380th Bomb Group Association
NEWSLETTER #31 -- July 2007
DREAM TIME - A WAR STORY
by Robert W. Caputo
This is a story of one person's experience in World War II and the title grows out of the time served on the Continent of Australia (the term "Dream Time" is borrowed from the Australian Aborigine use of the term to describe the distant past of mankind). The writing was done because of the urgings of one family member and was completed in 1995. No claim is made that the story is one of a kind or especially unique, no more than each of us is some different from the other. Reproduced here by permission of the author.
Because of the length of the manuscript, we will tell Roger's story in various installments, in succeeding issues of THE FLYING CIRCUS Quarterly, as page space permits.
Roger Caputo was an NCO who was assigned to Group Headquarters, Administrative Section, in Intelligence.
At dawn on May 21, 1943, the Mt Vernon slowly nosed its way into the harbor of Sydney, Australia. The harbor is huge, somewhat like the one at San Francisco and at a narrow point there is a big beautiful structural steel bridge, single span, across the narrows. All Australians are proud of that bridge. They always ask, "Did you see The Bridge?" and one is obligated to smile sweetly and comment on how magnificent it was. It was and still is an item of national pride. The Australians are known as Aussies for short and they are a fine people with a frontier mentality. Their country is as big as the United States and very sparsely populated and then mostly on only the Southern and Eastern coasts. They were still part of the British Empire in WWII, but far enough from England (1/2 way around the world!) that they were fiercely independent, more so than Canada. However, the Aussies were loyal to England and applied a lot of their blood in the North African campaign, "The Rats of Tobruk."
It took a couple of hours for the ship to make its way through the harbor and to its final berth. During that time, we lined the rails and rank in the sights. Many apartment houses lined the water's edge and there was someone waving to us from many of the windows on this bright fall day (remember, the seasons are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere).
By high noon we were unloading onto the dock and there waiting for us were scores of those double deck green buses which are so common to London. The buses transported us to a point about 20 miles from downtown Sydney. Our camp, again tents, but only with dirt floors, was located at The Warrick Race Track. The Aussies are big on horse races, but the track was shut down to provide space to accommodate troops. We had no purpose in being where we were other than to simply wait for another ship to take us on the final leg of our journey. Security was tight and we didn't have the vaguest notion where or what was to come next. We were at the Warrick Race Track for two weeks.
If there was not much of anything to do in El Paso or Denver, the "nothing to do" syndrome reached perfection in the two weeks at the race track camp. The only activity which saved our sanity was the almost daily trips to Sydney. About 1/2 mile from our camp was an unsheltered stop of an electric tram which made repeated trips to Sydney's "Town Hall station." It's a pity that there isn't some way to capture the particular Aussie brogue with spelling. The word "hall," when the Aussies pronounce it, comes out, 'all, but the particular twang put on the word "town" has no counterpart by adjusting the spelling. The conductor on the tram would call out the stations along the way and the last call being, "Town 'all Station," will live forever in our memories!
Sydney, being the largest city in Australia, was very cosmopolitan, in particular during the war. The soldiers made the most of it. So many young Australian men were out of the country, fighting in North Africa and New Guinea, that there was a tragic imbalance between males and females. The Yankee aircrews, with their flashy uniforms and pockets full of money, overwhelmed the Aussie girls. The Aussie military men, home on leave, would take exception to the invading Yanks and fights would ensue. Actually, my sympathies lay with the Aussies and I and my buddies gave the acrimonious situation a wide berth. Other recreational activity in Sydney was in short supply. There were movies, a few USO dances, and last, but not lease, the pubs (bars). The pubs were fashioned after those in England, and they were a social forum as well as a place to drink. The average American soldier never quite caught the vision of the social forum, but the drinking idea he could understand! One interesting aspect of managing the pubs had to do with the practice of limiting the hours of operation. There was a late afternoon curfew, about 6:00 PM, and then they would reopen at 8:00 PM and curfew again at about 10:00 PM. I thought it might have been a war-time conservation practice, but I have since learned the practice still persists, so I have concluded that the practice must have grown out of experience, and was designed to enhance social order. The practice was a partially effective way of clearing out the drunks in the war years! The curfew would be announced verbally by the pub manager. He would walk about and in a loud voice say, "Time, gentlemen, time," and repeat it several times over. The bartenders would not accept orders after the announcement. The Yanks learned to anticipate the announcement and were able to circumvent the curfew by ordering as many beers as wanted prior to the curfew. It was not uncommon to see a Yank standing at the bar with a half dozen or more full glasses of beer limited up in front of him. Thus he was able to drink merrily along, curfew or not! Ingenuity born of desperation!
The most attractive part of the visits to Sydney was the ability to buy quality meals at the excellent restaurants. They were to be our last for a long, long time! Australian beer is unlike any found in the United States. The beer was potent, containing 12% alcohol, and so in theory about half as much would produce the same effect as the U.S. beer. It had a great flavor, but it was a bit too warm for the Yank's taste. Later on, while we were in the "outback" where it was hot and no refrigeration, Yankee ingenuity came to the rescue. One 55-gallon drum of aviation gasoline, filled with bottles of Aussie beer, and with an air hose inserted in the barrel causing the gasoline to evaporate rapidly, produced an excellent cooling effect!
SS Carlos Carrillo - one of the Liberty cargo ships used in WWII
On a given day we were directed to pack our gear; we climbed aboard some canvas-covered Aussie lorries (trucks), and were driven back to the harbor to board a ship. It was the Stienmetz, a Liberty cargo ship pressed into service as a troop transporter. It was to take us on the final leg of our journey to Darwin, the Northernmost town in Australia. It was a long journey of 16 days because of stops and delays. In the spring of 1945, while in The Philippines, and when security for past events was no longer a factor, I wrote a detailed narrative of the trip on the Stienmetz and sent it home to Virginia and my folks. Miraculously, one copy, yellow with age, has survived for over 50 years!
The members of our outfit aboard the Stienmetz consisted of the ground personnel only as the aircrews and airplanes had already proceeded to our operational base in the Northern Territory and were carrying out bombing missions. Our ship's course lay parallel to the coast of Australia as we proceed northward. At no time did we get out of sight of land although at times a person had to look twice to determine that the low dark shadow to the west was Australia. Our destination was not disclosed until we were several days at sea, at which time we were informed that Darwin would be the next spot at which we would step ashore. The trip as far north as Brisbane was uneventful. We proceeded alone to Brisbane except for two escorting Australian corvettes that wheeled and spun around us and across our course all the while, keeping a weather-eye peeled for Japanese submarines. The merchant marine felt the presence of escorting corvettes provided an additional safeguard since several Allied ships had been sunk in these shipping lanes. Their feelings were shared by all of us aboard! When three other ships (one of them a tanker) joined our convoy at the mouth of the Brisbane River, our escorts were doubled, since tankers were a prime sub target.
The Stienmetz was never designed to transport troops and so all the accommodations for the troops' sanitation and meal preparation and eating were on a makeshift basis. Our kitchen consisted of two temporary wooden shacks, erected on deck, one to each side using military field equipment. At meal time, two chow lines formed and filed by to get their mess kits loaded with that delicious Ration Type "C." The dining room was very large; all of the open deck that was present … just plop yourself and mess kit down at any point of your choosing and dig in. When the sea was running high, and it frequently did, the ship would pitch and roll and it was no mean feat to juggle a brim full canteen cup (noted for its collapsible handle collapsing without notice!) of hot coffee in one hand and the mess kit full of food in the other as the soldier wended his way through the mass of sprawling humanity at dinner. We were no respecter of the weather and in spite of its changing moods, we always ate on deck. "What's for dinner today, rain or hot sun?" We had no choices! The exposure was limited in a very clever way - we only ate two meals a day. The resulting problem was we were always hungry, the result of all the fresh sea air we breathed. Some of the troops announced their intentions of letting the war go to hell and die of starvation. None of them did, of course! We supplemented our diet by midnight forages into the food stores - we did what hungry men have done since the beginning of time: we turned into thieves to relieve our hunger pangs!
We were blessed with showers 24 hours a day, something that was missing on the Pacific crossing. There was an unlimited supply of water, in fact, an entire ocean full. The salt water was pumped into the shower system and salt water soap was available. In spite of the generous use of soap, there was no lather to be observed. To this day, the mention of salt water soap is synonymous with fraud!
Clothing did get dirty and sweat stained and would become very uncomfortable because we never disrobed! The orders were to sleep with our clothes on except for shoes. The idea was to be prepared to abandon ship and no time for packing. Several soldiers tried dangling their clothing over the after railing where the ship's propeller wash was intense, but the severe action of the water tore the clothing to shred! Eventually the idea of washing in the sea was abandoned.
After several mores days the ship put into the Townsville harbor and dropped anchor; no reasons given, but later we were to learn a part of the "stop and go" business was to confuse the enemy as to our intentions and schedule. Soon after dropping anchor a launch pulled along side to take a party ashore to purchase fresh fruit and produce. The next morning we resumed the trip, this time alone except for the Aussie corvettes. Our course still lay northward and parallel to the coast, always in sight of land. Time wore on.
It took several days to pass through the Great Barrier Reef, and at times the channel lay close into shore providing a bit of scenery. The entire passage was spotted with rock outcrops over which waves were breaking and the sea color would change from dark blue to various shades of green indicating the shallows. A special pilot was taken aboard at Townsville to provide the expertise required to safely navigate the twisted channel. At night, with no moonlight, it was a never-ending wonder how the pilot could steer the ship through the treacherous waters. In some reaches the course was marked with red navigation lights located on rock outcrops. The pilot possessed special skills and experience!
The ship anchored near Thursday Island in the Torres Strait just off the Cape of York for three days. When we departed this anchorage and proceeded to cross the open water of the Gulf of Carpentaria, the weather suddenly turned very cold and the winds were very strong, whipping up waves, the highest we had ever seen. The ship pitched and rolled in a severe manner; no place for a person unless the sea legs were in good order. During the rough weather, it was my unfortunate lot to draw a tour of duty as Sergeant of the Guard at night. The duties involved posting the guards and follow inspections of them. The duties required patrolling the wet slippery and pitching deck in the inky blackness. It was so dark it was impossible to see your hand before your face. It was a burlesque duty - the guards were stationed at the entrances to the ship's regular crew quarters and mess to prevent the hungry soldiers from raids on the food stores. The regular ship cooks baked their bread on the night watch and they welcome an occasional visitor. The Sergeant of the Guard soon learned to time his visits to the bakery and hot fresh bread, butter, and jam never tasted so good! The word got around quickly, though, and soon a good thing was ruined as the small mess became overcrowded and the Navy was being eaten out of house and home. I looked into the mess at suitable intervals on the pretext of looking for violators of the no entrance rule. These duty checks provided an opportunity to sample the baker's wares and to tell him what a great guy he was!
As the voyage dragged on, boredom became the principal enemy and Major Fain, my section officer (then only a Lieutenant), who was a journalist by trade, put together a shipboard radio show for entertainment. The entire ship was rigged with loud speakers and a small room was set aside as a broadcasting studio. A record player was rigged to play late night dance music and quiz show contestants were chosen from the Group. The script was complete with mythical commercial sponsors, one being some manufacturer of an obscure brand of Aussie toilet tissue (of itself deserving of crude GI humor). There were also musical breaks while the quiz contestants gathered their wits. Each contestant had his fair share of backers and another group provided the background applause. The show was complete in every sense and it sounded as realistic and professional as the radio shows back home. The program ran three consecutive nights and a lot of rivalry grew up between groups who were backing their boy to win the quiz contest. The entire stunt passed the time and furnished a lot of laughs.
In a few more days we sighted a low lying swampy coast, so typical of Northern Australia. The seas grew calmer and at last we steamed into Darwin harbor late in the afternoon, only 16 days out of Sydney. The appearance of the harbor, the makeshift wooden jetty extending a half mile out into the shallow water, along which we berthed, plus the bomb damaged buildings and tropical dwellings, were muted evidence we had arrived in the combat zone We were advised later that the Japanese had mounted the most severe bombing raid to date just 3 days before our arrival - the three days we spent anchored was obviously designed to throw the Japanese intelligence a curve and we fortunately missed their welcome by a good margin. The Aussie lorries were waiting for us and we debarked and climbed aboard them on the double!
More to come!
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Last updated: 22 May 2014