NAS Ile, New Caledonia
We were transferred from the USS COPAHEE to our new base on Ile Nou on the 5th of October, 1942. The base was still not ready for occupancy. The tin shed that would be our shops were incomplete and the small square plywood huts for living quarters were still being erected. The small wooden screened building that were mess hall and administration were complete and in business. In the meantime, a tent city had been set up for us around the hill form the base and adjacent to the old French prison.
We found that the huge stone prison building was still in use. It was peopled by all sorts of convicts—thieves and murderers mostly. The interesting thing about it was that the prison hates were not locked in the daytime. The prisoners were free to come and go in the daylight as long as they did not leave Ile Nou. Some of the New Caledonia natives even had their families living in the prison with them.
A day or two after our arrival, with no facilities or duties as yet, we were invited by the French warden of the prison to have a tour. The prison was built in a hollow square with a large open courtyard in the center. In the center of the courtyard there was a large guillotine that we were informed was still in use. The large sharp steel blade and the brown stains on the cobblestones beneath the haollowed neck rest certainly looked as if it were. We were told that the guillotine was the same one that had beheaded Marie Antoinette in Paris 149 years before.
From the tent city by the prison there was a narrow path that led around the hill to our new base. We walked it three times a day to reach the mess hall. On our second or third day there, Troy and I were walking along the path on our way to the mess hall. Halfway along we suddenly halted. Coming the other way was a fearsome apparition. It was a New Caledonia native that must have stood seven feet tall and was about four feet across the shoulders. He had a mean and ugly face topped with a shock of orange-colored hair. (In later years his hairdo would have been called an Afro.) He was carrying a mean looking machete.
Anderson poked me and muttered, “What’ll we do –run for it?”
I shook my head, “No—keep walking as if we own the place.”
It was a good guess. The big native backed off the narrow path and favored us with a sort of salute and a big grin that showed blackened snaggle teeth. We smiled in return and went on our way feeling very relieved. (We were to learn later that the native was a trustee at the prison. He was serving a long term for murdering a man he had caught in bed with his wife. He was actually a big amiable man who did odd jobs for us later. For a pack of Luckies a week, he did our laundry for us in the stone trough at the prison for as long as we for there. He spoke some French, but very little English. We soon learned to communicate in the local “pidgin’. We never could pronounce his name so called him “Sam”. That seem to please hi and he answered to it readily.)
We lived in tent city beside the prison for nearly a month while the base was being completed. The tin shop buildings were completed first to get the base operational as soon as possible. Living quarters cold wait because the war was going on and airplanes were needing overhaul. In the first old photograph of the base at Ile Nou that I will include, our engine assembly building is the one on the far left.
Once the shop was complete our problem became to equip it with the tools we needed to accomplish assembly of new engines to install on the airplanes that came in from the combat zone to the north.
The chief petty officer in charge of the engine shop, CPO Barnes, and I sat down in our new office (a walled off corner of the tin building) and drew up list of our needs, then we made out requisition after requisition for the items we needed—chain falls to remove the new engines from their crates (when and if we received any), work stands, and tools.
With the massive quantities of war materials then being moved south, most of our requisitions were filled quite promptly from the huge supply dump that had been set up near Noumea. Before long we had most of the larger items needed to set up our assembly line. We built up our own little library of overhaul manuals.
The two items that continued to be in short supply were new engines and the hand tools our crew needed. Japanese submarines were all too successful with their “torpedo junction” off the Fiji Islands. Many supply ships were being torpedoed and sunk. Most of our requisitions for engines and hand tools came back marked “NA—not available”. Many of the food resupply ships were also sunk and for a long time we lived on a diet mostly of beans and Spam.
Dark-haired and clever little Amuchustagi, a third class aviation mech on my crew, turned out to be a good scrounger without peer. One afternoon he came to me in the shop. He had ridden the mail boat to Noumea and had found an old buddy of his on duty at the Naval Supply Depot. “Mooch” had made a little tour of the supply dump and found a bunch of crates of hand tools in a far corner of the barbed wire compound. He proposed that we “draw some midnight small stores”.
We planned an operation that would have been a credit to the old TV program “Mission Impossible”. By making some discreet contacts and handing out some bottles of scarce Australian “Old Soldier” 150-proof rum, we arranged for a boat one night. The supply dump near Noumea was close to the beach. Amuchustagi found out what night his old buddy could arrange to have the perimeter watch on the back side of the supply compound and about midnight that night, clad in dungarees and dark jerseys, four of us hit the beach like commandos.
We had brought wire cutters. When Pete’s buddy had gone by, we cut the bottom strand of the barbed wire and slithered into the compound. Using a masked flashlight Pete quickly found the crates of tools that our requisitions had failed to produce. In less than an hour we shoved our boat off the beach with most of the tools that our hop needed.
The next morning after muster the shop Chief, Barnes, saw the crew sorting the hand tools. He came into the shop office where I had coffee going in a battered pot heated by a blowtorch. After pouring himself a cup of the strong black java he said, “Looks like one of our requisitions finally produced some tools.
“Ye’—came in late last night.”
“Reckon I had better not ask to see a copy of the requisition.”
“Seem to have misplaced it, Chief,” I said with a faint smile. “Let you know when I find it.”
“Sure, Frieze,--you do that.”
By the first week in November our repair base was in full operation and weary, battered PBYs from the combat area in the Solomons began to arrive. In addition to our engine shop, Ile Nou included metalsmiths, instrument shop, ordnance shop, and radio/radar repair. While the flight crews were sent on to Auckland or Brisbane for a week of R&R, we could completely overhaul a war-weary PBY and return it to combat.
Bullet and shrapnel holes to be patched attested to the fact that our P
BYs were not limited to passive patrol actions. From the flight crews, we got word of our shipmates (and occasionally of brother Dick) who were flying from aircraft tenders scattered around the Solomon Islands and at Esprito Santos.
Before the war began, the Time Between Overhauls (TBO) of the R-1830-92 engines hd been set by Pratt & Whitney at 400 hours. Immediately after December 7th, 1941, the TBO was raised to 800 hours and, subsequently to 1,200 hours. Some of the big fourteen cylinder radials that came into Ile Nou had been flown longer than in the field. It is a tribute to Pratt & Whitney that they remained the most reliable engines in the history of aviation.
When we finally began receiving some new engines we still faced problems. We found to our dismay that the shipments included new carburetors but we were slow in receiving new starters, alternators, propeller governors, and the other accessories.
The starters were the worst problem. The flywheel of a Jack & Heinz aircraft inertial starter spins up to 12,000 rpm when the starter is energized. That resulted in wear on the ends of the starter bearings. We had no overhaul manual for the starters so one weekend Chief Barnes and I sat down in the shop with one fairly new starter and disassembled it, carefully measuring clearances with a micrometer. I then went out to the repair ship ANTARES, anchored in Noumea Harbor, and had the machine shop make up a batch of brass shims of the proper diameter and of different thicknesses. After that the chief and I overhauled the old starters and returned them to service. That was but one example of the ingenuity required in those early black days of the war in the Pacific.