I made one more trip in that ship and it was on the leg to Karachi that I came as near to a submarine as is possible. We had come across an open boat with two men, a woman and a baby in it. As we neared, a man held up the child, shouting “pane, pane!” (water, water). But then the alarm bells sounded. Our ship, being equipped with ASDIC, had located a submarine 500 yards on our port bow. We were forced to abandon the open boat, turning our stern on the sub and leave the scene on a double ring of “Full Ahead”. The occupants of the boat must have been devastated, but we broke radio silence to send a message which resulted in a Catalina aircraft being sent out to pick them up. In fact, they reached Karachi before we did.
It was on that voyage, my last with that company, that I underwent my most traumatic experience of the war; not at sea, but ashore in Calcutta. I went to the Seaman’s Mission to enjoy a swim in the excellent pool there and whilst relaxing, floating on my back, there was an explosion close by and I watched large lumps of metal coming through the brick wall. Out of the pool in double quick time, I dived under a small table and crouched down listening to more explosions. Japanese aircraft had targeted the nearby railway shunting yard and docks.
The raid didn’t last long, but after dressing I ventured outside to witness the awful devastation, a sickening sight of dead people, body parts and dead cattle; the so called sacred cows which are allowed to wander freely about the streets.
Making my way back towards the ship I came across a bomb shelter, a circular brick construction with a slab concrete roof. The brickwork had collapsed and the roof had fallen onto the occupants. I was joined by another cadet, Bob Lawless, who had come from another ship to see the damage and I said to him “Bob, we have to do something.” He agreed and told me that an ambulance depot wasn’t too far away. We made our way there, only to find the place deserted.
Dad in Calcutta
A quick search revealed an ambulance with a key in the ignition. A large piece of shrapnel was embedded in the chassis which probably explained the reason the crew took off to find shelter. Not even considering the consequences, we jumped in and headed for the shelter. One woman, very severely injured, had managed to crawl out. I left her with Bob whilst I crawled through the narrow space into the wrecked shelter to seek other survivors. Apart from one old man and a tiny baby, all were dead. We extracted the old man - his hand was almost severed – and the child and together with the injured woman, placed them on stretchers in the ambulance. A man then approached us. He was calmly walking with a huge piece of shrapnel sticking out of his shoulder. He too got on board and off we drove to find a hospital. Because I had done a fair bit of driving whilst in the USA, I took the wheel. We eventually found a hospital and took the injured inside. The old man, with his hand hanging off, tried to give me the Hindu prayer like salutation, he was so grateful. The woman was incapable of even moving. Someone took charge of the infant and the man wounded by the shrapnel simply said “Thank you” in English. I often wondered if the baby was ever reunited with its family. We returned the ambulance to the depot, in the exact spot where we had found it, and heard no more about the incident.