“Four Men in a Boat” by “Shipmate” – Chapter 6

6 CHAPTER SIX (New Year) Korea

The ship rendezvoused with the pilot vessel and picked up the waiting pilot who skillfully guided it between the netted entrance of the river delta.  It was on its way to discharge at a little known port in North Korea.

The date was New Years Eve 1961 and the United States of America military, virtually controlled all of the sea passages and airways in the vicinity.

The temperature had fallen to minus 20 degrees Celsius but fortunately the wind had dropped leaving an eerie silence, the sounds becoming masked with the heavy snowfall. 

Many of the crew, although on standby, sheltered in the doorways and alleyways in small clusters to smoke and chattered in hushed voices.  Their mood seemed to match the somberness and the gloom.

Occasional glimpses of a watery sun did little to lift their spirits, as nearly another two hours would pass before they docked at their destination.

Most of the standbys were nearly frozen to the bone when they finally arrived at their objective although some had noticed with envy that the crew of their naval escort had been provided with thick fleeces, furry hats and leather gauntlets. 

A routine swung into action that was second nature to the seamen tying up the ship and the rattle of the steam winches echoed in the otherwise silent atmosphere.  The clouds of steam from the winches mingled with the thick snow becoming lost in a hazy cloud. 

Experience had told them not to touch metal surfaces at such low temperatures, for fear of their hands becoming stuck.  As a consequence, they all wore gloves that had rags wrapped round them for further protection.

The ship was slowly winched alongside with the aid of two ancient tugs that were pushing and belching thick black smoke that soon became indistinguishable from the darkening skies.

Shortly after tying up, the ships hatches were opened and the start of discharge of their cargo began.  By nine in the evening just over a hundred tons of wooden crates had been unloaded.  Only the Captain’s manifesto, gave full details of the contents, which were listed as weapons and ammunition and were accompanied by the necessary licenses and other paperwork.

Unloading completed, the ship was due to sail on the first tide at six next morning and a pilot and naval escort had been booked accordingly.  The Captain was advised that the anti submarine nets were only open for one hour either side of high tide, twice a day to allow entrance and exit to the port.

In spite of being New Years Eve no shore leave was permitted.

You could almost cut the smoke with a knife in the fourth engineers cabin.  It was filled with many of the off-duty officers, who were having a New Years Eve celebration.  Cans of beer were drunk in quick succession resulting in the engineers bunk becoming strewn with empties.  Jokes were exchanged and even though most of them had been heard before, everyone laughed as though it was the first time they heard them.  It didn’t take long before the singing started.  The second mate was noted for his only song and began his rendition of,

‘Where be that blackbird?  I know where he be,

He be up old ‘worsell’ tree and I be after he…’ 

Everyone joined in the chorus with gusto as they vied to begin the next song.

Sparks, the radio officer, the third officer and the junior apprentice were perhaps the youngest of the group.  In fact the third mate had had his twenty first birthday shortly before their arrival.  Coming after Christmas day, it had passed without notice. 

 His companions didn’t need much encouragement and were as game as he to celebrate properly. 

 So leaving quietly and unnoticed, they slipped ashore to explore, having taken care to be wrapped up warmly.

Money was in short supply but together they had managed to assemble about thirty U.S. Dollars and three Five-Pound notes.  Both currencies, they knew were usually good tender anywhere in the world.

The small town was as dreary as the weather but after about ten minutes they heard the sounds of revelry coming from one of the wooden buildings halfway down the deserted high street.  They decided to explore.

A bare unlit passage full of overcoats, led them to an inner room that was surprisingly brightly lit.  The occupants all stopped talking and turned to look at the new entrants.

On one side was a small well stocked bar adorned with Christmas lights and a half dozen bar girls sat sipping various drinks.  ‘Sparks’ thought they were the most unattractive hostesses he had ever seen and whispered to his friends,

‘They look like Eskimos,’

Dominating the center of the room was a large pot-bellied stove that was responsible for the comforting warmth of the room.  Around the stove a number of American Military personnel were clustered and it was evident from the burn marks in the shape of a footprint that someone had tried to thaw his feet on the stove’s belly.  The Yanks, ever gregarious, welcomed the newcomers as a kind of diversion and ‘shouted’ a round.

 Introductions were made and everyone settled down to a cheery chat as they downed their beer and swapped stories.

Unusually, the girls didn’t make an attempt to join the men and Wing Commander Al Grayson junior explained why.  Being at the end of the month, their pay advances had yet to come through and the hostesses generally confined their advances to the otherwise neglected locals.  New Years eve however, saw most of the locals at home with their families. 

As mid-night approached the money was running short for both the Air force men and sailors alike.

Al Grayson reluctantly eased himself off of his seat by the stove and spoke to the residual customers.  The three sailors remained and two Americans, including himself.  They had pooled their resources that turned out to be rather limiting.

“Why don’t we find somewhere a little cheaper?  He said.

In unison they left the Bar saying their farewells and putting on their topcoats.  A small scruffy boy of about ten years old came running up to greet them.  He was obviously known to the Americans and it seemed like he acted as a sort of guide being a local but also fluent in a kind of ‘Pigeon’ English.  The fact that he wouldn’t get paid didn’t seem to bother him neither did the lateness of the hour.  He told one of the sailors later that the Americans would be more than generous when their pay cheques came through.

The next hour was quite disconcerting but nothing compared to what was to occur a little later.

They followed their guide from establishment to establishment all the time getting further out of town and away from the docks.  It appeared that wherever they went they hadn’t enough money between them.

At one place because of a slight misunderstanding, the Madame paraded all of her hostesses like some sort of Middle Eastern auction but luckily even if they had the money, there were no takers.

Leaving the town behind them they climbed a rather steep track in the snow, made by other local pedestrians.  It seemed that the vehicular road had petered out.  Great drifts of snow were piled high at the sides of the walkway and the going became more difficult as they scrambled towards the top.  Buildings on either side became sparse.  The higher they climbed, the more they panted with exertion, causing clouds of vaporized breath to be expelled from their mouths.  Only one of the party appeared not to notice the struggle.  It was the small boy whose name according to the Americans was ‘Yu’.

At the very summit was a large traditional building that boasted of an American bar and the almost compulsory bar girls.  The Airman told their guide that they weren’t worried about girls and just wanted to drink and possibly a doze.  The boy began a long negotiation with the ‘madam’ and a compromise was eventually reached allowing them to enter the bar.  The walls of the building were constructed of a type of ‘papier- mache,’ with very low ceilings to help to keep the heat in.  Sparks speculated that the low ceilings may have been due to the fact that the people were generally short in stature but conceded it was more likely to help in preserving the heat coming from beneath the floor.

  The house was built on a kind of platform and heated by a slow burning fire in the cavity under the floor.  In all, it was very effective although there seemed to be only one temperature.  Hot. 

The American Bar was a disappointment as the only thing American was chilled Budweiser beer.  A lot can be said for the ingenuity of the Koreans.  To achieve chilled beer, they simply left it outside.  An ancient duke-box played records of Bill Hayley and Buddy Holly without needing any money and a worn dartboard was hung low on one wall with double three at the top.  Half of the bar girls had gone to bed happy to have a night off and the remainder stayed hopefully in the bar.  Their perception of westerners preferences erred in that they thought that the more buxom the better, resulting in the girls that remained resembling a female tug of war team.

The local lad ‘Yu’ who had been given a free beer by the ‘madam, explained that there weren’t any rooms in the place other than those of the girls.  But because of his negotiations, they could share the girl’s rooms at no cost, especially as no ‘hanky-panky’ was envisaged.

The price for any ‘hanky-panky was up for negotiation but fortunately everybody pleaded that they had made a New Year’s resolution.

  They drank until their money ran out and on a promise of payment later from the Americans, continued well into the night, singing in accompaniment to the ancient ‘Duke’ box.

The third mate always woke early in the morning no matter how much he had had to drink or how late it had been before he turned in.  His first impression on waking was how low the bed was.  He remembered getting up in the night to answer a call of nature and had burnt his bare feet on the floor, only to have them frozen later as he tried to write his name in the snow.

He was totally dismayed when he lit his lighter, to see what looked like a Sumitomo wrestler asleep beside him.  He dressed quietly so as not to disturb his bedfellow lest she demand some sort of payment.  In one corner there was a tiny shrine comprising of a Buddha, a vase of plastic flowers and a piece of broken mirror to ward off the evil spirits.

He needed to comb his hair and took his comb from his pocket and lit his lighter in front of the mirror.  He stooped to see his reflection in the flickering light and unfortunately set light to the plastic flowers.

He remembered a bucket in the outside passage placed for the girl’s use in the night and careful not to spill its contents returned to his room.

By now the fire had started to take hold so without a moments delay he hefted the contents of the bucket.  Bingo!  The fire was extinguished and darkness returned out of which a blood-curdling scream pierced the gloom.  His bedfellow, who was not normally woken by being doused with the dubious contents of an icy bucket, reacted rather noisily, which, in the circumstances, was quite understandable.  Thankfully, her scream also woke the other deeply sleeping visitors who all hastily dressed.

As the visitors swiftly left, the town clock chimed six but dawn was still a little way off.

The young boy appeared out of nowhere and spoke rapidly to the grinning Grayson.  He seemed to be greatly enjoying himself but then he wasn’t late for sailing.

“Yu says that the best way down is to follow him.”

The boy pulled a plank from the fence and proceeded to use it like a one legged like a scooter.  The others soon followed suit.  After a few minutes they all got the hang of it and their downhill progress on the icy surface, was remarkably speeded up.

It may have had something to do with the Irish in him, but ‘Sparks’ experimented with using both feet and cried gleefully, “look at me,” as he sped downhill like an express train.

 They rounded a bend and all that was visible was the Irishman’s wooly hat.  In many ways he was lucky that the snowdrift had stopped his progress, as there was no telling what would have happened once he reached the road.

By the time they reached the bottom of the hill it showed a quarter past six on the Civic clock so they broke into a run.

As it turned out they need not have bothered.  The ship had left and was steaming out of the harbor, accompanied by the two tugs and naval escort.  Arriving at the empty berth, the sailors looked on in dis belief and were overcome with a great sense of loss.  After waiting a while for something to happen, when nothing did, the Wing Commander, as though it was the most natural thing in the world, invited them back to base for breakfast.

Their guide “Yu’ said he would remain at the docks.  Surviving on his wits he knew that another ship would soon be docking to take the place of the ship that had just left.  Their crew would need escorts!

During breakfast at the air force base consisting of a heap of waffles and grits and lashings of hot fresh coffee, the sailors asked Al where the nearest British Consul was.

“My guess,” he said, “Is probably Tokyo.” 

Naively, the third mate said, “that’s great.  It’s where the ship’s headed.”

“Hold on buddy.  You can’t just take a bus or train.  Not only is there a war going on.  Japan is an Island and Tokyo is on it”

Of course the third mate already knew this but not wanting to belittle his host he said, “really!”

“Really,” Al confirmed, “maybe I can fix you a lift.”

Hours later as they flew over their ship on the way to Tokyo the absentee sailors reflected on their good luck and were forever grateful to the beneficence of their American friends.  Alas, they had no money, no Passports and worse still no form of identification.

As it happens, they needn’t of worried because the American occupation of Japan since the Second World War provided that U.S. bases were considered sovereign territory and therefore not subject to normal immigration procedures.

The journey took a little less than four hours and the American’s faultless hospitality extended to transport in two jeeps accompanied by an armed escort.  Their destination was the British Embassy in central Tokyo.

Established in the times of the former Empire, the embassy could be mistaken for a grand Regency House and was entered through ornate wrought iron gates with sentry boxes on either side complete with soldiers in uniform carrying automatic weapons.

The reception was quite overbearing and more like the lobby of a luxury hotel.  After waiting what seemed like nearly an hour, a bespectacled, tall thin man appeared and led them to a sparsely furnished office where he took details.

Another long wait and finally a girl entered the office or rather bustled in.  She was England’s equivalent of the third mate’s nighttime companion in Korea.  She squeezed into a chair opposite the three men and eyeing them from under her glasses, she rather haughtily addressed them.

“ Your Shipping Company’s agents details are on this paper,” she said,

 “ It’s Saturday now so you should contact them on Monday when their office is open.  Your ship won’t be here until Thursday as she is calling at Kobe first.”

“You’ll need to sign these,” she said passing some duplicate papers across. 

 “They are your I/D’s and carry Japanese translations.”  She put the signed copies and receipts into her file.

“I have arranged your accommodation and there is some money in the envelopes.  You need to sign another receipt so we can claim a refund from the Shipping Company who will no doubt deduct the amounts from your wages.” 

 They couldn’t help thinking that she was enjoying it and contrasting it with the superb treatment they had received from the Americans.

“Finally,” she said, “here’s a map which shows the bus routes to your accommodation.  I am so pleased to have been able to help you.”

Without another word she was gone.

They all started to laugh but there joviality was short lived when they discovered that the accommodation was at the YMCA and their subsistence amounted to the equivalent of twenty-five Pounds in Japanese Yen.

Later while waiting at the bus stop, they realized that their experience at the Embassy had taken almost as long as there transfer between different Countries. 

 Whether it was the long wait for a bus or exposure the previous night, he didn’t know, but the third mate was inflicted with uncontrollable shivers and debilitating chest pains upon arrival at the Hostel.

The tiny Japanese receptionist at the YMCA was like a breath of fresh air.  What’s more she spoke perfect English and not only ensured that they had reasonable accommodation, but was able to arrange for the third mate be seen by a doctor, at the large General Hospital that was only a couple of blocks away.  The receptionist had detailed one of the hostel’s petite and pretty female interpreters to escort the patient.

The third mate’s companions were anxious to accompany him particularly as the interpreter could have been straight out of ‘Madame Butterfly’ displaying the same charm, beauty and grace. 

The walk two blocks away didn’t take very long but they arrived at the hospital with Sparks obviously becoming besotted.

Unlike Western Hospitals where patients received individual attention, the patients who were waiting to be seen, all lined up together.  There were in fact two lines rather like a passport check except that here most of the people had some sort of infliction.  Many were radiation victims, some were amputees but whatever your problem you still had to join the end of the queue.  The translator spoke to one of the Doctors for what seemed like five minutes which didn’t stop him from continuing to dress the stump of a one legged man.  As a result the third mate went to the front of the queue.  He found out later that all she said was that the British Embassy would pay.

Just like immigration at Airports, there was a white line on the floor where you waited your turn.  The stump was re-dressed and its owner bowed gratefully and retreated leaving the Doctor to focus his attention on the European.

The translator went into another long account of the problem.  Finally she finished and the Doctor whispered something to the nurse who left and disappeared behind a screen.  The Doctor peered at his patient from behind his utility-rimmed glasses and his face was deadpan.

The nurse returned, carrying a large syringe, the sort used by vets on horses.

A murmur of expectation came from the waiting queues.

Still expressionless, the Doctor took the massive syringe and mimicked throwing a dart and said something.  At which point the translator said to the third mate, “open your shirt.”

He chuckled and decided to go along with the joke .He felt privileged and was normally average height at home but knew they saw him as being quite big and strong looking.

The nurse even pretended to swab his chest.

All of a sudden, Wallop!

The next thing, before he had time to react, the Doctor was pulling the plunger and drawing off a clear fluid tinged with spots of cloudy red.  Leaving the needle in place, the Doctor unfastened the full syringe and screwed on a fresh one and continued with his quest.  He nearly filled the second before withdrawing the large needle and sticking a plaster over the exit.

The apprentice nearly passed out but Sparks was built of sterner stuff and started to clap.  Both queues joined in, including the nurses who beamed in amusement.

A faint grin crossed the otherwise inscrutable features of the Doctor as he continued with his next patient.

Back at the Hostel the third mate took to his bed to recover.  The apprentice, who shared his room was from one of the remote Scottish Islands and consequently was unfamiliar with remote TV.  He was fascinated with the in-room facilities and spent hours surfing the programs.  Sparks disappeared and was suspected of trying to do a line with ‘Madame Butterfly.’  They later became married and she got a job at the Japanese Embassy in Dublin though he continued to work for Marconi at their shore based telegraphy school where he entertained the students with stories of his exploits.

Thursday saw the three absentees waiting at the docks for the arrival of their ship.  Eventually she berthed, the river pilot disembarked and the Shipping Agent preceded them aboard.

They arrived at the top of the gangway and were met by the duty officer.  He directed them to the Chief Officer’s quarters where they were invited to be seated in his day cabin.

He turned to the apprentice first.

 “I am prepared to accept you were led astray by people who should know better,” he said.  “Anything to say?”

“No Sir,” came the reply.

“Shore leave in Japan cancelled.”  The first Officer made a note in his journal, “Dismissed.” 

Next he turned to Sparks the Radio Officer,

“I know you are not a direct employee of this shipping company,” he said,

“but sailing without a qualified Radio Officer voids the insurance and is a very serious offence.  Anything to say?” 

 Sparks answered,

 “I didn’t realize the time.  My watch is always on GMT.”

“Okay, a repeat performance will result in a logging,” replied the Senior Officer.

 “A hundred and fifty years ago it would be a flogging.”  Spark’s Irish blood was up.  Bits of spit had accompanied his response.

The Chief Officer, somewhat exasperated, retorted.

“One hundred and fifty years ago there were no Radios and thankfully no Spark’s to flog.”

 Without another word, the Irishman left the room and took the stairs to his cabin that was next to the chartroom.

The Chief Officer turned to the remaining delinquent who had fully recovered from his bout of pneumonia. 

“I’m disappointed in you third,” he said, “anything to say?”

“I fell in love with a Korean girl.”

“You can’t be serious!”

“No, I am not.”

The older man sighed stifling a grin,

“You were told we were sailing at 0600 hours.  The logbook records our actual departure as 0556hours so technically you are not in breach.”  He gave a distant smile as though remembering his youth.

“Another time you’d be for it.  I’ve squared it with the ‘Old Man,’ you owe me one.”

The third mate felt a great wave of gratitude towards his shipmate and was determined to repay the kindness threefold.  Little did he know this was to happen sooner rather than later.

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