"Capt Sam K Williams"
The following day, we were ordered on a C.A.M.S ship which means Catapult, Aircraft, Merchant Ship. She had a ramp on her fore deck and with the aid of rockets and the catapult the aircraft hurled into the air. After accomplishing his mission, the Pilot dropped by parachute into the sea where it was hoped he would be picked up. She didn’t have the plane or the pilot on board, so I got his cabin. After an uneventful voyage we reached Freetown. The Petunia had escorted us all the way, and finally she came close and wished us good luck!
So enough of my wartime experiences! Even on the West African coast, the U boats were very active. I was more or less exposed to the constant danger until the cessation of hostilities. I spent a pleasant time on the West African coast. Our headquarters were at Lagos, Nigeria where we used to load a full cargo of case oil or general cargo for the Creek ports, namely Sapele, Warri, Barwtu. Akassa, Abonema, Port Harcourt, Opele, Eket, Calabar, Victoria and Duala. I gained valuable Creek (river) experience and got to know them like the back of my hand as the saying goes. While having engine repairs in Burutu, the captain and I surveyed the Burutu Poel, a wide part of the Creek where ships used to anchor waiting their turn to go alongside the berth. It was desirable to know how many ships could be anchored there with safety, so we decided to find out. We hadn’t done this kind of work before, it was a challenge and we got very interested, and spent several days in a big canoe which was paddled by natives. Our Quarter Master was taking soundings with a hand line while the captain and I took horizontal angles of the established points. In due course, we compiled a chart and sent it to the Nigerian Marine, who published an official chart bearing our names. We were very proud of that, and the company recognised our efforts by giving us an ex gratia bonus.
During my period of service as Chief Officer on the coast, I contracted malaria three times, which rather marred an otherwise interesting period of my life. I proceeded home on leave on a sister ship to the one I had been torpedoed on. The voyage was uneventful and I arrived safely home in Liverpool where I experienced considerable difficulty in obtaining a new suit and other clothing to replace what I had lost due to enemy action. I spent a well earned and pleasant leave in North Wales before returning to West Africa to make a second tour out on the coast, but the effect of a command was too tempting to resist. I was fairly young and the experience would be invaluable to me, so off I went. My first command was the good ship MV Joseph Flint (see photo). She carried 250 tons of cargo, had twin diesel engines and capable of making a speed of 18knots. She was a handy little ship. I did all my own piloting and could take her almost anywhere. At one period I was employed on a particularly hazardous run from Calabar to Eket. It was mainly river work with a short stretch of the sea between the Calabar and Quaibo rivers. A particularly treacherous Bar stretched across the entrance of the Quaibo river. There were no buoys or markings to indicate a channel only a wreck just in shore of the Bar bearing mute testimony of the consequences of an error of judgement. In the wet season, the Bar was a seething mass of breakers which we had to negotiate. I used to nurse her gently among the breakers on a certain line of bearing where I thought the channel existed, then when she was lifted by a particularly big breaker, I would give her the gun, full speed on both engines. She would then hug the crest of the wave like a surf board and flash over the dangerous shoal. Once we were abreast of the wreck we were in deep water. It was tense and exciting; everything was sealed up on board , in case the ship went on her beam ends, an experience suffered by her sister ship, but she survived her ordeal, with the crew swearing they would never cross the Bar again; but they did ! My Chief Officer volunteered to survey the Bar. I landed him and his boy inside the river entrance with their cooking utensils and paraphernalia. There was a resthouse at their disposal. He then hired a native canoe and sallied forth on his dangerous mission of surveying the Bar. The West African native is expert at handling a canoe or surf boat and very rough seas hold no terror for them. My Chief Officer made several visits to the Bar and found a good channel which we always used afterwards, and he produced a very good chart.
I remember we were at Douala which is in French territory. They were having some festivity or other at the time, one of the highlights of the occasion was a canoe race. There must have been about a dozen of them, all manned by about sixty sturdy warriors in full war paint. A cheer leader or Ju Ju man more spectacularly dressed than the others, stood in the prow of the canoe; another stood on the flat stern to manipulate the steering paddle. At a signal they were off; glistening muscular bodies plying their paddles into the water in unison, they virtually scooped the water out of the river and their craft forward under their long steady strokes. It was a spectacle worth witnessing. It was enthralling; I have never seen anything like it. Later on in the day young native boys came marching down to the quay shouldering wooden guns. They gave an excellent arms drill display on the quay, worthy of the Guards themselves.
Opobo, was the haunt of the leopard men. We were frequent visitors to the port, where we got frequent reports of their activities, too grisly to relate. It was some sort of a secret society pact among the natives. The young men had to perform a daring feat undetected before being initiated into the society. Once accepted they were entitled to wear a leopard skin and steel talons on their fingers. Unfortunately, their victims were women. I don’t think they have stamped out this practice yet.
Nigeria is vast and full of mystery – the native customs, their fears, superstitions and prejudices. My crew was all native with the exception of two or three officers. I liked them. They were jolly and happy people, fond of singing and dancing. They will eat almost anything, the only thing that disgusted them was the price ! One day my headman threw down an alligator leg in disgust “Massa – ninepence” he said.
When my tour came to an end, I boarded a Dakota plane and flew home via, Accra, Freetown, Bathurst, Port Etienne, Rabat, Lisbon, finally arriving in London three days later. Thus ended my service in West Africa. Although I never intended to sail in tankers, by a twist of fate, tankers were my lot for the next fifteen years, twelve of which were to be partially spent in whaling.
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