It is important for people reading this manuscript to remember that these are the personal recollections of Mr Anscombe. Time and lack of resources have precluded the researching of facts to draw attention to any errors. The views expressed in this oral history are those of the interviewee only and not the NZDF, RNZN, and the Navy Museum.
Bert you by the way have your number as NZ 14046 and you were born on the second of September 1935 in Cromwell. Tell us briefly about those early days?
Well those early days were a memory that I prefer not to remember in detail because they were hard days for my mother, my father was killed in a motor accident when I was four. My brother was two and it left her without any support, and she could only survive by getting work at various places, mainly shearing gangs on farms, in a flax-mill, cooking for the crew working there, cutting lunches until late at night for the crew out in the field cutting flax. So my young days are not a very pleasant memory. We moved so many times and of course I went to so many schools. I was very fortunate later on to catch up with those lost days and lost years.
In later years I inherited quite a substantial amount of money from my grandfather’s estate, which would have gone to my father, but he being deceased it came to my brother and I and this money was used to send us to boarding school. Initially Hadlow Prep School in Masterton and then later to Synd House, Napier Boy’s High in Hawkes Bay where I completed my education up to second year fifth and then applied to join the Navy. I was accepted and joined the Royal New Zealand Navy as a seaman boy second class on the 19 January 1952.
Now Bert you were telling me that you had always been interested in the Navy?
Yes right from when I was a little fellow I wanted to join the Navy, but I had set my sights on becoming a marine engineer. That was turned around after joining up and given an aptitude test I became a signalman, a bunting tosser.
So this brought you to the 24th Seaman Boy’s Intake?
The 24th Seaman Boy’s joined up, there was 45 of us, and on the day of joining in Philomel I was advised by the duty petty officer that I was with the wrong gang of intake, because of my general appearance, he suggested that I should join the officer cadet school further down the road. I informed him that I had signed up as a seaman boy. He couldn’t believe this, but it turned out to be correct.
Because you were pretty smartly turned out?
Oh yes suit, tie and all the trimmings, a felt hat, my golf clubs, my violin, which I cherished. Yes he couldn’t believe that a seaman boy would be joining up with this general appearance.
After we had settled in, in Nelson Division at Tamaki on Motuihe Island, we were split up into two groups initially with advance course AC Boys and General Course GC Boys. From the AC Boys we were given an aptitude test from which they selected boys for communications. I was one of four selected for signalmen, and there were three selected for telegraphist. The AC Boys Advance Course, they did twelve months on the island. DC General Course did nine months on the island and communication boys did fourteen months. It sounds like a prison sentence, but I can assure you on reflection it certainly was not.
Having been segregated from the remainder of the of the intake for training, we spent most of our days at the communication school and part of that time was spent flag hoisting on the mast at Cemetery Point. The remainder of it was spent learning to read semaphore, transmit semaphore, read and transmit the Morse Code, and a basic study of fleet work. That was the organisation of ships in a formed state.
Because that was the way of transmitting manoeuvres, or signalling manoeuvres in those days wasn’t it?
Yes. It was all done within visual range for security reasons. If it was suspected that there was any hostile shipping any where in the region, especially submarines, that was all done by visual signals, which they could read perhaps, but they wouldn’t understand, but gave us that extra security.
Some of the blokes on Tamaki at this stage Bert were?
Well we had our instructor, Bob Lassiter the Yeoman of Signals, another yeoman by the name of Jock Kyle and the officer in charge of the communication school at that time was a Lieutenant Willy Rudd. He had come up through the hawse pipe and he had been a chief yeoman, and so we were in good hands.
Yes the physical side of things, we were given a period of physical training every day. It wasn’t compulsory, but if you didn’t play rugby and hop into the ring with the gloves on, boxing, then you became immediately suspect. The early morning run every day, including Sundays around the island and a cold shower afterwards, certainly kept you on your toes.
One opportunity that was missed during those early days, was a guy called Charlie Middlemiss and myself were offered cadetships in England for commissioned rank.
To go to Dartmouth?
Yes to Dartmouth school. We were left to make that decision by ourselves, at the tender age of 16, which was unfortunate, because with hindsight, which is always a great thing, what an opportunity was missed for the two of us. Later on Charlie came up through the hawse pipe and retired as a commander, but in the meantime I had left the navy and gone on to other services.
Discipline at the island was quite severe, almost to the point of being savage at times, mainly by ex Royal Navy senior NCO’s, chiefs and petty officers, who seemed to take a delight in making the colonial boy’s suffer.
We had three boys who stole a twelve foot dinghy and they rowed to the mainland in order to get away. They were returned to the island within a fortnight and were sent to Ardmore [military prison] for 42 days. But young chaps like that, they can put up with these things, but they don’t forget and it made them very bitter.
From Tamaki after fourteen months there as communicators, we were drafted to the cruiser Black Prince, which was going to England for the Coronation. She was in the midst of a self-refit when we joined the ship and our days were filled with the rattle of windy hammers, chipping hammers, painting, all sorts of maintenance work being done. We had to re-route the halyards, the blocks for the halyard up on the yard-arms. There were a million things to do and a limited amount of time to do them in.
There was one of our intake met a very unfortunate accident at this time, was a guy called Colin Growcott. He is now the resident naval officer at Hokitika. They were cleaning up the davits for the motor-cutter, and these davits are quite large. Someone had taken a pin out of one at a space, and it fell on Colin’s legs and he has been a cripple ever since. By saying he is a cripple he can get around, but only with the aid of a stick. And as he ages, so the condition worsens. It was a shame really, he was a great cobber, he was one of the leading boys appointed when we first joined and to this day he and I are great friends. His nickname was ‘Smiley’.
In Black Prince we were allocated two mess, forward on the port side, which was for boys, it had an area of about twenty feet by fifteen to twenty feet, and there was about twenty of us jammed in it. That was seaman boys, boy buntings and boy telegraphists. To take control of this jumble of bodies was a leading signalman by the name of Terry Morgan from Timaru. They couldn’t have got a better guy to take charge of us. He had been a boy himself, he knew all the tricks and we really appreciated the lengths he went to, to teach us, even when we were in our own time. He was great with bends and hitches, knots etcetera, and he came down on anybody who didn’t pull their weight.
Our captain was Captain Dolphin Royal Navy for the trip to England, and he was admired by one and all. Although he was the captain of the crew, he was one of the crew, but there was laughter and enjoyment to be had, he joined in. If we stopped the ship in the middle of the ocean as they piped “Hands to bath”, he would be one of the first over the side. He just took off his uniform stark naked and over the side he would go, screaming and yelling, “Come on you bastards”. Away we would go, 500 men over the side having a whale of a time. The best way to get us out of the water was to scream out, “shark!” that worked. But we really admired our captain and to this day I have his memory in my heart with great affection.
On the opposite side of the coin, unfortunately was our commander, the 2IC of the ship, a Commander Read, who didn’t really seem to fit in. He had a very retiring sort of attitude and even the younger officers didn’t seem to really be able to work in with him. So he seemed to keep his distance and the only time you really saw him, if you were unfortunate to be a defaulter, or a requestman, or otherwise he seemed to be a vague shape in my memory.
What an interesting comparison.
One other aspect of Captain Dolphin was his ship handling?
Oh he was a fantastic ship handler he could spin that cruiser around like it was a fizz boat. With the ancient machinery on board to propel the ship through the water, it was only anticipation and his vast knowledge of seamanship that enabled him to do that with the ship, but he could really handle it. We were so confident in his capabilities that there was never any fear of what might happen. It would be okay the skipper is in the bridge.
One of the jobs of the signalman is to keep the masts looking spick and span. After all that is where they fly their flags etcetera. In painting the masts, you go up on the yard-arm for a start normally. You scrub it down and then you start on the outboard tip and paint your way in. We had one chap, who was a little bit slow, but he was okay, and he had a pair of new sandals, and he was sitting on the yard-arm and he lowered his paint pot to get some more paint from a re-supply bucket that was on the flag deck. As this occurred one of his new sandals fell of. He hadn’t strapped them on properly, and it fell into this bucket of paint. There was Harry Haywood sitting on the yard-arm with paint brush in one hand, paint pot in the other crying his heart out, great big tears running down his cheeks because his new sandal had fallen in the bucket of white paint.
Before we sailed for England we were given a week’s leave along with a travel warrant to the nearest railway station to your home address and five pounds, which came out of your Impress Account. This Impress Account was only had by the boys who were under eighteen. Normally you got ten shillings per fortnight to spend, and the remainder of your wage went into this account, which was paid out to you on attaining the age of eighteen. It was a good way to save and to teach the younger ones to save their money sometimes.
Prior to our departure we spent a few days doing sea trials in the Hauraki Gulf. We then ammunitioned ship down off Islington Bay, which was situated between Motutapu and Motuihe. The fleet trials were interesting in as much that we didn’t realise that the ship had to travel about a mile from full speed before the engines could be reversed, and this later was to cause a lot of embarrassment to the ships new commander, its crew and the New Zealand Naval Board.
A day or two before we finally left for England we spent a very irritable sort of a day out in the Waitemata Harbour in sight of the signal tower in Philomel, boxing the compass. This is an adjustment by the use of magnetic rods, and adjusting the compass to its correct magnetic points. Without this you can get into an awful lot of trouble with your navigation.
As we made our way from Auckland to Melbourne, our first port of call, we were accosted by a storm in Bass Strait, which is infamous for its storms. During the course of the trip through there we lost quite a bit of deck gear, including a whaler, two or three lockers of cordage. And for the first time, and the only time that I can recall we were all secured down below without access to the upper deck because of the danger of the storm, and at this time I found initially that I was never seasick. I had never any form of travel seasick, but the stench down below that night, through Bass Strait was enough to make anybody crook.
On arriving at Melbourne we discovered that the damage and the parts missing from our upper deck could be replaced by the Royal Australian Navy upon our arrival at Fremantle, which they did. So once again our full complement of upper deck fittings was complete.
An interesting point on our departure from Fremantle was a long rock formed breakwater. And as we came out of Fremantle I happened to be in the bridge with the chief yeoman and I heard the captain say, “There is no speed limit on the end of this”. Any how at the end of this breakwater there definitely wasn’t any speed limit, but there were a lot of people sitting on the breakwater fishing. The captain wound the ship up until by the time we got to the end of the breakwater we were doing about 30 knots, which leaves one hell of a wake from a ship the size of a cruiser. And it washed these people off the breakwater who were fishing. We got a signal from the Harbour Authority at Fremantle that they were going to put a speed limit sign on the end of the breakwater.
Upon arriving at Colombo we went into the inner harbour followed by the HMAS Sydney, the aircraft carrier. There was insufficient room at the wharf, such as it was for us to go alongside, so we anchored out in the centre of the harbour, the inner harbour and the Sydney anchored further out for the same reason. After we had secured from our sea stations, special sea duty man etcetera has secured, and the chief yeoman summoned me, and told me to go ashore and relieve the signalman on the wharf. Well we had been there two or three hours at this stage, so I got properly dressed, went ashore and couldn’t find any signalmen on the wharf. So I decided in my innocence that perhaps they had set up a signal station in one of the buildings on the waterfront, which I proceeded to investigate. It appeared that most of the people in charge of these office buildings what have you, were English. Upon seeing a sailor they decided they had better fix him up with a good stiff drink, which they commenced to do. The more buildings I visited the drunker I got. Any how after a while I decided that I had better go back to the wharf where I had observed an attendant signalling light frantically signalling me to return to the ship, which I did. Only to be met by the chief yeoman who informed me that he didn’t tell me to relieve the signalman on the wharf, he had told me to set up a signal station on the wharf. But fortunately our divisional officer was officer of the day on the quarter deck and he observed this and knew straight away what had happened, after all it was some time after up spirits and tot time. So I got away with that one. The chief yeoman went down to his mess I think, to crash, and I went up to my mess deck, which had changed in the intervening time, I had been made ordinary signalman and I crashed in three mess on the starboard side, quite delightfully inebriated, so ended my first day in Colombo.
Our divisional officer for communications in Black Prince was Mr Farquhar, Mr Johnny Farquhar, who had come up through the hawse pipe. He had been a chief yeoman and had been commissioned as a signal boatswain and was a sterling chap, but he had the failing of many, like myself, he was a little bit fond of C2H50H [alcohol]. Unfortunately he was drummed out of the service around about 1956/57. But he certainly saved my bacon that day in Colombo.
The following day we left Colombo, but we sailed at night. Now the chief yeoman once again decided that I was a capable person and I was put down in the ops room to relay manoeuvring signals to the bridge, which I had received from HMAS Sydney, which was the senior ship present. As we sailed out through the heads, I received a signal from the carrier Sydney, to increase speed to fifteen knots and to alter course to starboard to a given course, which I cannot recall now, but it could not have been a very big alteration of course or otherwise it would have been given in a different manner. I relayed this signal to the bridge, execute the following: speed 15, Charlie or corpen and the given course. I didn’t receive the designated reply from the bridge, so I repeated the signal. The chief yeoman practically crawled down the communications system at me. After only a few minutes I was relieved of my station and ordered to report to the bridge with my cap, which I did. Getting up on the bridge, I looked up, and to my horror, all I could see was the stern of the Sydney, that’s how close it had been. We had increased speed, but not the alteration of course, which would have put us alongside the Sydney at a distance of about three quarters of a mile, but she had altered course to the right or to starboard and we hadn’t, and we very nearly stuck our bows in her backside, in her stern. How close. But fortunately because of people who had heard the signal in the bridge and knew of the chief’s addiction, I got away with that one as well, or otherwise I could have spent quite a considerable amount of that voyage in the brig.
Our days on the journey to England were filled with maintenance, which consisted of chipping paint, painting paint, scrubbing woodwork, washing flags, mending flags, and the many, many duties which the signalman are expected to carry out.
After leaving Colombo we went to Aden where I stayed on board the ship. I decided that I was gun shy and wasn’t going to push my luck too much. I already had two or three of my lives. We went through the Suez Canal, where once again there was a certain amount of leave given, but I stayed on board. Having heard stories about what happened ashore I was glad that I had went on to Port Said. That was an interesting place, and I didn’t go ashore there either, until our return trip, more about that later. Then on and we cruised up off the shores of Tobruk. What a battle had been had there, several battles. There were still mountains of wreckage, wrecked vehicles, wrecked tanks, ships, it just looked like the whole outfit was made up of junk, rusting metal. A shocking sight! It just shows you how much war can cost, both in lives and equipment.
Our next call was at Malta, where we spent about a week restoring and we had a few bits and pieces to fix up on board, and some of us ventured ashore. They put on motor cutters for us to go ashore in, but if you missed that, then you used the local form of water borne transport called a Dhaiso. The Dhaiso operators staff got angry with the Kiwis and then they saw the joke we used to sing to them, “Don’t be so pieso which means miserable, don’t be so pieso, come with me in my Dhaiso”, and so the song goes on. But we had a lovely time there and people were very friendly. They had a wonderful skating rink there and some of us used to go out roller skating, which we really enjoyed. It was quite funny actually to see a lot of sailors on roller skates.
Being in company with HMAS Sydney when we arrived at Malta, an invitation was sent to Black Prince for a few, and I think it was about a dozen sailors to join up with the Gannets and the Fireflys, which had flown off the Sydney for the northern air strip on Malta. I was one of the ones who volunteered for that, and we were taken to the airfield, about a two hour trip in a bus. When we arrived there, here were all these Aussie pilots, all kitted out, and all the aircraft were lined up. And as we stepped from the bus, one of these pilots would grab you and whistled us away to the aeroplane, where they kitted us up with a flying helmet and a means of communication, a little microphone fixed to your helmet and a pair of gloves. Away we went. The airfield at northern Malta ends off a cliff. Now coming off there was all right, and all the Fireflys and Gannet aircraft were engaged in a very slow speed type air battle, simulated of course. That was good, that was fun. Because looking over my pilots shoulder, you could see these other aircraft as they came into the sights and then disappeared. So after about half an hour of this, into land and as you land, there is a continual up-draft off this cliff. But of course we didn’t know that, and we were coming in about 20 feet below the height of the cliff, and all I could see over my pilots shoulder was the cliff coming at us. So the Lord’s Prayer started to filter through my mind. Of course the up-draft caught us and bounced us onto the airfield. That would be the closest I ever came to being travel sick, and it was sheer bloody fright. I got out of the aircraft, got down on the ground, and they are quite high up those aircraft, slid down to the ground and leaned against the belly of the aircraft and man, everything was going around, but all I could see was that cliff.
Upon departure from Malta, still in company with HMAS Sydney, we proceeded to Gibraltar, where we were permitted to go ashore in civilian clothing, having been given special visas to cross the border into Spain. Every man and his dog seemed mad keen on going to the bullfight, which we had heard about, but never seen before, but I was a bit disappointed to say the least. The poor old bull once he is released into the ring was half dead. He was full of the picador’s spikes, bleeding profusely, and I felt quite sorry for him. One of our crew, a supply officer by the name of Ug Harris was so really pissed off about this, that he jumped the railings, into the arena and hung one on the matador. All of the picador’s rushed at him and threw him back out again, but Ug had made his point. He was a great boxer Ug Harris, a great sailor, a great officer and a true friend. I have got great memories of Ug. As we were both drafted to HMNZS Pukaki for the Christmas Island tests in 1957.
We departed Gibraltar in company with the Sydney again and several other ships, including American and one Russian cruiser. We sailed together and we actually sailed in a very loose type formation. I think it was for mutual support expecting dirty weather in the Bay of Biscay which didn’t occur, much to my delight and that of a few others. Having come through the approaches to Portsmouth, where we sailed past the Queen Mary that was something else. I felt as though we were in a small lifeboat compared to her. She was about half or a quarter of a mile off, and we were looking up at her. Amazing!
On arrival in Portsmouth the first thing that happened to me I was handed a telegram and it was an invitation to stay with people in Edinburgh. Their son had joined the Royal New Zealand Navy and on his long leave came to my home here in New Zealand, and so his parents wanted me to go and stay with them if I got any long leave, which happened later. But the thing that really interested me at that time being young, seventeen years of age was selection for the Coronation Contingent. We had had a lot of guard practice and what have you at Motuihe Island which stood us in good stead, the 24th Boys, and there was quite a few of us selected for that guard. We went off down to Whale Island on a daily basis to be trained up for that occasion of the Coronation.
The day we arrived there, they commenced training or the annual training for the Enfield Gun Competition. I have never been so gob smacked in my life. We were sat up on a grassy bank to watch this, and three or four gun crews took off on a given signal. Over a declared chasm by rope and shingle and then over a wall, and various other obstacles where the guns were disassembled, reassembled in an airborne state, it was something amazing, I have never forgotten it. My God those blokes trained hard. I never actually saw the Enfield Gun Competition, but I would love to go some day.
They are very dedicated these gun crews, so much so, I didn’t actually witness this event, but the wheels on the gun carriage are secured on their axles by a pin. On one occasion a pin was dropped, and instead of retrieving it and losing time, one of the gun crew stuck his finger in the hole and secured the wheel. Needless to say he lost his finger, total dedication on those gun crews, amazing.
Recording being resumed today 16 November 2007.
Just a couple of details about Whale Island?
Yes it is a gunnery instructor’s heaven. Whale Island GI’s as they are known, are supreme in their dedication to making your life sheer hell.
On arrival at Whale Island the first day, we were standing around, smoking and laughing and hanging onto our rifles and away in the distance was a little dot and from it emitted a scream of “you”! And this dot became larger as it approached, until it materialised as a Royal Navy Gunnery Instructor. He was about to make mince meat of us, when our Chief G.I. McIntosh, who was ex Royal Navy stepped in and saved us from definite death. From then on we were left alone. If any of the staff at Whale Island came near us, Mac was there, “What do you want”. So the word got around, “Leave the Kiwis alone”.
Coronation Day commenced with a wet cold morning. We were stationed in Clapham Common in London down in the old World War II air-raid shelter, which had bird netting type bunks to sleep on, cold water, no hot water, and [you] looked after yourself. There was no bedding, you just lay on these bunks, and tried to get some sleep. There were 126 steps from the bottom level to ground level. The lifts weren’t working, and so there was a lot of clattering because everybody wore hobnailed boots. We assembled up top on Clapham Common itself and marched off to Admiralty Arch in the Mall, where we were formed up with the guards, the Indian Navy, the Australian Navy, the Canadian Navy and many, many others, all in groups. The day was wet and cold, and we had been issued with especially made black topcoats. They were shiny, very much like the Gestapo wore in World War Two. To our amazement in the pouring rain we were told to fold up our overcoats and put them on the deck behind us and we didn’t wear them all day. Everybody else wore their capes or their coats, but not the Kiwis. We got wet through, froze and we were on parade for ten hours, twenty minutes, which is a long, long time to be at the peak of your concentration.
The Coronation itself took place, but until later was really a memory that most of us couldn’t really grasp because of the state we were in. We carried out our duties as we had been trained. We lost one bloke. His surname was Bruce and he was commonly known as “Long John”, and he suffered peritonitis on parade. We don’t know how long he had been in pain, but he collapsed after the end of the parade actually and was rushed off to hospital, where he survived. But the whole day was taken up with absolute concentration on what was going on, what we had to do, when we had to do it. We were fed a bread roll at around about noon, but there were no hot drinks or anything like that. We got a tremendous farewell from the crowd as we marched back down the Mall, having been parted from the royal parade outside the palace when the coach and all the royalty went into the palace as we marched around the monument that has got Queen Victoria on it, we marched back down the Mall to the accolades of the crowd. I was very, very proud, and as we marched down there…
(End of Tape 1 side A) (Beginning of Tape 1 side B)
As we marched down the Mall it was announced that Ed Hillary and his companion had conquered Mount Everest, which increased the crowd’s accolades. In fact they went quite berserk and I mean that. They broke through the street liners and the police cordon. The girls were hugging and kissing us. One fed me a lovely lolly. I will never forget that lolly, boy did I need it. That night in London, a New Zealander couldn’t buy a drink. Every where we went, people wanted to buy us this, that and the other, mainly drinks, and towards the wee, small hours when London itself was still celebrating when we went back to Clapham Common, where we were intercepted by some British girls who took us to their accommodation and warmed us up. That was the only time that day or during that period that I can recall being warm. They had a big gas oven, with a lid that folded down and became a seat. They lit it up and we sat on the lid of the oven, the door, and warmed our backsides in the oven.
Our officer in charge of our group was a Royal Navy officer by the name Cole. He was a gunnery officer, and we liked him, he was good. He didn’t mind us, we didn’t actually break ranks when this occurred, but we broke step, and the girls were kissing us and trying to make appointments for later on. But we marched on, down through Admiralty Arch and off back to Clapham Common, where thank goodness they were waiting for us with buses. They took us down to the train, we returned to Portsmouth, where once again we were all soaked. The blanco on our webbing had run into our uniforms. We must have looked quite straggly, scruffy in fact, but we didn’t really care. We were satisfied we had done a good job for Her Majesty, and we were proud of the fact that we had represented our country.
The very next day we slipped and proceeded out to Spithead and joined up in our pre-determined position in the cruiser line, and commenced trying out different colours for the ship for the Spithead Review. Why they chose a New Zealand ship with different colours I will never know. But we painted the ship daily different colours. From a dark grey, we were originally a Pacific grey, to a duck egg blue, and we finished up after a week of this Pacific grey was chosen, our originally colour. After all that, because we were in the eye of the fleet, we had to do all this painting in our blue serge uniforms, our number three uniforms. Needless to say most of those uniforms went over the side weighted. They were just covered in paint, ludicrous, but there you are, that is the senior service.
The night before the Spithead Review, in the wee small hours we had the ship rigged for a fireworks display that evening with Her Majesty, and who should appear on board, but the Right Honourable Sir Sidney Holland, our Prime Minister. In the wee small hours, he was a little bit the worse for wear, and he wanted to turn the crew out to shout them a beer, and was a little bit disturbed when the captain told him, “No, you are not turning my men out, they have got duties to carry out, and they need their sleep”. Sid Holland, he meant well, he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
That day at approximately 0600, we were trimmed up in line, bearings were checked, so that the line of cruisers was dead in line, in spite of wind and tide. We used our main engines to adjust very, very slowly, and than at approximately 1130 the Review commenced, with the carrier line, the aircraft carriers, then the heavy battle wagons, then the heavy cruisers. You can imagine it, hundreds and hundreds of ships, all in line, according to their class. We were about the fifth in line, the light cruisers, and as Her Majesty sailed past in the Royal Yacht, we gave three cheers for the Queen. Some of our Royal Naval commands were rather perturbed that in the New Zealand fashion we say, “horra”, the poms say, “horray”, and they could not get the Kiwis to say “Horra”, we would insist on saying “Horray”.
A day or two before we finally sailed from Portsmouth we were ashore down at Brighton Beach where they had a permanent circus, all the fun of the fair. It was a sunny day, but there was a very cold wind blowing. Here were the natives, they were bathing, they had taken their shoes and socks off and they were paddling as we call it. To their utter amazement we peeled off to our grundies and leapt into the water and had a swim, Kiwi style. All the poms were firmly convinced that New Zealanders are quite mad.
The day we sailed from Portsmouth in company with the Home Fleet and the Med Fleet, plus foreign navies, the Americans, the Canadians, the Russians and quite a few submarines from various nationalities. They formed us up in a screen, an anti-aircraft, anti-submarine screen, with the means of just trying out to see how foreign navies would work in with the codes and that, which had been issued on a limited basis to the foreign navies. To our delight it all worked well. We sailed down through the channel and out into Biscay in a formed state that was quite remarkable. Even the submarines behaved themselves, until we got out into the southern part of Devonshire and Bedfordshire, down past through there when the submarines disappeared. They submerged and then they carried on with their own exercise under water and we headed for Gibraltar. The berthage in Gibraltar was amazing. I don’t know how they managed it, but they had six and eight cruisers abreast in each berth. Everything was going fine, we had been across to Spain again in our civvies and we came back the following day everybody was ashore in their uniform. Just inside the big brick arch of the port of Gibraltar, there was a very famous bar, and in there was literally hundreds and hundreds of servicemen, mostly sailors, drinking in groups and down the back of the bar was an enormous mirror, the biggest I have ever seen, it was huge. It must have been at least 200 yards long, and everything was a bit tense, until one Aussie picked up a full bottle of beer and put it through the mirror. Then the fight started. They were carrying us back to the ships in trucks. People battered and tattered, uniforms ripped to pieces. It was one hell of a scrap. To this day I don’t really know what it was all about, except it was parochialism and tension between different nations and it was had out in this bar. I can’t remember the name of the bar, but it was huge, it would have to be to contain that number of people.
From Gibraltar we sailed with the Med Fleet, the Home Fleet exercising separately.
One exercise we did carry out which hadn’t been put into operation since the end of World War One, was what we call Exercise GRID IRON. It is a manoeuvre where two lines of ships turned towards one another and exchange sides, either because of ammunition, damage or whatever. The position that we passed over was where two of the Royal Navy Capital ships during that manoeuvre had collided and both sank way back in the 14/18 War. So it made one think especially ships tearing past one another at about 25 to 30 knots and intercepting going through. From there to Malta, once again, to re-supply and get ready for the trip home.
Upon entering Grand Harbour on this occasion we had a new skipper on board by the name of Whitfield, John Whitfield, Royal Navy. He hadn’t done any ship handling for a long, long time. Poor old John, he just didn’t have it. We had lost Captain Dolpin, he had returned to his parent navy and whilst trying to manoeuvre into position in Grand Harbour we stuck our bow into the floating dock. That caused a few eyebrows to raise and a very stern signal from Commander in Chief, for the captain to appear on board immediately, dressed number fives with medals and sword, which indicates that he, was in a lot of trouble, and he was. There was a thirteen foot gap ripped in the floating dock. Our jack-staff was splintered, almost beyond repair, but we managed to splice it together. That was our entrance into the harbour. Everybody knew we were there.
The next 24 hours seemed to be full of all sorts of surprises. There was a huge earthquake in the Ionian Islands off the coast of Sicily and Greece, and an immediate call went out for assistance. So we worked all that day, that night, the following day and the following night we sailed with supplies for the victims of the earthquake. If anybody had picked on us in that troubled time they would have got away with it, because even our gun turrets were full of stores. We were completely defenceless. We had boxes of stores stacked around our AA gun emplacements we were just a huge floating supermarket. Overnight, travelling at 32 knots, we got to the first of the islands and there found complete destruction. I went ashore with Terry Morgan a leading signalman, as communication number, seamen, cooks, stokers and what have you, all got stuck in on rescue work and digging out the dead.
The Americans arrived some time later and they had supply ships with them, and they actually lent us a couple of bulldozers, with which we dug mass graves and buried the dead.
We spent four days landing supplies and stores on the Ionian Islands, and then because of the time factor and the number of ships available we sailed for Malta, once again. This brings in another story.
One of the islands had a diesel driven power station, and the Americans went up to it, it was in the hills and came back and declared that it would never ever produce power again. The following morning a crowd of Kiwis went up there with various equipment for repair and that night we had the village lit up with electricity.
We sailed from there back to Malta, just a quick spruce up, a couple of days, and off to Port Said. This was the beginning of a lot of political disturbance there. We didn’t land, we just went through the canal into the Red Sea, and we didn’t sight land again, or we didn’t land again until we got to Brisbane. Brisbane was a bit of a wake-up call. We were supposed to go up the river to a landing near the centre of the city. But we couldn’t fit under the bridge. Our masts were too high for the bridge, so we had to park up by an old coal barge. Going ashore in your white uniform was quite an exercise trying to keep clean, because this barge was covered in coal dust and all sorts. But we had a nice four day break in Brisbane, where they made us very welcome. Ballroom dancing in Cloudlands, that was beautiful. Unfortunately Cloudlands doesn’t exist any more, it was developed for accommodation, but what a loss. Up on this hilltop this beautiful Greek type courtyard, ballroom dancing in the moonlight, it was wonderful.
We sailed from Brisbane for Auckland. A very quick spruce up there, and then we sailed north to the Marquesas Islands, where we met the ship, Gothic, which had been charted for the Royal Tour, and we were to escort the Gothic and Her Majesty from the Marquesas down through the Pacific, where we called in at various islands for the Queen to visit them. The most memorable one would have to be Tonga. The Queen of Tonga, Queen Salotte, had been at the Coronation and she warmed the heart of the crowd on that day by refusing to have the top up on her carriage up. She sat in the rain and waved to everybody with a great big smile on her lovely brown face and the crowd loved her. It was the same in Tonga when we arrived there.
There was an invitation we thought initially to Her Majesty, Her entourage and the officers of Black Prince to a Royal luncheon. Wrong, it was for the entire crew, and I felt very proud sitting about twenty feet away from Her Majesty demolishing a suckling pig, roasted of course and eyeing Her Majesty up and down thinking I have got it made. It was a very proud moment.
After the luncheon a lot of the Tongan boys had been working as waiters around this event. They took off their white jackets and invited us off with them to partake of some orange beer. Never having drunk this stuff before, we weren’t really sure what to expect. But they had it buried in tins in the ground to keep it cold. They dug it up in the bush and there we were sitting in our underpants drinking orange beer. We had taken our clothes off and in fact everybody had, because it was so hot. As I say we were sitting in the bushes drinking this beer and there is a lot of wild horses on Tonga, or there were then. One of these brumbies stuck its head out of the bushes looking at us and the Tongan boys jumped up and grabbed it. Once we had a hold of it, what to do with it. There is one in every crowd and we had one, we called him Priscilla. We allowed him to accompany us where-ever we went, but he was a square peg in a round hold of course, but we put up with him, and made his life reasonably happy. There was Priscilla sitting there in his underpants with a container of beer and, “come here Priscilla”, and we put Priscilla on this horse, which of course didn’t have a saddle or a bridle or anything else, back to front, handed him the tail and let her go. Well only one road around Tonga at the time, and we all ran out to see what would happen, and here was Priscilla on this horse, back to front screaming his head off and coming up the road was this big black limousine, with four Royal heads sticking out of the windows wondering what all the commotion was about. Priscilla on this horse shot past them in a flash and the horse didn’t stop until it got to the ocean. We thought that was quite funny until Priscilla topped us. We all got four days stoppage of leave, but we were at sea any how.
We sailed on and arrived at Suva where there was a Royal procession. Once again the boys who had been involved in the Coronation were on parade. In fact we were on parade at each and every island called on including the New Zealand ports, right up until we parted company with the Gothic. Working it out later on, we had actually been on parade and on call for fourteen months. That was having all your gear in spick and span order, your rifle polished, the metal work burnished and clean, a lot of work, and carrying out your normal duties as well, which made life just a little bit hard at times.
From Auckland we were ordered to proceed to Wellington, but then the Tangiwai Disaster occurred whilst we were at anchor in Auckland Harbour. We were put on alert for rescue duties at Tangiwai, but fortunately for us we were not required and as every-one knows there were a lot of people killed on that train crash, and we had quite a few chaps onboard who had relatives involved.
We sailed from Auckland to Wellington, where once again there was a lot of pomp and ceremony, involving once again the guard detail from Black Prince from Wellington to Christchurch to Dunedin, all involving a lot of pomp and ceremony.
Then we finally sailed and went around through Foveaux Strait where we handed over the Gothic to the Australian Navy. We proceeded into Milford Sound for a well earned rest. We were in there for a week, fishing and swimming and being very lazy as the captain said, “You have earned it, now you can just relax”.
Sailing from Milford, we proceeded to Hobart where the Queen was in residence with the Australians and during that visit they had a fleet regatta, boat pulling, or for the civilians amongst, boat rowing. There were eight races on the day and the New Zealanders won seven of them. The one that we lost was the Officers class or division, and they came second. Each race involved pulling a 27 foot whaler one mile, which is damn hard work. But we were on the ball with that one. As I say we won seven of the races and the officers came second in the race.
[Break in tape]
After Hobart we proceeded to Jervis Bay, which is a military depot in Australia, where amongst other things we did a shoot with our main armament. The spotters ashore were Australian Army and they had a grid on the local map for adjusting our fall of shot. Unfortunately they had the grid upside down and our first fall of shot, they directed us left instead of right, and our full salvo, which followed our first ranging shot, our full salvo and landed right next to the Jervis Bay School. Fortunately it was holiday time and no one was hurt, but their swimming pool was completely demolished. We did not proceed from there to Sydney as had been arranged, we left Jervis Bay and went straight back to Auckland, because they reckoned if we had of gone into Sydney all hell would have broken loose.
On our arrival in Auckland I was drafted ashore having spent the best part of two years in Black Prince going from boy bunting to signalman, the equivalent of able rate. I had learnt a lot, I had seen a lot, I had done a lot. As the chief yeoman said as I walked over the brow with my hammock and kit bag, “Thank God, he has gone”.
Between drafting off Black Prince and my next ship was just watch-keeping in the signal tower in Philomel, watch-keeping in the port communications centre. There wasn’t an awful lot that went on. We had about a half season of rugby and enjoyed that. Then my name appeared on the notice board and I was drafted to [HMNZS] Wakefield in Wellington. We were sharing accommodation at Shelly Bay with the Air Force, and we had a station warrant officer there by the name of Simpson, and he did not like having sailors on his station. He did his level damnedest to get rid of us, but we always seemed to allude his idea of discipline etcetera, in the finish he gave up.
I spent the best part of a year in Wakefield in the communications centre in Stout Street in Wellington. It was hard yakka in a way, because you did straight 24 hour watches from half past eight in the morning until half past eight the following morning. If the machines, the tele-printers and that stopped during the night or there were no codes to be broken etcetera, then we could get some sleep. But otherwise you stayed on duty for the straight 24. Something that I don’t think would go down very well in this day and age.
From Wakefield I was drafted back to Philomel for a very brief period, a matter of days, then I was drafted to HMNZS Kaniere.
We sailed in March 1956 and we were on station in the Far East for eighteen months. Something else that wouldn’t go down too well today, away from friends and family for a year and a half puts a strain on any marriage and friendships. Though there was a lot of letter writing went on.
It wasn’t a very happy commission mainly because of the administration on the ship, needless to say that we were glad to get home and to be drafted off. That is all I will say about the Kaniere, because it brings back very sad memories to me. Things that happened that should not have happened. So I will just leave it at that.
I was drafted ashore to Philomel again, where I went to the communications school, the new one on North Head and did my Leading Signalman’s Course, which I passed and in a very short time was rated leading signalman.
I spent the best part of another year in Philomel, and then I was drafted to the Loch class frigate Pukaki., thus commenced a very happy era in my naval career. The commanding officer was Richard T. Hale, and he was a man’s man. In fact he lives just around the corner from me now. Richard and I are great cobbers. I am the president of the local RSA and he is on my executive committee. We are good friends.
We sailed from Auckland for the Christmas Island nuclear test trials in early `57, and the first series was for five months. We called at Suva on the way up, in company with Rotoiti, another Loch class frigate. There was a lot of competition between the two ships, so much in fact, the day that we sailed from Suva, Rotoiti who was the junior ship to us following us out through the reef at Suva had loaded up their Squid weapons with bags of split peas. They came right up behind us, much to our dismay and fired these split peas all over Pukaki. It came down like very hard hail. Having no bridge cover, there was a little bit of ill feeling and quite a few bruises. It was just part of the fun.
We had been on station for the nuclear tests for about two months. The first test had taken place and that was something that I will never forget. Being so close to an atomic explosion defies all explanation. It was as if the sun had exploded. We were twelve miles away from the first test. Now the bomb was three miles up in the air and it was a small one, but the resulting explosion cloud was just awe inspiring. I will never forget it.
We stayed on station for the rest of the series, never getting ashore very much. One shore break we did have was on an atoll, and onboard the ship we had several films. We had shown them backwards and had mixed up the reels, just anything for entertainment, to break the monotony, and one of these films was about the knights of old, in the days of King Arthur, and there was the blue knights and the red knights. So we stopped at an atoll and as I say there wasn’t even a tree on it. We went ashore in the cutter and the whaler loaded up with tons of liquid refreshment and everybody got cardboard and anything they could get a hold of, and the port watch of course were the red knights and the starboard watch were the blue knights. We had painted up our armour and our swords made of bits of packing case and anything we could get a hold of in the way of timber, and we had a joust on the beach, after we had consumed the refreshments. The funniest thing you have ever seen in your life. About a hundred sailors fighting and bashing one another on the beach all dressed up as knights of the realm, including the skipper. The next day we were sailing along on our appointed station, no one any the wiser, just within the ship, and seeing us getting around, there were guys with black eyes and bandaged heads and all sorts, but we had let it all out. That was a great idea of our skipper.
We stayed on station for five months and then we sailed for Auckland. The actual exercise carried out for the nuclear tests, for a start we had to rig the ship for wetting down. In today’s navies, most of them have got a pre-wetting system built in. We didn’t, so we rigged up our fire hoses to spray water over most of the ship to wash off or de-contaminate nuclear residue.
The next part of our training for the explosions was getting into white suits. They were a very fine nylon. The wearing of anti-flash gloves and headgear, wearing gas masks, respirators, so that we wouldn’t breathe in radio-active particles, [and] the wearing of the dissimulator badge, which really looks like the old type bottle opener. It had a reading on it in colour to detect and indicate to the wearer whether or not they had been subjected to radiation fall-out.
There was a sub Lieutenant on the ship by the name of Tempero, who later became Chief of Naval Staff. He and I were the monitors on the bridge for radio-active fall-out. We were purposely dressed and we had a gyro-counter to detect any radio-active fall-out. Such was the very basic precautions we had for the exercise was around about between four and six bombs in the first series of tests. They were dropped from Vulcan Jet bombers at a height of three miles. The first one it just looked like the sky was on fire. The last one of the second series which I was there for, that was the worst of the lot. I was sure that the world had gone on fire. We were 120 miles from it. You could feel the blast, the disposition of air, the noise was horrific and the whole sky it was shocking. I remember thinking I hope Mum can’t see this. That is how big it was. It looked like our entire universe had just burst into flame, terrifying. I speak for myself on that one, but I know damn well looking around at some of my shipmates, even hours after the event we were very quiet Kiwis thinking, what the hell do they think they are doing.
At the end of the second series we were sent to Tahiti for a rest. Rotoiti and Pukaki alongside one another in Papeete for a weeks rest. Can you imagine it. We had been locked in these steel hulls for the best part of five months without seeing anybody or landing anywhere. We had money coming out our ears and all these lovely people ashore wanted to entertain us. The funniest thing you have ever seen in your life. The night we sailed we had all hired motor-scooters. They had Vesper motor-scooters there, very cheap to hire and we had a session on the wharf riding these scooters off the end of the wharf, and the locals including the people who owned the scooters thought it was a huge joke. As we sailed they had trucks there with cranes on them rescuing these motor-scooters out of the tide. Quite hilarious.
The task force for Operation GRAPPLE consisted of an aircraft carrier, two tankers of the Wave Class and two supply ships from the Royal Navy’s Royal Fleet Auxiliary. They had quite a large hospital set up on the aircraft carrier Warrior and anything that we needed, right down to a safety-pin, could be obtained at very short notice. There is one thing about the Royal Navy when they say they will supply you, they supply. We were never short of anything up there, including beer. We always had a good supply. They would come out and meet us on station to supply us, or we would call in at Christmas Island itself for re-supply. It is something that I would not want to go through again, not even now.
The crew of the Pukaki consisted of mostly people who had been hand picked because of their length of time at sea. We had one or two misfits for a start, but they didn’t sail with us. I can remember one, he was a petty officer cook, and he objected to where we were going to the nuclear tests, he left us before we departed Auckland. There were one or two others, but in the main, typical Kiwi attitude, ‘she’ll be right mate’. Our skipper Richard T. Hale was a man’s man. If he thought you were an idiot he would tell you.
(End of Tape 1 side B) (Beginning of Tape 2 side A)
Our regulating coxswain was a guy called Jock Campbell, ex Royal Navy. He fitted, he was good. I will tell you a funny story about him later on.
The crew, well we weren’t really a crew in the true sense, we were more like a gang, everybody looked after everybody, right from the skipper down. If you had a problem, then it was soon dealt with one way or another, even long distance stuff we got little mail. Occasionally a Shackelton [RNZAF aircraft] would come out from Christmas Island and drop bags of mail to us, but other-wise we got the occasional telegram, but in those days a telegram by naval radio was a pretty expensive undertaking, so there weren’t many as far as the crew were concerned. We used to get a weekly news report from Navy Office in Wellington, which was put up on the notice-board, so everybody had some idea of what was going on at home. But other than that during the dog watches playing Tombolla with our beer issue, and watching movies that we had watched a thousand times before, that was about it. Sometimes especially we had a tropical routine, where you commenced work at 0700 and you finished at 11:30am, and that was tropical routine. You were free then until the dog watches, unless you were actually on watch. It suited us just fine we had the afternoons to ourselves. We would take a stretcher off out to the upper deck under an awning somewhere and perhaps sleep or write letters. The outgoing mail was about as regular as the incoming. So there were lots of bags of mail when they were despatched. Probably letters from weeks and weeks had piled up, but at least it was something.
Something I want to add. Sometimes in the afternoons if there was inclement weather or for any reason we were down below, we would sling our hammocks and it wasn’t unusual for a voice to come up and say, “I spy with my little eye”, and here are all these grown sailors lying in their hammocks playing ‘eye spy’, just something to break the monotony.
On completion of Operation GRAPPLE in 1958 I was ashore in Philomel again, watch-keeping once more in the port communications centre, and for about a year I was in there. Then my name appeared on the drafting notice-board for HMNZS Rotoiti a Loch class frigate once again commanded by Richard Harding, the first lieutenant was Murray Charles Verran. I remember those names and I will remember then to my dying day, because unfortunately we were in for a really rough commission in the Far East. There is not a lot to be said about that commission other than when we returned to New Zealand we didn’t have one original leading hand left, they had all been court-martialled and stripped of their rank, including myself. We had all acting local leading hands. The chief boatswains mate had been stripped of his rank, his good conduct medal and was reduced to the rank of able seaman. It was a very sorry commission and we were all very glad to get home and get away from that ship. It just didn’t click.
After a bit of leave, and in fact three months of it, we had accumulated three months leave while we were away, I was drafted into Philomel and I did my three months yeoman’s course, passed the exams.
Who was your instructor, do you remember?
‘Iggy’ Biggs was the OC of the communications school. In fact he was a survivor of HMS Hood of which there were only three. He was a signalman and got blown off the bridge when she blew up.
I know there were six of us on the course, and we all passed, three months of very hard work, because there is an awful lot. People don’t realise just how much a yeoman of signals has to be proficient in. Not only the Morse Code, flags or signals, fleet work is a big one, codes and ciphers is another big one, but you have to be right up with all these, because when you are at sea and you are the yeoman it doesn’t matter who else you have got on your staff you are the one, the buck stops there, especially where the captain is concerned, because he wants to know and he wants to know now what’s going on and you are his shadow, you tell him, especially if he is going to make a wrong move. You step in very quietly and tell him. I often think a yeoman of signals a proficient one should have been commissioned because of the responsibility that they carried, but never mind that is another story.
Shortly after the completion of the yeoman’s course I was accosted one day in the main passageway of Philomel by the drafting master of arms, who asked me in a very polite manner if I would like to go to America to get the Endeavour for the Antarctic. I almost jumped in his pocket, “Yes, yes, please me, I will go”, and go I did, along with a crew of jolly good people. We were hand picked and there were one or two who didn’t agree with going, but all in all a good crew. We flew out in DC6’s with the RNZAF and our first call was Nandi International. We stayed overnight in the Nandi International Hotel motels. Our supply officer there Colin Ashbridge enquired if we all had a key and a room, to which we replied the affirmative. Then he made a very brash statement, one I am sure he regrets to this day. If you want anything ask for it and tell them to put it on the bill. The next thing we knew every man and his dog was running around with a Havana cigar and a magnum of champagne. Boy what a night, I don’t think anybody used their beds. As we fall in the following morning at 0400 they had the after hatch open on the aircraft and you got into the aircraft via a gangway forward, just behind the cockpit. Of course everybody in their inebriated state were wearing leis, which you weren’t allowed to take with you, and the air crew kept trying to get off us. People would get in the aircraft, run down aft, jump out the hatch and go around again. Someone woke up to the fact that they had 200 sailors when they should have only sixty. So then they realised what was happening and closed the hatch. We finally got away, it would be closer to 0500 than 0400 and I don’t think the captain of the aircraft was very impressed. They obviously had a sleep, they hadn’t played up, where as we had, we were all shickered to the gills. Personally speaking I wouldn’t have given a damn if the aircraft had stood on its nose and burst into flame. We had a whale of a time.
We flew onto Hawaii, where we spent a couple of days and nights in the American transit barracks there. It is still a bit of a mystery to me, why we had to stay that long, but never mind the powers that be, have reasons for these things, mostly.
From there we flew onto California, San Francisco, where it was discovered that the communications had broken down between the contractors who were getting the ship ready and the New Zealand authorities there. So we were offered transit accommodation in Treasure Island Naval Base, which is an island in the middle of San Francisco Bay, and most of us turned that down. We had the option of making alternative arrangements, which we very soon accomplished. Leave it to the Kiwis.
No matter where we went while we were there, as long as we let the authorities know no problem. So they knew at any one time where people were or the approximate facility.
I remember Joe Fraser and I and our two escorts bought an old beat up Ford motor car for $40.00. We drove through into Nevada via Lake Tahoe, which is a beautiful place, Squaw Valley where they had the Winter Olympics and we saw the Kiwi flag flying there amongst all the other nations and we drove up to Reno, the city of gambling. We got there about midnight and Reno is quite high above sea level and the air is pretty thin. We got into a casino called Herraque Casino, which turned out to be a good choice. Joe went off to play blackjack and I decided to play roulette. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about the game, but I soon learned. I started playing with five dollar chips and by the time Joe came back to me flat broke he had done his dough on the blackjack, I was playing with plaques worth $500 each. I had had a whale of a night lady luck was sitting on the shoulder. The girl running the roulette table that I was on, turned out to be an Australian. She was married to an American guy who was working there as well in the casino, he was the pit boss. We finished playing in the casino at about 8 o’clock in the morning when they went off shift and they took us home and we had a down under roast dinner, roast lamb and roast vegetables, it was beautiful, it was the first real food we had had in the States, it was lovely.
We returned to the casino and after a day or so decided that we were virtually floating in money and we bought a brand new Ford T Bird Convertible and paid cash for it, a beautiful car, easy to drive, fully automatic and we drove the salesman to despair. We wanted a $100 for the old wreck that we had travelled up in. Finally he succumbed, he wanted that sale, but we said, “No, you give us a $100 for that car out there and we will buy this one and pay cash for it. He was almost in tears. I can still see him looking at us, bloody foreigners. Any how we had a lot of fun with that car. We drove back to San Francisco with the two honey’s that we had teamed up with. We went to Tijuana and got into some strife there and spent the night in the slammer and a bloke had to come down from San Francisco from the embassy there to get us out of jail. In jail there you are in jail. If you have got no money you don’t eat. They will give you some water, but no money, no go.
These are the Mexicans aren’t they?
Yes, “Signor, you no got money.”
So any how we had a good fling around about. I met some yanks in the ACDC Club one night. I was by myself I don’t know where the hell the others were.
This is back in San Francisco?
Yes. It turned out that they were air crew of a C129, which is a miniature C130. It has only got two motors instead of four and it is purely a cargo aircraft, it is not built for passengers. Any how we got talking away and they were going to Fort Worth the next day in Texas. I never did find out why, but they asked me,” What I was doing for the next few days” and I said, “Nothing”. So I finished up sitting in the C129 going to Fort Worth, Texas with these three American aircrew. We got there, we stopped and fuelled somewhere and I can’t think where it was on the way to Fort Worth. We stayed there about a week.
Not Denver on the way down?
I think it might have been, I am not sure now. We stopped there a week and had a hell of a time, played up merry hell. They knew a few people there, and then we flew back again to California, where the last I saw of these three they were going off to see someone about some money or something. They seemed to be accountable to nobody, all the way to Fort Worth, one Kiwi sitting in the hold, bloody amazing. They showed me a great time in Fort Worth, Texas.
Any how after trial and error with the ship when we finally got it, one point when we broke down, we were drifting around in the bay near Alcatraz and we didn’t have any means of communication, the power was off, there was no propulsion. I didn’t even have visual signalling equipment available. Some people on Alcatraz’s Island thought it was rather strange the way we were just sitting in the water drifting around and fortunately for us they rang the authorities who sent out a police launch and once we explained to them our dilemma they got a hold of the harbour authority who sent out a couple of tugs and took us back to Treasure Island wharf where once again we got cracking and put things right. But having carried out a couple of sea trials and what have you, getting things fixed.
We had a commissioning ceremony that was quite amusing. I had forgotten about that. They put up a big Dias on the wharf and brought out the biggest American flag I think I ever seen, it was huge. It took up most of the front of the Dias and along side it was a full breadth New Zealand Ensign, blue National flag, which was the only one we had. So it looked like a postage stamp on a very large parcel. But they were good, they provided a band and there was singing and yelling and hooting. Then we had our first issue of rum onboard the ship for the commission. Of course the Americans came onboard and all sorts of civilian types and what have you, male and female. I can still see Doc Jones, he handed his tot of rum to an American sailor and said, “Have a wet”. Well we all know what a wet is, just a sip. But this clown sandy bottomed it, drank the whole lot and the look on Doc’s face and this guy happened to look up and saw the look on Doc’s face and shot up a ladder that was behind him onto the upper deck, never to be seen again. Poor old Doc, he spoke about that for months, “That bloody yank who sandy bottomed my tot”.
Then we sailed at 1900 out under the Golden Gate, and remembering that we had a crew of 61 including the skipper and I can still see the lights on the hills of Oakland and Golden Gate Park on the other side of the harbour, hundreds and hundreds of cars with their lights flicking on and off in farewell to us as we sailed under the Golden Gate. Man that was something. Great P.R.
A special memory?
Oh yes and it might sound a bit pompous, but what a wonderful PR job we did for all those people to be there to farewell us.
In fact one family I met Frank and Bertha Ferry, who made custom built trailer rigs, big trucks. They lived in Newark, California, just north of San Francisco and he had been out here during World War Two. He always wanted to come back, but his wife Bertha was not very keen on coming to New Zealand because she didn’t know the place. But any how they invited me to their home. They had two daughters, both quite young, in their teens, and they invited me to go with them to their church. I am not adverse to worship. This church that they took me to was Mormon, the Mormon Tabernacle in Newark. Now it would cover a good square block in our language. It has got a huge steeple in the centre of it and when you go inside there are all these hundreds and hundreds of seats in an octagon around that steeple. You can go up that, it is quite high, 196 steps I think I counted on that. But because of the way I spoke they invited me to read the lesson for the day, an invitation which I accepted. Having climbed up to the top of this pulpit, I found myself surrounded by microphones and looking down was just a sea of faces looking up. Quite awe inspiring really and I read the lesson. Then I climbed down again. That is something else I won’t forget either in a hurry. I can still hear Frank saying to me, “Hey man, you speak good English”. I said, “Oh really”.
Great singing probably?
Oh yes, the acoustics are magic.
Now just before you set sail, there was an incident on the jetty involving that lovely white car?
Oh yes our beautiful T Bird convertible. Neither Joe nor I had any inclination of bringing it to New Zealand, that was far too hard and his girlfriend and mine were standing there on the wharf with us, just prior to sailing, complete with crocodile tears and I had a silver dollar in my pocket, which I kept and I treasure, and I pulled it out and I tossed it up and I said, “Joe right oh, heads or tails?” It came down heads for me and I gave the car to Kelly my girlfriend. She was Irish Indian, I remember her with great affection. The time spent there, she not only proved to be very comforting, but also very intelligent and a good guide around California and parts further on, places like Tahoe and Nevada, Squaw Valley, she knew these places, yes it was great.
Away we sailed under the Golden Gate for Pearl Harbour, which incidentally we found with a transistor radio. George Mitchell our engineering officer was up on the fo’c’sle with a tranny listening to music whatever and our radar had broken down, our radio shack was out of commission and we didn’t really know where Hawaii was, which direction to go in. We had sailed on a compass bearing for several days, a couple of weeks actually, but any how I can still see George Mitchell standing on the focsle with this transistor radio and he swung it around until he got a strong signal. Hawaii is either that way or that way take your pick, looking up at the bridge at the skipper. But we got the true direction of Hawaii from a transistor, mind you we never told the Americans that, that would have really upset them. But when we got there we had three weeks of evaluation by the American Navy, strange that. The first couple of days was alongside. We had a guy on board, he was an electrician, Pinker, and he was known as the ‘Spook’, because he used to pop up in the most unlikely places, and he was the only electrician we had. He used to get down in these deep dark depths of the ship probing. He knew all the secrets of the ship, things that we didn’t know. But this crew of professionals from the United States Navy doing this inspection. One of the first things they did was to break the power circuits in the ship. Now there were three circuits and if one failed then you just employed the next one with a circuit breaker and if that failed then you had a third one to rely on. Well the Spook knew this, but they didn’t know that he knew it, and so they broke one circuit with the circuit breaker and he was watching them down in he bows of the ship and he promptly engaged the next circuit. Of course everything kept going. After several attempts at rupturing the power supply with a circuit breaker they gave up, the Spook had them beat.
During those few days too, actually we were there three weekends and two weeks that’s right, because the first weekend we didn’t have sports equipment with us, or sports clothes, and so they challenged us for a game of softball not baseball that they normally play, and they beat us, they gave us a hell of a hiding. It turned out that they had the inter-service representative team playing against us, professionals.
The second weekend there we had left one of our lieutenants behind to teach them the rudiments of rugby. So the second Saturday there the United States Navy played rugby against the Royal New Zealand Navy, and that was quite successful, needless to say we won. But for the final Saturday they challenged us to a game of grid-iron. They had a huge set-up of barbecues, huge galvanised bars full of ice and beer. They really laid it on, a huge big splash and out come the grid-iron team, all in their crash hats and their padding. We were in bare feet, shorts and singlets, we didn’t have any gear and they set too. Well we just didn’t have any show. Jimmy Baxter got his head split open, I broke my left leg, and there were several others who got hurt. But any how they took us down to the sick bay, in hospital. Jimmy had his head all wrapped up in bandages, they put a cast on my leg. It took a couple of hours. I came back on crutches. I wasn’t going to miss the festivities. Their admiral was there, a rather big man to say the least, and he is standing with his back to one of these galvanised tubs full of iced water and iced beer etcetera. Speech …………. Sir, and one dork pushed him backwards into this tub of iced water. Out he came spluttering with a sheepish grin on his face. But we did, we had a lot of fun that day, and we sailed the next day, which was the Sabbath. Here I am being the only communicator onboard, visual communicator I should say, trying to answer flags, semaphore lights. I had one of our stores assistants to write down for me, to write signals as I read them. I had one leg in a cast, I was on crutches and trying to do all this bloody work.
Talk about a one legged paper hanger?
Any how we sailed, and all these ships with farewell signals and that. So once again I think we did a pretty good PR job.
You got a good evaluation from the US end?
Oh yes, they couldn’t fault us basically, with just sheer cunning, Kiwi ingenuity.
Any how off we sailed, away from Pearl and our next stop was Suva. We more or less just stopped overnight and popped us with a few odds and ends and onto Auckland, where once again we were only in there very briefly. I think it was about a weeks leave.
Some annual leave and then off south calling in at Wellington on the way were the railway wagons were waiting for us. One with stores for Scott Base mainly, a few bits and pieces for McMurdo American Base in this other wagon that we didn’t have any papers for initially. We opened it up and it is full of cartons of beer from Watties Canneries, compliments of Jim Wattie, marvellous chap Jim Wattie. I actually had the pleasure of meeting Jim Wattie in Hastings, 1954.
Any how we loaded this beer onboard with great zest and sailed for the Antarctica. We called in on the way at the Auckland Islands, not much to see there really. It is a pretty wild, rugged sort of a place, very much alive with Angora Blue rabbits, put there by the French. More about that later on the way back.
We called in at MacQuarrie Island and we shot across there and said good-aye, they were all right, all Aussies.
Then on down to the ice.
We followed what they call the 180 Trench. Our first inkling really of we have made it was Ross Island. The seas down there, you have got to see them to believe them. 60 foot waves are nothing and being a tanker we didn’t go over them we went through them. It is just as well that most of us had done quite a bit of sea time one way and another, because if you had stopped and thought about it, especially the possibility of a ship breaking in half, it would have been goodnight New Zealand.
Any how we got down there and there was 500 mile of ice to get through. We had it on, because the bow was protected by a bronze sheet two inches thick and we got stuck about halfway. The designated letters for an icebreaker are AGB, but being re-supply the designating letter for us was A-184, but when the Mighty G and the East Wind came out to get us. They had a flight deck on the Mighty G and across it they had this big banner, quite large, “Well done AGB 184”, we had come through all that ice by ourselves. Actually we got a smack on the hand for that, because we had damaged both propellers. The longitudinals has been pushed in fourteen inches with the pressure of the ice.
When you say longitudinals you mean the ships side?
Did it buckle plates and things?
Yes it did, but the weld of that held.
What did you call it, the big G?
The Mighty G, the Mighty Glazier, but everybody knew her as the Mighty G. She was the biggest of the lot. She actually had a V cut in her stern and when she took a ship in tow the bow fitted in there, and they had these huge wire strops, they would be about ten inches in diameter, huge. I would hate to have spliced them, which they dropped over your bollards and theirs, took up the strain, so they made two ships into one. At a given signal it was go, everything you have got, both ships. Yes straight through a huge block of ice, as big as this house, being bashed down, what a noise.
You were telling me that the Glazier had to continuously keep this lane through the ice pack?
Yes all the icebreakers kept working it, kept working the ice.
To the detriment of the crew you say?
Yes they had a very high rate of psychiatric patients going back to Christchurch and then the States. The poor buggers would go around the twist.
Just tell us a wee bit about the crew of the Endeavour. 61 in number, I think you said?
61 yes including the skipper. Peter Silk was a man’s man. He expected you to do your duty, do it properly. Other than that the code of discipline, it wasn’t broken down, but it was totally relaxed, in as much that the moment you slipped and proceeded for the ice, usually from Lyttelton, there was an amnesty on shaving, haircuts, you could wear what you liked. As long as discipline was kept at a reasonable level, everything was fine. That is why we were known as ‘Silk’s Mob’, because we were a team, we were like a big family. We looked after one another, we had to. I can remember one stage where Doc Jones was going across the catwalk in heavy seas and halfway across there was two sets of chains which could be dropped and you could get down onto the tank deck. Doc got his fingers caught in those chains. This was on the way back to New Zealand fortunately, and Penguin Bamfield our XO, he in name only was the medical officer, but we got Doc down the sick bay and we got spatulas and put a spatula between each of his fingers with lots of Vaseline and then bound his hand up, like so, kept it dry and when we finally got to a hospital in Christchurch, the Christchurch Public Hospital I think it was they were full of praise, and they said, “You saved his fingers”.
They had been crushed had they?
They had been broken and a lot of flesh on them had been gorged and what have you, it was quite a mess. His hand healed and it was all right.
So they had great praise for what had taken place?
It was funny the day we took Doc to the hospital, and of course having been at sea for about three months and especially not seeing any females, and we were in this hospital and we put Doc in a side surgery type set-up they had, and this was Spud Spurdle the navigator and myself, no Max Chilman was there as well the LSBA, and there was this wheelchair sitting there you see. I said to Spud, “Have you been in a wheelchair Spud?” “No”, he said, “Never”. “Why don’t you try sitting in that one”, we had had a few drinks on the way. So he sat in it and we finished up, there was quite a long passageway, and we are going, “Whoa”, having a great time, like a bunch of kids. Out came this very serious looking lady nurse. She had a ……………..
Were you in uniform?
Spud was sitting there when, “What are you doing?” “Oh we are just checking out this wheelchair to see if it works all right.” “Oh, well I suggest you sit down very quietly over there on the seats”. ”Why are you here?” “Well we brought a friend of ours in who has got a mangled hand”. “Oh how did he do that?” “Oh he got it caught in the chains on the way back from the Antarctic.” “Oh you have just come from there have you, that explains the exuberance”. Fortunately she had a sense of humour.
(End of Tape 2 side A) (Beginning of Tape 2 side B)
The ships company accommodation, lower rates and below in the Endeavour was typical American, consisted of folding down bunks, which were comfortable, but only after the ship ceased standing on its head. Otherwise it was better to sleep on the deck. There were about 40 bunks in the leading rates and below bunk space. There were about six bunks in the petty officer’s mess, and I think there were four in the chief’s mess. Alongside the chief’s mess on the port side was the navigator’s cabin. That’s right, I was one deck too far before. On the starboard side forward was the captain’s cabin and directly astern of that was the first lieutenant’s cabin. Of course above you had the flag deck, the lower wings of the bridge and the bridge proper which was enclosed, thank goodness. Above that was an open bridge with two wings, a wing either side, which gave you great visibility especially from manoeuvring the ship in restricted waters.
The ten inch signalling lamps and the flag lockers were all American style, which I found unusual, but with a little bit of sussing out and practice I was able to work them okay.
The way the halyards had been rigged was different to what I had been taught, and I had to re-rig them to put up with the gales that we experienced around about 60 degrees south.
My main signal office was actually an ammunition locker in the bridge structure and initially to get into it I had to undo a water tight door, crawl in, and then shut the water tight door behind me. I had one small light in there, which had been put in there for the purpose of handling ammunition. But of course we didn’t have any of that rubbish on board. When we first got the Endeavour she bristled with guns, but they were all removed because they weren’t required and who the hell were we going to fight any how.
Upon our arrival in the Scott Base area going alongside the ice was quite simple. We used fenders of course the ice was 30 feet thick. There was no chance of us falling through it or what have. In order to secure the ship to the ice we used to go out with petrol driven chisels, cut a whole in the ice quite deep, about eight foot long, about four foot deep. We would put a post in the hole lengthwise with a strop on it, an eye strop and then we would fill the hole with fresh water and it would freeze in with the eye of the strop hanging out, and that was how we secured the ship to the ice. Usually we would put about four of those in, in case the wind came up, because it is quite bad down there at times. The wind comes off Mt Erebus and you have got to make sure things are secured.
Out on the ice on foot seemed to be a bit of a breeze, not to be fooled there was a set of rules for it. One you didn’t go out on the ice by yourself. Two you didn’t go near the edge of the ice, because the killer whales, the Orcas would see your shadow and if the ice was thin enough they would come up through it and you were gone, tucker for the killer whales.
Pressure ridges, we kept a wary eye out for them, because obviously if you walked into one, you couldn’t be retrieved or rescued, and the ice was moving all the time and would crush you. In certain spots around the ice shelf, there were spots of ice that had not set. It was like quick sand and if you stepped on them or in them, once again goodbye New Zealand. In fact we had one guy, Jimmy Potter I think it was stepped into one of those and fortunately there were two of us there and we latched onto him and pulled him out, otherwise he wouldn’t have survived.
The East Wind and the mighty G the Glacier had been working the ice around and around. This was our second trip down there. It was after Christmas and New Year and they hadn’t celebrated Christmas or New Year. One day I was up on the bridge and I happened to look up over the starboard side in time to see the East Wind coming at us at quite a respectable rate of knots and looked destined to ram us. I was about ready to take to my scrappers when they actually put the ship up on the ice about 20 feet ahead of us, ahead of our bow. Quite an amazing feat really, especially when you are not used to that sort of thing. Their executive officer came out on the wing of their bridge and called out to me, “Have you got any beer?” I thought it was rather unusual statement to come from a United States Navy officer. So I got a hold of the captain and it turned out they had heard we had beer onboard and could they please buy some to celebrate Yuletide and the New Year. Well with all the beer that Jim Wattie had given us and we had heaps left, so we sold them lots and lots of beer. I just forget now how much there was, but there was quite a substantial amount of cases of tinned beer. They got all this dunnage out on the ice and they bludged some from us, we had plenty and they set a huge bonfire going. Remembering that the ice was 30 feet thick, and they started a party. Everybody was parking their cans of beer around the edge of the fire, because otherwise they would freeze solid. Then they invited us out to help them with their party and help them drink all the beer that we had sold them.
Great! So there commenced one hell of a party on the ice. We advised them on the rules and what have you of playing rugby. Some of them had heard about it, the game of Rugby Union. So we told them how it worked. You couldn’t use a rugby ball on the ice because when you kicked it, it would go for miles skidding along the ice, so we used a Kerosene tin. There it was the first game of rugby on the ice the United States ship the East Wind versus Her Majesties New Zealand Ship Endeavour. What a colossal mix up of bodies that was! People [were] going in all directions laughing and yelling and drinking their beer back into the fray and in the meantime this huge bonfire burning up large keeping the beer from freezing quite a scene really. Something you probably see in your nightmares.
Our first trip to the ice we also had a special case, a large wooden case delivered to the ship in Wellington from James Smith Wellington. I don’t believe that they exist now, but in those days they were a very large departmental store and this huge packing case was addressed to the commanding officer, Scott Base. We got this case and lowered it into the forward hold and secured it, but nobody could guess what was in it. Being inquisitive Kiwis we had all sorts of wild guesses, but we left it alone and when we got to the ice one of the first things, one of the Snow Cats came over and we got this case on board and took it over to Scott Base to deliver it to as it turned out Colonel Gallagher, who was a real good guy, a nice fellow. We presented him with this case and told him where we had got it from, and he was unaware of any delivery of this sort, so we commenced to open up this wooden case. In it was a shop dummy, a female dummy and we put it together and with it was underwear, a beautiful suede type cocktail gown, a wig, a case of make-up, silk stockings, high heeled shoes and a stand, so she could stand up. Any how we had great fun along with this bloke Gallagher and a few of his mates putting this all together. Then we stood her in the corner and there was only one part of her anatomy that was incomplete. I will leave that to your imagination, but one of the jokers lost quite a large chunk of his beard. Then we all toasted her. There was a bit of a conversation went on as to what we should call her. She became Miss Gallagher after the bosses name, and she stood in that corner for many a long year. In fact they used to fly that cocktail gown back to Christchurch have it cleaned and bring it back and put it back on Miss Gallagher. I don’t know if she is still there, but boy the fun we used to have and did have putting her together. Miss Gallagher, God Bless her.
This was at the New Zealand Scott Base, the other one being, the American one was McMurdo and Colonel Gallagher was a Kiwi.
The fuel that we carted down to the Antarctica was called ‘J.P.4’. Because anybody with any knowledge of jet engines will recognise it as jet boosters to assist aircraft taking off the ice with such low temperatures. It had a very low and in fact it had a minus flash point. You had to be very careful handling it. In fact on board you weren’t allowed to have any heel or toe caps on your shoes. You carried one ring on a key ring, only one key at a time on any one key ring. Nothing was left ignited. One chap got into serious trouble, he was doing some work on a technical instrument and left the soldering iron hanging up, but left it switch on. He got into serious trouble for that, because we were a floating bomb. If we had gone up, there wouldn’t have been any evidence of us whatsoever. Three quarters of a million gallons of this highly volatile liquid would have just disappeared.
You are actually getting this fuel ashore?
Oh yes there was a seven mile hose line the first trip and every mile or so was a booster pump and by the booster pump was a little tent with a yank sitting in it to tend to the booster pump. I felt sorry for those jokers, they had no means of heating, just the clothing they had and they just sat there watching this pump for hours on end. The amusing part was they paid us to cart that fuel down there in their ship and they paid the New Zealand Navy to do it. I have often wondered about that. I reckon it was a jack up.
The Endeavour fortunately was a good seagoing sea boat. She handled well in roughers. With 60 foot seas and so on further south it was hard work. You would have a bloke on the wheel in the bridge for an hour at the most. After that you would be pretty drained. But she answered the helm well and the engine room controllers were very quick. In a matter of seconds you could go from ahead to astern. But no she was a good sea boat, even though she had a fat arse, she handled it well.
She handled the ice all right?
Oh yes. Unfortunately the first time in we tried to do our own icebreaking and quite a bit of damage was done to the ship. The longitudinals down each side were pushed in about 14 inches, which is dangerous. The ship could have given up and broken in half. We lost blades off the props. We had to go into dry dock in Port Chalmers to have new props installed, but that was in the early days when we didn’t quite know how she would perform in the ice. But after that first trip we knew what to expect of Endeavour, how far we could push her and after that everything was pretty right. With hindsight it is a damn shame that the Endeavour was not kept on for the New Zealand Navy. She was a fine ship, she did a fine job. It was with some misgiving that I saw her being turned over to the Taiwanese Navy. She is the only ship that I could ever find out about. She wore three Ensigns in one day. At eight o’clock she hoisted the White Ensign, eight o’clock colours. At half past eight the White Ensign came down and the American Ensign the stars and bars went up. She was returned to the American Navy and at nine o’clock the stars and bars came down and the Taiwanese Navy Ensign was hoisted. She had been given to them. As I say it was a shame. She would have done well, she would still be operational and we wouldn’t have had to go through a lot of hoo-hah with other ships.
On the last trip that I did in Endeavour from the Antarctic, I was a little bit concerned one forenoon to be told by the ships regulating coxswain Manny Lynch that I was required at the captain’s request table and he had a funny sort of a grin on his face. I thought there is something adrift here, but I will find out. So I went down and got myself a lid, a cap and fronted up to the captain’s table looking like something that had been dressed out of the scran bag, and this request was read out, “to be rated yeoman of signals”. You could have floored me with a feather. In fact I had just about forgotten about being rated up to petty officer status. We had been so busy and we had gone so far and done so much, and it didn’t seem possible that all of a sudden I was to be raised to the dizzy heights of petty officer. I would be living away from all my friends and comrades, even though it was only a bulkhead away, and that I would have to assume certain distances from them in order to retain discipline. But that was nice. I appeared before the captain and Peter Silk flashed his gold tooth at me, his famous gold tooth and said he was very pleased to see it and I was rated up to yeoman of signals. They had known about this for some quite considerable time. This was why Manny Lynch had a grin on his face. They had also got my uniform and peak cap and everything for me in Lyttelton. Lord knows where they got it there. But they had everything complete and within the hour I was dressed in a petty officers uniform and wondering what else could happen on that particular day.
Upon arrival in Auckland on that trip I was to be drafted off, because the draft on there was for a leading signalman and I took some signals down to the captain and he looked at me in a rather peculiar manner and he said, “You know a fair bit about the Antarctic now don’t you?” “Well yes and no Sir”. He said, “Well yes Sir, because they want someone at the Epsom Show to man the Antarctic stand, so you can do that and explain to the populace what’s going on down there”. I thought, ‘thank you very bloody much Sir’. But I did that and made a lot of friends and met a lot of people whilst engaged in that.
He seemed to want to keep me out of the picture, because a day or two after a week at the show-grounds there was a course at Wallace House in Lower Hutt, a moral leadership course and once again yes I wore it. So I was off to Wallace House, which is a religious retreat for a week on moral leadership. When I came back I thought I have a vague inkling now of how God feels. But it was all knowledge to the good for later on in my service career, especially with the air force, more about that later.
Upon being drafted from Endeavour much to my regret and deep sorrow, curses and lamentations from the crew, because we were all one, we were a family. I was drafted to Tamaki as instructor. So I had gone the full circle. I had started at Tamaki in Motuihe Island and here I was going back to Tamaki as a communications instructor. I took over my duties.
Was it now at Narrow Neck?
Yes. Sharing the area with the army.
I immediately set about making friends, especially with the army chaps, because I knew all the navy guys, and we had a combined mess there, chiefs and PO’s and army NCO’s and warrant officers all together, which was interesting, and once again stood me in good stead for service later on, about which I hadn’t thought any thing yet.
A few funny things happened at Tamaki. I can remember one day thinking afterwards that my name should have been Garfield. I was duty petty officer and I was outside the administration block close to the main road at Narrow Neck checking out liberty men and so on and all of a sudden all hell broke loose, there was a palm tree just near the front of the building and I looked up and to my amazement the top of it was firing out ashes and stuff almost like a candle type fire cracker, and the whole of the inside of that tree was on fire, and how it got like that we never did find out, but we didn’t have a regular fire crew, we just had a duty stoker and all we had in the way of fire fighting equipment at that time was hand held fire appliances, which was no good for this. So I rushed inside the administration building and rang the fire brigade. The guy who answered the phone must have been a little bit slow, he wouldn’t be the sharpest tool in the shed, because I said to him, “Can you send a fire appliance to HMNZS Tamaki at Narrow Neck urgently, I have a fire. He asked me what sort of a fire. I thought what does it matter what sort of bloody fire, it’s a fire. I said there is a palm tree on fire. Wrong thing to say, it took them about ten minutes to get up there from Devonport and to their utter amazement here is this thing blowing fire and flame and ashes out of its top like a Roman candle. Of course they had to get a ladder up and water down into the inside of the palm tree. But that caused a build up of steam and the bottom of the palm tree blew out, and the guy up the ladder which was against the palm tree fell down and he finished up in hospital.
What a saga!
Therefore is the saga of the burning palm tree, and why I had to be on duty when it occurred I know not, but I rest my case.
I had been at Tamaki for about ten months and I had put through two intakes of trainees. By this time I was battle hardened and remembering all the tricks that we had pulled as trainees on the old Tamaki I managed to adjust. When a friend of mine who was at sea in HMNZS Taranaki wanted to come ashore because he had domestic problems. Now he was the same rank as myself, the same branch, he was a yeoman of signals, so I agreed with him to exchange drafts, so he could come ashore and sort things out at home. We each put in the appropriate request, which was sent to the New Zealand Naval Board in Wellington, and they came back and said, “the request was not granted”, which was a disappointment, but we persevered. Once again the request went in and it came back, “not granted beyond redress”. All this angered me because I knew the situation this poor chap was in. I was free and over 21, I had no ties, and it could quite easily have been done. So once again I put in a request and Commander Joe Quinn was the skipper, and I had known Joe since he was a leading PTI. He said, “You know this is beyond redress?” and I said, “Yes Sir”, but I don’t like the why I or my friend in Taranaki, the yeoman, is being treated. This has got beyond a joke”. He said, “There is nothing that I can do about it”. I said, “Well I am sorry Sir, but I have got three weeks left of my current engagement and after that you know what you can do with your navy”. The master of arms was standing there and he said, “Yeoman”.
That was it. I went down to Philomel, I packed and stamped and I walked, any navy who would do that to one of their senior ranks was not worth worrying about.
That was a shocking decision wasn’t it?
It was terrible. I went straight down the road and joined the police.
Upon my discharge from the navy from Philomel, I went straight across the harbour with my gear on Taihoa the liberty boat and said a fond farewell to Admiralty Steps, where I had been many a time, got on the train and headed for Wellington. The following afternoon I reported to Trentham where I was attested and became a member of the New Zealand Police. I joined up with a class that was already underway, but with my former trainer I either knew what they were being taught or I caught up very, very quickly.
Towards the end of the course there was a preference sheet put out to each member of the wing as to what they preferred for a posting. I thought with my previous service and experience it would make sense for me to be posted to waterborne police Auckland or Wellington or Lyttelton. This I put on this form. Then to my complete astonishment after we had marched out as a wing and received our warrants I was posted to Lower Hutt, which in those days in the mid sixties was another Manukau. Perhaps I am being politically incorrect saying that, but I had to have something to compare it with. Lower Hutt was pretty rough. Most of the police work there was domestic, people coming home inebriated and sorting out all sorts of differences at home. We did a lot of work in the pubs for obvious reasons, then at night after about 1900 the domestic side of it would start. So much so that after about a year I was getting heartedly sick and tired of trying to sort out and help people with their domestic problems. We weren’t supposed to get involved, but I could see from past experience of my own that a lot of these domestic situations had only arisen because of alcohol.
A few months later my patrol buddy and I happened to be driving along the waterfront in Petone early one morning. Eric was driving and I was in the passenger seat and to our surprise in the headlights of the car, this was about 4:00am was a naked man running along the footpath. He didn‘t have a stitch on, not even a wristwatch. Eric pulled the car up and I jumped out and put this chap in the back of the car. He was blue with the cold, he was European and we always carried blankets for emergencies, so I put a couple of blankets around him. He was absolutely shivering. When I was able to get some sense out of him he was sober. He had been caught on someone else’s nest. He had gone out the window without even stopping for his wallet. He must have got quite a fright. But we could see the humorous side of this to a degree and I found out from him where he lived, his address. So I said, “We will take you to a door from there, drop you off, get our blanket back and we have never seen you”. It wasn’t worth all the paperwork and strife, just because of a bit of a domestic upset. So I went around the back of his house with him and I was just getting the blanket off him and the backdoor light shot on, the door flew open and out came his wife. Oh dear. She was screaming and yelling and I was trying to shoosh her and make her quiet. I got them both inside into the kitchen and I said, “Now look just sit down and we can talk about this, be quiet”. She kept on yelling and so I said to her, “Lady I am telling you, be quiet”. Then to my astonishment he said, “Don’t you talk to my wife like that”. I said, “Buster you are in enough trouble as it is without saying anything like that”. But to cut a long story short she came at me with a bread type knife. I took that off her and then I had to arrest both of them, they were both totally out of control. The sad part was they had small children. The kids were awake and crying. So we had to call in the authorities to look after the children and get these two down to the cells where they were charged. But in the Magistrates Court as it was then I was severely censored for having done what I did. As the Magistrate said to me, “You are there to apply the law not conduct it”. On the return to the station I thought to hell with this, I have had enough of the New Zealand Police and so I sat down and typed out my resignation and immediately rang up a friend of mine who worked in Baker Street in Wellington and he worked for the Army Recruiting Officer. And all in one day I was in the New Zealand Police and RNZIR. I went in the afternoon. It took a fortnight for my resignation to be effected from the police. It took me a day to join the New Zealand Army. So I was in two services at once.
So tell me from go to whoa with the police, was it a period of what time?
Oh two years.
Oh as long as that?
The training period had lasted for you?
The rest of the time, were you in the Hutt all that time?
Having resigned from the New Zealand Police I immediately joined the RNZNIR, that is the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment, and I joined 1st Battalion at Burnham. All in all I was a member of two of the armed services or two of Her Majesty’s services in one day. Not to be recommended.
Upon arrival at Burnham at the main gate, they were expecting me, they knew who I was. I was to report to Alpha Company, which I did. In the course of getting there was a cold miserable sort of a day full of rain, and I was in my overcoat, and I was walking across this parade ground and there was a scream from within one of the buildings and this person came tearing out demanding to know who I was, what I was and where I was and where I was from. And so when he had cooled down a fraction I informed him that I had come to join the First Battalion of the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment as a corporal and that I was a communications specialist and I was to report to the Alpha Company for attestment and further directions. He told me to carry on. After I had done the paperwork etcetera and exited from Alpha Company Headquarters accompanied by the Company Sergeant Major here was this chap waiting for me, the regimental sergeant major. He had worn a gun butt across his upper lip and he had a lisp a squelch in his speech and from then on any detail like escort to Ardmore, taking the chaps who were under jankers for punishment, whatever, he was known to mention ‘where is that sailor’, and I was the only ex navy guy in the regiment. So everybody knew who I was.
I did a bit of basic training with Alpha Company until they realised that I was fully trained in weaponry and so on. I went to the regimental sigs platoon, which was part of the headquarters company for further training, but as it turned out the training that I had received in the navy far surpassed anything that the army expected of their communicators. So much so that the regimental signals officer Captain Fraser left me to my own devices, mainly because he didn’t really know what to do with me. Any of the detachments and that out training were doing stuff so basic that I had taught it to new entries at Tamaki, and that was as far as their signal training went. In other words without sounding pompous I was over trained for their requirements.
The initial training at Burnham consisted of battle efficiency as they call it and the daily routine was ten miles first thing in full battle order. That included your ammunition, your weapon, a full pack containing clothing and food. All the things that you would need in the field: an entrenching tool, a shovel, and in my case a radio an A42, plus two spare batteries, all up around about 110lbs [50 kilos], ten miles each day in that.
At the march is it?
Yes. The idea being to get a platoon from point (a) to point (b) in double quick time, but then have them able to fight once they got there you see. The quartermaster started to hate me because I lost so much weight they had three changes of uniform during the five months I was at Burnham.
Our platoon commander the first time he took a look at me, he said, “What’s wrong with your clothing corporal?” I said, “Well it is like this Sir I have lost so much weight that the clothing doesn’t fit me any more”. He said, “You had better go down to the quartermasters store and get yourself refitted”. So I did. Then about two months that there was a repeat, and by this time I am down to a very reasonable weight jumping out of my skin I was so fit. So that was my introduction to the quartermaster of the regiment.
I felt so much better for losing all that weight, because most of it had been booze and lack of exercise, even though in the Police Training School we got a lot of exercise, but you would loose it in the morning and you would pour it down your gullet in the evening, and there were a lot of us that did that.
My date of attestation to the army was May 1967 joining as a corporal. In those days they had a star system, and they started me off on one star. This eventually, this information went to Wellington and when it had been corrected to match my communications abilities was upgraded to four star and gave me the astonishing sum of $3092.00 back pay.
(End of Tape 2 side B) (Beginning of Tape 3 side A)
Having completed our training at Burnham, the battalion was posted to Tarandak Garrison in Malaya, but getting there wasn’t quite as easy as it sounds. We were flown to Singapore via Alice Springs in C130 aircraft, which were combat rigged. In other words you sat on a canvas strap and in all over there were two pistols by the ramps down aft. You weren’t allowed to move around and use them hence we had to relieve ourselves where we sat. We were in the air 17 hours, 20 minutes with a stop at Alice Springs on the way. Hot as hell at Alice, but we did get some refreshment and a walk around. Upon our arrival at Changi at Singapore we caught some buses which had been sent down from the garrison to collect us. Another hellish ride started in these buses, if you could call them that, of ten hours duration up through Malaya to Tarandak Camp, where there was a brigade consisting of the Brits, the Aussies, Kiwis and the Gurkha’s. The Gurkha’s and the Kiwis were great friends, we were like brothers, we enjoyed one another’s company, we got drunk together, we fought together, but all in all we were great cobbers. But the Gurkha’s had no time for the Brits or the Aussies. Indeed I often wondered why especially the Aussies who were so verbal to the Gurkha’s. It’s a wonder some of them didn’t get their throats cut.
Upon arrival at the garrison we were in the Wellington lines where the battalion was kept, and they commenced to get us used to the heat, the humidity, in other words acclimatise us. We weren’t allowed out of the camp at all for seven days whilst this was being achieved. The NCO who was getting our mob sorted out, when I say our mob it was a Signals Platoon. He took us down into a concrete bunker and you can imagine the heat in there and the deck had about eight to ten inches of sawdust on it. He handed each of us a pair of boxing gloves, which we put on at his instruction, picked out one of your mates, right, start boxing. You can imagine the sweat pouring off us. We did that for about two hours every day for a week. In between we went running, learning a few things about the local area, such as out of bounds areas and so on. Palladrin tablets to take one a day for Malaria, salt tablets, you could take any amount of those that you liked, they were freely available. All in all it wasn’t a bad sort of acclimatisation, except for that wretched concrete bunker. It was quite large, there was room for 40 to 50 guys to mull around in it, and it had been a command bunker when the communist terrorists had been active in Malaya.
We went on with our training, jungle training for a matter of months. We always had an enemy party, usually the Gurkha’s, they were great to train against, because they were so good at it. In fact we learnt a hell of a lot from the Ghukha’s. So much so that we beat them at their own game on our final exercise before we were transferred. There was an island in the middle of a huge swamp, and I am talking about a swamp with a perimeter of 60 to 100 miles and you were up to your waist in black mud. There were snakes, scorpions, leeches by the millions in that swamp. But this feature that we had to take with the Gurkha’s as the enemy party had a road leading to it, a track that vehicles could use, and that was the only way of getting on that island so they thought. We spent two nights and a full day in that swamp heading for that feature in the middle. We carried our own barbed wire, all our ammunition, everything that you would need for a fire fight. We had set up the perimeter of barbed wire, we had a command post dug and the colonel and his senior officers in it, everything ready for an attack before the Gurka’s even realised we were there. That gave us a great deal of satisfaction, because all the training we had done and all that we had learnt mainly from the Gurkha’s had paid off, and we had beaten them at their own game.
By the end of the second day on the island the Gurka’s realised that they had no show of attacking the island with any success, and our colonel, John Brooks told the Brit referees to let the Gurkha’s in and they came up this road, which was about a mile long and just sat around on their haunches grinning at us. All they could seem to say was, “Kiwi number one”. We had beaten them at their own game.
After several exercises involving from platoon strength of 30 men to the entire battalion consisting of about 700 including headquarters staff we were more or less ready to relieve the Kiwis who were already in Vietnam, a company at a time.
I didn’t think that I would actually get to Vietnam because I was older than most, I was fit and well trained, but I was older. But to my surprise I became a replacement for a casualty. One of the chaps got banged up. He got some shrapnel in his leg and had to be casevaced back to the military hospital in Saigon and then out to Australia. The posting NCO tapped me on the shoulder and told me to pack my kit. Once again I was quite surprised and within a few hours I was on my way.
The following night I flew out from Changi and once again that ten hour flight from Changi and I flew out in a Bristol Freighter. Those wretched aircraft [but] they were reliable and I have got a certain amount of affection for them now. I flew out with some other guys, there were about 20 of us in the aircraft and when we got to Tonsinu Airport which was in Saigon or now Ho Chi Min City, the T Birds, the Thunderbird Aircraft were taking off and delivering their pay load at the end of the airstrip. That’s how close the Vietcong were. The aircraft would be in the air five to ten seconds and they were in an attack mode. We landed we surrounded the aircraft in a perimeter. Fortunately we had all our ammunition and everything we were ready to go and all that night we stayed on the ground around the aircraft expecting the Vietcong to come through. But the American fighter aircraft managed to push them back. I can still see those aircraft. I thought they had gone a bit mad, because they were only seconds in the air and they were firing their rockets. Then that dawned on me, that’s where the Vietcong were, they were that close, you could almost smell them.
From there we flew out and went to Nui Dat, which was to be our home for the next 12 months. We were split up into detachments of eight men, usually a junior NCO and seven including one signalman, so that we could be detailed off for any emergency that arose.
We were kept busy with drills, weapon cleaning and weapon inspections. You never leave men idle, if you leave men idle you are buying trouble, especially men who are trained to fight and are waiting to fight. We had perimeter guards.
I will never forget one night there were two of us in a dug out like a fox hole, about four feet deep. We were sitting up to our waists in water. We had found a bit of tin roofing iron that we had over us, because it was the monsoon rains, it was pouring down, and the cobber who was number one on the gun. We had an M60 machine-gun and an Aussie crept up behind us, this was a bit of a joke to him and threw a bloody great rock on this piece of metal. The fright it gave us, Dave let off about at least twenty rounds. Of course when we opened up all the others on the perimeter with weapons they opened up as well, because they couldn’t see anything, but they thought someone is firing so we had better fire too. When they finally got everybody to cease fire and came around and here was us with this bloody great rock on this piece of tin. There was an enquiry and it emerged that this Aussie had done what he had done. We were never quite sure who, nobody owned up, but from then on anybody creeping around in the dark inside the perimeter was given a pretty hard time. They weren’t shot, but they could suffer. Yeah so the word got around, don’t fool around.
We spent a fair bit of time in the j jungle] over there. You could go out for three weeks you could go out for three days in the swamps mainly. The leeches were bad, but once you got used to them and you knew how to deal with them you were okay and you helped your cobbers in this respect, especially with leeches on the back of your neck. They would be sucking away at your blood, but you wouldn’t know that they were there.
How did you get rid them off?
We had sulphur powder mostly. If you didn’t have sulphur powder you just took your chances with your bayonet and just flicked them off. If the head was left in then when you got back to the lines you went to the medical people and they put it right.
You say out in J what did you mean by that?
In the jungle.
Whilst out in the field in the J there were several things that weren’t in the rule book. You didn’t smoke. Of course you never ever took alcohol on the field. You didn’t speak, it was all sign language and to all appearances you kept yourself as invisible as you possibly could. We had several means of doing this. One of the good ones was using a black head band instead of a hat. That was why we became known as the grey ghosts. Over there especially the Americans we were referred to as the gray ghosts, because they never saw us coming and they never saw us going. I don’t want to sound too dramatic about this, but that would explain why we only had a limited number of casualties all the time we were in Vietnam, 37 casualties. Whereas the Yanks had thousands, because they wouldn’t listen, they wouldn’t shut up, and when they did they smoked, they played their radios, Radio Saigon, and then they wondered why the Vietcong could sneak up on them, cut their throats and turkey off and never be seen. Half of them were just kids they didn’t realise that they were at war. It was as if it was some sort of cowboy game. I heard one senior NCO say once from the Americans, “Oh at least it solved our unemployment problem”. I thought you bastards, all those kids just mowed down.
I arrived home on the nineteenth November 1969 at half past two in the morning at Whenuapai in a C130. I was totally ashamed because of the protests back here we landed at that time of the morning. When we had been cleared by Customs and Ag[riculture] we were told here is your final pay, here is your discharge, get into civvies and we don’t know you. That was that. Nobody wanted to know us. We didn’t understand why until the following day where from newspapers etcetera we gleamed the knowledge that there had been all these protests back here and that the government basically was running scared. Even our current Prime Minister Helen Clark was one of the protesters. It made me angry and yet it made me sad that we had been away doing our thing, stopping the commo’s[communists] from coming any further south and we were going to be put to the sword for it.
On a more pleasant side the morning of our arrival a friend of mine, she was waiting for me and had booked us into a hotel in Queen Street in Auckland and we made our way from Whenuapai over the bridge to this hotel. And this friend of mine she had told the hotel management that we were coming home and that I would be in, she wasn’t quite sure what time, but it would be late and that I had been away for the guts of three years and that I would appreciate some Kiwi tucker. Well the lady night porter and one of the cooks and I will never forget this, I wanted to sleep, my God I was tired, and we went into this room that had been booked for me and here on the table in this room was a great big bowl of raw oysters, a bottle of whisky, a bowl of hot water for my feet and these two darling ladies welcome home. They were both Maori. Bless their hearts I just sat down and cried.
We all had a special entry into the battalion and we signed up for three years, which was up, and well for me in particular on the day after I landed in New Zealand some of the guys their three years was up before they even left Nam. I have often wondered if they had been taken prisoner, whether they would have been classified as spies, because legally they were no longer in the New Zealand Army and yet they were still in the country and armed, so something that I often think about. But I was lucky I had one day to spare.
After Christmas `69/70 I was quite unsettled, I couldn’t really settle down to anything. I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I had come from a pretty hot climate, if you will forgive the pun, and a friend of mine in Blenheim, Roy Beatson …………….. he is dead and gone now suggested that I join the air force. My initial reaction to that was telling him where to go and how to get there. But then upon reflection, yes well why not. So I went out and saw them. And they wanted someone in the Engineering School, which suited me down to the ground as a general serviceman. So the officer in command Gus Smart explained to me what was required, could I handle it. I would be in uniform amongst all these young people. I thought yes I can handle that. So once again I was attested and became a blue bottle.
With the rank of?
No rank at all, I didn’t want any, not at that stage. I was a general serviceman.
Initially there were a few odds and ends to be tidied up in the administration of the Engineering School, things weren’t flowing as they should and Gus my boss knew that. The girl in the office well lets just say she was a bit promiscuous.
Then one day Gus said to me, “You know all these bits and pieces that we need for the school, all the spares hundreds and hundreds of them, like drill bits and drill machines, new lathes, all sorts, metal for the metal workers to work with, an endless list of stores, which had to come from the main store on the base. He said, “Wouldn’t it be great, if we had our own store?” I said, “Yes it would, it would save a hell of a lot of messing about and a lot of paperwork”. He said, “Do you think you could set up a store?” Well that was a challenge. I said, “Right Gus, if I need your help I will ask you. In the meantime watch this space”. I did, I got the Four TTS Number Four Technical Training School store going. It took up a huge amount of space in the hangar, so much so that I had to go second storey in it, and that is where I got that commendation from.
The beginnings were pretty rough and ready, I had a card system instead of computer. The supply line was pretty unreliable, because a lot of people in the supply system on base didn’t like the idea of me short circuiting their supply system. But as they began to realise that there was less and less paperwork coming from the engineering and the aircraft school and more and more stuff going to it, which they didn’t even have to touch, they realised that this was a good thing. After about a year the Technical Training School store was up and running in full flight. Anything they wanted, whether it be for the Devon Aircraft, for the machine shops, for the tin bashers, the metal workers, whatever, they could get and they knew they could get it straight away. They would come to the slide that I had built into the store, tell me what they wanted and they got it. Anything from a triple A battery to a new prop for a Devon aircraft. A lot of work and a lot of overtime self inflicted certainly, but I enjoy a challenge and once I got the thing rolling, that was it, no stopping. I did a lot of time out there at night working by myself. So everything set up in that store I knew exactly where it was. I had a reference system set up, alphabetical and numerical and then when I finally did get a computer that was the cream on the cake. There were 6,000 lines on the computer and everyone marked and you could get it fished in the wink of an eye. I was proud of that store because I had done it myself it was all my idea how to set it up. To put it there was Gus’s idea, but he was an electrician and so I rest my case. For 17 years plus I kept that store ticking over.
In that time I played sport for the squadron, I ran marathons for the air force.
And then I became what they called a AHA Anti Harassment Advisor. This came out in the later years when there was a lot of political correctness going mad and a lot of bullying and sexual harassment amongst the trainees and the staff. So I was trained as an Anti Harassment Advisor and everybody knew where Bert was, I had become a by-word by this stage. If anything went wrong in this respect they would come and see me because they knew (a) I would be there and (b) that anything they told me was in confidence. That the only time I would repeat it was if they wanted me to repeat it at their request. It worked fine. Right through the years I got letters from people who had moved away to other stations to other bases, gone overseas with the air arm, all over the place, and I have still got those letters, and I treasure them. Letters of thanks for the advice I had given them. That was my biggest challenge telling people how to solve their problems because I had so many myself.
In the meantime I had given up the booze. I am still a recovering alcoholic, 27 years now since I had a drink of alcohol. It has been seventeen years since I had a smoke, but it has been great, because as I said I enjoy a challenge and that is what it has been one huge challenge and I don’t regret one minute of it.
End of Interview