The reminiscences of Telegraphist Kenneth Peterkin.

Kenneth joined MONAB 4, HMS Nabaron, at Ludham and remained with the unit throughout its commission at Ponam, returning home for Christmas 1945 with the ships company of ‘Nabaron’ aboard HMS Slinger.

 

 

I was transferred direct from Yeovilton to RAF Ludham and found the conditions there verging on the disgusting. All units were in dispersal areas on the perimeter. Some were two miles from the mess. It was freezing winter at the time and very few men could face the four mile walk there and back for breakfast. Fuel was in short supply and the Nissan huts often had no heating at all. Men slept dressed and covered their beds with an overcoat to keep warm.

 

A crude attempt was made to teach assault tactics and all ratings were issued with full Army battle dress, boots and gaiters. Most of the instruction was on Sten gun training and Mills bombs. The workshop units were set out on a runway and practice made with mobile generators, aerial erection, and driving of Jeeps and 5 ton Foden wagons with trailers. The trailers carried the workshop units which could be lifted to the ground, connected to an electrical supply and became operational immediately.

 

Most of the drivers had only driven on the airfield runways and were expected to drive a wagon and trailer from Ludham to Liverpool in black ice conditions. A wagon and trailer overturned in front of me as it was leaving the station. RAF Ludham was quite unsuitable for this type of training, which would have been better carried out at a Marine Depot. Took passage on HMS Dominion Monarch, stopping at Colon, then Sydney.

 

After about four weeks east of Sydney under canvas on a racecourse, we loaded up all our equipment on an LCT Empire Arquebus and took passage via Brisbane, New Ireland, New Britain to Manus harbour, and then to Ponam. On the trip from Sydney to Ponam on the Empire Arquebus messing was American style using a stainless steel partitioned tray with officers and men eating together. The ship was infested by a flying beetle, which had come out of baled tobacco. The beetle was smaller than a ladybird but very voracious. All food had to be eaten quickly, beating off the beetle all the time.

 

 

The airstrip at Ponam had been built on our arrival and we took over from US Seabees, Some remaining with us as maintenance staff.  Ponam was about 22 miles by sea from the larger US base at Manus. We had a motor launch, which collected supplies from there each week, taking passage between Manus island and the barrier reef. I often went on this and used to buy slops and other items of clothing from the US store.  

 

We only had one Marine attached to HMS Nabaron and he used to service the launch and was a regular crewmember. The same Marine also appears on the photograph of the ‘pacific post’ delivery. This purports to show a daily delivery of the BPF's own newspaper, 'Pacific Post'. The Marine is the driver. The rating standing is Puffer Train, Leading Hand WT, who was the editor of the daily newssheet, 'Jungle Echo’; I was present when the photograph (below) was taken. It was done for publicity purposes and the posters were stuck on the truck and removed immediately afterwards. That was the only day we ever received the 'Pacific Post' on Ponam. I cannot remember the name of the Marine but he was a good footballer and cricketer. He had played professional football for Plymouth Argyle. Puffer Train was well liked by the officers and was one of the few ratings who played badminton with them. He was about 38 and somewhat older than most of the crew. As editor of the 'Jungle Echo' he had direct access to the Skipper and used to discuss articles with him before publication. Puffer was one of the few lucky ones to be flown back to Sydney for two weeks leave. He got as far as the Blue Mountains. Puffer's home was Plymouth. All MONAB 4 men were Devonport ratings.

 

The 'Jungle Echo' was only made possible with the assistance of the Seabee detachment who remained on the island. They supplied all the reams of paper, stencils and the printing machine. Puffer was very good at collecting news but could not type and this made daily publication problematical. Up to 50 copies were printed each day and circulated to all ranks, and the Seabees. One of the collectible issues was when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. This news was picked up from Tokyo Rose by the night WT watch as "a bomb with the equivalent power of 100,000 tons of TNT was dropped on Hiroshima destroying most of the city." This was telephoned through to the Skipper immediately and he would not believe it. He instructed that the tonnage be reduced to 1,000 tons. It was only after the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki that we all realized that something enormous had happened, something beyond our comprehension. Tokyo Rose was an English speaking Japanese news commentator. Something equivalent to Lord Haw Haw from Germany. The Japanese news was generally reliable and the radio signal came through clearly to the Admiralty Islands, perhaps transmitted for the Japanese left at Rabaul some 200 miles away.

 

On Ponam we had a small church, a football pitch and cricket pitch. We also manufactured small sailing dinghies out of packing cases and sailed the boats in the lagoon.  My particular friends were Puffer Train (Plymouth), Raymond Loxton (London), John Slee (Bradford), Norman Langdon (Notts).

 

Shortly after VJ Day an aircraft landed from Singapore and has several former English female prisoners of war on it being repatriated to Sydney.  They were in very poor condition and were the first females we had seen for months. Each week an aircraft flew us out a schooner of beer from Australia, some members also were flown to Townsville and Sydney on leave.  

 

The Seabees on Ponam had no liquor and relied on us to supply it. Pusser's rum was in great demand and used as barter for clothing and equipment. I once gave a Seabee half a mug of neat rum, which he drank down in one gulp. All he said was "Jesus!" as he fell back on to a bunk. He sipped it next time. We had special dispensation from the Admiralty to issue our tot of rum at 6pm as when it was issued at the normal time of noon we all fell asleep with the heat.

 

When we landed on the island the indigenous population was evacuated to the larger island of Manus. One problem was the native burial ground on the western end of Ponam. This was sacred territory and it was agreed it would be permanently out of bounds to all naval personnel. Most breaches of discipline involved trespass into that area. Manus Island was German territory from 1914 onwards. There were several German missionaries on the island and quite a lot of the Melanese spoke simple German phrases. The Japanese invaded the Admiralty Islands in 1942. The islands later became an Australian Protectorate. It was well known that the original natives were cannibals and referred to a dead human corpse as "long pig".

 

I was shown a stone trough, something like a sarcophagus, which had been used as a human cooking pot. It was the custom when a death occurred, to prevent the corpse being dug up and eaten, for an elder member of the family to remain sitting on the shallow grave for three days until putrefaction set in. Burials were still permitted on Ponam. A body was brought over on an outrigger canoe for burial, and an elder remained guarding the grave, often for several days. He appeared to fast during this period.

 

The distance from Ponam to Manus is about two miles. The larger island is covered with jungle but it was possible to make out a native village and see the canoe activity taking place. Several unofficial attempts were made to swim across but there were large sharks in the channel and the crossing was not for the faint hearted. I know that at least two men swam over and back as the natives fed them with green coconuts before their return. Green coconuts were quite delicious. The nut kernel had yet to harden and was like a soft white sweet jelly. The milk was very sweet and clear. Coconuts could be opened using a metal spike driven into the ground. The outer cover was then pierced until the inner kernel was revealed. Regular trading began to take place.

 

The natives particularly wanted tobacco, cigarette papers, knives, rope, wire, clothing and matches. Fishhooks were in great demand and many men wrote to friends in Sydney and asked for them to be posted to them. The natives could only offer cowry seashells and fruit. The younger natives dived very deeply for the cowries, often using a rope with a rock anchor to descend. The cowry shell had a small trap door in the shape of an eye and these were particularly valuable. Cowry shells were used as currency on the larger islands.

 

Not all our ratings were honourable with the natives and the Skipper was particularly enraged when he found ratings offering newspapers in lieu of cigarette papers. Eventually the launch was used to take ratings over to the village and one of the missionary boys arranged a walk through the forest using local jungle paths. Leprosy was endemic. A very small island near the main village was used to isolate sufferers who appeared to be abandoned. I visited this island and was appalled at the appearance of the older infected natives. Not all our ratings were honourable with the natives and the Skipper was particularly enraged when he found ratings offering newspapers in lieu of cigarette papers.

 

Eventually the launch was used to take ratings over to the village and one of the missionary boys arranged a walk through the forest using local jungle paths. Leprosy was endemic. A very small island near the main village was used to isolate sufferers who appeared to be abandoned. I visited this island and was appalled at the appearance of the older infected natives.

 

The fresh water supplies on Ponam were interesting. The Seabees were masters of improvisation and found that by drilling into the coral rock that parts of the sub-strata had caverns filled with a mix of sea and fresh water. By pumping the top layer of water, filtering and purifying it, we had a good supply of water. Later chilling plant was installed to cool the water and make it more potable. Regular warnings were given out about using water for drinking purposes only. It was easy to keep clean by diving into the lagoon and laundry dried in the heat very quickly.

 

Unfortunately both these substances turned the skin bright yellow which took up to a year to disappear. I was still yellow when I was demobbed. The high temperatures induced heavy sweating and it was common for men to collapse in the heat. They were suffering from salt deficiency. Eventually six salt tablets were issued with the evening meal and these had to be taken singly throughout the day. Many men attempted to take the six together before the meal.


The salt acted as an emetic and they immediately threw up what they had just eaten. There was also a daily issue of limejuice which was very popular with the Seabees. They had plenty of coke as the main depot at Manus had installed a coke bottling plant and it was brought in weekly on our launch.

 

The Seabee unit at Manus all downed tools because they had no coke. A coke plant was flown out from Los Angeles and was working within days.

 The informal discipline of the American units never failed to amaze me. The main medical problem on the island was tropical ulcers caused by getting coral sand in a small abrasion. Men swam a lot in the lagoon and were always cutting themselves on the coral. Once started on a leg the ulcer grew rapidly and refused to heal. I had an ulcer on my leg months after leaving the island.

 

One of the most interesting men on the island was the Vicar. He had been in the Para Regt and had transferred to the FAA. We used to chuck coconuts on the roof of his hut and he used to retaliate by chucking them on ours and chiming the church bell at an unearthly hour. The padre was good at identifying fish that were good to eat. Almost anything that looked like a small trout was edible. Most of the other fish were poisonous. The lagoon itself dried out at low tide and it was possible to walk out on the reef to the Pacific breakers. Many seashell collections were made. Some of the marine life was strange with many large sea slugs, like a huge maggot, in the pools. Sea snakes were numerous and deadly. It was most unnerving to be swimming and be joined by one of these marine reptiles.

 

One serious injury occurred when the Chief Petty Officer Telegraphist opened up the transmitter unit and the safety switch on the cage failed to turn off the power. This unit was fitted with large thermionic valves about a metre high with power provided by a Coventry Climax generator. There was a flash back and he was badly burned. Part of the training at RAF Ludham included the erection of mobile transmitter towers and these were used on Ponam. Six men could erect a 100 metre tower in about half an hour with practice. It was possible to receive messages from the Fleet Train and retransmit them to base using this type of equipment. An American style coding machine was introduced. This appeared to have been similar to the German Enigma machine but had six rotors instead of four or five. There were constant problems with the crude telephone installation on the island. Attempts to teach WT operators to read Japanese Morse were not successful. Some of the Japanese signals included letters up to twelve dots and dashes long. The Americans seemed to prefer RT for daily use.

 

We were finally picked up by HMS Unicorn, a fleet carrier, and returned to Sydney. On the return to Sydney a long paying-off pennant was flown, this broke and drifted overboard much to the Skipper's consternation. Two of our crew dived overboard in Sydney Harbour and swam for it; both had girl friends in Sydney. We were not allowed ashore and finally worked ship, in HMS Slinger, back home to Portsmouth to be demobbed.

 

On the return journey it was found that a large number of ratings had picked up venereal disease in Sydney and there were large queues at the Sick Bay each morning. Up to six percent were infected. King's Cross in Sydney had been used by the Americans before our arrival. One of the last things I remember was a Tannoy announcement as we crossed the Greenwich Meridian on the return journey, west of Gibraltar, that, "All original members of HMS Nabaron have now circumnavigated the globe." There was a huge cheer and we spliced the main brace.

Kenneth Peterkin

 

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