To say Christmas Island was a special occasion in my life, would be a masterly understatement.
I’m ashamed to say it swum past me, like everything had done in life previously.
It’s important to put Great Britain in 1958, into perspective. So far as I was concerned life was normal without widespread car ownership. Fridges were only normal amongst the wealthy & used in commerce. Money amongst my circle was in short supply. Domestic central heating, air conditioning, double-glazing & foreign holidays were a rarity or unknown. Rock & roll had begun but America was only experienced via the cinema screens.
Christmas Island was to be used as a bomb test base because it was set in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It was 2 degrees north of the equator, 1160 miles south of Honolulu. It was a long way from anywhere! My first posting to Lincolnshire was the edge of light, as far as I was concerned. Looking at this speck of an island on a globe, it was dawning on me I had to go across America to get there. This was going to be a BIG adventure.
I think I went out in May 1958 & came back Feb 1959. How & where we got our tropical kit, I can’t remember but I do recall that we were not allowed to wear it until we got into America. (Only recently my friend Tom, from the island, reminded me the clothes issue was Gloucester).
In today’s world of non-stop flights, it’s hard to realise that things then, were in halts & stopovers. All passenger aircraft were piston engined and you walked out across the tarmac to any aircraft.
I think we flew out of Gatwick by BOAC. The first stop was New York's JFK. In 1958 it was called Idlewild airport. The sign on the terminal was "New York International Airport".
I remember sending a card home with the words “I made it” written on there & nothing else.
We were in the centre of New York in the Governor Clinton Hotel. 7th Ave at 31st street, near Pennsylvania Station & Times Square. As I smoked Peter Stuyvesant cigarettes (wanted to be sophisticated, didn’t I!) and as he was last Dutch governor of New Amsterdam before it became New York, I thought they would stock them here. Nope! They'd never heard of them. I made sure I bought myself my first Zippo lighter (15), a real design icon, all cigarettes lit on the screen in all war films by a "yank", were by Zippos! It was a must have purchase for a young English airman who thought he was now a world wide traveller.
I wandered around Times Square and went up the Empire State building. There was great debate about whether we should go up the Radio City Skyscraper to see the Empire state building, or do the world famous building itself … it won. Because we was in uniform, whilst in Times Square, we were chosen to get free tickets to the pilot of a quiz show, hosted by the actor who voiced the cartoon character, Mr. Magoo, Jim Backus. (16) This was like living in a movie! I’d seen these places in New York thousands of times on film. This guy that stood in front of me, had been in “Rebel without a cause” with James Dean for crying out loud!
To give an idea of air travel in 1958, the aircraft had to refuel in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I swear there where red Indians (better known as Native Americans now), walking around the terminal. Why did I think they were only in films? Did I believe they were only to be found on reservations or something like that? To illustrate how naive & ignorant I was, I thought about walking into town! I had no idea how far airports were from the town centres (& I worked on airfield, for crying out loud). I had never seen big glass sliding doors that opened automatically by electronics. I was surprised at the blast of heat on the outside. Tulsa is in the desert and I was blissfully unaware of the need for air conditioning. I had no idea it was working in the background!We flew to San Francisco, flying over the fabulous Grand Canyon. I took a wonderful photograph but of course, during the years, it was lost. There was going to be another overnight stop. Our hotel was the International Inn by the airport. A couple of the guys went into town to see Muggsy Spanier at a jazz club. (17) Being me, I was running out of money! Those of us that were getting broke wandered into the bar. It looked the height of sophistication! All glass top, with a channel of crushed ice to put the upturned glasses in. Concealed lighting and a barman who had been to the edge of the world & looked over! I had my first Tom Collins cocktail. It was a classy, long and cold drink with a gin base. I sat with my Yankee fags, my Zippo & watched America, alive before my eyes. A couple of men at the bar, were playing a dice game of some sort. One of them said, “I’ll play you for the ladies next drink”. How cool, suave & sophisticated was that! Surely he was loaded? He could buy women drinks and not worry if he had enough money in his pocket! He won and they left together.
It was later, that someone had to explain to this stupid kid from Moss Side, she was a hooker!
I got another lesson in the ways of America. I think I was in ‘Frisco airport and a friend and I were trying to figure out how to get a snack. I wanted a real American meal! A man must have overheard us talking and he offered to help us get some food that typically represented the U.S. of A.! He simply ordered us a hamburger & a Coke. The look of panic, as the waitress approached with French fries, salad and the biggest goddamn hamburger I had ever seen, plus a bucket of coke, must have shown all over my innocent face. I hadn’t ordered that! I said a hamburger & Coke. In England when you ordered a ham sandwich, you got a thin slice of ham, two pieces of white bread & that was it. Then the man told us, he was going to pay for the meal, as he'd served in the forces and been posted to England. Now in England, a man trying to buy you a meal meant he was grooming you for unknown sexual thingies! In America, it was purely a sign of hospitality.
It turned out to be Bill Holman, the world famous cartoonist. (18) He drew Smokey Stover for the Chicago Tribune. (No, I had no idea who Bill was either!) The conversation must have been novel to Bill.
“Hi, I’m Bill Holman”
Blank looks from two dumb kids!
“I’m the creator of Smokey Stover”
Blank looks continue!
“Right Bill, very nice.”
Now they are looking embarrassed and perplexed.
“You guys have never heard of Smokey Stover, right?”
This man is truly famous!
USA bombers were painted with Smokey; he was probably second only to Mickey Mouse! True to the American tradition, this really nice guy signed a postcard for us & picked up the tab.
He was returning after a three months holiday in Hawaii. THREE MONTHS! ... HAWAII!!!!!
Next day it was on to Honolulu in Hawaii for us too! As it was just a transfer stop, I actually saw very little. It just looked like any other airport, only with palm trees & blue sky. The trip across the Pacific Ocean, to Hawaii was uneventful but showed what hundreds of miles of ocean looked like, just blue, waves & cloud shadows. No islands ever came up, just an odd boat could be made out but it was just miles & miles of miles & miles of ocean!
We had left Great Britain & travelled well with BOAC, then Pan-Am a little more casually. It changed to shipping troops by Tiger Airlines & finally we left Honolulu by R.A.F Hastings. There was another 1160 miles of flying, to get to Christmas Island! At least we saw islands in the middle of nowhere this time.
“The Island” is a 25-mile long atoll that was ten foot at its highest point. Shaped like the claw of a crab, it was found by Capt. Cook in 1777. It has loads of flat scrub, palm trees, frigate birds, terns and thousands of crabs! As it was always breezy, the sun was deadly. No matter how hard you tried, you got burnt some where on your body. Of course, as soon as we arrived we got to know how dangerous it was. “Anyone getting sun burnt will be charged with self-inflicted injury” That’s the way of the forces. Tell ’em, threaten ‘em & charge them with negligence if they get ill. Of course, that way, no one tells them & they claim it works!
We were going to join “Operation Grapple”. To see how big a bang we could make. About 4000 young men, including some of the Fijian army, and two WVS women (Women’s Voluntary Service) to help us!
The WVS women were a huge joke in the beginning. The older guys asked us “Do you want to go down to see the women?” Women? We were told there were no women on Christmas Island! A huge fuss was made about it all. Instructions on what to ask for, usually the chess set. (“Shows we’re intelligent!”) Told not to stare & get the lads chances of pulling a woman reduced. “We are up against 4000 blokes & officers, with money, on here, mate! We have to be cool & canny to pull these birds!” I fell for it, hook line & sinker! There they were, two lovely ladies, at least my mother’s age, trying to help a huge collection of sex-starved men. What a great job they did. God knows what they had to put up with!
It wasn’t long before I was asking the Moonies, “Do you want to go down to see the women?”
We were allocated a tent, usually six in each one. An iron bed & mattress, a wardrobe & a side locker. It didn’t take long to realize you needed to find a box to put on top of the locker for the rest of your stuff.It was a bit of a shock. Everyone who had been there sometime, were nut brown. Keeping covered & not burning was a real problem. No matter how hard I tried I suffered. The one place I got badly burnt was under the chin, in the V above the breastbone. We only had coconut oil for protection and of course that made you fry. Sun cream with factor levels wasn’t know then. We were stupid & wanted to get brown as soon as we could, so we wouldn’t look like a milk white new boy (Moonies)!
There was the problem of integrating too. Moonies were intruders on the men already there; their only interest was getting off the island. A bomb had gone of the previous month and there was a little bit of a hiatus. So we were sent to weed a runway with some of the old hands. At a guess, I would say that the runway was about 10 miles from ground zero! (Good idea, keep you busy but its hardly out of the sun and not a long way from the contamination!) Anyone trying to be too ingratiating was soon shown the nasty side of some bodies tongue. For once I did the right thing, got my head down, sat away from them & did my work. Slowly, as time went on, we were pulled into the fold!
I settled into the shift work in the tower easily. It was relaxed enough, no bull, reasonable officers and glorious weather. The Control tower was a sturdy box on stilts. It was the highest point on the island. Nothing fancy, all we needed & not a lot extra. I developed a taste for Camp coffee, with sugar & Onycony. (Condensed milk). In the evenings, in glorious weather & with little to do, we would wait for the mail plane to come in. Scanning the horizon with the “bins” looking for the first sight of the Hastings, lumbering its way across the evening sky.
KULA radio from Hawaii would be allowed. It was pure American music and daylong. It was Kula that told us of the death of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J. P. Richardson aka “The Big Bopper”, in an air crash. Although I was getting into jazz, Sinatra & Ella, there was a real feeling of sadness amongst us all, that these young Rock n Rollers had died together. The other difference I learnt, from Kula, was about the BBC funnily enough! Before I left for home, there was a silly song, played on Kula. It based on the joke about the guy passing a large car and shouting “How do I get it out of second gear?” Called the Beep Beep song, its opening words were.
While riding in my Cadillac, much to my surprise,
A little Nash Rambler was following me, about one-third my size.
The guy must have wanted to pass me out
As he kept on tooting his horn (beep beep).
I'll show him that a Cadillac is not a car to scorn.
When I got back to England, they had changed the words! The BBC can’t advertise, so Cadillac was changed to Limousine and the Nash rambler became bubble car.
While we would watch spectacular sunsets and get deep brown, we wished away the days, so we could go home! “Days to do … less than you!” 19 years old & no women! No idea that this lovely place was interesting, just sat there wishing my life away.
The two main distractions were the open-air cinema and snorkelling off the beach.
Being an audience of males 99% at the time, there were always crude remarks ringing out. My favourite was always when the heroine lay dying in someone’s arms and the cry went up “Go on, ‘ave ‘er while she’s still warm!” There was a time when the screen got ripped as some mad soul ran into it and the place was closed for a week. I wish I could remember that! It’s amazing I had forgotten, as I lived at the damn place.
The cinema was sparse, crude & worked! At 7:20 we queued up in the fading daylight & at 7:30 it was dark! Cries of “Lights” and “Focus” went up the instant the operator wasn’t quick enough. The cries would resound every night, for sure. As the titles came up for the Tom & Jerry cartoon, the producers name would always be Fred Quimby. The audience always called out “Good old Fred!” for some strange reason! It was a strange place, watching pictures on a tropical island in a cinema with no roof! It was years later I read on IMDB the following about Fred, “When he was head of the animation department. They felt he was a useless bore who had no love or talent in the medium but still fought with the artists continually over their creative ideas. The fact that he always took the credit for the awards won for the cartoons was especially galling.” … Good old Fred!As a person who never was a good swimmer, I adored the reef and its magical display of fish & coral. It was shallow, safe & stunning. Given a chance, we would grab a mask & snorkel & head down to the beach near the campsite. There was a lifeguard; it was never much deeper than waist high and teemed with marine life. There was a deeper gully that ran in the centre that was considered dangerous at times; of course it was where you found the bigger fish. Even in Egypt, I never found better waters. Maybe I was young, maybe it was my first experience, but the memory of that warm shallow sunlit water will stay with me for life. The main difference nowadays would be, we were young and there was no thought of ecological damage, we felt more like hunters. There were a couple of handheld harpoon guns amongst the lads. We shot at fish & killed any moray eels we found. I saw a couple of sharks. On one occasion a Fijian used a metal stave to try & kill it when it swam in shore. He hit it in mid body and the shark swam off, wounded by this crude spear. It all sounds so cruel & unnecessary now, but then it was quite normal. To really see the fish, it was best to hold yourself in one place & let them accept this thing floating amongst them. I can remember one time sitting there for ages, the fish tapping on the facemask or nibbling a toe. Then they scattered in an instant! I saw a little of the dark shape of the shark but in seconds, I was showing that a 19-year-old airman could run on top of water! Sharks & really big fish were exceptional. The density of the small fish, the colours of the coral & plant life are hard to describe. It was nature at its normal & very best. Puffer fish were a great find. Once cornered, they would blow themselves up in self-defence. Of course this made a football! I’ve seen many of them kicked up & down that seashore.
There was an occasion later on by the airfield, where we were not meant to swim, as there was no lifeguard present. A few of us, fancied a dip so we wandered off towards the reef. Christmas Island had no height to the island at all; you stood, on the edge of the beach, only a couple of feet above the waves. I thought I saw a large triangular patch of dark brown coral. As I walked towards it, I never seemed to be getting there. I tried to see that I was looking at but my mind must have taken some time to work out, that this huge area of “brownie green” was a manta ray, swimming in the shallow waters. I still have no idea of its real size but a close guess would be 15 feet from corner to corner. If it saw me, it must have decided I wasn’t worth knowing! It just slowly “flew” across the coral & disappeared over the reef. I know that Ray, my best mate, had a smaller manta swim quite close to him, as he wandered in the shallow water up near the hospital.
I can only remember one rescue off the beach by helicopter. The orange Whirlwind helicopter hovered over him & he got back safely. Of course rumours spread like wild fire, it was supposed to be a flight sergeant who was trying to work his ticket off the Island, by drinking rum & Dettol. If he were, that would make you think you could swim all the way home!) Once you had swum out, the breakers must have stopped him swimming back. Plus the danger of cutting yourself to bits must have been high too. That coral could do a person some real damage, very easily & quickly. There were two rows of rusted machinery that were the remains of trucks pushed into the sea, by the Americans. (It was supposed to have happened after WW2). The shape of the chassis and wheels were still there. The sea was eating them alive & the fish were living amongst them. Given a few years, they will be indistinguishable from the coral itself.
We smoked ourselves to death with Senior Service cigarettes at 2/6d (twelve and a half pence) for 50. I can remember lying in my “pit” and watching the fags come flying across the tent as we “crashed the ash”. I’ve seen two or more guys doing it together and cigarettes were coming from every direction. Before going down to the Naafi for more, you’d look under the bed & sure enough there was also a few odd cigarettes lying around.
I am ashamed to say; I remember so few names from the island. John Bender, who played the guitar quite well. Tom Kelly, who I recognized after seeing him on another Christmas Island website. Tom lives in Dorset now & knowing that Johnny Bender is alive and well on the south coast, kindly put us all in contact again. He was able to remind me about some concrete steps we built by the control tower. We even put our names on a plaque to note this momentous act! He reminded me of some of the other names like a huge tall guy called Nick Millhouse, Carl Bielby and Howard Cayzer. I think Nick was the one who wanted to teach. John sent me two memories that came back "I remember" he has emailed "that we had some other signs outside our tent. One said that we were the Christmas Island Branch of the British Communist Party (that went down like a lead balloon with the authorities!!) and another was a grave stone in memory of the "January Airlift" home that was cancelled. Do you remember the night that we saw "The Vikings" in the cinema and how it started raining when the woman was praying to Odin for a storm? Since then every time there was any rain we all shouted "Bog off, Odin!!" or word to that effect. The only bit I don't remember was the communist sign ... on the other hand I am 70! I can’t remember the tent number but two other signs, one said “21st Ancoats Foot & Mouth” and the other, “Post early for Easter”. It looked a bit tatty & ragged, especially after a heavy rainstorm. It didn’t happen often but when it came, it was well hard! There were always a few cats & dogs hanging around, they looked after themselves and were a bit moth eaten.My only real mate was Ray Atkinson (on the right), a guy from off Fulham High St in Chelsea. He was a general trades airman. (That meant you were in the R.A.F. and expected to do anything!) When he was allocated to our tent, the usual hostilities started! “He’s not in ATC.” “We don’t need strangers in our tent” I hated that! What choice Ray had, in where he was billeted, was nil. A genial, quiet guy, we got on like a house on fire. After a little while, Ray moved out into D15, the tent allocated to his section. We met virtually every night to go to the cinema, WVS or the church club. Neither of us was really a drinking man, but he did remind me of the time I got drunk on Cherry Brandy. (How sad is that?). We laughed at the same things, spent too much time at the cinema & snorkelling. I think I even took him down to the Naafi to see the women!
There was a small officer, who was very relaxed. He asked me to go sailing on the lagoon, one afternoon, in a small boat that was available. I soon learnt that all you did was get very wet & the rope cut the palm of your hands! I was never born to be a sailor!
We certainly agreed the food was boring & dull. I am sure you could have had rubber chicken & pineapple at every meal. There were neither real eggs nor fresh milk. I think the cooks had nothing to work with. If the officers did better, I never heard about it. They made sure we took our salt pills, after all, this is very near the equator & you lost a lot of salt as it evaporated off the skin.
If you ever got out in the “bunda”, away from the campsite, you found the palm trees were surrounded by thousands of red crabs, and the air was full of terns. Nesting in the low scrub were the big frigate birds. All black & white, with a huge red crop at their throats that they used to inflate to either scare us off or attract other birds. As there were plenty of them, it must have worked. Coconuts abounded, there were always stakes in the ground, used to rip off the husks around the nut itself. A nice sweet refreshing drink it was too. On Christmas day, we took a truck out to Poland village at the west point of the atoll. All corned beef sandwiches & tinned fruit. At least it was a different Christmas for us. All the villages on the island, (London, Paris, Poland etc), were named by a French, ex-Catholic priest called Father Emmanuel Rougier, who ran the coconut plantations after December 1913.
I learnt to drive the ATC Land Rover. Of course it was all very casual. No test to pass, just someone in authority saying it was OK. With hindsight, I do know that the RAF would have hung me out to dry if I had had an accident or killed someone. They were very reasonable on the Island; they were all pretty laid back and just wanting to get on with the job. If it was convenient to the RAF, then a blind eye was turned. If it came down to it, someone would have to swing for it, and lowly senior aircraftmen would always be on the menu. We were all young; I loved driving and never gave it a thought. During one of the bomb runs, I was chosen to stay behind in the tower with the officer. Every one else was taken from the airfield & were to be called back if all was safe. I was so proud; he must have thought I was the smartest on my watch to accept such responsibility. It was only later on; I found out, I was chosen because I could drive the Land Rover! I even remember giving Ray driving lessons! This from a guy who had just learnt to drive & was probably the most hopeless driving instructor the R.A.F. ever had. As we had free use of the Land Rover, why we didn’t get out & see more? I’ve no idea!We built a urinal by the tower. Well, it was a piece of guttering with a down pipe into the coral! The rule said it had to drain 6’ below the surface and it had to be inspected. Of course, Christmas Island was solid coral and we hit water after a few feet. “How deep is it?” asked the inspecting officer. Someone pointed at me & said, “I’m not sure, Sir, but we lost him in it!” It was passed. Of course, it passed because everyone played the game.
This is a good Christmas Island site. Unfortunately, Its been years since it was updated.