That winsome little face!
“Who are you?”
I looked up from my tea cup to see a young girl standing in front of me, beside the table I was sitting at in the Big River gas station coffee shop.
“I’m Tom,” I told her, and whoooosh …. I was suddenly transported back to another time, to a place far away.
April 14, 1944, Bombay Harbour, India, in Alexandra Dock, a tidal harbour. We were having early lunch, prior to moving ship at noon; our ship was to lock out into the harbour proper by 1 p.m. to catch sufficient water depth on the lock sill.
We were just finishing lunch when the dock fire alarm started, in the days of hand-loading of ships a fairly common occurrence, but quickly and efficiently handled. The fire engine drew up alongside the Fort Stikine directly across the dock from us – she had a light plume of smoke rising from her No. 2 hold, but everyone aboard seemed to be handling the situation. She didn’t even fly the “Red Square,” a fire warning flag for ships carrying dangerous cargo.
The lock area was surrounded by large, shady trees, and amongst the trees stood a terrace of houses, probably occupied by dock officials. Taking their breeze from the large Bombay harbour, they must have been in tremendous contrast to their hot, dusty, and noisy surroundings.
One house, closest to our ship, had a small white picket fence; inside the fence stood a very, very young sari-clad little girl, attended by an Indian nurse. This child possessed the often achingly beautiful features of the Parsee, or Anglo-Indian. Little more than perhaps 1.5 years old, she’d obviously grown used to the procession of ships and was able to “work” them for every smile going. It was a poignant moment, greatly affecting, particularly to those who may not have seen their own families for two or three years. Anyway, she worked each ship from bow to stern as it slowly locked through.
Clearing the lock, we moved down-harbour about a quarter-mile, and anchored to wait our turn to go alongside Ballard Pier to embark Indian troops for the Burma front.
I was taking a walk around the foredeck with our Trooping Adjutant, Captain Soames, when we noticed that the fire in the dock was still there and appearing much worse. While watching it, Capt. Soames, who knew his explosives, said “Get down, quick!” and we huddled under an adjacent gun mounting. He’d seen the flames turn a yellow-brown colour and, almost immediately, there was a large gush of very hot air and the whole area was rained on by small debris mixed with specks of blood and flesh. This was followed by a cloud of acrid black smoke, which literally turned day into night and persisted for many hours.
About an hour later, there was another gigantic explosion and, shortly afterwards, the smoke temporarily thinned to allow a glimpse of fires throughout much of the dock system.
Manning the radio room, we found that all anchored ships were to stay put and embarkation at Ballard Pier cancelled until further notice … this before the widespread availability of radar.
Being an Indian trooper, I remember the officers’ steward, Sebastian, doggedly bringing the tray to my cabin and also to the adjoining radio room for the operators on duty; Sebastian was wearing his gas mask instead of gasping in short breaths like the rest of us. I wondered, “Why the hell didn’t I think of that?” After tea we tried it, but found it very uncomfortable and over the next few hours used our masks sporadically.
There were occasional small explosions throughout the night, which we later found were deliberate and controlled by many engineers, the water system being almost obliterated and fires in this hot, dry climate out of control. They averted further catastrophe by creating stop-gaps at critical points to contain the fires.
I remember going on watch at 4 a.m. the next morning … a bright, sparkling morning with smoke abated. I then looked toward the dock area, still smoking with the utter destruction.
It was then that I thought of the little girl and looked towards that area.
The trees were gone, houses gone, lock gates gone and the remains of ships in haphazard positions sitting on the dock bottom, drained of water.
I could only pray that it was swift for her … but I still see, and always will, that winsome little face.
By Thomas W. Robinson, September 1995, Big River, Saskatchewan.
War at work. Lest we forget!