob-numbers were waiting in Sydney. Those with the highest numbers would be going on to Japan with the ship. My number was low enough, but as yet no information about my replacement. All my mess-mates had had theirs confirmed. My congratulations to them all, only helped twist the knife further into my guts. I made a solemn promise to myself. When I get off this 'magic carpet' I will be paddling my own canoe in the future. A rough sea was developing: it went unnoticed. We had been in far worse seas. Another day dawned and one or two of us strolled onto the flight-deck. We hadn't the faintest idea how far we were from Australia. A voice suddenly said, "Is that the coastline over there?". "Nah! Is it bloody hell as like". "Sure it is! Are you blind?". We all stared in the direction he was pointing. Eyes willing for the coastline to appear: to change into mountains.... even small hills would do. He was right! the coastline was appearing. We were waiting for the usual tannoy call: it was taking too long. "Ships company to your stations for entering harbour". Sweet music from the tannoy. This is one bullshit line-up we didn't mind being involved in. We lined up dressed in our number one whites, port and starboard. A couple of aircraft in the centre for effect. We willed Sydney harbour bridge to appear: sure enough, there it was was waiting for us. We sailed majestically past. This time the sun was shining so we wouldn't look like drowned rats at the finish. The feeling at long last was, that we were 'big-ships' men coming back from a real part of the war: other ships in the harbour gave us the usual welcome with their hooters: ship's companies hanging over the rails cheering. It made we young sailors stick our chests out with pride. (The young rebel was sailing along with the rest for a change.) The tugs met us and we were gently nudged into our docking-area. We settled gently against the railway-sleepers bolted to the dockside: thankful we weren't anchored in the bay again. The gangway was lowered and my thoughts registered on my final journey.... the next time I board a ship, it should be the one taking me to England. "Cooks of the mess to the galley. Starboard watch will be granted leave tonight. Port watch are duty-watch". The tannoy telling us once again that starboard watch were the 'lucky bastards'. We settled down after the evening meal, playing cards and listening to the Australian radio station. Fred Gould my boxing opponent of light-tears ago, intended marrying the Australian girl he had met on our previous visit and settling here. He had neglected one small item that didn't seem to worry him.... He hadn't asked her yet!. The lads were discussing their future plans and weddings were high on the list. My feelings were empty, mixed with anger at the girl at home who had sent me that 'Dear John' letter. The atmosphere on the mess-deck was crackling with expectation waiting for news of replacements and when they would they arrive?. We had half expected them to have been waiting for us on the quayside when we docked. I had a double worry. I was the only one on my mess that hadn't been told a replacement was here in Australia. My thoughts drifted back to Hong Kong and the memory of the Chinese kids being given a Christmas treat on the deck of Vengeance. The crew had done them proud with every type of ride they could whip up, made from the gear on board. At least they were happy for a time.
That night we lashed our hammocks to the overhead bars hoping it was for the last time. The usual banter shared between us all, eventually died down: we probably shared the same dream that night. I heard again the same "Wakey, Wakey! Hands off cocks, pull up socks: Cooks of the mess to the galley". I must have heard that naval poetry too many times to even calculate. It's probably being bawled today at the grandsons of men I served with. Nothing to do except pass our time on, so we wandered up on deck. I was sending hypnotic thoughts to the 'Brass' back home to get my replacement here pronto!. A photographic pal of ours took a photo of a group of us on the flight-deck: we all signed it on the back. We had been a family for a long time. The desire to go home was burning holes in us: yet it would be a wrench to leave the Vengeance. When we finally saw the photo, it would have been difficult for anyone not in the know, to guess where we were. It looked like we were standing in the middle of a housing-estate.
Down in the mess-deck we heard "Special-sea-duty-men close up. Hands to positions for leaving harbour". We couldn't believe it! Everyone on the mess-deck thought 'what the hell is going on?'. What had the bastards dreamed up for us this time?. What diabolical plot was being used to keep us out here?. We even imagined the tugs were enjoying themselves as they took us from the dockside and moved us into the bay. The lads invented new swear words and if Dennis the skipper had showed his face, they would have been piping 'man overboard' again. The forward movement of the ship slowed until it stopped completely. What the hell!. Is it against the navy policy to tell us?. We didn't realise at the time, we were about to embark on a simple operation: an operation that wouldn't have made a blind bit of difference to the security of Britain if we had told the whole world about it. We still have the same 'need to know' policy operating just as strong now as it did then.
Flat-deck lighters started to arrive alongside our stationary ship: overloaded with rectangular crates. These were lifted onto the flight-deck by the same crane I had fallen off many moons ago. We discovered they contained brand-new aircraft still in the original manufacturer's crates. The purpose of being loaded onto the Vengeance?. To be taken out to sea and pushed unceremoniously over the side. We made daily trips for three weeks, dumping crate after crate over the side. Hundreds of thousands of £'s of scrap destined to lay at the bottom of the sea forever. How many planes were dumped in the sea?. I have no idea!. The carrier-deck was full from stem to stern. Were other carriers involved?. I cannot remember! Maybe!. The question I asked myself then and again today is: 'How many man/women hours were spent with all the 'Do it for Uncle Sam' advertising bullshit to help the war-effort'?. I wonder how they would have felt to know those fantastic feats of engineering are now the probable mating grounds for fish?. Were other ships dumping other war material over the side?.... probably!. The world's crazy economic-system is doing the same today with the so-called mountains of stored food. Human beings have taken the place of the aircraft. The bottom of their sea is: the 'sea-of-despair'. It was called 'lend-lease' on those days. At long last Vengeance returned to the dockside. We all hoped this time we would be finished with our floating home for good. Replacements started to come aboard for one or two lads on the mess-deck. The new faces seemed like intruders. They had the same fresh-face sprog look we had when we first joined the Vengeance.
The day we had all been waiting for arrived when Fred Day, Ernie, myself and one other, whose name is lost forever, were informed we were leaving the Vengeance at 1pm. to go to HMS. Golden Hind. (A shore station situated in the middle of the well known (in Ozzy) race-course.) The three hours we had to wait before we were ordered to report to the gangway with all our kit, took a lifetime to pass. I called on the Jaunty to say my goodbyes. He had become more of a father figure the longer we sailed with him. I never forgot the 'Alex' episode with my cousin, or the trip to my school friend in Trincomalee. He could have said no! but didn't!. He is probably policing his own part of heaven now. I emptied my locker of the last bits and pieces. Took one last look around: said my goodbyes to the few that were left: with a sadness and gladness tearing at my guts, I made my way to the gangway. We were the same bunch who had staggered down the road leading to the Wallsend Dock, dragging our kit, a million years ago. We were now going to stagger down the same gangway this time. Kit-bag, that bloody hammock and small case were still as heavy and I nearly bumped into matelot coming in the opposite direction. He was staggering with the same load we had. I found out he was my replacement. I could have kissed him??. Any thoughts of last minute snags keeping me here were now gone forever.
With thanks to Les Harris for his kind permission to publish this extract, relating to his service aboard HMS. Vengeance as an Air Repair Electrician, from his book called 'The Magic Carpet'