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The First and Last Voyage

of the Fort Crevier, Part Two

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Continued from Part One




Voyage to Gibraltar


It was the end of February, by the time we set sail for Gibraltar en route to Karachi in India. Our cargo of mules was destined for the Burma Front where they would become the only possible way to move supplies over the mountains, the famous Burma Hump.

Mule Handler and his Mule Mule Handlers and their Mules

The mules used in the Burma Campaign inspired great devotion from their handlers and were known to remain calm under fire. The agile-footed mules made it possible for units like the famous "Wingate's Chindits" to penetrate the jungle behind enemy lines.

These photos showing members of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps are from the website of The British Mule Society.



The weather man was good to us. That meant we had bad weather that would keep the submarines down where they couldn't attack us. The mules didn't seem to mind but most of the horse soldiers were pretty sick. The winds and seas were once again in the right direction so we made good speed to Gibraltar. As we settled down into our sea routine, we all enjoyed the animals. Walking forward on deck at night was a trip. With each roll of the ship a row of heads or rumps would come out of the stalls depending whether they were loaded head first or tail first.

Thanks to the bad weather we neither saw nor heard from the enemy during the crossing and we arrived in Gibraltar unscathed. As we had no business other than waiting for a convoy through the Mediterranean, we were directed to an anchorage in the Bay.

Now the waters of the Bay washed up on the shores of Spain which, while a neutral country, was known to be friendly to the enemy. Earlier that year, German skin divers entering the waters from this
Map Covering UK to the Mediterranean
beach, walked out to the anchored ships and attached limpet mines (magnetic) to the bottom of ships and blew holes in their bottoms. The masts of the sunken ships were a grim reminder to all of us of this danger.

We had no sooner dropped our hook than a picket boat was along side and passed boxes of hand grenades up to us. After a ten minute instruction in their use, we were ordered to set up an anchor watch. We were to walk around the ship from dawn 'til dusk and we were to throw hand grenades at any kind of air bubble trails that we saw. From dusk 'til dawn we were to make the same circuit, only this time we were to throw a grenade over the side every half hour. Because our port and starboard sides were lined with mule stalls we did our patrols on the roofs of the stalls. The mules didn't like this much but soon got used to it. As you can imagine, it was pretty noisy at night but there were no more sinkings after this procedure was adopted. As it happened we only stayed one night in the Bay. The following morning we went alongside for bunkers and other supplies.



The Voyage to Port Said


We left Gibraltar the following day for our run up the Mediterranean. We knew that we were in range of both German and Italian Air Forces to say nothing of enemy subs, until we were well past Italy. So while the mules and soldiers enjoyed the sun and warm shady areas of the ship, we gunners cooked at our lookout stations.
Map Indian Ocean North
Each watch there would be a gunner on lookout in the bow, one on our twelve pounder gun platform, one on the Monkey island where we had two twin fifty calibers machine guns and one on the four inch gun platform on the stern. Additionally on every aircraft sighting we would man all of our armament, that meant our four twenty millimeter Oerlikons and our Pill Box, a rocket launcher capable of firing twenty rockets at incoming aircraft. By the time we steamed into Port Said we were badly in need of sleep. We had lots of false alarms but fortunately no attacks. There was one sad occurrence: one of the mules had a belly problem and mules, like horses, cannot throw up so the poor animal died of stomach poisoning and was buried at sea.

Port Said


We took on coal at Port Said and this was an eye opener. Two large, long planks of wood stretched up from the coal dock to the ship's side where the bunkers were located, and then a huge crowd of natives appeared at the coal pile. Some of the men filled baskets with coal, others picked up filled baskets and lifted them on to yet other men's heads and these men ran up the planks, dumped the coal into the bunker, and pretty soon there was a continuous line going up one plank and down the other. In this manner we took on hundreds of tons of coal. I remember thinking, "this is how they built the pyramids."

Next Stop Aden


With the bunkers refilled and the necessities of life for crew, soldiers and mules replenished, we were boarded by the Pilot who would see us safely through the Suez Canal. As we got underway, we were also boarded by an assortment of Egyptian merchants, fakers and entertainers. These people sold everything from carpets, silks, satins, and every kind of leather goods imaginable. There were silver smiths who made beautiful filigree bracelets and other jewelry while you watched. The first day was interesting because of the newness of it all. We passed the occasional ship west bound and on the banks we would see men riding camels as well as the odd group of soldiers. After about a day and a half we came to the oasis of Ismailia and a good sized lake. This was King Farouk's summer residence and we saw his beautiful yacht. I believe we stayed the night there, and as I remember, there was no traffic at night on the canal.

Chit for cigarettes

Seamen preferred to smoke cigarettes purchased from a reputable place such as a bonded store. The chit pictured here was given to John at a later date so that he could buy a case of 500 Capstans for the Ellerman and Bucknall-managed ship on which he was then serving.

The rest of the trip was not all that interesting, but we were entertained by the magicians who worked with live chickens. They could pull a chicken from behind your ear and hand it to you flapping and cackling. God knows how they did it.

All the way east, every ten miles or so, there were staging areas where we would pull over so other ships going west could pass, and occasionally an eastward bounder which had a higher priority than we did. While waiting in these areas, we often would attract a few bum boats. These were more like rowboats as I remember and were usually manned by rug, leather and pottery merchants. They also nearly always sold American cigarettes, but these were usually very old and full of weevils.

We finally cleared the Canal at Port Tewfick and entered the Red Sea. The further east we went the hotter it got and the smell of mules and hot urine became grim. It was then that there were rumblings from the black hand gang about the heat. The Captain issued side arms to the engineering officers and the threat of the guns kept the men working.
Advertisement for an Aden laundry

There was enough time at Aden to have laundry done.

The temperature in the boiler room was around 130 degrees F and the engine room wasn't much better. A couple of days into the Red Sea and a couple of stokers said: "you can shoot us mother f---kers we is quitting," or words to that effect. The old man put them in irons. However as British Captains don't shoot mutineers any more, he asked for volunteers from all his officers and deck crew to shovel coal and fire the ship. The gunners were not invited to help but rather asked to close up our guns and keep a sharp lookout. Deck people don't like spending time so far below decks. We finally put into Aden in Saudi Arabia long enough to get more coal and replace the two mutineers. Two days later we were off into the Arabian Sea on our last leg to Karachi.

The weather was outstanding, the days hot and sunny, and the nights warm and breezy. There is a great deal of phosphorus in the Arabian sea, and at night we would watch the dolphins which were leading the ship. It was a favorite pastime for off duty crew members. There would often be as many as eight of these large and beautiful fish crisscrossing our bow, and the phosphorus lit them up in green streaks. Truly a beautiful sight, the Arabian Sea is without a doubt one of the world's most beautiful seas.

The down side of the Arabian Sea was that we had the usual submarine threat to deal with and an additional threat from the Japanese who had armed merchant cruisers operating in the area. Karachi was a main supply port for all war materials for the Burma Front. In fact that's why our mules were destined to arrive. I have forgotten how long it took us to get from Aden to Karachi, probably not more than five or six days. We arrived safely and pulled along side a dock that was open to two large corrals.

Merrill's Marauders crossing a 
river

It is possible that some of the Fort Crevier's mules were destined to serve with either the "Wingate's Chindits" or with their American equivilent, the "Merrill's Marauders". The "Chindits", with their British, Burmese and Gurkha members, were named after a mythical Burmese lion, the Chinthé, and their British leader, Major-General Orde Wingate. The "Marauders" took the name of their American leader, Brigadier-General Frank D. Merrill. The operations of both the "Chindits" and "Marauders" in early 1944 greatly aided the 14th Army to inflict their decisive defeat on the Japanese at the battlegrounds of Imphal and Kohima.

This photo of a group of Merrill's Marauders crossing a river with their mules in March 1944 is from The World at Arms: The Reader's Digest Illustrated History of WWII, London, c.1989.



Throughout the Burma Campaign Allied troops were dependent on being resupplied by air. All flying operations in this theatre of war were difficult, and the most hazardous of all was flying supplies over "The Hump" to the Chinese Nationalist Army fighting the Japanese forces in China.

Map showing  Burma Hump

Like the mules, aircraft were also brought to India aboard ships of the Allied Merchant Navy.



Karachi


What a sight to see, the horse soldiers were met by others already stationed there and soon established a large corral just off the dock side. Gangways were again rigged and first the mules on deck were walked to the gangways. They needed no encouragement at all, down they went into the corral.
Wingate's Chindits in the jungle

This photo, which shows Chindits in April 1944, is from John Pimlott's WWII in Photographs, published by Orbis in London, c.1984.

After ten weeks at sea they had gained their sea legs and now on solid ground. They fell and tripped as they ran around bucking and kicking; they were so happy. After they had settled down a bit they were moved to a second enclosure and another batch were sent ashore. Eventually they were gone, soldiers and all, and we knew how Noah must have felt when he off loaded the Arc. What a mess and what a smell! The soldiers had shoveled what poop they could and hosed down the decks but our bilges were full of a substance about the consistency of porridge and we wondered how on earth the mess could be cleaned up. The next day we learned the terrible truth.

At about six a.m., trucks arrived with long planks similar to what we saw in Port Said when we took on coal. These were placed against the ships side, only this time they were steeper as the ship road higher in the water after the mules were gone. Similar planks were set up leading down into the holds. Then more trucks arrived carrying about two hundred young girls with a few older boys. What took place next was outrageous and most of us were horrified.

Overseers with whistles and whips organized these children into two groups, boys to fill and lift baskets onto the heads of the girls and girls to carry the baskets up the planks to our main deck, then down the planks to the shore side. As you can imagine the flimsy baskets were soon leaking their contents onto the heads, faces, shoulders of these poor kids and anyone showing signs of slowing down caught a taste of the whip. It wasn't long before these children were soaked in filth and were all crying. That was my introduction to the mysterious east.

That evening most of us went ashore to look around and we needed distraction. We explored the bazaars and bought strange fruit and food, and mixed with people all of whom seemed to be wearing bed sheets with a smattering of turbans. All of the women we saw wore saris and we noted the beautiful bearing of most of them. We also noticed a high proportion of crippled people and beggars. Before we returned to the ship we knew the word baksheesh (give me some money) and would hear it often for the next year or so.

Once the ship was clean again we were ordered to proceed to Bombay prior to returning to Virginia for another load of mules. Bombay was about 500 miles south, several days down the Arabian Sea. We knew that the weather would be good and we expected a quiet safe trip.

I neglected to tell you about one of the good things about having the American soldiers aboard. They had food and other goodies which they most generously shared with all of us. When they went ashore in Karachi their unused stores were left on board for the use of the next contingent. We all knew of this and paid many visits to the hold where their goods were kept, gaining entrance by sliding down a ventilator into the hold. This was all done late at night and soon we took our turn with other crew members and shared the loot. We stole O'Henry bars and gum by the case, canned fruits etc. etc. and generally lived like kings for almost a week until the bubble burst.

Somehow the Old Man got wind of it, and started to search the crew's quarters. We heard of the search and started to pitch cases of goodies through the port holes in our mess deck. We tore up cartons and pitched them through as fast as we could. Meanwhile the seamen and stokers not on watch did the same until the Old Man arrived with the First Mate and the Chief Steward. He caught the seamen and stokers red handed then started on our quarters. We came up smelling like a rose, although he did find a couple of O'Henry bars. We tried to persuade him that the candy was a legitimate purchase from the soldiers but he didn't believe out story. After the skipper left we went on deck and looking astern, as far as the eye could see, were cardboard boxes and cans of fruit. The word soon came back that when we reached Bombay, he was going to turn us all over to the authorities and charge us with broaching cargo, a very serious offense.






The First and Last Voyage of the Fort Crevier is continued in Part Three


INDEX PAGE


This page is maintained by Maureen Venzi and it is part of the Allied Merchant Navy of WWII website.