Down Under

Regarding the promotion of food products one of my two such exploits doesn’t rank with the introduction of Lender’s bagels to the Scandahoovians in Seattle’s Ballard District by Cooney Sales Company. But my buddy Paul Cooney, a food sales expert, extended Lender’s market only 2,600 miles from a Philadelphia bakery. That distance was equivalent to only the first leg of my accomplishment; thereafter I traveled another 10,000 miles. Moreover, my effort was three-decades earlier.

I got involved in promoting a food product because of a unique chain of events that started with the hasty conversion of the 350-passenger liner SS URUGUAY to an army transport between the 7 December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and 26 February 1942 when I signed on board as a cadet engineer. Six days later, with about 4,800 troops and a contingent from the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, URUGUAY cleared the port of New York in company with other troopships and a strong naval escort, presumably, as nearly all on board believed, bound for the United Kingdom. After all, some of the soldiers had just arrived by rail from San Francisco. None of us were aware of the activities of Australia’s Prime Minister John Curtin.

Curtin had good reason to be alarmed. In North Africa the German General Rommel had initiated an offensive in late January that was driving the British back toward the Nile. Britain’s General Sir Arthur Percival surrendered Singapore to the Japanese on 15 February, and one-week later President Roosevelt had ordered General MacArthur to abandon his force in the Philippines. There didn’t seem to be anything that could stop the Japanese from invading Australia.

I learned years later that in early February 1942 Curtin threatened Winston Churchill, Britain’s Prime Minister, by saying in effect, “Get President Franklin Roosevelt to quickly send American GIs to defend Australia, or I will order home all of the Australian diggers who are now deployed in the Middle East.”

Thus, Roosevelt made a precipitate political decision that overrode the U.S. war plan. The plan had assigned first priority to reinforcing the United Kingdom while sustaining only a holding action in the Pacific. Per the President’s order the troop convoy that prepared for departure from New York during the last week of that February, was part of the military diversion. Three of the ships, URUGUAY included, were destined to discharge troops in Melbourne, Australia.

The ship-conversion planners anticipated nothing more than a 2,900-mile voyage to the United Kingdom. However, URUGUAY had to steam at least three times that distance and before reaching the Panama Canal, the more than 5,000 souls on board knew that that there was going to be a severe shortage of potable water. Tank capacity was inadequate and the ship’s three evaporators were inoperable because their copper coils were missing. Rationing was quickly instituted and those of us in the black gang worked between our normal watches in order to repipe all of the basins, showers, and laundry machines for seawater operation only.

During a two-day visit to Bora Bora in the Society Islands URUGUAY’s tanks were partially replenished with the potable water that could be spared by the U.S. Navy’s afloat operating base. But somewhere between the Society Islands and New Zealand in the great expanse of the South Pacific, seawater had to be used for boiler feed. The ensuing salt accumulations caused failures in many of the tubes in URUGUAY’s twelve boilers. Also, the build up of salt inside all of the steam valves caused them to leak. More fresh water was obtained in Auckland, New Zealand. Problems due to the salt contamination continued while URUGUAY struggled through the Tasman Sea toward Melbourne, Australia, arriving on 9 April 1942 with only eight of her twelve boilers operable.

That is why, a few weeks shy of my nineteenth birthday I was overhauling valves on top of a boiler while nearby a shore gang was performing similar work.

The Australian shore gang was made up of older workers with a few family men who seemed to be in their late thirties. While at work on that first Saturday in Melbourne I sensed that someone was staring at me. Turning to face the mechanic and expecting to learn of something that he needed, he hesitantly invited me to his home for dinner. Unusually shy for an Aussie, he said, “I promised my wife and kids that I would bring home a Yank.”

Of course I accepted. He advised that he would return to the ship the next day and accompany me to his home.

Per my Italian upbringing I had to bring something. I grabbed two handfuls of tea bags from a five-gallon tin that was kept in the ship’s pantry. They filled two brown-paper sacks of the size used by the pantry steward when supplying sandwiches for night watches. With a sack in each pocket of my uniform topcoat I set out by tram with my new friend.

His kids met us at the tram stop with immediate questions such as, “Where are you from?”

“Brooklyn, New York.”

And then as if it was a sandlot team, “Did you ever play for the Dodgers?”

The cottage was roofed with corrugated metal. The rather small living room had a linoleum rug and there was a wood sink and drain board in a very-small kitchen. I seemed to be back in the 1890s.

Virtually all of the family’s relatives and neighbors who were not in one of the military services were present. After introductions we all began to feel a bit embarrassed while just standing there and thinking, “Who says what next?”

I broke the ice by saying to the wife of the house, “I brought tea from America.”

Ignoring the fact that the tea had to have come from somewhere in nearby Asia, she responded, “How delightful. I’ll brew some now.”

With that she was off to the kitchen.

While the others and I were attempting what can only be described as awkward conversation, I could see from where I was that her way of brewing tea was a ritual. A kettle was rinsed, rinsed again, filled, and set to boil. Out came a ceramic teapot and its hand-knitted wool cozy. Some of the boiling water was used to preheat the teapot, and the two halves of an egg-shaped perforated aluminum bobby were separated. Then she opened one of the paper sacks, started to reach in, and paused. She remained motionless for almost thirty seconds while staring into the sack. Then she slowly took out one tea bag and carefully examined it. With a slight shrug of her shoulders she ripped it open and poured the contents into the bobby.

Grateful for the diversion, I barged into the kitchen and said, “I’ll show you how we brew tea in America!”

The others followed and crowded around. I felt that what I was doing was bordering on being sacrilegious, but I wanted to be dramatic. I organized the teacups in two rows, plopped a tea bag in each, and then quickly poured the boiling water in two non-stop swishes directly into the cups. I expected laughing, cheering, or wowing, but there was only silence. The only movement in the room was the tea being absorbed by the water.

Nearly a full minute went by when my host said in a voice filled with awe, “You never know what the Yanks will think of next!”

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fire

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“Australia and New Zealand saw themselves exposed to the possibility of direct invasion.

“Their only four well-trained divisions of volunteers and the New Zealand Division were far away across the oceans. The naval command of the Pacific had passed to Japan. Australian airpower hardly existed. Can we wonder that deep alarm swept Australia.”

Winston Churchill

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During 26 October 1942, fully loaded USAT PRESIDENT COOLIDGE, a troopship, struck one of our own mines in Espirito Santo and was a total loss.

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Copyright © 2005 (text only) by Louis D. Chirillo


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