Tahiti


After leaving Top Springs and finishing my affairs with Perkins, I'd had a letter from George Gilkey in Tahiti; he was a man that I'd been in Uralla hospital with at the end of the war after he had lost his legs. He was lifting the boot of his car up in Pitt Street and some fellow came along behind him, and his foot slipped off the brake and he cut George off at the knees, or just below the knees. I never saw George with shorts or bathing togs on even though he got into the river a lot and all that in Tahiti - he wore long trousers all the time. The only time I saw his legs, he had a great knob with different coloured skin below his knees. It looked like he had two knees. They'd taken three inches out of his leg, but he was still a tall man as he was six foot two before.

George won the Croix de Guerre in France when he went ashore with the American Army. He had been in Germany until he was nearly twenty; his mother was a German. And he'd been to university in Germany, and spoke German with a fluent aristocratic German accent. For that reason he was sent ashore, and being a big upstanding bloke and all that, he was told to go to a certain crossroad where they ambushed and shot down a German scout car, without damaging it - killed the driver and the two soldiers. George turned the signpost around - pointing up that way to somewhere. And before they left other scout cars came round, and they're talking to George only, not the other men. The other men pleaded dumb; they didn't talk to anybody. George is giving them the spiel, and he'd changed uniforms with the dead Army officer, the German officer. 'That way. Up there, up there'. And they all streaked up there - there were tanks, and a truck convoy that went up there. It delayed the attack on Dunkirk ten hours they reckon.

George couldn't go back to America for some reason I never knew. I didn't even ask him. But his mother was named Bowater before she was married, and she gave George an annuity - it goes on all the time for his life. So he lived in Tahiti. And then he became the Bowater representative for newsprints and all that, for Tahiti. He said to me: 'If ever you want to live in Tahiti, you come and see me. When I'm out of this hole I'm going to go there. There I must live'. And he went there, and he had a posh establishment. So in 1961 or '62, I sent him a telegram saying that I was coming to visit him.

At the start of my holiday I went to see Captain Kennedy in Sydney - a man I'd known years ago before the war when he was First Mate Kennedy. He asked 'Would you like a little job?' - 'Oh no, not particularly. What sort of a job?' 'To go to Fiji with a ship.' So I did. I went to Fiji with an old bloke who was very sick, the captain of the ship. And I went as his first mate, to Fiji. Had a little holiday and then came back.

I then called on Captain Bridges, that I'd known years before when he was first mate on a ship. He had an office in a little street, I think its called Bent Street, in Sydney - and bent it is too, and very short. I went there, and he's got an office there as a marine surveyor. And he represented the Insurance Underwriters' Association - like Jack Hayden is here. 'What are you doing?' - I told him I'd just sold what I had in Darwin, and I was looking for something else, that I was going to do a bit of travelling around, and that I had a mind to go to the New Hebrides - 'Well I have a little job for you to do. I've got an old friend who's skipper on a ship; he's seriously ill, he could do with a good first mate'. I said: 'I'm him! Where's the job to?' - 'Tahiti'. His ship was about two thousand ton.

So I went with this bloke, and he got very crook and I took him to the toilet and he pissed pure blood. 'Jesus, he's in trouble'. And we were in bad weather and in trouble too. Our radio had fallen off a bracket, and fallen on the ground. We could listen, but we couldn't send. And I pulled it to bits, and had a look at it, and changed valves and all sorts of things. But I don't much about radios, even in them days. And we just carried on like we were - dead reckoning. Deduced reckoning actually that is, not dead reckoning at all - you deduced what you've done. We didn't have a log out, and I had to estimate our speed. It was no good us putting a log out again after we'd started, because you don't know how many between then and now, you see. So you can't do much - pouring rain, you couldn't do any star shots.

The ship loaded with stuff for the big shot, corporate lawyer McHugh in Sydney, he'd built an island into a huge tourist resort. We had a thousand ton of cement, a complete sawmill, and huge baulks of timber down the deck - Oregon, ten by tens and twelve by twelves - he was going to saw it up with the sawmill, for building this place. Some of that broke away. It was done with rope, and I'd said: 'We'll have to get chain and put on that'. And we did, we chained the lot, but we hadn't got enough chain. When you use rope on things like that its stretches, and in the finish you break the rope; some broke and took the rail out with it - the rail on the side was only meant for passengers to lean on, because its only bolted to the deck - which left big holes there for the water to pour in on top of cement. So what we had to do was get tarpaulins out - new tarpaulins belonging to McHugh, and cut them up and nail them down to anything and tie them down with ropes and all this to keep the water out.

The next morning the weather was thinning a bit and a look-out bloke up top in an oilskin, starts bellowing: 'Ship ahead, port side'. About an hour later there it is coming up to us, a big passenger liner the
Maraposa. I thought she wouldn't stop so I had the blokes get out a sheet of ply and write on it: 'Position?' They must have just done their position for somebody went inside and soon came out: 'So many degrees, so many degrees' - over a huge loud hailer. We could hear it, and I had a bloke copying it. When this half way through, all kinds of gorgeously clad women coming out, half dressed, to look at this derelict old thing in mid-ocean. All along the side was glassed in - the upper decks - all glassed in. Some of them come out onto the other part you know, waving to us and all that. So on we went, and we got to Suva and unloaded.the cargo. That was my first sighting of Tahiti. The ship was then sold to a French company which wanted me to continue on to Papeete. They said: 'Would you carry on to Tahiti?' I said: 'You put a Frenchman on board, that I can talk to them when I get there'. 'They'll put one of our captains on board.' And they did, they put another bloke - he was my first mate while I was Captain. We got there quite alright and they accepted me alright at first. I was in Tahiti having a good time - I'd been there three weeks, and only on the seaman's document, and nobody worried me.

The Underwriter in Bent Street had sent letters, and one telegram, to Fiji, to me, which eventually caught up with me. He wanted me to go and look at wrecks that were dotted around. It had been paid for, but they thought they may be of some value to a salvage merchant or to somebody who was going to really have use for them. There were a few there too. And would I look? And he explained what was wanted in his letters; photographs, underwater inspection and all that sort of thing. So I did some of them. I looked at wrecks for a ship broker and I was looking as well for myself. If there was something there worth buying I thought I might be able to put in a bid for it and buy it. I only found one that I thought was any good and it required a lot of work, chiefly a lot of local know-how, and a good bulldozer. Therefore you would have to have a barge that could carry a bulldozer, to stand by and get the bulldozer off at low tide, and cut across, stand alongside the vessel, hoping to drop her into that and then be able to tow her off. It would've required a fair bit of money but it would've been easy done with the right equipment. There was only one man in Port Vila who had that. Liddel was like the Stan Kennon of the New Hebrides. He had a huge amount of equipment and scrap iron and stuff that he'd got from the war; a lot of equipment got for nothing - bulldozers and all sorts of things. I wired back to the company and offered them ten thousand pounds. Two weeks went by and nothing happened, and then I heard that he had bought it - this local tycoon had bought that vessel. They must have held my telegram because later on, when I got back to Australia, I asked him about this and was told: 'Oh, we didn't get your telegram for some days after Liddel's.' The post office there was run by a joint venture. Any telegram I sent could've been easily intercepted by somebody who knew that man, and just told him what I'd done, and he could've just held mine up and put his in. Liddel bought it for nine thousand pounds - Australian pounds. It was a little vessel of two thousand tons which would've been very handy. She had a large fuel capacity. She was named the
Matavia. She was half oiler - half tanker, to carry bulk fuel to remote places - and half dry cargo.

I went back then to Port Vila. I'd heard where there was a barge sunk, a new barge, had never been used. It had got sunk by some reason, but maybe by the Americans, because they sunk many things purposely. They were told to get rid of stuff. It was there alright, and it'd never been used. But no way could I have raised it, because you would have needed pumping gear. She had a lot of closed spaces which would have filled with water. By the hammering we had to do on the side, they were filled with water. If we'd have been able to seal them up and put valves on some places - cut a hole and put a valve on, and open it, and have another hole and pump air in to pump the water out - to have got her buoyant enough to get out and get up. And then we would have had to tow it, I would have had to go back to my friend Liddel and ask him for help, which would have been very costly. So I didn't go.

After about five months I could see it was time to get out. George had quarreled with his lady of about three weeks, but would soon have another one, and the grogging was too heavy. Gradually I got to see that the immigration people were a bit hostile. Every time I came and went out and came back again there was always something wrong. Other people'd go straight through, no trouble, but I always had troubles. So I concluded that I wasn’t welcome there. Then the French found out about my work and was told that a Frenchman can do that so I had to finish. After about six weeks I left by air, with the immigration officer watching me. The man that I'd got to know quite well on the gate, and I even got to the stage of cracking jokes with him, said on my final trip out: 'We get you out at last. We send you out at last.' I said: 'Oh no, I've finished here, I'm going.' And he said something rather insulting to me - I forget what it was - and I said: 'The trouble with you people, you're still fighting the Battle of Waterloo.' And he got hold of a grating in front of his office and he was shaking it like a gorilla in a cage.

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