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Article: A Wartime Memory

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    A Wartime Memory

    2 Comments by Charles Webb Cooper Published on 7th November 2020 09:25 PM
    Memories In March 1944 I signed on the Athlone Castle, a troopship, and did several Atlantic crossings, bringing G.I’s from New York to Liverpool. I was the Engineer’s Steward and had help from two assistant stewards as my team, and the three of us shared a cabin in the Engineer’s quarters on the boat deck. These quarters were in an island that was separated from the open passenger space by a railing, and we were allowed to use our fenced off area of deck when we were off duty. On one trip we had Billy Conn aboard. He was a professional boxer who fought Joe Louis for the world heavyweight title at least twice. He was known as the Pittsburgh Kid, and used to entertain the troops (and keep in shape) by
    sparring and shadow boxing on the top deck. He would take on all comers as sparring partners and on one occasion I, rather nervously, put my hand up, after being dared to do so by the two juniors. (I couldn't chicken out) I tried as hard as I could but couldn’t land a single punch, He blocked everything I threw at him, tied me up in knots and scared the pants off me when he pretended to get serious. However, he was very sporting and didn't hurt me at all. One round was enough! On our last trip from New York, we brought back a number of young people who had been evacuated to the U.S.A. in 1939, when war was declared. The U-boat menace was largely over by then. Among the passengers was a girl, about the same age as me, and we started talking one day, when I was relaxing on our piece of deck and she was on the passenger side of the dividing rail. A mini romance bloomed in the few days we were together, and we would hold hands in the moonl
    ight and I would scare her with tales about how the U-boats would pop up in the middle of a convoy, sink a few ships, and then disappear again. She would cling a bit tighter! Unscrupulous bastard! Anyway, the 2nd engineer, a Mr. Andrews, saw us one evening and got very uptight. He was a pompous ass who thought he was one of the ruling elite and that I was a mere skivvy who had no business getting friendly with passengers. I told him where to go and that upset him even more. He reported me to the Captain for being insolent and I was duly summoned to the Captain’s cabin to hear Mr. Andrews tell his story. I don’t think the Captain had a very high regard for the 2nd engineer and probably thought that I was justified in saying what I did, but he had to support his officers and maintain discipline. He said he would have to log me (a fine) for being disrespectful, and then said, rather apologetically,
    “Would a pound be alright?” I nearly laughed out loud but managed to contain myself and said “Yes sir, that’s O.K. by me.” On my next voyage in the Athlone Castle in August 1944, we again sailed out of Liverpool bound for Australia, via Panama, carrying a lot of R.N. personnel as passengers, including a contingent of Wrens (Women’s Royal Naval Service).By this time I had been moved from the Engineers Mess to a job as a saloon steward in the main passenger dining room, where two of us waited on two sittings of 24 Wrens, with 12 to a table. They were a lot of fun. For most of them it was their first taste of life at sea and it was several days before they were all well enough to come into the saloon for their meals. This was my first time through the Panama Canal and it was a fascinating experienc
    e. We had an overnight stay in Cristobal, on the Atlantic side, and the American U.S.O. people put on a show for our Navy boys. A chorus line of beautiful girls performed a jitterbug act, which was the latest dance craze. Then they invited our lads to go on stage to be taught the steps etc. After the initial stampede had been sorted out, about 12 matelots were chosen and promptly astonished the girls by already being masters of the dance. It had been popular in England for some time. The Yankee G.I’s had brought it over with them. Later that night I went ashore with a couple of shipmates and we finished up in a nightclub where I saw my first strip tease show. That was an eye opener and a real education for an innocent young fellow like me! From Panama we sailed unescorted to Sydney where we disembarked our passengers, who had been sent there to help in the war
    against Japan. We sailed on to Wellington, and I got my first introduction to N.Z. I don’t remember a lot about it except for getting horribly sick on a bottle of sherry, due to the pubs having run out of beer. War is hell!! We returned to the U.K. again via Panama, but this time, we didn’t get any shore leave. We dropped anchor off Greenock, near Glasgow, waiting for enough ships to gather to form another convoy, this time destined for India. Half the crew were given a week’s leave and most of them went home to Liverpool or wherever. The other half, which included me, were to get a week’s leave when they returned. However, the sailing date must have been brought forward because when it was our turn we were only given two days off. That wasn’t enough time to go home, so I went into Glasgow with a mate to kick our heels up. We stayed at the Seamen’s Hostel, which was quite comfortable and cheap, with single beds in small cubicles. Breakfast
    was porridge, so thick that you almost needed a knife and fork to eat it, Without going into too much detail, we had a great time. So great in fact, that we stayed four days, until our money ran out. I was a bit nervous reporting in to the R.N. depot in Greenock, which ran the launch service to the ships at anchor, thinking that the ship might have sailed without us, but the Athlone Castle was still there, and we got safely aboard. Quite a few of the crew had done exactly the same thing, and we were all brought before the captain to answer for our sins! However, there wasn’t a lot he could do about it, except log us two days’ pay. A couple of days later we sailed up tp Loch Ewe, a very desolate lookin location, where the convoy was assembled. Then we sailed out into the North Sea, down the Atlantic and through the Mediterranean
    to Port Said. The Med was relatively safe by this time and there were no alarms on the way. We didn’t get any shore leave in Port Said, but sailed on through the Suez Canal and down the Red Sea to Aden, where we refuelled. Aden is a very barren place, very hot and surrounded by high hills, but quite a good place to shop because it’s a duty free port. I met some R.A.F. chaps, who invited me to their camp in the hills outside town, where we drank Abyssinian beer, which tasted vile. Our drinking glasses were made from beer bottles with the tops cut off and the edges sanded down. On we sailed to Bombay (now called Mumbai). Bombay was an incredible place. Some magnificent buildings next door to the meanest slums imaginable. The streets stained red with betel nut j
    uice which everyone chewed and then spat out. The pavements crowded at night with the sleeping bodies of the homeless, even families. The Gateway to India monument on the waterfront. Horse drawn gharries (taxis). Searing hot curries and tasty Chinese Chop Suey’s. We spent some time at a resort called Beach Candy with a wonderful big swimming pool. Europeans only. No **** allowed! (and this was their own country! ) On the return trip to England we had quite a few troops on board, either having served their time, or going on leave. I was talking to one of the soldiers and he told me that he was really worried about the authorities searching his bags when we docked. He had souvenired a small Italian Beretta hand gun and was scared of what would happen if he was caught with it. I had never handled a gun in my life, but I was fascinated with it. It fitted beautifully into your hand and had a magazine bui
    lt into the grip capable of holding about six bullets. I bought it off him for one pound. On arrival in Liverpool, I considered my chances of getting past the policeman on the dock gate without being searched. There was every possibility of that happening. On all my previous trips, I used to bring home lots of tinned food, particularly fruit and corned beef, sugar, tea, dried fruits, in fact everything that was in short supply and rationed. I would have at least two cardboard boxes full of food, plus my suitcases, to get past the dock gate. The Customs regulations only allowed us to bring back 25lbs of food. without declaring it, and paying duty, but I always had a lot more than that. The policeman would zero in on me and take me into the office and ask to see what I had in my bags. He would rummage through the tinned food, put two or three tins to one side and
    perhaps a packet of tea, and say, "You've got a bit too much there lad, l'll have to confiscate these". Of course, the goods never stayed long in police custody, but were taken home by him at the end of his shift. However, it was a cheap enough price to pay. They seldom did a body search, so I decided on a bold plan, and wore the gun, in its holster, on my trouser belt and hidden under my coat. It worked fine, and l walked through without being stopped. Having got home, I realised that I had done a particularly stupid thing. What the heck was I going to do with a gun? I had to keep it hidden from Mum and Dad and I couldn't keep taking it away to sea with me. I had no desire to become a bank robber and anyway I had no ammunition for it. I found a safe hiding place behind the water cistern in the attic, and it stayed there for a couple of years. Then I heard that the authorities were granting an arms
    amnesty and that you could hand in illegal weapons to the police with no questions asked. That's what I did, and the worry was lifted from my mind. It was a beautiful gun though! It was always a game trying to evade the Customs Officers. They would come aboard as soon as we docked and the rummage teams would search everywhere for any contraband. Mostly it would be cigarettes or watches etc. that the crews tried to smuggle. Drug running wasn’t in the picture then. lf you were successful in getting past the Customs you could be fairly confident of getting past the police on the dock gate. Most of the less zealous cops were known to the crews and they would wait for one of them to be on duty. lf someone with undeclared valuables in his bag was stopped, the drill would be to hand over your discharge book for ins
    pection. Inside would be one or two pound notes. The cop would inspect the book, then hand it back and wave you through. Somehow or other the money would have disappeared.

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    Default Re: A Wartime Memory

    Quote Originally Posted by Charles Webb Cooper View Post
    Memories In March 1944
    pection. Inside would be one or two pound notes. The cop would inspect the book, then hand it back and wave you through. Somehow or other the money would have disappeared.
    Thanks Charles, reminds me of the same trip from the UK to India in a BP tanker... many years ago but a great time.. thanks again for sharing
    Last edited by Doc Vernon; 11th November 2020 at 07:17 PM.

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    Default Re: A Wartime Memory

    India Bombay airport in 1986, it is almost impossible to describe what it was like.
    We have flies here in Oz and they can get around in large numbers, but in Bombay there were so may it looked like a fog.
    Bodies lying all over the place, sleeping where they could, as to the toilets, there are bad ones and worse ones, then there are the ones in Bombay airport.
    Happy daze John in Oz.

    Life is too short to blend in.

    John Strange R737787
    World Traveller

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