Historia y Arqueología Marítima


Indice  Grandes Veleros

De la Revista Yachting 1950.

T WAS logical and right that when the Army rescue boat QS 14 put out to sea from Newcastle, Australia, in early December, 1944, she should carry with her in the tub of the after .50 calibre gun two ducks. They were blackish-white ducks of medium stature, highly vocal in their complaints about their new metallic home; but evincing some interest in the empty shell cases that littered the bottom of their tub.

The ducks were the gift of an enterprising bo'sun named Dake who had foreseen the coming of Christmas and had prepared for it with a welcome change from corned beef. Prior to that, the ducks had belonged to an Australian resident of Newcastle who had been foolhardy enough to let them stray by themselves through the streets of the town at sundown. Their change in ownership came about rapidly one evening with the approach of Bo'sun Dake, a burlap bag in his hand and his heart full of peace. It was later reported by able Seaman Crook, who was accompanying the bo'sun on his liberty from the ship, that in one instant the ducks were waddling along contentedly, quacking softly to themselves, and in the next, they had disappeared into the bag.

"Bloody expert," was Crook's comment. Also expert was the decision of the Yank skipper that the ducks should remain under the protective covering of the canvas which was secured around the after gun during the time that the ship remained in the harbor. For while the crime had been committed by one Aussie against another, the QS 14 was manifestly an American ship flying the American colors. Her complement of four American officers and nine Australian crew members did not render her immune to charges of action prejudicial to an ally.

According to a custom of the sea, the cook was assigned the job of feeding the ducks and getting them in condition for their final effort on Christmas Day. And under his watchful eye the ducks prospered on a strong diet of Spam, corned beef and lamb's tongue. This was a never ending source of wonder and comfort to him. "Anyway," he told the skipper one day after a heated session with the crew about the lack of variety in the chow, "them bloody ducks will eat the stuff." And they did, too.

By the time that the QS 14 tied up at a dock in Townsville harbor on December 24, 1944, they had gained considerable weight and any poultryman could have told you that their condition was good. Only one prophetic incident had marred the run up the coast from Newcastle and that had come about as a result of the gunner's natural disinclination to operate the twin-fifties with his feet all tangled up in ducks. True, the plane had turned out to be an American C-47 winging its way down the coast to Brisbane from Finchhaven, but the net result had been the same. The ducks had been removed with remarkable speed from the gun tub to the deck, and in the ensuing confusion, one of them had been bold enough to try his luck on the sea. Aloft and unaware of the consternation that they had caused below, the men in the C-47 saw the slim, green vessel suddenly execute a series of intricate maneuvers which included sharp turns to starboard and port, breathtaking stops, and eventually an attack on whatever-it-was from the full-astern position. On board, the occasion was marked by great shouts, indignant but powerful roars from the two Packard engines, and a mighty rolling of the sea. The coup de grace was eventually administered by a landing net which when hurled from the stern by four men so stunned the duck that it immediately lost interest in its new-found freedom. The bo'sun, having something of a proprietary interest in the bird, hauled it back aboard and revived it on a mixture of Worcestershire sauce and condensed milk. And while the incident had no lasting effect on the duck, the gunner spent the next two days defending his unhappy position before a wrathful crew. Outside of that, however, it was only important in that it foretold of things to come.

As I say, the OS 14 made Townsville harbor at noon of the 24th. In those days, the little seaport town was a regular stop on the Australia to New Guinea run for all Army Transport ships, as well as a base for small Australian Navy units. Its small inner harbor had just enough facilities to take care of perhaps a dozen vessels the size of the OS 14, along with the usual harbor craft, but its outer harbor was capable of tying up several Liberty ships. The town itself was bleak and unhappy and hot, inhabited almost entirelv by the military, and offering little to the men of the OS 14.

Even its Australian counterparts to American WACs were discovered to be unnecessarily prejudiced against men of the sea.

Having made this discovery, the men of the QS 14 returned to their ship to contemplate a quiet Christmas Eve in port.

It was exactly six minutes past three on the same afternoon that an even more important discovery was made. No one knew for sure who had asked the tall sergeant and the little corporal from Ordnance to come aboard to check over the guns that day—the chief engineer was suspect—but regardless of where the blame lay, that was the moment that the sergeant lifted the canvas from the after twin-fifty and fell back on the deck with an oath of surprise and indignation. It was also an occasion for simultaneous cries from seven anguished men who witnessed the ascent of the four frantically beating wings and heard the desperate quacks of the freedom-seeking ducks. The skipper who had been idly watching the operation from the bridge let his jaw drop open in consternation for a moment before gathering himself together for action. Just as the ducks cleared the top strand of the port rail he let out an unnecessary cry of warning. "The ducks!" he shouted.

Up to that moment, the war record of the QS 14 had not been outstanding. Its one rescue had come as a result of a fortuitous crash landing of a C-47 not 30 yards ahead on the course which the ship was traveling. But as one unduly prejudiced airman had remarked, if you wanted the Army Transport to rescue you, you had to splash down so near 'em that they had to change course to get around you. Of course, the QS 14 had made a couple of runs to Hollandia with vital nails and even more vital liquid goods marked "Engine Parts," but on the whole her record had not been inspiring. On the other hand, luck had played a not inconsiderable part in her inauspicious past. Planes simply stayed in the air when she was around. The point was, and one obviously overlooked by the ducks, the QS 14 was schooled in the work of rescuing things that flew or fell into the sea. The reaction of the crew was instantaneous. Having received their cue from the skipper's first cry of dismay and having judged it correctly, the crew straightaway took the necessary steps. Even as the ducks were crashing clumsily into the water some 20 feet off the port quarter, the bo'sun was stripping the lifeboats of their covers. Eager hands seized the falls; and in something under two minutes the first boat floated free of the ship. It was commanded by Bo'sun Dake, and was crewed by Seaman Crook, the cook, the first assistant engineer and Sparks. None of them was armed. This later proved to be important.

The second boat under the command of the mate hit the water some six minutes after the original call to action. This, too, was something of a record; marred only by the fact that it landed upside down. In boat No. 2, or under it, were the mate, two able seamen named Viccars and Brody, and Tink the messman. But despite this preliminary setback, an occupant of No. 2 was destined to play a sterling role later in the afternoon. The skipper, the chief engineer, the oiler, and a seaman named Irish elected to remain with their ship. Ordnance proceeded to inspect the guns.

For what happened next, the blame could be laid squarely on the shoulders of some boat designer back in the States who had figured incorrectly that you could take a Gloucester dory and shrink its proportions down to 13 feet. Even the ducks which were now happily swimming toward the far shore could see the fallacy. As boat number one rolled and zigzagged toward them, its oars crabbing at every other stroke, the ducks simply increased their pace slightly and changed direction. Number one staggered by them a good 10 feet off and attempted an outrageous turn. Oars bumped heads. A brief but lively discussion followed between the cook and the first assistant. The bo'sun dropped his steering oar into the water.

Back on the ship, the skipper was taking cognizance of the fact that his warriors were handicapped by a lack of mechanization. He called the AB over to him. "Break out the Evinrude, Irish," he said, "and put it on the skiff." The skiff had cost the skipper eleven pounds in Sydney and was made of plywood. The gravity of the moment was brought home conclusively to Irish because the skipper- was very proud of his little boat and seldom let anybody else use it. While the seaman crawled down into the lazarette to fetch the motor, the skipper and the chief engineer lowered the skiff over the stern. The motor was quickly attached and Irish pushed jauntily off into the stream. Advice was hurled at him from the after deck of the QS 14, but it was several minutes before he was able to paddle back to the ship with a floor board and get some gas.

By this time, No. 2 boat had been righted and was floundering down the harbor retrieving its floating gear. As yet only one oar-powered boat had been brought to bear on the ducks; and its striking power, moreover, was seriously limited by the discussion that went on constantly between the cook and first assistant concerning each other's ability to row. Strong American words as well as a repetitious howling of the word "bloody" flowed from its direction. But despite its ineffectiveness, No. 1 did serve as a sort of intelligence in that it was following the ducks' progress across the harbor. It would serve until larger forces could be brought to bear.

Even now, the skipper was still thinking in terms of a five or six horsepower outboard engine and a couple of badly manned lifeboats. With the ducks still in sight and under the chaperonage of the bo'sun's boat, no further expenditure of materiel seemed to be justified. This line of thought was to be abruptly readjusted a few moments later.

With the Evinrude's tank full of 100 octane gasoline, Irish again propelled himself out into the harbor with his hands and lay on with the starting rope. Such midsummer Stateside speech as "Choke it! Spin it! Close the needle valve!" followed him from the ship. But in a moment, it became evident that he knew what he was doing. The only thing that he had failed to foresee when the Evinrude came to lire with a great gush of smoke and power was that he was headed directly toward the dock. The motor was a good one and the little boat was light. Her lines were worth the eleven pounds that the skipper had paid for them, all right, and she covered two-thirds of the distance in a remarkably short time. Irish discovered his error when he was still 10 feet off. In the parlance of the sea, he gave her hard left rudder. At the time he had no way of knowing that the kid in Sydney who had built her had been running short of nails when he had got around to fastening in the transom. What was patently evident to Irish and to those on board was that at one moment he had been holding onto an outboard motor and in the next he wasn't. The skiff, lacking only her stern, floated awash only a few feet away from the spot in the water where Irish was skeptically regarding the after deck of the QS14. Noting that the skipper had neither fainted nor was tearing his hair, he secured the painter of the wreck and towed it back to the ship.

There was little doubt but that the skipper had suffered an agonizing blow, and at a less crucial time would have shown it spectacularly, but now his mind was on more important things. Number two boat had finally taken in its gear and joined the chase which by now was moving off to tlie far side of the harbor.

Whereas for a moment, the odds had been more or less even with the introduction of the Evinrude into the contest, these had changed rapidly in the past five minutes. It was becoming clear to the skipper that lack of mechanization was costing him the battle. This thought was crystallized a few moments later when the portable blinker gun which No. 1 boat carried suddenly turned on the ship in a frenzy. The skipper dashed for the big clacker on the bridge and acknowledged the message as it came. It was short but full of meaning to those who follow the sea. "Mayday Mayday," it implored; the international code call for "I require assistance." By the technical excellence of the sending, he was able to identify Sparks as the signalman. The second message confirmed the mate in No. 2 as the originator. "Yum yum," it said. This last, while not yet internationally codified has an almost universal meaning of something good to eat. As used in Townsville harbor that hot afternoon, it could have been interpreted as something more than that. The skipper took it to mean, "If you want those ducks for tomorrow's dinner, you'd better get to hell over here!"

It was then that the skipper made the decision which automatically took the chase out of the amateur class and put it on a plane somewhat higher. No longer was it to be a battle between man and bird . . . the age-old struggle of man against his environment with nothing but his bare bands. As the skipper called down to the deck the four words, "Warm 'ran up, chief," the ducks were suddenly confronted with the terrifying opposition of 2400 horse power. This was soon to be raised to 4800 and eventually to nearly 7000 and would include almost the entire known maritime strength of two great allied countries in Townsville harbor. For already evincing a healthy interest in the chase were a sister ship, the <PS 15, and two Australian Fairmiles, the MTL 21 and the MTL 46.

The chief and the oiler hurried below, and Irish threw off the lines. As the joyful sound of the mighty Packards carried across the bay to the embattled boats, the mate marked the moment by shooting a flare into the sky. On board, the sergeant from Ordnance regarded the corporal from Ordnance sternly and tried to beat a retreat to the dock but was stopped by a widening strip of water.

Because the harbor was no wider than half a mile, the QS 14 had not reached her top speed of 26 knots when she sliced between the shore and the ducks. But there was no gainsaying it; the ducks were impressed. They scuttled and flopped, all quacking toward the center of the harbor. The mate tried out the Very pistol on diem and missed. The skipper brought the ship around in a wide circle and drove at the birds from the other side. This was a mistake. It scared the ducks in toward shore again, and only the ship's superior speed prevented them from gaining the beach. He was forced to patrol the area until the birds had gone out to safer waters. The boats again took up the pursuit.

Till now, the chase had been unorganized and spontaneous. Slowly, with his controls set at half ahead, the skipper evolved a plan. In the middle of the harbor there was a tiny island that was all but submerged at high tide. It was covered with scrub growth of a marine variety and tall grass. If he could get the ducks onto this island, he would send his beaters ashore and run the birds to earth. It was a reflection on the rescue work of the QS 14, but the ability to change one's plans in the middle of battle was also a thing to be considered. He blinked his program to the boats. The cook and the first assistant engineer in No. 1 knocked off their argument long enough to cheer. The mate let fly with a flare which grazed the heads of those in No. 1 boat. The bo'sun called for an explanation.

On the other side of the harbor, events were likewise shaping up. The might of the United States Army Transport Service being displayed against the ducks rose from 2400 horse power to 4800 as the QS 15 kicked her Packards over and slipped away from the dock. Unaware of the plan, she bore down on the ducks at great speed and succeeded in scattering them in two unrelated directions. She was promptly informed of the overall strategy and ruefully went on to round up one of the ducks. The QS 14 went after the other. Because it was concentrated work to drive a duck with a ship 100 feet long, neither the 14 or the 15 saw the two Fairmiles come around the end of the island. Eight motors went into full-astern. Like allies always, recriminations were loud and vocal, but each was glad the other was there. Sixty-five men from two great nations and a million dollars worth of materiel were now involved in the action. Totalitarian countries would never understand the lengths to which free people would go to preserve a tradition as wonderful as Christmas.

The Fairmiles took up their stations on either side of the island, and the QS ships circled and wheeled behind the tiring ducks. As they made the beach, the skipper of the 14 signalled the boats to close in for the kill.

In fairnes?" to Tink, the messboy, for what happened next, it should be recorded that the sun had dropped well down toward the horizon and already the hills and trees along the shore were throwing great shafts of shadows across the harbor. Visibility was decreasing by the minute. In the twilight, Tink found two birds on the far side of the island, and his 14-year-old voice rose accordingly. "The bloody things are over here," he shrilled. He jumped up and down and waved his arms excitedly. The beaters from one and two headed for the noise. Bo'sun Dake arrived just in time to see two birds break cover and flop heavily down into the water a few yards from shore. He verified the fact to the mate who returned to the boat and blinked the news out to the 14. "Shoot them," came the reply. "No gun," blinked the mate.

On board the QS 14, the skipper was making rapid calculations of the amount of daylight remaining, the state of the tide, and his responsibility to the United States Army. He gazed aft to where the sergeant from Ordnance was sitting unhappily on the stern deck. The sight hastened his decision. He went to the after end of the bridge and yelled down to the sergeant: "Hey, Joe, stand by the after gun, will you?" To the sergeant this made no more sense than anything else that he had seen that afternoon, but he did as he was told.

To the shore party, the skipper blinked one last ominous message. "Lie down flat." Having received an acknowledgment, he called for slow-ahead and nosed around the end of the island. In the deepening murk, he could just make out two black shapes on the water a few feet from shore. He swung his stern around so as to bring his gun to bear. Then he nodded to the sergeant. "Fire!" he cried.

There were people that day in Townsville who thought that the town had at last been invaded. Though they later denied it, even the Fairmiles and the 25 were so taken by surprise that they rang for general quarters. As the twin-fifties barked into the gloom, the water around the two dark shapes leaped into the air in crystal fountains. The skipper raised his arm to signal cease firing. When the sound of the last shot had died away, the skipper went to the side of the bridge and peered into the harbor. The sight of the unmoving birds, now only two darker spots on the gray water, brought a sense of relief and satisfaction to him. A challenge had been met, an objective gained, a tradition preserved. Tomorrow would not pass unnoted. He turned his head to the west and saluted the evening star. It was Christmas Eve in longitude east. Automatically, he felt for the switchboard and turned on the after flood light and then went down the ladder.

It was the bo'sun who broke the spell. As No. 1 boat came up on the starboard side, the skipper noticed a certain lack of jubilation on the part of his weary warriors. Where he had expected triumph and hilarity, he saw only disillusionment. He was wondering if all men reacted this way after a long struggle, and his mind was busily groping with the new-fangled condition known as battle fatigue. This train of thought was interrupted when two blackish-gray objects hurtled through the air and landed on the deck near his feet. The harsh, grating voice of the bo'sun broke the night air, and in it a more sensitive person could have heard the outrage, the bitterness, the unfairness, the contempt which all little men must feel toward War. All these things came up over the side to him, then, out of the shadows at the side of the ship, voiced by a little Australian bo'sun. "Pelicans, sir!"



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