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Authors: Sloan Wilson

Pacific Interlude

BOOK: Pacific Interlude
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Pacific Interlude

A Novel

Sloan Wilson

To my children, Lisa, Rebecca, David and Jessica, and my

grandchildren, Ben, Joe, Eli and Anna. When I think that none

of these people would have been born if my gas tanker had blown

up, I am more grateful than ever for the great good luck of

surviving World War II

S. W

Cup And Lip

At first I was quite brave in war

Fear of defeat kills fear

But death is difficult to face

When victory is near

S. W


This is fiction based on fact. During World War II, I was one of the Coast Guard officers who went from the Greenland Patrol to the Southwest Pacific, where we manned small army supply ships. I commanded first a freighter and then a gas tanker.

Because there were so many ships with so many numbers, there may actually have been a tanker designated
, as in this book, but I had no one vessel in mind when I wrote this novel. All the characters and ships are a mixture of highly subjective memory and imagination which can honestly be called fiction, but this is the war as I saw it.

S. W


Australia were just as beautiful as American women, but much more loving, or so the young sailors told each other. In New Guinea during that year, 1944, the Americans thought much more about the golden Australian girls than about the grim Japanese warriors whom they were supposed to fight, and they prayed for a chance to get to Australia with the fervor of monks who have a literal belief in heaven.

When a small gas tanker was hit by a Japanese suicide plane and towed to Brisbane for repairs, several of the sailors in New Guinea requested duty aboard her, despite the fact that those little ships were probably the most dangerous afloat. The knowledge that this one would return to her duty of supplying advance air bases as soon as she was fixed up did not deter the eager volunteers. After a year or more of confinement to freighters which never left the fetid jungle harbors and army bases of New Guinea, they would have signed up for anything, if only they could have a few weeks, days or even hours in Australia first.

Syl Grant, the young Coast Guard lieutenant who was ordered to head the crew bound to take over the tanker, marveled at the bravery which dreams of simple lechery can inspire, and wryly admitted to himself that he shared this weakness or strength. He had not volunteered for the job of commanding the tanker and hated everything he knew about her, from the stink of gasoline to the fact that she was an army ship, but the sting of receiving these orders had been eased by the thought that repairs might keep him in Australia a month or more. He had thought of trying to get his orders to such a miserable little vessel changed, but the more he had dreamed about Brisbane, the more his devotion to duty had grown. In the service a man has to learn to accept his fate without question. What will be will be.

As they rode the plane from Milne Bay to Brisbane, only Cramer, a chief boatswain's mate, talked of anything but the girls they expected to meet.

“I guess I can get used to the idea of riding gasoline tanks,” this former prison guard said, “but I just can't stand the idea of working for the army. Damn it, I joined the Coast Guard! Why do we have to man these damn army ships?”

“That is because the Coast Guard is part of the navy in time of war,” Syl replied solemnly.

Cramer thought about this a moment, his craggy face wooden before he broke into a grin.

“Jesus!” he finally bellowed. “That makes as much sense as anything else in this damn war, don't it?”

They arrived in Brisbane on the afternoon of September 4, a day when Tokyo Rose predicted the imminent American invasion of the Philippine Islands, but rumors about that had been circulating for a long time and no one paid much attention to them. Great battles did not appear to occupy the minds of these men as they piled out of the airplane. They complained only because a U.S. Army truck picked them up to take them to a shipyard before they even had a chance to admire the girls they glimpsed at the airport. Tossing their seabags into the back of the weapons carrier, they stood there laughing, whistling and calling to every woman they passed on the streets of Brisbane, a few of whom looked just as beautiful as they had hoped. These young sailors who were bound for duty aboard a battered army gas tanker looked and sounded like a bunch of high school boys on their way to a football game. There are many brands of courage, Syl thought, and the unthinking kind may be the best of all.

“Skipper, is there any chance we could get a few hours of liberty before we go aboard?” Sorrel, a young signalman who looked like a California beachboy, asked.

“I'm afraid my orders are to take over the ship as soon as we get here,” Syl said. “I'll sure grant liberty as soon as we all get settled.”

After the stifling heat of New Guinea, the very air of Brisbane was heady. There was the fragrance of newly mown grass and flowers in many backyard gardens behind the rows of little houses they passed. The dresses of the women pushing baby carriages on these sidewalks were so brightly colored and their smiles were friendly as they waved to acknowledge the cheers of the passing truckload of sailors. In the windows of grocery stores, they saw piles of fresh oranges, apples, and melons, fresh food they had not tasted in many months. A high school girl on a bicycle was so graceful as she pedaled along with her hair flying that the men's laughter subsided in awe as they watched her out of sight.

Their truck stopped before a gate in a wire fence which surrounded a small shipyard. After showing his credentials to an elderly watchman who barely glanced at them, Syl led his white-clad men, who had hand-scrubbed their uniforms the day before in Milne Bay, down a narrow road between two sheds, at the end of which they could see an Australian destroyer on the ways and several smaller ships. Even the seabags which the sailors balanced on their shoulders were so clean that they were hard to look at in the bright afternoon sun, and their newly polished black shoes glistened.

“We are looking for the U.S. Army
Syl said to a stout, red-faced guard who hurried toward them.

“A little gas tanker? The one that was hit?”

The guard's Australian accent sounded to Syl like Cockney, but this man had none of the jaunty cheerfulness which he somehow associated with that kind of diction. This was a somber sounding individual and his continuing stare was as mournful as that of a Basset hound.

“That's right,” Syl said.

“She's on the other side of that destroyer, about as far away as we could move her.”

When Syl and his men walked around the stern of the destroyer, they could not believe that the rusty hulk which they saw was to be their ship. Syl at first hoped that she was only a derelict waiting to be broken up, and that the vessel he was to command lay somewhere on the other side of her, but he could see nothing beyond except the wire fence. As they came nearer to that unlovely hull, which was shaped a little like a five-hundred-ton hog, they could smell gasoline as strongly as though it dripped from her. Obviously this vessel had not even been emptied and steamed out before being hauled. She lay there like a huge bomb, waiting for any spark to touch her off. Cramer nervously dropped a cigarette and stamped it out in the mud, glancing around to make sure that none of the other men were smoking.

They walked closer, their faces tense. Although she was only 180 feet long, this little harbor tanker looked enormous as she towered above them, her rusty green hull black against the sky. The starboard side of her pilothouse, where the Jap suicide plane had hit it, looked as though it had been clobbered by a giant wrecker's ball, and the entire superstructure had been blackened by fire. Syl's last hope that there must be some mistake evaporated when he saw the letters and numbers which had been welded to her battered bow: “U.S. Army
Turning to his men, he forced a smile and said, “Well, I guess we always knew she wasn't going to turn out to be the
Pacific Queen

The crew gave him a nervous laugh. They walked toward a rickety, much patched and splinted ladder about thirty feet long which led from the mud on her port side to her deck amidships. Near the foot of it a dozen Australian workmen sat on a pile of rusty steel plates while they drank their afternoon tea from heavy mugs.

The foreman of these workers, a burly red-haired man in dirty overalls, watched the newcomers with a sardonic grin. To him Syl seemed to be a typically cocky young Yank lieutenant. His newly pressed blue uniform with the two broad gold stripes on each sleeve looked pretentious under that thin still boyish face, as did the visored, goldemblemed cap above it. The spotless white uniforms of the sailors who followed him made the foreman laugh. One minute after those poor swabbies climbed aboard this rusty, sooty vessel, they would not look so proud.

The workmen stared as Syl walked to the foot of the decrepit ladder and shoved it a few inches to test its steadiness. Turning to them, he said in a flat American voice which still managed to sound almost as snooty to them as a British accent, “Good afternoon. Who's in charge here?”

“I guess me as much as anybody,” the red-haired foreman said and they all grinned.

“This ladder doesn't look very safe to me. Do you think we could find a better one?”

“That ladder has held bigger men than you,” the foreman said, and his friends laughed.

Syl had heard that Australian men tended to be as hostile toward Americans as their women were friendly, and though that was understandable, he was taken aback by this greeting.

“That may be,” he said, trying to keep his voice even, “but I have a whole crew to bring aboard and they have lots of gear.”

He gestured toward the procession of men standing behind him, all of whom balanced their heavy seabags on their shoulders to keep them from the mud.

“I don't want to ask anybody to climb a busted-up ladder,” he added almost apologetically.

“We don't have no more ladders,” the foreman said. “Every time a ship leaves here, they steal at least one.”

“Maybe the yard could buy or even build some new ones,” Syl said, trying to keep that a dry observation.

“If you boys are afraid of heights, you better not go aboard a gas tanker,” the foreman said. “If she blows, you'll all go high enough.”

The other workmen laughed. Syl stood silent, his face starting to burn. His crew looked both angry and embarrassed.

“Skipper, we can make it up that ladder,” Cramer said.

“It's dumb to expect men to use a ladder like that,” Syl said and to the foreman added, “Where can I find the manager of this yard?”

“He's up on deck there,” the foreman said. “He ain't afraid of the ladder.”

Hearing the laughter, the manager, a tall bald man in a black business suit, walked to the rail of the
and looked down.

“What's going on down there?” he asked.

“Sir, are you the manager of this yard?” Syl said.

“I'm the superintendent.”

“Sir, I am coming aboard to take command of this ship. I request another ladder. In my opinion this one is not safe enough for my crew.”

“We have no more ladders to spare and that one is safe enough for every man in this yard,” the superintendent said. “You can trust it, lieutenant. What will hold an Aussie will hold a Yank. Unless, of course, you're not up to it.”

The workmen guffawed.

“Sir,” Syl said with a final attempt, “it's my business to ask men to take chances, but not unnecessary ones. I just can't ask them to climb this ladder with those seabags.”

“Then you all can bloody well fly up!” the superintendent said.

BOOK: Pacific Interlude
5.69Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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