The CBI From A to Z- October 2010

By Robb Edmonds

You think you had it rough coming home from the Land of Enchantment? No, not New Mexico. CBI. It was during the "worst Atlantic storm in many years", experienced by several New York bound troop ships, but this one is about the USS General Brooke out of Calcutta during the Christmas holidays, 1945.

Bob Babinec, Hoffman Estates, IL, tells us:

"We bobbed like a cork. The screws (propellers) came out of the water and vibrated the whole ship...

"The bow had taken such a pounding from the waves that it tore open the left side from the top down to below the water line. About even with the anchor.

"Those of us in the forward area were asked to go back into the other compartments so they could start closing the forward bulkhead doors.

"All I kept thinking was that I survived the whole damn Burma campaign and here I was about to get lost at sea. I'm sure we all had a 'laundry problem' that night".

Me thinks I would have had one too, but I'd call it a hemorrhage...with no blood.

New Market, listed in Calcutta Yellow Pages as Hogg Market, was about a city block in area with a roof over the inside stalls that had almost everything you could think of. Animals to safety pins.

The only things I remember buying were a kukri (Gurkha knife) and a 5-cell flashlight.

At Sialdah Station, waiting for the train to take us back to camp, a security guard asked if he could inspect my "torch". I was momentarily distracted and he walked away with it.

I figured, "So much for that".

Soon I saw flashes of light bouncing off of the overhead girders above the boarding platform and the man came running back. The flashlight was "on" and pointed upward.

Before I could ask where he had been, he explained he wanted to show my prize to the train's engineer.

In my mind's eye I can still see that beam of light hitting the girders as he ran back to where I waited. Anxiously.

Coming home from China across the Pacific we experienced high seas kicked up by a typhoon farther south, so I can envision the action of this tale told to me by Navy vet friend, Jim Terra.

He watched the following incident from across the dining table in Enlisted Men's Mess.

Because rough seas were more common than calm ones, the men stood at tables which were higher and had a two inch lip bordering them to keep trays and dishes from sliding off onto the deck.

For clarity we shall label the players and props as Man #1 with tray #1 and Man #2 with tray #2

Each man is holding his dinner in place with his left hand as #2 feeds himself with his free right hand...Man #1 is standing with head bowed and eyes closed.

A particularly high swell caused the ship to list sharply to starboard. #1's eyes snapped open and both men instinctively let go of their tray and grabbed the table for support as the strays slid downhill.

#1 tray slid one width and was stopped by the lip at the end of the table, while tray #2 was stopped by tray #1 in front of Man #1 (still with me?)

Man #1 yelled "Ralph!" (Bwaaawf!!)

The ship now rolled violently to port and both trays traveled to their original positions. Man #2 watched all of this tableau unfold, looked down, wide-eyed at his spoiled dinner. Very briefly. He then quickly left the area leaving both trays to glide back and forth.

"What should I do if I get seasick?"

"Don't worry. You'll do it."

Before the Leland Stanford left the pier at Newport News, VA, May 2, 1944, I knew I'd be under the influence of mal d'mer, which is French for "You can't take it with you."

Sure enough, three days out, everything but the elevator came up and I repaired to my bunk, to rise now and again to "you know".

The fourth day I was so weak in the gonads that I decided I'd go to lunch to at least have my stomach something to reject, to put it gently.

It didn't and I felt perfectly normal- well, normal for me anyway- the rest of the journey to Bombay.

Coming home on the USS General Hugh L. Grant, zounds! The scenario was repeated. I missed numerous meals, again ate a hearty dinner and was top-drawer the rest of the way to Seattle.

"The moon will be up in a few minutes, Sir."

"Oh, Gawd! Does that have to come up, too?"

At Armed Forces Radio, XJOY, Chengtu, where I was a talker and record player, in addition to 78 RPM V-Discs, we aired 15, 30 and 60 minute programs on 15 inch "platters". They were sent to CBI stations in rotation and we were at the end of the line, so we kept them.

Came time to close down the station and go home, the stack had grown to maybe 24 inches. It would have been OK to take some home if it was possible, but we didn't have a record player with a long tone arm.

Station Manager Noel J. Schram had us take the stack to the creek bed at the edge of the station acreage. We restacked them and an incendiary grenade was placed on the center, the pin was pulled and, in a glorious display, it melted to the ground, making one large lump.

When it had cooled enough it was kicked down into the creek bed, where it maybe remains to this day, a tourist attraction, with a prize for Chinese visitors to guess what that black object is.

Maybe a cash prize for the correct answer.

Readers of this essay are not eligible.

Calcutta. Evening rush hour. (Yes, they have one. Lasts from dawn to dusk). The "safety zone" in the street for passengers to board and leave the trams had a vendor that walked along the windows with a tray of trinkets and what looked like pencil boxes, one of which he held aloft and shouted, "Doh anna, doh anna, doh anna" (4 cents)

It sounded to me like he was saying, "Don' wan'na, don' wan'na. don' wan'na. "(Don't want to")

It's strange how insignificant memories such as that surface unbidden at this late date, isn't it?

"It's just a little something I had run up by Pasha the Tent Maker". Near the village of Fleures, South of Oran, Algeria, on our way to CBI, a local citizen walked along the "company street" in our tent area dressed in the latest fashion. He was dressed in a GI mattress cover in which he had cut three holes, one for his head to protrude and one each for his arms. A sash of formerly bright colors gave his ensemble shape and precluded it dragging in the dust. Not that it would have mattered. He probably thought our smiles denoted friendship and he returned our grins.

I guess he was right.

In some secluded eating spot that overlooks the parking lot, do you ignore the glass of water proffered? In times of drought on the Sub Continent (India/Bangladesh/Pakistan to some) trains passing through worst-hit areas have to enlist the help of reserve police escorts because thirsty villagers hold them up to get water from the engines. (Can't blame them can we?) In one incident, the train was mobbed and the engineer was forced to empty the tank.

Next time say "Thank you" to the nice Server and drink the "Adam's Ale", whether or not.

Funny at the time, but---

We were in our sleeping quarters, off duty and talking of thissa and thatta til time to go to chow.

Woody Paige suddenly got up and hurried out the door. We watched him through a rear window, dashing for the rest-hole-in-the-ground-with-a-seat room.

He stopped short, then continued, slowly, with feet about 12 inches apart.

We realized what had happened.

Funny 'zell.

Not the least bit humorous when the Lieutenant saw him a short time later, helped him into the jeep and rushed him to the base dispensary, from where Woody was transferred to the hospital in Chengtu with a serious case of amoebic dysentery.

I hadn't remembered his hospital stay and when we met at a CBIVA reunion for the first time since 1944, he told me the follow up and I begged forgiveness.

A feather merchant, as Snuffy Smiff (Barney Google comic strip) would label him, stopped me- or, rather, I made the mistake of stopping- to pitch a "genuine" ruby. To prove it wasn't a tail light lens from a jeep, he took two copper coins from somewhere, placed the gem between them and carefully placed them in pavement (Brit for sidewalk). He stomped on them as hard as he could with the heel of his shoe. Then he retrieved the demo, showed that the ruby was intact and each of the coins had a small dent. One, the gem was truly genuine; two, with a bit of sleight of hand, a chunk of tail light lens could have been substituted if I made a purchase; and three, the coins had already been dented. He didn't show them to me pre-demo and I didn't know what he was going to do, so I didn't ask to inspect them. I remembered, "Never buy anything on the street from a guy that's out of breath". He wasn't breathless but I wasn't in the market for gems, either. I told him that, as a soldier I had to risk my life in battle for a meager salary. That was a damn lie. "Meager salary", no, by India income standards, but I was in the backwater in the Signal Corps. Don't fib to a fibber, Banerji.

Hold 'er Fong, she's headed for the rhubarb! Three coolies had reached the apex pulling a flat bed cart with truck wheels and tires and piled high with huge, heavy cast iron kettles and pots. One man was between the shafts pulling and steering while the other two, one each to the sides, had ropes fastened to the middle and the other end with a loop over their shoulder. Forward they leaned into it, slowing, holding back or stopping, they leaned back and dug their heels in- or on. In our slice of life picture, as the cart and load started down slope, one of the aide's ropes broke, landing him on his hip pockets in the street. The lash up picked up momentum and helper number two found himself dragging along on his stomach, negating any assist to the guy between the shafts. At the bottom there was a T intersection, the cart crashed into a shop, and the load broke loose, causing a great noise. The lead coolie was injured, the crowd of onlookers laughed long and loud but didn't help or even check on him. Coolie #1 now arrived with Coolie #2 to begin reloading the precious cargo, stopping occasionally to talk with their injured companion.

Just another of the thousands of stories in an ancient land half a world away and in another lifetime (ours).

Oran, Algeria, North Africa (Unknown Zip Code) was my first foreign city and country- aside from Ensenada, Mexico and Victoria, Canada- so everything was new and interesting. Particularly the populace, who seemed to look upon this string bean with curiosity. Maybe disbelief. I didn't ask. At our tent city, south of the big city, an elderly citizen on a small donkey came through the campsite and we stopped him to have a photo taken. We doubted he got paid much for sitting on his ass, so we gave him a gratuity. Probably a month's income otherwise. What did we know about rates of exchange?

At Feng Whan Shan we were quartered in tents near the fence along the road to Chengtu. We were awakened every morning at first light by the gawdawful screech of dry wooden axles of wheelbarrows rotating in the equally dry frame. Even worse when a squealing hog, tied with its feet in the air, was on the way to market in the city.

"Why don't they grease those axles?" we asked over and over.

Then we learned the answer.

The Chinese say the cacophony keeps demons away.

And GI's awake.

There seems to be a touch of minor controversy over the pronunciation of "basha", that popular WWII British vocalist, Vera Lynn, is quoted as saying "basher". Many Brits add an "R" when some words end in a vowel. (Remove it and you have a vowel movement, Sorry. No, I'm not)...Hence, we heard "Chiner", "Burmer", etc.

I leave out letters and folks wonder what I'm talking about.

Three of us were befriended by Lance Corporal J.T. "Blondie" Ashford and we were invited to the rec room at the air strip at Tulihal, Assam. One of their blokes of the BWAFF (British West African Frontier Force) had a habit of interjecting "funny enough" every couple of sentences. In telling of an incident "back home" he said, "My mother died, funny enough, and ----"

One remembers gaffes like that. Yes one does.

In October 1942 it was determined that the U.S. shipbuilding program was alone larger than all of the rest of the world's yards combined and was still growing.

And that didn't include toy boats in American bathtubs.

Remember Jack Benny's Maxwell on radio? Mel Blanc created the sound of the gasping ancient engine with his voice and his mouth and always got a laugh and a big hand from the studio audience.

I was waiting on a street corner to cross in Chengtu when a charcoal burning elderly sedan clanked, wheezed and rattled past, briefly igniting memories of happier days back home.

I doubt he is still extant or a visitor to this site, but no slur is intended, atanyrate.

Between my duties as telephone and switchboard installer-repairman, as installation had been done by my predecessor, both needed little or no attention. So I pulled a shift on our board on our side of the runway.

The Canadian counterpart was code named Kensington. One operator had a higher voice and (silly me) assumed it belonged to a feminine WREN.

During one visit to their facility I heard the familiar contralto "Kensington, here", and I looked in the door to see a gent in the neighborhood of 200 pounds, a tribute to Canadian chow.

God knows how he pictured me as I answered between mud caked tonsils when I acknowledged a call on our board.

They also had an Indian operator on the midnight shift and, when we couldn't understand him and asked for a repeat, about the third request, he'd get peeved and pull the plug,

Then we'd have to start all over again.

Many Indian Men About Town, or Sidewalk Stompers, wear a dhoti, which resembles a midi skirt. Others wrap the lengthy cloth around their waist, then with the final three feet or so, gather it together, throw or pass it through their legs, front to back, and with the other hand, tuck the surplus into the waistband area. Without the band.

Just you try that sometime. Good luck.

The result is a drape shape (but not with a reet pleat) below the knees with a low slung crotchal area.

No pockets, but one can't have everything, especially when many of them have nothing to store in them in the first place.

CBI Q's & A's

Do you known what "lypholized" means?

It's (dried) snake venom. Fret naught. The Health Ministry in Delhi has adopted a policy decision not to permit export. (Not even for fun and profit?)

I seem to have painted myself into a corner here. Not sure "what's the point". In a back issue of our Roundup is a photo by Frank Bond of a street corner in downtown Calcutta with a three story high billboard touting "Smoke Passing Show and enjoy good health". There's room for a Surgeon General's warning, but that would negate the message. And maybe the Surgeon General himself, if any.