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Tacoma, Washington, United States

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Saying Goodbye to New Caledonia

Chapter 32

Return from the Pacific 1943

“'Hey, boy,--this gonna be okay.  She’s headed stateside and I hear the chow aboard them civilian-operated transports is better than Navy chow!'” 

When I reported to the Noumea Receiving Ship (which was not a ship at all but was a barracks at the Noumea Naval Bass) on the afternoon of 11 February 1943, I found to my surprise and delight that my old shipmate Oscar Hook was also there awaiting transportation stateside.  Since we had been informed that it would be a day or two before we went aboard ship, we promptly got into clean white uniforms and neckerchiefs and went on liberty, the first I had been on in two months.
Wartime Noumea still had little to offer in the way of amusement.  We walked around town for a while the, realizing that I had failed to bring along a fresh pack of Luckies, I went into a corner store that appeared to sell such items.
There was a beautiful little brunette behind the counter who spoke to us in French..  I hauled out my little French phrase book found the right page, and said uncertainly, “Bone jour, mam’selle—dawn e mwa une package du cigareets, si’vous play?”
The French girl giggled (it was really a melodious chuckle that set my red corpuscles racing around) then my face turned beet red as she answered in flawless English, “Sailor boy, are you by chance trying to ask me for a pack of cigarettes?”
“Yes, ma’am—that’s what I need!”
She produced a pack of Gauloises and I inquired where she had learned English so well.  She explained that at the mission school she attended it was required.
Oscar and I hung around for a while talking to the girl and trying to get her to show us the local sights when she got off work.  She politely declined and, during our persistence, managed to work into the conversation that her father was warden of the French prison on Ile Nou.  She was expected to be home promptly after she got off work and her papa was very strict.  That did it—we ceased our efforts to date her and, instead, got directions to a café where we could get a bite to eat.  It was just down the street from the pharmacy.
The café again would not have been used for a set for a Hollywood south seas movie.  There was a curtain of strings of colorful beads in the doorway apparently leading to the back rooms but the café proper was quite plain and lacking in decorations.  There were rattan chairs at a few bare wood tables.  The shelves behind the small bar were devoid of liquor except for some bottles of Australian rum and a few of red wine.  The only other customers present were two old Frenchmen at a table in the corner playing checkers.
The wihte-aproned waiter apparently spoke no English—or, if he did, preferred haughtily not to admit it.  We struggled with the little phrase book and finally learned that all they had to offer in the way of food was some bread and cheese.  We settle for that and a bottle of red wine for our supper because when we asked for something more the waiter shrugged, “C’est la guerre.”
Over our modest repast (the French bread was delicious crusty golden brown and the cheese was excellent), Hook and I compared notes of our recent experiences while we consumed two bottles of the heavy red wine.  I no longer recall where Oscar was being transferred, but it was not to NATTC where I was headed.  (I believe that Hook may have been a radioman.)
At one point the subject of our Waikiki escapade and escape from the Shore Patrol came up.  Hook laughed and, rubbing his shoulder, said, “Man on man—I can still feel hitting that damned fence!  I remember being in that garage in the alley, but how the hell did we get back to Ford Island?  I was always too embarrassed about passing out on you to ask before VP-11 moved to Kaneohe.  Also could never figure out where that little whitehat with the name ‘Dolan’ in it came from.”
I recounted what had happed from the time I left the garage until we got back to Ford Island.  Oscar laughed until tears rolled down his round cheeks and poured us each some more of the red wine.
“Well, old buddy—I sure owe you one for that!  We get to “Frisco, we are going out on the town—on me!  I got plenty back pay in my kick and we’ll spend some of it.  Right now, let’s go find that ‘Pink House’ and it will be my treat, too!”
We were both feeling the effects of that red wine.  We drained the last of the second (or was it the third?) bottle and unsteadily made our way down the street.  By the time we reached the Pin House, the night air and exercise had sobered me considerably.
That Noumea cathouse was no more attractive in the night than it had been when Troy Anderson and I cased it in the daylight when we first came to New Caledonia.  We stumbled up the steps and into the “parlor”.  There was a tinny piano being played in a corner and a few sailors and soldiers were having drinks at a small bar.  No women were present at the moment.  The place stank of stale beer, stale smoke, cheap perfume, and other odors I could not identify.  The décor featured green plush upholstered furniture and gold fringes on the lamps.  A green and gold carpet that had seen far better days covered the floor.  At one side of the dimly-lit room, was a wide staircase.
While we waited at the bar to get attention, two of the Pink House women came to the lower steps.  They were dressed in “crib clothes” of brief shorts and halters.  One was a tired-looking brunette Eurasian with a bony figure.  The other was a slatternly appearing blonde with stringy lank hair and sagging breasts.  The blonde called out in a hoarse voice, “Okay, boys—who’s next?”
No one answered right away.  Hook and I looked at each other and simultaneously shook our heads.  He said, “Don’t know about you, Frieze, but I just decided I think I’ll wait and save it for ‘Frisco!”
“That makes two of us!”
While a sheepish-looking soldier and a very drunk sailor followed the two women up the stairs we tossed down our drinks, made our way out into the clean night air, and found a taxi to take us back to the Naval base.
The next morning just after breakfast the base P.A. system carried an announcement that all personnel in transit were to report with baggage in front of the duty office.  From there we were herded down to the dock and boarded a whale boat.  The boat took us out into the harbor to an anchored ship that reminded me at first glance of the old USS TIPPECANOE.
This one was no tanker.  The rust-streaked black stern carried the name “USAT SEA WITCH”.  It was an old freighter about three hundred feet long that had been converted into an Army transport and was operated by a merchant marine crew under contract.  As the boat came alongside the boarding ladder I looked at the rusty old hull and muttered, “Oh, boy.”
Hook smiled complacently.  “Hey, boy,--this gonna be okay.  She’s headed stateside and I hear the chow aboard them civilian-operated transports is better than Navy chow!”

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