Chapter X: Cape Grieg
I had developed a minor leg infection from a varicose vein. It had bothered me most of the trip. After we were secured to the dock in Jacksonville, I decided to get a doctor's certificate from the skipper and take off for the coast. Within two weeks, after some medical attention and some visits with old friends, I was ready to ship out. I ran into another old friend, Joe Russell. Joe had joined a ship called the Cape Grieg as chief engineer. The vessel was of the C-1 class. Unlike the slow-speed Liberty ship, the Grieg was a turbine-propelled vessel with a bow as sharp as that of a destroyer. Her crew's and officer's quarters were considered super compared to that of the Liberty's. Joe Russell had been an old organizer for the National Maritime Union as well as one of its founders.
One of the hatches on the Grieg was filled with beer, wine, and whiskey. When someone made a remark about the number of cases of "liquid joy" being loaded when ammo would have been more meaningful, a military officer chimed in to tell us that it was for "medicinal purposes." However, we were convinced that it was part of MacArthur's private stock.
Again we followed the same pattern as the prior ship and zigzagged unescorted across the Pacific. We pulled into Antewetok, where we were to await a survey being made of the area by our planes to check for surface or underwater enemy craft. After 24 hours the area was declared safe and we steamed off, again alone. The next stop would be the Mariana Islands. After a week of discharging supplies there we were off for our next stop, the New Hebrides. Aside from most of our cargo being discharged here, at least half the "medicinal supplies" went ashore--which brought big smiles from a delegation of gold-braid officers who watched the unloading.
Being a fast ship, we never stayed in any one place for long. We loaded up with pieces and parts of at least 200 airplanes that had crashed or been shot down. Not only was this good ballast to take home, but it was all good metal which would be reduced again to liquid form, and new parts would be made from the aluminum, copper and other metals.
Off again, we sailed down along the Great Barrier Reef and into the port of Brisbane, Australia, where we got rid of the rest of the "medicinal supplies." We loaded some more defective military equipment to take home. In Brisbane I took a trip out to the Koala Bear farm. It was a lovely place to make contact with the bears and meet the caretakers who delighted in talking about their charges. A young man I became attached to because of his love of the animals picked one out of the cage and handed him to me. The bear, a lovely, warm creature, wrapped his little arms around my side and then started to nibble on one of my shirt buttons. The young keeper noticed that the bear and I seemed to be enjoying a mutual love affair. "If I knew there was some way you could take care of this young guy," he said to me, "and he could live in the States, I would be delighted to put him in your charge. Truth is, there are so many things this native character must have to survive, which you don't have in the States, it would be criminal to give you one."
A day or two later, I and two other members of the crew went out to a riding ranch, hired some horses, and spent the next few hours galloping through some of Brisbane's beautiful woods.
About 50 miles inland from the port of Brisbane is a little town called Toowoomba. I took a bus trip to the town and forgot about the time. In the late afternoon, I found myself at the bus station, eager to return to the ship. I was shocked to see a sign on the depot door: "Closed. Will open 7 a.m. tomorrow." The bus had stopped running at 4 p.m. Here it was 5:30. Now what would I do? The bus was the only transportation in and out of the town. In the course of searching for the local gendarmes with the hope that they would come up with some idea for getting me to my ship, I came across a small locomotive sitting lonesome on a spur track with the engineer inside, reading a paper. I got his attention and explained who I was and how important it was for me to get back to join my ship in Brisbane.
He smiled down at me. "Maybe you're just in luck, Yank," he said.
"Oh?" I replied sheepishly.
"Our shift is about over. In a few minutes we'll be on our way back to Brisbane for the night. You can hop aboard now and we'll take you with us. Will that suit you, Yank?"
I couldn't get aboard fast enough. His partner, the fireman, was just as friendly. "Of all the soldiers that come down here from many countries," the fireman said, "We like the Yanks the most. Many of them are a lot of fun to be around. Only trouble we can see with them is that all our women are nuts over them. I guess it's because they are big spenders and sweep the women off their feet, buying them anything they want. Our blokes can't do that. We don't have the money like you Yanks. But that's all right. After all, you come a long way, why not enjoy yourselves? So, you say you're an engineer in the merchant navy?"
"Yes," I replied.
"Your engine room anything like our little engine room?"
"Yes, like the one on my last ship, a Liberty ship. But not on my present ship, which is turbine-driven."
"In that case, how would you like to sit at the controls and take her into Brisbane?"
Something I had wanted to do all my life was to stand behind the throttle on a locomotive and blow that little steam whistle, chugging my way from town to town. Here it was happening at the other end of the earth, in "down under" Australia. The little engine I was now in command of was used as a little work horse to shunt freight cars in the Brisbane locale. Her top speed was about 35 miles an hour. She burned oil for fuel. My two new Australian friends seemed to be enjoying themselves, watching me play out my boyhood fantasy. It didn't take long to cover the 50 miles to Brisbane. I relinquished my "command" with a warm handshake and said goodbye.
The trip back to the States was uneventful, outside of a few submarine scares. We pulled into Long Beach, where the Cape Grieg and I parted company. I had made up my mind to make an appearance before the examiners to upgrade my license.
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book Three