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Warsailor Stories - Page 7

Geoff Mead's Story – M/T Basilea - 1944
Received from his friend, Mary Ward

I was born in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1926 and from an early age had been keen to join the Navy and had all the information about entry as an officer cadet. I think the minimum age at this time was 18 or 18-1/2 years. My grandfather had been a sea Captain and his son, my uncle was also a master mariner with many years service. Sometime in early 1941 I had joined the Navy League Sea Cadets and we had weekly evening parades learning the rudiments of seamanship. When school finished in December 1943 I went frequently to the port of Lyttelton and made contact with the Seaman’s Union to see if any merchant ships wanted crew. Before long the Norwegian petrol tanker Basilea came in and needed two crew – one officer’s mess boy, and Cyril Brown, a Christchurch boy was taken on and I got the job as deckboy. We sailed out of Lyttelton on Christmas Day 1943 bound for San Francisco.

The Basilea was built at Kockum shipyard in Sweden in 1936 and all the deck and engine room officers were Norwegians. I think the skipper was Capt. Madsen. There were several nationalities among the crew, two Swedes, one Mexican greaser whose sole English was “Mehico, my country”, another greaser from British Honduras, now Belize. There was also a third greaser, a long haired Englishman; three Chinese, two messboys named Ho Ah Ban and Hai Tai and the second cook, an American officer’s messgirl and my first cabin mate was John Rowe* from Arklow County Wicklow and two New Zealand Navy gunners. The skipper, deck officers and the messgirl and the Steward had their quarters amidships below the bridge and the six Norwegian Navy gunners who manned the 3 inch gun on the bow were up for’ard in the foc’sle. The engine room officers and the Bo’sun were on the upper deck down aft and all the other crew members were also down aft below deck, mostly in two berth cabins on the port side. Older and senior hands had mostly single berth cabins on the starboard side and these were carpenter, donkeyman, pumpman, electrician, cook, the Chinese, one elderly senior A.B. Peder and his mate Harald who was a bit simple.

* I've since been contacted by the daughter of John Rowe, Geoff Mead's cabin mate mentioned in the above text, who is still going strong at 82 (Sept.-2006), and I've forewarded his contact information to her.

I was put to work scrubbing and cleaning for about the first week while getting over initial seasickness and then for almost all the time on board at sea was on the Chief Mate’s watch, 4 – 8. This required two spells of lookout on the wing of the bridge, one trick at the wheel and perhaps another lookout up in the crow’s nest with short spells between each down aft for coffee and a smoke. Almost all the crew spoke reasonably good but accented English except for Harald and I soon made friends especially with two motormen – Erling Olsen and the big Swede Sven Seastrom and a deckhand Knut Johansen. They all had a bit of a problem with my name and everyone called me Yung Yeff.

Some of the food was strange at first – ryebread baked three times a week, coffee only to drink, and Norwegian specialties like goat’s milk cheese (gjetost) and raw pickled salt herring. Also a great variety of other cheeses and fish dishes and on Sundays the cook always baked a type of light currant cake. There was always plenty of everything and we ate well, deck and engine room in one mess and the senior hands in another. My first cabin mate John Rowe was not all that bright. One of his favoured going ashore garments was an overcoat made from a type of rubberised material. He decided to clean it and got some petrol or white spirit from the bo’sun and scrubbed it which removed most of the rubber!

All Norwegian ships in allied hands were under the management of the Norwegian Shipping and Trades Mission and its chief executive was Trygve Lie who later was the first U.N. Secretary General after the war.

We arrived in San Francisco in late January 1944 in the fog and anchored in the bay. Next morning when the fog lifted the first two things seen were the island prison of Alcatraz and an old stern wheeler ferry boat. Immigration and Coast Guard officials came aboard and all the new chums to the U.S.A. were photographed and fingerprinted and in due course received Coast Guard passes. We also saw the former Finnish barque Pamir lying at anchor, now flying the N.Z. flag.

After a day or two we moved to the Bethlehem Steel shipyard crammed full of smaller U.S. navy ships and some merchantmen being repaired or refurbished, we were there for six weeks. This shipyard was at the corner of 3rd and 20th streets, 20 blocks from the centre of the city and was the scene of great activity. I think the Kaiser shipyard producing Liberty ships was almost adjacent. While in the States in 1987 I visited the area but by this time Bethlehem Steel had folded at this location and the dockyard gates were closed.

There were two reasons for our stay in 1944 – the half yearly engine room maintenance and overhaul and some piston rings were replaced. The second was a surprise to most of us. This was the construction of a cargo deck about 7 foot or so above the tank deck to the level of the catwalk which ran from down aft to midships and then for’ard of the bridge to the foc’sle. A small army of white and black workers swarmed aboard and for a while there seemed to be a state of chaos as they welded steel stanchions to the tank deck and then fore and aft and cross members. Lastly a wooden deck of 5” x 2” (or 4” x 3”) was laid down with gaps between each for drainage. Blacks did all the unskilled work and this was my first experience of the colour bar which was the normal state of affairs at that time.

When the Coast Guard passes arrived we could go ashore and many trips were made to the city after work and at weekends. John Rowe, my Irish cabin mate paid off and so did the Mexican greaser and the English greaser. New crew were Jon de Vries a Dutchman, Jim Shaw, an American boy and another American boy whose name I have forgotten. He fancied himself as a boxer and introduced us to the YMCA where for a small charge we could get soap, a towel and a shower and opportunities to spar with young American boys. My memory is that these jokers looked surprised when hit by a fit young Kiwi!

Other memories of the city are trips on the cable cars; one jaunt out into Golden Gate park on slow horses where we saw Bison for the first time; vast numbers of troops in the city awaiting embarkation; innumerable pictures seen – the theatres stayed open all night with repeat shows; cheaper beer at the Union Jack Club and the curfew I think at 10 p.m. for those under 18. I was told a few times by Police to move on from city bars, but of course the dockyard bars didn’t worry about your age – I was still 17!

When all the engine room work and the new deck was finished we moved into an adjacent dry dock, I suppose for inspection. Then we had a Russian flagged Liberty ship moored alongside us so that their crew had to cross our deck to get ashore. It was quite noticeable that they never smiled or spoke with us and when they went ashore they all went together in a group and not in dribs and drabs as we did. It was then their turn to move into the dry dock and in doing so just touched our stern. Our paint was hardly marked but they received a large dent in their plates like a punch to a big sheet of brown paper.

We next moved across the bay to the Alameda naval or air base and loaded a total of 26 fighter planes, P something or other as deck cargo. They were taped a lot and lashed down with propellers and wing tips removed and stowed in a for’ard hold. Two Americans joined up for the trip, one officer and a sergeant but not the young would-be boxer. Then to the petrol terminal at Richmond – this site was used in the film set of Nevil Shute’s “On the Beach”. During loading of petrol no cooking was allowed on board and we went ashore quite some distance for all meals in a sort of tram. Security was very strict and we had to pass two check points where passes were inspected.

With loading complete the compass was swung in San Francisco Bay and we headed for Sydney in mid-March 1944 heavily laden with a cargo of high octane and the planes. Captain Madsen had been replaced by Capt. Johansen. The ship’s armaments were a 3” quick firing gun mounted in a turret right on the bow and manned by the Norwegian Navy gunners, four 20mm Oerlikon cannons on the upper bridge area and down aft a 4” gun manned by the two N.Z. Navy gunners. On most trips we had gun practice and from up for’ard a smoke shell would be fired and this produced a big smoke ring. We all had a go at putting shells through the smoke ring and tracer bullets spaced in the large cylindrical magazines showed their flight. I could never put the shots in the right place but the Bo’sun who had only one eye was a crack shot. For the 4” gun down aft a smoke float like a 13 gallon drum was shoved overboard and the N.Z. gunners had the virtual impossible task of hitting this with a few shots. The target used to disappear towards the horizon still smoking.

We duly arrived off Sydney heads just on dusk and heard later from bridge gossip that the Port Authorities had told us to lay off, anchor and wait until morning. There was a submarine net across the entrance which was closed at night – Jap midget submarines had entered the Harbour earlier in the war and caused quite a bit of damage and some casualties. The same bridge gossip told us that the skipper had told the Port Authorities that we were coming in net or not and we went in. Part of the load of petrol was unloaded in Sydney as we were too deeply laden to get up the Brisbane river which was our ultimate destination and here the balance of the petrol and the fighter planes were unloaded. After a few days in Brisbane we crossed the Pacific to a little oil port in northern Peru called Talara, just south of the Ecuador border.

On unladen trips to the next oil port we always had a dirty job. Wind socks, large cylindrical canvas chutes stiffened with bamboo hoops were brought out of the for’ard hold and put down into the tanks – each one had a hatch and the wings of the chutes were fastened so that they were facing into the wind. When the worst of the fumes were gone we had to climb down the ladder of each tank in turn and scrape rust and gunk into buckets which were hauled up and dumped overboard – no sea pollution rules in those days! Only short spells were worked because of the fumes and we were warned while climbing up the vertical ladder for a spell in the fresh air to hang on tight for the last few rungs as petrol fumes plus salt air near the top could produce instant intoxication.

Talera was a pretty grubby place in a very arid area. No real harbour, we just tied up to a jetty coming out from the shore for loading tankers. However there was no access to land on this and we went ashore by water taxis which came on demand and boarded by a rope ladder on the seaward side. Signs remembered around the jetty “Pelligro, No Fumare” – Danger, No Smoking. There were many bars ashore, a hotel and a good many shops. We drew Peruvian money, soles worth about 10 cents in our money. One shop or Casa was chosen for souvenirs and I got quite a lot of silverware, all sterling silver, in brooches and teaspoons, and a double bed rug or bedspread for $12. This is still in daily use after more than 60 years so it must be good quality. Liquor was also very cheap, beer at 10 or 15 cents per bottle and Pisco, a type of native brandy was 20 cents a bottle.

Apart from the half-yearly engine maintenance we never stayed in port long, just enough time to load or unload and for the crew to get properly sozzled! We left Talara for Australia late on Thursday June 12 1944, almost a week after D Day. It must have been after 8 p.m. as I wasn’t on watch. During the night – it was now Friday 13th, we felt the ship turn around and thought we were perhaps heading for the Panama Canal, not all that far to the north and thence to the Atlantic. However this was not the case as the skipper Capt. Johansen had taken ill. Bluey Madigan, a red headed Aussie who had joined us in Brisbane had the wheel and had to be forcibly removed as he didn’t want to go back to Talara. We did go back and the skipper was taken ashore but I cannot recall whether he was unconscious or dead. I understand he was buried ashore at Talara. The only time I saw Capt. Johansen was when I had the wheel between 7 and 8 p.m. He would come up from his quarters to the wheelhouse and always turned and went out onto the starboard wing of the bridge, passing the binnacle. On his way back he always tried to walk through the binnacle and I have a clear memory of this.

Jack Matheson, one of the Norwegian Navy gunners up for’ard had the bright idea of adding to his pay. He had bought 2 cases of Pisco in Talara at 20 cents per bottle and intended to sell them in Australia for hopefully $4 a bottle. After a week or so with all our own grog consumed several of us would wander up to the foc’sle in the evening to say hello to the gunners. Now Jack was a good host and after a bit would  say “would you boys like a drink?” and out came the Pisco. By the time we reached Australia, most trips taking a month, all Jack’s Pisco had been consumed so he made no profit.

On this trip we unloaded first at Brisbane, and then further up the coast to Townsville and then lastly to Cairns. Here some of us got horses and we rode out into the country, sampling mangoes and other tropical fruit from roadside stalls – sugar cane also. A few of us talked about signing off the Basilea and joining the crews of what were called “little ships”, small fast freighters taking supplies up to the islands, but nothing came of this. Probably an alcohol induced plan! All these Queensland places were crawling with American troops.

From Cairns down inside the Barrier Reef and out across the Pacific to Talara again arriving in mid-August 1944. More souvenirs bought and more booze consumed. While at Talara another Norwegian tanker, the Braconda was there awaiting loading. She took petrol around Cape Horn or through the Magellan Strait to ports in Argentina and here again there was talk of swapping with members of her crew for a trip or two but nothing eventuated so any chance of my becoming a “Cape Horner” was lost!

Our elderly donkeyman gave us a moment of hilarity in Talara. Climbing down the rope ladder into the water taxi was quite easy, but climbing back in the dark and under the weather was a bit more difficult. The donkeyman was the last of us to climb up and had several bottles of grog inside his jacket. When he got to the top of the ladder someone advised him to pass over the bottles before he climbed the ship’s rail. He foolishly forgot the maxim of one hand for the ship and one for yourself, let go of the rail with both hands, handed over the bottles and tumbled back into the sea. A line was thrown to him and the weighted turk’s head knot hit the poor old beggar on the head so he wasn’t in a good mood when he climbed up the ladder again dripping wet. He collected his grog and disappeared towards his cabin, swearing volubly. Norwegian seamen swear a lot and use the word “fa'n” (or devil) frequently with various additions. A common put down was “full som en Svenske" (drunk as a Swede). No drinking was done without the toast “skål” (good health). More phrases remembered are “takk for maten” (thanks for the meal) and “tusen takk” (a thousand thanks). My spelling is not guaranteed! (corrected by the webmistress)

On sea voyages it was rare to see other ships and we never travelled in convoy. However on the way back to Australia we  were  passed one early evening by a factory whaling ship heading south. The Norwegian for these ships or seamen is “hvalfanger” and the word was spat out quite vehemently. Apparently pre WWII there had been a seaman’s strike and this was broken by the whale fishermen, hence the lasting hatred.

This trip was from Talara to Sydney to partly offload and then to Newcastle to get rid of the rest. Here we were close to a major disaster during unloading which is always a dangerous time. The pumpman had gone to his cabin for a smoke after operating the various pumps and valves. His clothes must have had a good deal of petrol on them and he burst into flames when he lit his smoke. He rushed out of his cabin on the starboard side and ran around to our port side crying out. Luckily one of the engine room hands was in his cabin and came out and smothered the flames with a blanket. The pumpman was about halfway along the companion way which led to the tank deck when he was grabbed and if he had got out there we could have had a big bang in Newcastle. He was carted off to hospital with burns not too serious and we made a few trips to see him taking gin in lemonade bottles for him.

We stayed in Newcastle for 6 weeks for engine maintenance and were able to spend a lot of time ashore. It was a friendly place and we enjoyed our time there. Quite close to us on the wharves were several Union Company colliers which plied between Greymouth or Westport and Newcastle (coals to Newcastle?). I had all the stuff collected from the two trips to Talara and while talking to some of their crews was offered delivery to New Zealand. Everything was packed into a sugar bag and on their next trip to Greymouth this was sent to my home in Christchurch.

The Lawhill another 4-masted barque was moored quite close to us. She like the Pamir had been owned by the Finnish ship owner Eriksen and had been seized by the South African authorities at the start of the war. I never saw her under sail.

In those days it was quite common to see big clock-faced weighing machines outside chemist shops and we used to persuade Sven, the big Swede, to step on these and we would provide the penny for the slot. The dial only registered to 20 stone where there was a stopper and the pointer would hit this with a fair wallop, so we never learnt Sven’s exact weight. He was huge.

Before we sailed the rumour was that we were next going to the Persian Gulf and I was advised to collect all the old and dirty clothes for sale there. We left Newcastle in late October 1944, south through Bass Strait, across the Great Australian Bight and out into the Indian Ocean, and eventually to Abadan at the head of the Persian Gulf. Abadan was years later destroyed in the Iraq-Iran war but suppose it has since been rebuilt. It was a very large refinery port on the Shattal Arab river formed by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates river some miles further inland. We were in Persia, now Iran and across the fast flowing river was Iraq. At the time it was the biggest tanker port in the world and 27 tankers could be loaded at the same time. We were not allowed to draw cash (trouble with the natives?) but got 40 cents per day in the form of tickets cashable at a seamen’s club which had a swimming pool and where we could buy N.Z. malt biscuits and Australian beer.

I was on gangway watch the first night and for company had a young Persian guard who spoke quite good English. He had been involved with convoys taking American war materials across Persia to Russia from a port in the south of the country. He bought all the old clothes I had, quite a few rupees worth (then worth about 15 cents in our money). When he left he dropped a roll of notes on the deck. I am afraid I didn’t call him back but pocketed the lot and finished up with 30 or 40 rupees.

There was a native bazaar a short distance from where we were berthed. It was a grubby place with a little creek running through it and used by the locals for washing, drinking and a sewer. It was very hot and there was a fair pong all around the place. At one of the stalls a Persian brooch and a metal matchbox holder was bought but the quality of the souvenirs does not match those made in Peru. We were only there probably 2 days and 2 nights and were pleased to get away from the heat and stink, but it was still pretty hot until we were well out into the Indian Ocean where we saw numerous water spouts and lots of flying fish.

Almost everyone smoked, cigarettes were 45 cents a carton of 200 and at night there was a fair fog in the mess room with card games under way. One of the few who didn’t smoke was the ship’s carpenter – he chewed tobacco. He had his workshop at tank deck level below the bridge and spat copiously and expertly out of a porthole from his workbench on to the deck. It was quite a hazard if you had to pass his area in calm weather before we rolled enough for the deck to be washed clean.

The cook was slightly built but very athletic and could do 2 or 3 chin ups on a horizontal bar with one arm which is quite a feat.

One of my favourite meals was storm soup which was made when very rough weather made it very difficult to keep pots and pans on the stove. This was a very thick pea soup with slices of corned beef in it and you could almost eat it with a knife and fork. To follow we then had pancakes and blackberry jam so I loved rough weather!

A crew member not mentioned was the Officer’s mess girl. She and the next deck watch had to be called each morning some time before 7 a.m. I didn’t enjoy calling her as she told me that in hot weather she slept in the nude with just a sheet for cover.

There was a second Friday 13th – in November I think - and those not on watch sat in the mess room until after midnight half expecting a repeat of June 13 but nothing unusual happened. In early December 1944 we reached Brisbane and expecting we were due to return to Abadan I signed off there as I didn’t fancy a second trip there, so came to Newcastle by train to wait the chance of getting passage home across the Tasman. After about 10 days the Empress of Scotland, formerly the Empress of Japan, a troopship bringing New Zealand troops back from Italy came into Sydney. I travelled to Sydney and paid $25 for a fare to Wellington. Then a daylight crossing from Wellington to Lyttelton on 24th December and it was home for Christmas.

Basilea was a happy ship and I have many fond memories of my time spent aboard. I am now nearly 80 years old and am almost certainly the last surviving crew member of the ship. About 3 years ago my son in law made contact via the Internet with Tschudi & Eitzen in Norway, owners of the ship, and their secretary Lill Irene Skovli very kindly sent all the information she could gather about the ship. Unfortunately they had no records from 1943 – 1945 (were these lost owing to the bombing in England?). She also very kindly sent copies of the original drawings of the ship (scale l:192) and I have had these mounted and framed.

I wonder if there is in existence a crew list for Basilea for the year of 1942 or any other information at all pertaining to this ship.


Please compare the above information to the voyage record found on my page about Basilea.

Sadly, Geoff passed away on Dec. 11-2008. I thought his obituary was so beautifully written, that I'm including it here in its entirety:
"MEAD, Geoffrey Arthur
On 11 December 2008 our dear father died at peace and with sublime dignity, aged 82 years. A proud noble gentleman fondly remembered by his children Clement, Richard, David, Stephanie, Nicholas and all others whose path he crossed. A kind, loving father-in-law, very fond of his many grandchildren the world over. Respected internationally for his wit, courage, erudition and selfless service to country and community. Late resident of Bluff, well known as the old man on the hill with all the books. The guru of gardens, green thumbed to his elbows, he was an activist and conservationist, wise before his time, and arrested only once. In triumph of death over life he gathered wisdom, lifelong and takes it all with him."

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I would again like to encourage others to send me more personal stories for inclusion on this page, these stories are very valuable.


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