By Samuel Bernard © 2017
1700 hours – Eleventh of May, Nineteen hundred and forty three
‘Passes chaps,’ the corporal asked assertively as he stood at the boom gate that separated civilian families who were waving farewell to their loved ones. I reached towards my breast pocket. My hand stammered like a Spitfire on its maiden flight. I tried my hardest to hide this and appear confident. I pulled my orders from my pocket, and without missing a beat, they fell ungraciously to my feet. As I leant down to pick up the papers, now sprawled across the ground, I bumped heads with another soldier.
“So sorry!” I exclaimed, furiously rubbing my head.
‘Oh not at all, just tryin’ to give you a hand. Seems I gave you my head as well,’ the young man chuckled. He extended his hand towards me. ‘I’m John Bates, but me mates call me Jono.’ This was the first chance I had to look at him without grimacing in pain. He was a handsome man; stood taller than me at about six foot. He wore the same uniform as me and a glance at his epaulettes, or lack thereof, revealed that we shared the same rank.
‘I’m Ronald… Ronald King,’ I replied and took his hand.
‘The Centaur, huh?’ he said as we turned to face the enormous ship that shadowed us. An overpowering image of the Red Cross and green paint lining the exterior made me feel small and insignificant. ‘No better place to help the war effort I say.’ There was something about Jono that calmed me. I wondered if this was also his first post after enlisting. He exhumed a great deal of confidence, and wasn’t shy about striking up a conversation either, which was something that I always had difficulty doing.
‘So you a country boy, Ronny?’ He turned to face me as he handed both of our passes across to the burly corporal manning the boom.
‘Barcaldine.’ There was a silence as the corporal opened the boom to allow us to enter. ‘It’s out near-’
‘I know where Barky is, mate. Longreach, born and bred.’ This put a smile on my face, and a warmth flowed over me like a hot Queensland summer sun. Longreach was a town that was only a half day’s drive from Barcaldine. A stone’s throw by Queensland standards. If you were awake at a sparrow’s fart, then you’d easily be having a bite in Longreach by lunch, with plenty of time to be back in Barky for dinner.
We threw our duffel bags over our shoulders, and started sifting through the crowds of personnel, who were scurrying about like ants before a thunder storm.
‘So who else is on this ship?’ I asked with a louder voice.
‘Mainly Australian Army Medical Corps like us, some nurses, the crew, and some brass hats. We can’t escape ‘em.’
We found a break in the crowd at the bridge. No one was boarding just yet, apart from the crew. Jono dropped his duffle bag and began rolling a cigarette.
‘Coffin nail?’ he asked, and handed me a cigarette. I politely accepted with a smile, even though I had never had one before. Jono started laughing as I studied it, trying to figure out which end to light.
‘Here mate.’ He grabbed it from my hand, shoved it in my mouth and lit it. I coughed and spluttered, and almost gagged. I was trying to stay somewhat in control, but Jono wasn’t buying it for a second. I looked back to see him in hysterics.
‘Ah, I like you Ronny. You can stick with me mate.’
I got the feeling that Jono thought I was just some dumb country kid. I’m not dumb, I just lacked life experience, I guess. I read a lot back home, and did very well at school before having to leave to help mum and dad more on the farm after dad fell ill. Nonetheless, Jono was someone that I was drawn to. He had an older brother nature about him that made me feel more at ease.
As Jono lit up his cigarette and I took another – more successful – puff of mine, a small group of nurses approached. There are moments in life when time seems to go in slow motion; this was one of those moments. My heart fluttered as they approached, looking every bit like angels in their white uniforms. They radiated such dignity, striding out with authority and confidence, though with a delicate and warming nature. I had never seen such beautiful women. Jono stood to salute in haste, and he slapped my arm to break me from my daze. I shot to my feet, dropping my cigarette and duffel bag to the ground in front of me. The nurse at the centre of the group saw this as she passed.
‘Easy, Private…,’ she smirked, while encouraging a response.
‘Yeah… ah, yes… yes ma’am. Private King, ma’am.’
The nurses continued to make their way up the stairs towards the bridge.
‘At ease, chaps’, another muttered, glancing over her shoulder. I stood in awe for a few seconds before Jono gave me a shove in the guts.
‘Don’t stare mate, particularly at that angle. That’s a great way to get chewed out by the brass hats!’
We laughed, and I scooped up my cigarette.
‘Come on, let’s go find a bunk close together,’ Jono suggested, and he gathered his belongings.
0945 hours – Twelfth of May, Nineteen hundred and forty three
The announcement from the executive officer came bounding through the corridors like a kangaroo as the crew echoed the message from the bridge. This was certainly a different environment from the barracks in Brisbane. Bunks as far as the eye could see. Soldiers were scrambling up and down the corridors, laughing, playing cards, smoking. Some were even taking inconspicuous sips from their flasks. My bunk was next to Jono’s; his rested directly against the bulkhead. He said he liked it because it kept him cool during the night. I didn’t mind at all, as it meant that I was sleeping adjacent to one of the main corridors. Something that I decidedly left out of my enlistment interview was that I can become quite claustrophobic at times, ever since my brother and I spent two days trapped in a cave near our family home as kids. Not having to scramble over others to get to the hallway made me feel considerably more at ease.
‘Alright Ron, I’m headed to the crapper! I’ll meet you at the mess in ten and we’ll grab some grub.’
Jono sprung to his feet and took off, disappearing into the mass of enlisted men gathered around a poker game. I began to wander up a separate corridor destined for the mess hall, though I struggled to separate one hallway from another. The ship was like a maze and every turn looked identical. I was more used to wide open bush and farmland. I noticed a pair of nurses approaching, and moved to stand at attention whilst they passed. Looking out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that it was the same nurse that I saw prior to our departure at Brisbane. She clearly recognised me from the same exchange.
“At ease, King,’ she smiled, as they both slowed down to speak with me. ‘What brings you down this way?’
‘Ah… I’m actually lost, ma’am. I was looking for the mess hall, but all of these corridors look the same.’
‘Well I can understand that, being new to the Centaur. And please stop calling me ma’am,’ she said after a short chuckle to her fellow nurse. She leant in closer, and continued, ‘You can call me Denise, but only when no one is around.’
She took a slight step backward having been startled by Jono’s energetic arrival. He leant straight across us and reached out his hand to Denise’s counterpart.
‘Jono! And you are?’
‘Private Jono, is it? And is this a regulation salute, soldier?’ she quipped without missing a beat.
‘Ahh, no ma’am. Sorry ma’am, I just thought, uh…’
He looked at me with a loss for words. This may be the first time I’d seen him lacking some witty comeback. He retreated to my shadow defeated. This gave me a renewed sense of confidence.
‘Sorry about my friend,’ I said. ‘He’s a bit rough around the edges.’
‘Rough like a nail perhaps,” Denise said. ‘No harm done. Betty and I do enjoy some banter. It makes the journey less of a bore.’
Our eyes met as we both hesitated. She smiled and turned back down the corridor.
‘Well, the mess hall is down that way. You’d better get a move on before some less sympathetic officers wander down this way.’
‘Ah yes,’ I said, following her directions with my eyes. ‘Well, thank you ma’a… Denise. It was a pleasure meeting you. Again.’
‘You too. Stay out of trouble, boys,’ she said with a wry smile, and they departed. As they drifted out of sight, Jono jumped on top of me laughing and riling me up.
‘Who was that back there?’
‘Didn’t you hear? Denise and Betty,’ I said with a grin as wide as the trunk of an old gum tree.
‘Not her, you galah. You! That’s the most I’ve ever heard you speak!’
‘I don’t know what came over me. Between you getting completely shut down and her smile, it’s like I was a totally different person.’
Jono smiled back at me as he fired a playful punch to my arm.
1501 hours – Twelfth of May, Nineteen hundred and forty three
‘Reporting for duty, ma’am.’
Denise’s eyes were wide with surprise, and she looked up and saw that I was standing before her at attention.
‘Twice in one day Private. Someone might think you were stalking me,’ she replied, while continuing to pack the shelves with bandages and small bottles of clear fluids, seemingly unfazed by my arrival.
I stayed silent knowing that while on duty, I had to be far more professional than our previous meeting.
‘I’m reassigning you for the day…’. As she reached for a box directly behind me, she whispered in my ear, ‘…as I don’t think I can concentrate with you around.’
I stood absolutely still at attention and tried, unsuccessfully, to conceal a grin. She was quickly back to packing the shelves.
‘You will be working in Ward 108b for this shift.’
‘Yes ma’am. I will report at once.’
I turned to walk out the same door I came through, but hesitated for a moment. I could feel her eyes on me, which was confirmed when she cleared her throat. I turned again to find her staring at me. I couldn’t believe what I was actually considering here. Something about Denise simply gave me confidence, belief in myself; it just felt right. She could see me struggling to get it out, but knew exactly what I was about to do, and was almost willing me to do it. Either that, or she was finding a great deal of entertainment in my struggle.
‘Something you need, King?’ she said with a smirk.
‘Would you like to have dinner after our shift tonight?’
‘A bold move, Private,’ she replied without hesitation, before leaving an uncomfortable pause, seemingly just to watch me sweat. ‘You know, Betty asked what I saw in you.’ A bead of sweat formed on my upper lip. ‘I explained to her what I thought it was. When I was twelve, my parents were worried about my little brother, who was the sweetest little boy imaginable. He would bake cookies for me when I was sick. He would give me a foot massage if I had a rough day; but he was very shy. He couldn’t make friends at school, and teachers would often comment that he struggled in social situations. He became my best friend. We would do everything together. We read books, we shot rabbits with dad, we explored the creek at the back of our property.’ She paused momentarily, but continued stacking the shelves before continuing. ‘He died when I was eighteen. I had moved to the city the month before. He was down at the creek and was bitten by a Red-Bellied Black. No one knew he was down there. I guess your manner and gentle nature reminds me of him. I love that.’ I released a steadying exhale as she looked up at me with a tear forming in her eye. ‘How about I meet you at the same place as this morning?’
‘Yes, ma’am. Twenty-three hundred hours?’ I asked softly.
‘Sounds good. Oh, and bring that mate of yours. For some reason, Betty quite liked him. That will be all, Private.’
I nodded with a smile and exited the room, not knowing at all where Ward 108b was.
2308 hours – Twelfth of May, Nineteen hundred and forty three
After my shift, I hurried back into the enlisted quarters to find Jono quietly reading a comic book in his bunk. Jono couldn’t believe his luck! He thought that Betty had torpedoed him at their last meeting. The man had got his confidence back, and was bouncing off the walls with elation as we put on a freshly pressed uniform.
‘I owe you one mate,’ he said. ‘You set me up with a nurse! There are only a dozen on board!’
‘Just don’t be yourself. Be someone else for the night,’ I sniggered. He responded with another punch in the arm.
‘Come on, we’d better get going.’
Denise had pulled some strings to get a private dinner for the four of us in the lower decks. I’m not too sure how she did it, but I have no doubt her flirtatious aptitudes convinced some of the crew in the galley. The table and chairs were in the most unromantic space imaginable. We had to remain inconspicuous. The smell of the neighbouring engine room was more overpowering than the delicious seafood that was destined for some higher ranked officers plate. Jono momentarily took on the role of the XO. He shuffled back in his seat, improved his posture and rose his chin before continuing in a sturdy, yet comedic over-the-top voice.
‘Where is my bloody fish? Tell that chef that if he doesn’t find my fish, he will be sunk! Hook, line and sinker!’
This left us all in a fit of laughter. Denise offered me a glance. I hadn’t had that look from a woman before. A slight bite of her lower lip, her head tilted at ten degrees, and eyes that saw straight through me; like she could read my every inappropriate thought. We laughed and drank for hours. It was surreal where I was, who I was with, and what we were doing. I had no idea that this would be on the cards for the first nights at sea.
As we began our careful retreat back to our quarters, Denise pulled me aside.
‘I bunk with three nurses, but they have all pulled duty tomorrow night,’ she said. Shall we say twenty two hundred in my quarters? Do you need me to draw you a map?’
A lump swelled up in my throat. I hadn’t been in that position before, but I sure as hell wasn’t about to turn around and say no.
‘Sounds perfect Denise. Don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll find my way this time.’
2157 hours – Thirteenth of May, Nineteen hundred and forty three
My cautious nature meant that I had to check the halls several times before slipping into the next doorway. Each movement was another shot of adrenaline through my veins. The walls were far more luxurious than in the enlisted bunks. Each hatch had a gold plaque next to it reading the officers names who shared those particular living quarters. The rust that inundated the walls and ceilings around the enlisted men’s bunks were replaced with coats of relatively fresh paint. The passageways were far more spacious; evidently the extra room was needed for all that extra brass who wandered these paths. The aroma was also different. The combination of diesel and sweat no longer filled the air; it was somewhat fresher. Every aspect of what I was doing was foreign to me. Never had I done anything so perilous. It was a far cry from the mischief we used to get up to on the farm, but this didn’t faze me, to be frank. In fact, I was more concerned about Denise than myself. Not only was I risking KP duty, or even worse punishment if caught in the officers’ quarters, but I was risking her commission for fraternising with an enlisted man. I had to be extremely cautious as a crept through to her living quarters.
I knocked gently. On a military ship that was keeled in the early twenties, a slight knock echoed through the corridors like a thunder storm. I shuffled forward into the door hatch in fear that some nosey officer would scour the halls for the origin of the noise. The hatch door swung open, and what I saw before my eyes was something that I will never forget. Denise stood at the entrance in a revealing negligée gown.
‘Good evening Private,’ she grinned, as her arms extended along the walls either side of the entrance.
‘Good… good evening, Denise.’
I recomposed my thoughts upon realising I was still standing in plain view of anyone wandering by.
‘I don’t mean to sound too eager, but I fear someone might spot me unless I come in.’
Denise raised one eyebrow, then turned to look over her shoulder. She hesitated for a moment. I couldn’t help but gaze down and notice that she had no underwear on beneath her gown; it was essentially see-through.
‘Eyes are up here, Private.’ She paused. ‘Do shut the door on your way in, won’t you.’
My mind was swelling, clouding any chance of a reasonable response, but I did as I was told. Her room was cramped. I’m not too sure why I expected anything different on such a small ship. I didn’t have a lot of time to look around before Denise, once again, stole my attention by crawling onto her bed on all fours. Her negligée now not quite reaching the length it did before. She paused, as if just to give me a glimpse of what lay ahead, before settling on her mattress.
‘So tell me Private, was this the night you had in mind for us?’ she said.
‘To be honest, I had no intentions other than to spend as much time with you as I possibly could.’
She appeared thrown by this admission. A small stutter was followed by an upright finger indicating for me to approach her. She shuffled to the end of the bed but remained seated as I drew near. This unbelievably dream-like nurse must have known by this stage that this was my first experience with a woman. She took control. She grabbed my belt and began to slowly remove it. I reached for her face, bent down and passionately kissed her. Denise kissed back even harder than me. She loosened my trousers and dragged them to the floor before taking all of me in her mouth. My mind was completely clouded, not a logical thought passed through my brain for the next thirty seconds. That’s all it took.
My embarrassment was soon cast aside by Denise when she said, ‘Now that’s out of the way, the rest of the night can begin.’
It seemed at just about every turn, this incredible woman found new ways to drown out any lacking confidence that I had about myself. The next three hours were instinctually and unabashedly divine. There are no words that can adequately describe the feelings I was having. The threat of war had set both of our inhibitions into overdrive. I was dumbstruck at the fact that everything about my life had changed in the blink of an eye, but I wasn’t going to let go of this ride.
0405 hours – Fourteenth of May, Nineteen hundred and forty three
I rolled onto my side and softly slipped my arm across her waist. She became restless in her sleep, but instead of moving away, Denise grabbed my arm and pulled it firmly to her chest. I hadn’t slept a wink; not a single moment of shut-eye. I had to be on duty in an hour, so I decided that it was soon time to make a move back to my bunk before the brass hats began to stir for their morning cup of Joe.
As I began to quietly creep out of the covers, I heard an ever-increasing whistle. Like a kettle slowly reaching its peak. As I tried to find its source, an incredible force threw me to the ground; Denise was flung across the room and into the door. The noise was so loud that my ears had a piercing ring as I stumbled back to my feet, but the ship still violently shaking.
‘What the hell was that?’ I screamed as I rushed to help Denise to her feet.
She appeared mostly unharmed but in an absolute daze. My next thought was of Jono, who would know what was going on and what to do. I looked to Denise.
‘I have to go find Jono, head to the deck and find out what’s going on.’
A single drop of blood slid down her cheek from a tiny cut next to her temple. I wiped it away and kissed her on the lips. She nodded as her eyes welled up, then forced a smiled and returned my kiss.
‘See you topside, King,’ she grinned, as she covered her naked body in a blue non-army regulation dress. I composed myself and exited through the door, heading straight to the enlisted quarters; it’s where I knew Jono would have been.
I stopped dead in a passageway that was in a darkness I’ve never before experienced, for my claustrophobia kicked in. Within seconds, the thought of Jono rushed back into my head like a tidal wave. I feared for him. I sprung back into motion, feeling my way through the darkness, past the mess deck and into the enlisted quarters. Finally, light. A single red-flashing light. I approached our bunks. There was an eeriness that flowed over me. I looked across my bunk to see Jono laying with his head facing me. For a split second I thought he was fine, his eyes were wide open looking at me. That was until I noticed part of his skull was caved in over his right temple. The shock of the implosion must have launched his head into the bulkhead whilst he slept. He was full of life mere hours ago, and now he lay there, stagnant, utterly still. I shed a tear in that moment and stood in silence, absolutely dumbfounded. I hoped that he’d launch at me and shout out ‘fooled ya’; but it wasn’t to be. I wiped my face, and screams for help broke the trance that I was stuck in.
In that instant, my feet were swept from beneath me as the Centaur suddenly and violently listed to one side. She was going down. Gushing water was now lapping over my hands and feet, and I tried to regain my stance. The amount of water was increasing by the second. The Centaur was sinking far quicker than I ever expected. The Titanic took hours to go down; the Centaur was taking mere minutes. I was trying to fight the ever-increasing torrents of water, but I was at the mercy of this newly formed river dragging me through the corridors. The very corridors where I met the incredible, warm, caring and spirited Denise. The very corridors where Jono and I had wandered and formed a friendship. I cascaded into steel beams, other crew members, barrels and an inordinate amount of debris, before being completely inundated with water. I didn’t have time to take a gasp of air before being submerged and choked by the water now filling my lungs.
Panic set in, and I pulled at anything to try to resurface. I felt an incredible thrust, almost a vortex, as I swirled uncontrollably beneath the water. My immediate thought was the propeller; it was the only thing that sprung to mind that could inflict such power. It happened so fast that I didn’t get the chance to suck in one final lungful of air. Bubbles surrounded my face. I couldn’t see anything past my nose. In that moment I was taken back to my childhood. A moment when my mother was bathing me; pure innocence. She used to hum while she scooped water up in a jug and pour it over my head. I was at peace here. I was ready to accept the fate I was given. I was warmed at the thought of my beautiful mother caring for me. I was loved and had an amazing life, a life of no regrets. I was briefly transported back to that place and time, though this brief moment felt like an eternity. I could feel the warm bath water falling over my head and back. I could hear mum humming and water running. I could see the mould stain that rested in the corner of the bathroom ceiling. I could smell the overpowering scent of the soap that mum insisted we use because of its ‘cleansing power’. Time had stopped, and I was in a state of complete tranquillity.
As the bubbles began to clear, my body stopped spinning. It dawned on me that my mum wouldn’t want me to give up. I opened my eyes – still inundated with water – and saw the Centaur in all her glory. She had spat me out into the open waters of the Coral Sea. Her lights still illuminated; the running spotlights of the Centaur’s aft dipped below the sea line. I was gulping in salt water, praying to God for air. I scrambled in a complete panic to get to the surface. I had emerged between layers of oil alight on the ocean’s surface, vomiting projectiles of seawater and wheezing for air to refill my lungs.
I had barely regained my composure before I saw the last tip of the Centaur dip below the sea line. The eeriness of the ships running lights flickered as she disappeared into the dark depths of the Pacific Ocean. Between the seawater still escaping my lungs, my exhaustion of what had just happened, and treading the open water, I could barely raise a murmur to call for help. I noticed a large piece of planking drifting about five metres from where I was treading water. I swam to it and collapsed on it, exhausted. I took a moment to look around. There were bodies bobbing in the firestorm of the water. Not a single one moved. The emotion overcame me as I lay isolated and defeated on this plank.
1404 hours – Fifteenth of May, Nineteen hundred and forty three
I awoke to the sun beating down on my face. Water was lapping up on the planking I lay stranded on. I could see rafts in the distance. They didn’t look to be in good shape, though anything would be better than what I was slumped over. I wasn’t thinking of myself, of course. I needed to find Denise, and thought perhaps she was on one of those rafts. As much as I wanted to find her, I had barely enough energy to mount such a long-distance swim.
I laid my head back down against the planking, and drifted in and out of consciousness, when a thunderous roar awoke me. I wiped the salty water from my eyes to see an overpowering sight. A squadron of RAAF planes flying overhead. It gave me little solace. My mind was fixated on something far more important to me. With the RAAF now sending our location, it would be a matter of hours before rescue. I used the little energy I had to sit up on the planking and wave to the rafts; perhaps naively thinking that if Denise was on board, she may recognise me at a distance. I turned my head to track the outgoing squadron, and spotted a body floating face down in the water. I recognised the non-army issued blue dress immediately. It was her. It was my Denise. I tried unsuccessfully to paddle to her before collapsing, laying ruined on the edge of the plank. I was completely overcome with emotion. Surely this was a dream. Surely I would wake up again with Denise in the nurses’ quarters, with her in my arms. The Centaur had gone down with many hands lost.
Time passed. I had no real idea how long, to be frank. My mind was overcome and I struggled to comprehend the enormity of what had happened. Before too long, a raft straddled up beside me. I didn’t move. I felt broken; utterly broken. A young man in his ripped and tattered officer’s uniform grabbed me from underneath my armpits, and dragged me onto his vessel. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t even stop for a short rest. He simply began paddling to the next survivor. As I lay on my back in that tiny orange raft, I looked to the sun beating down on my face. It was a moment of complete clarity. I had joined the war effort to serve my country and become a man; I had achieved both in just a few short days. However, I would not be returning home; it was time to avenge the nurses.