During the Korean War, two RFA Wave “boats” took turns to replenish the UNITED NATIONS task force in the Yellow Sea on the west coast of Korea; one on duty and the other on stand-by in Sasebo or Kure, Japan. In 1952/3, the Wave Chief was one of them. (The US navy supply ships looked after the east coast.) This is the story of one of four teenage deck apprentices aboard WAVE CHIEF, an 18 year-old serving his second year at sea.
It was an exciting and educational time for us. En route to Sasebo, we enjoyed transiting the Panama Canal with a brief stopover at Pearl Harbour before proceeding to our home base - Sasebo, Japan. Captain Albert Edward Curtain, pictured at left, hailed from South African. He was a wonderful commander, affectionately known as “Jan.” Many afternoons we apprentices were ordered to the empty dining saloon to work on our compulsory correspondence courses. Jan sat at the front ready to help. But, I digress...
While on assignment, the duty ship was often anchored in the sheltered bay of a small island called Taechong Do, a mere 10 miles south of the 38th parallel the pre-Korean War boundary between North and South Korea. It is located some 100 miles WNW of Incheon, the gateway by sea to Seoul. Usually the UN warships came alongside for uneventful refuelling. But there were times we had put to sea for RASing. On one occasion we had to leave port to ride out a typhoon surrounded by the multi-national fleet. Not RASing but exciting for sure! We were in the centre of the flotilla, the focal point for the other ships to maintain their positions. We felt well protected!
Just before Christmas in 1952 we had a special RASing operation. The aircraft carrier HMS OCEAN needed something important in addition to fuel oil and AVGAS; their NAAFI chef needed a boat paddle to stir his Christmas pudding for the 1300 officers and crew he had to feed. I was surprised that a boat paddle was found as we were an oiler, not a store ship. But, it was, and dutifully transferred. I hope their crew enjoyed their festive dessert. A good thing they didn’t know where it had been stored!
Soon after WAVE CHIEF’s arrival on one of our rotations the cruiser HMS BELFAST, now gracefully moored as a tourist attraction in the river Thames in London, came alongside. We were delighted when her ship’s brass band assembled on an upper deck to serenade us while refuelling was in progress. However, after 10 minutes or so, our euphoria was disrupted by a not so pleasant sound – an earsplitting call to Action Stations! A North Korean Russian-made MIG jet fighter had been sighted. We watched in awe at the rapid deployment of naval personnel to their battle stations.
But, it was all a bit anti-climatic: the tiny black streak we saw fleeting across the distant sky was out of range of the mighty BELFAST’s guns. That was probably a good thing; my hearing is bad enough already! Also, we were relieved that we were not under attack since the officers quarters were only some 8 feet above our tanks of AVGAS.
In between refuelling operations, life was peaceful at anchor in our sheltered bay. But, on one Sunday afternoon the silence was shattered by three long blasts of our steam whistle, the MAN OVERBOARD signal. The captain’s pet parrot had flown overboard! A lifeboat was hastily lowered but the diesel motor would not start. The fourth engineer had to be summoned to fix it. He did and the soggy bird named “Humphrey” was found and rescued – much to the dismay of those who objected to its early morning squawking!
Occasionally, we would take a lifeboat to go ashore. There was a sandy beach where we could kick a soccer ball around and have fun. One of us climbed a piece of driftwood that was washed up on the beach. The local kids would join the fun and gleefully mobbed us when we brought sweets to hand out.
One day, Captain Curtain joined a group of us on a climb to the summit of the island. He had a .45 calibre revolver. He allowed us one shot each. I remember the force of the recoil. It lifted my arm involuntarily from horizontal to near vertical. It was quite a thrill!
We spent about 12 days every month at Taechong Do before returning to base at Sasebo, Japan, for 10 days R&R and ship maintenance. While on station, we were paid a war bonus of 150%. Not bad, eh? Well yes, but for we lowly apprentices who earned a pittance of about 3 shillings a week it was not much. We moaned about being used as cheap labour. But when you think about it, we were learning a trade. (Some 200 years before, the parents of apprentices had to pay to be indentured.) Also, our maturing bodies benefitted greatly from the physical exercise.
To counter our relative poverty, some of us apprentices did something about it. Two did dhobi (laundry) for the officers. I tried my hand at hair cutting. I bought the tools, including hand operated clippers in Japan. Surprisingly, business was good. The cost for “short back and sides” was only 2 cans of beer. The captain became aware of our enterprises. On one of his weekly Sunday morning ship inspections, he asked me to open my locker. There, clearly visible, was a large basket full of unopened cans of beer.
(I was saving them up for New Year’s Eve.) With eyebrows raised and a piercing sideways glance at me he walked out. Some weeks later, he asked me to cut his hair. No, I didn’t dare ask him for two beers! But soon after he rewarded me with a rather uncomplimentary cartoon he had drawn of my endeavours.
Talking of beer, due to prohibition on US ships, cans of it became an unofficial currency. One of our crew acquired a really well-made US issue parka from a sailor on a US destroyer tied up alongside for; you may have guessed it, two cans of beer!
Yes, we replenished many US navy ships as well as Australian, New Zealanders, Dutch, Canadian (HMCS Haida and Iroquois). On one dark evening when I was on anchor watch at Taechong Do, a US destroyer anchored nearby called us up visually by lamp. The message read, “Would you like to shoot the breeze?” Puzzled, I returned dit, dah, dit, dit, dit; which is A S in the Morse code – the signal to “wait.” I took the message to Captain Curtain who was not sure what it meant so told me to ask “Sparks,” our Radio Officer. Sparks knew; it meant pass the time chatting. So, the boredom of that anchor watch was resolved. Plus I got more practice for the unexpected onerous task ahead for us apprentices ...
We had on board a Royal Navy Leading Signalman to handle communications during RASing operations. We were in a war zone so radio silence was the norm; semaphore and the Morse code lamp signalling via 10 inch projectors and/or Aldis lamps became all important. The RN ratings (the gunners and our signalman) were accommodated with the rest of our crew in the after accommodation. On ships in 1952 there was no sophisticated network of phones so our signalman was summoned to the bridge by
the blowing of a mouth operated whistle. Unfortunately, he objected to being called that way - like a dog! His deliberately slow attempts to reach the bridge on-the-double caused friction between him and the captain.
It could be that the RN signalman, did not respect our captain’s authority since Wave Chief was RFA not RN. Little did he know that our captain had a commission as Commander RNR. Also, he had been awarded the OBE. Captain Curtain was no fool; he possibly thought that rather than be dependent on one disgruntled RN signalman, why not have the four RFA apprentices, over which he had full control, do the job? So with some trepidation, we apprentices were soon under intensive training by the signalman who we were about to replace! To us, he seemed to be a nice guy. His teaching techniques were good too. We teenagers lapped it up as he stood on the forecastle flapping his semaphore flags. All his training messages were excerpts from a somewhat risqué book, e.g. “His hand slid slowly up her gossamer leg...”! You get the drift. It sure worked! Within three weeks, on our next tour of duty, we were coping with some of the best RN signalmen. Notice I just said “coping”!
On one trip back to Sasebo, the captain decided to see how good the naval gunners were at protecting us. They had OERLICON anti-aircraft guns. There was great anticipation as we gathered on deck for “the show”! Several times the captain gave the order from different distances away to fire at a small rocky islet we were passing. We all roared with laughter; every shot missed! The poor gunners had red faces as they climbed down sheepishly from the gun turrets.
There were a lot of interesting characters on Wave Chief but one of our ABs stood out. His name was Joe Block. He seemed to be a tough guy. He had signed on in North Shields just after being released from jail. He had served time for the manslaughter of his wife. On several previous ships he had served as boson; so he knew the ropes. He was big. His hands were the size of plates. With those hands he taught us apprentices to splice manila and wire mooring lines. We were in Sasebo for New Year’s Eve
celebrations 1952/3. The crew were in a festive mood, so much so that most stayed ashore all night. In the morning the whole catering staff was absent – including the Chief Steward. But, fortunately we did not have to forego breakfast. It was cooked and courteously served by the tough guy. It tasted great and Joe looked the part in a commandeered steward’s white tunic. Beneath his veneer of toughness was a gentle human soul.
From Korea, we had a long and very eventful voyage home lengthened by a two-month “side trip” to the Falkland Islands. How disappointed we were when only a few hours after leaving Gibraltar with destination Old Blighty, the ship turned 1800. We had been commandeered by the Flag Officer on the Rock to load a full cargo for the naval base in Port Stanley, Falkland Islands. Argentina had been sabre rattling again.
When the Korean War Armistice Agreement was signed on 27 July 1953, Taechong Do was one of five strategic islands specifically designated to remain under United Nations Command. To prevent the possibility of an accidental
armed clash between the two Koreas in the waters around the Islands, the UN Commander unilaterally imposed the Northern Limit Line passing north of those islands. After seemingly respecting the NLL for decades, the North started
to dispute it. On 15 June 1999 and 29 June 2002, there were violent naval engagements between the two Koreas near those islands. There have been several more naval confrontations since then, including one at Taechong Do.
• In 1951, UN commandos joined by anti-communist defectors from the North used the five islands as staging points to conduct special operations behind enemy lines. One of their missions was to circulate counterfeit North Korean money. See illustration. I forget who gave me the phoney banknote.
• A few days after RFA Wave Chief returned to the United Kingdom from this voyage, the following reference appeared in the Supplement to the London Gazette on 19 May 1953 under the heading Mention in Despatches: Commander Albert Edward CURTAIN, O.B.E., R.N.R. (Rtd.), Master, R.F.A. WAVE CHIEF. He received his O.B.E. in 1941 during WWII.
• The WAVE CHIEF, along with all the other RFAs involved in the war zone, was awarded “BATTLE HONOURS.”
• The map showing the five islands was copied from a declassified paper written by Colonel Moo Bong Ryoo of the South Korean Army. The paper entitled, THE KOREAN ARMISTICE AND THE ISLANDS, can be viewed at www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a500904.pdf
• Captain Curtain liaising with the islanders: