CHRISTMAS ISLAND REMEMBERED

A story from John Curtis

     On the 16th November 1959 I departed the UK en route for No 11 RAF Police District. Christmas Island. B.F.P.O. 170. I was a 25 year old RAF policeman with the substantive rank of Corporal.

    My outbound journey was via America, on a civilian aircraft, travelling with six other RAF personnel from a mixed bag of trade groups. We had overnight stops in New York, San Francisco and Honolulu. This was my first visit to the USA and it gave me a very good and long lasting impression of America and its people. Everyone was most friendly. Whilst en route to Christmas Island we were obliged to wear our RAF uniform at all time. It stood us in good stead in the many bars we visited on that journey.

    In New York we were accommodated in the “Governor Clinton”, a large hotel located opposite the Pennsylvania Station, just off Times Square. We were in a room on the ‘umpteenth’ floor, I had never slept so high off terra firma. It was a wonder we did not all have nose bleeds. In the entrance door of our room was a box like device into which, from the room side, you hung anything that needed cleaning or pressing overnight. The box was lockable from both sides. Garments were put into it last thing at night. Staff could then collect the item during the night, do what was needed, and have the item back in the door space by early morning.

    In San Francisco we were allocated rooms in a motel just out of town. Some lads went off for the evening into town but I had been up so late, in New York, the night before, and with the flight across the States earlier that day I stayed in my room.

    In Hawaii we stayed at the USAF Hickham Air Force base. Just down the road from Pearl Harbour. We were accommodated this time in old fashioned service barrack blocks fitted out with rows of two tier metal bunk-beds, just like those in the film “From Here To Eternity”. We had a few drinks of beer in the barrack block with an American serviceman who had just completed his tour of duty. He was proudly sewing on his campaign ribbons prior to flying back to mainland America the next day. I asked him where he had served on this tour of duty that entitled him to wear medal ribbons. He indicated that it had been ‘ here at Hickham.’ I, with obvious surprise, pointed out that Hawaii was the 50th State of the USA, how could he be awarded a campaign medal for service in his own country. He assured me that that was the way the American Armed Forces worked. No wonder some of their servicemen were inundated with ribbons on their chest.

    On my arrival on Christmas Island in November 1959, there were a little over 1700, military personnel on the island. A mixture of Army, Navy, RAF and Fijian troops located in various military areas of the island.

    As most ‘Grapple’ hands will recall there was a strange and intimidating initiation ceremony that all new service men, arriving on Christmas Island, had to go through. The first meal taken in the vast open sided, corrugated roofed, communal ‘other ranks’ dining area was the venue for this initiation ceremony. New arrivals arrived, by air, in groups of mixed services. They were all there to replace servicemen who had completed their tour and were either going, or had left for home. Therefore new arrivals were always expected. They were easily recognised by their whiter than white skin. On walking into the dining area for the first time they would be spotted and a cry of ‘moonies’ ( because they were white) would spread through the 100’s of troops dining at that particular time. It was then traditional for those 100’s of servicemen to bang their mess tins with any other metal object to hand, knife, fork, spoon, or even another mess tin. The noise was deafening. Great fun when you were an old hand but intimidating when faced with it for the first time. Because different people dined at different times you often had to run this gauntlet a number of time before your ‘knees got brown’ and you were accepted..

    The washing of mess tins after a meal, was to say the least a little primitive. Two huge water tanks, one containing hot and the other lukewarm water, were located outside the dining room, raised up on wooden trestles. The water was hot at the start of the meal time, and each serviceman leaving the dining area was expected to wash his utensils in the hot tank, and swill them off in the cooler water. This requirement was OK for those eating first but if you were on late lunch there would be as much food floating in the now cold water in both tanks as you had just had on your plate.

    Another thing you had to do in those first few days in the island was to make your very own unique 'days to do’ calendar. Self explanatory really but something we all did. You would draw out a 365 day chart, with often humorous detail going in at significant dates during the year. This chart would be mounted onto card and hung behind, or beside, your bed space. Each day, from then on, you would mark  each day off on your chart and everyone knew exactly how many 'days to do’ they had. It was a frequently asked question, “How many days to do?”, and was normally given the answer” X number of days and an early breakfast”, because Hastings flights, leaving the island, always took place early in the morning meant you had time for a breakfast.

    We had cargo ships visit the island with frozen supplies and any heavy goods or equipment needed for the daily running of the establishment that could not be airlifted in. We RAF policemen had to provide security for the inbound goods on its journey between the cargo ship and the designated storage area. The frozen cargo normally was placed into one of three massive refrigeration tanks at the port. The prevention of theft between the ship and the refrigerators was a constant headache. One aspect of the duty I found very difficult was the climb up from the ships tender onto deck using the rope ladder. As the ship rolled you would swing out away from the side and on coming back in would hit your toes against the ships side and your feet would be pushed off of the ladder, frightening.

    One of my duties, as a member of the RAF Police District, was to carry out a mobile patrol in, and around, the desolate barren Dropping Zone ( DZ. ). The D.Z. was where, over the preceding two years, the many British atomic tests had taken place. The patrols were carried out daily, during the first six months of my tour, to ensure that no unauthorised troops ever went into this strictly forbidden area. To my certain knowledge we were given no instructions, or medical advice, as to how potentially dangerous the area was following the atomic tests. The whole of the D.Z. area had been blasted flat and was burnt. There was none of the normal tropical green vegetation colours. Test buildings had been purpose built to identify damage caused by the explosions within the D.Z. I remember looking with some amusement at the only thing left standing within one of the test zones. Three toilet bowls still bolted to their concrete bases. The surrounding buildings and all signs of plumbing had been blown away. I know that servicemen believe that most officers, in a difficult situation, would simply stick their heads up their a***’s and hope for the best. Well maybe those officers knew something we did not!

    Being so close to the equator I found the heat, at times, almost unbearable. We had no air conditioning. There were ceiling fans but all they did was moved hot air around the room. The humidity was in excess of 90% and we were advised to fit light bulbs inside our clothes lockers to stop mould from forming on anything stored in there. Anything left for more than a couple of days, in a closed environment, would go mouldy, leather shoes were a big problem.

    Early in my tour I set off on one of the police bicycles for a tour of the local palm groves and swamp land area. I was off duty and wearing only a pair of shorts. In those days there was not the choice of casual clothes that is available to today’s young and trendy men. 1 had taken with me two pairs of shirts and matching shorts that my wife had made for me prior to my departure. I would not be seen dead in them today but at that time beggars could not be choosers. As it was very hot, and there were no females in that part of the island, I took off my shorts and pants and cycled in the nude. A wonderful experience, but not for long. My pert little bottom had never been exposed to the sun before and in a very space of time I had a very red and sore bum. I suffered for a day or two after that, much to the amusement of the older 'Grapple Hands’, as the longer serving military personnel were called.

     Six months into my tour of duty all work connected with the earlier 1957 and 1958 atomic tests together with all its associated duties and evaluations, ceased.    Operation Grapple was no more. Christmas Island’s military force was then dramatically reduced from a combined strength of over 1200 troops, to a mixture of just 120 personnel from all three of Her Majesties Armed Forces, as well as a small contingent of Fijian troops. 1 was one of four RAF police N.C.O’s left to police the island with Sgt. (Weenie) Hughes as our S.N.C.O. i/c. I was the only married RAF policeman to remain. I complained bitterly but to no avail. We now had to deal with Army and Navy discipline as well as our own RAF offences. All the buildings and equipment at main camp were mothballed, and all remaining personnel moved down to the port area. What had yesterday (figuratively speaking) been a busy island was now almost deserted, we almost rattled in the space left.

    A brand new, purpose built, single storey, corrugated roofed, main guardroom (MGR.) was erected, by the Army, at the port. The huge, majestic, and very impressive, station safe was set in concrete in the centre of the floor of the building. For security reasons it was positioned in such a way that it was visible, at all times from outside, by anyone passing by. Because the safe contained all the island’s cash, together with top secret documents, the MGR had to be manned 24 hours a day seven days a week, 365 days of the year. With only four RAF police corporals to carry out this duty it was hard work!

    The RAF police had not been involved in the planning stages of the layout of the new MGR. We arrived to take over the building and found for instance that the cell doors opened into the cell and beds could not be fixed to the ground. One of our first prisoners found out that by turning his bed sideways the duty policeman could not get into his cell. We had the cell doors re-hung to open outwards.

    Wanting something to do in my spare time I volunteered, and was accepted, for duties on the Christmas Island Broadcasting Station (C.I.B.S.) as a “Disk Jockey”. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in England serviced the station and we had a regular monthly supply of top quality records, together with a range of BBC programs. It was very hard work at times trying to prepare hour long programs and carry on with my normal police duties.

    Early in the tour I developed problems with my dental hygiene. There was no dentist employed within the Station Sick Quarters (S.S.Q’s) Only a Medical Officer who, in an emergency, would perform any minor surgery including the extraction of teeth. However if it was not an emergency then the patient would be airlifted to Hickham on the next available airplane. I had to make a number of trips up to Hawaii for dental treatment at the U.S.A.F. base at Hickham Airfield.

    On the first of my many visits to the dental department at Hickham AFB the dentist was performing a preliminary evaluation of my mouth and taking dental x-rays. This procedure was being carried out in the pleasantly cool air-conditioned surgery. Yours truly was dressed in standard RAF tropical kit, consisting of a short sleeved khaki dress (K.D.) shirt, K.D. shorts, long K.D. socks and black shoes. The American medic’s all wore long, light weight, white trousers and short sleeved white jackets as their uniform. The dentist who was working away on my teeth and looking at me with a quizzical expression said, “ I thought it was much hotter on Christmas Island than here in Honolulu”? I confirmed that he was correct in his assumption. He then asked if I wanted the air conditioning turned up as I was sweating so much. I had to explain that it was nothing to do with the air temperature that was causing me to perspire. I recall he liked the word ‘perspire’.

I explained that I was a married man who had been away from his wife, or for that matter any female company, on Christmas Island for the best part of six months. I pointed out that his very attractive young, blonde, female assistant, who had been working with an extractor suction device in my mouth, was stood square onto my right shoulder with  her substantial breasts pressed either side of my short sleeved right arm. No further comment from me was needed, they both understood my beads of perspiration, he laughed, she blushed, and I was handed a towel!!!. I think to wipe my brow? Well that’s what I used it for.

    I became very interested in go-karting. In those early days of the 1960’s, with go-karting being in its infancy, the very small engines were adapted from existing lawnmowers. They had no gears, required a push start and no one could understand how I got my six foot two inch frame behind the steering wheel. We spent hour after hour working on the engines to increase their power. Polishing ports, and other engine parts, became an evening ritual on the veranda at the rear of the MGR. It was a popular sport on the island and eventually we received an invitation from the U.S.A.F. personnel at Hickham Air Force base on Hawaii to bring a team up and race against them. We were made most welcome by all and sundry and had a very interesting long weekend in this 49th State. I won a trophy (which I still have) presented to me by the American team.

    I received a very nasty injury whilst go-carting on Christmas Island. One of the strict rules of the Kart club was that if an engine failed the driver was not to attempt to push start it, but he was to wait for assistance. On this particular day I broke down on the far side of the airfield, well away from help and not noticed by the personnel present. I got out from behind the wheel and went to the rear of the cart. I leaned over the engine to steer the cart whilst pushing hard with the other hand.

    The engine fired and because of the lack of weight bearing down on it flew off faster than I could control. I did not want to let go of the kart, as it was capable of great speed with the potential of doing a great deal of damage if not stopped. I held on and was dragged some distance before I was able to reach across and flick the small metal safety switch and short out the engine. The drag injuries to my feet and legs was pretty nasty. I had only been wearing flip-flops and shorts. I had a long spell in hospital and of course was questioned at length by the medical staff about my injuries and how I had sustained them. I just had to lie, as the truth would have meant the medical authorities charging me with causing self inflicted injuries, a serious charge had it been made. It was obvious to everyone what I had done but no one had seen the incident on the far side of the airfield, and without an admission they could do nothing.

    Outdoor cinemas were a novelty, to most of the younger servicemen, but I was an old hand after my three years in Egypt. One of the pleasures of the outdoor cinema on the island was sitting out in the rain, which was not too often, maybe three times in my year there. On those nights when it did rain we would attend the performance all dressed up in our huge police capes and sit, with the cape draped over our knees keeping our bacon sandwiches, and mug of tea, collected earlier from the MGR., dry. I remember the night they switched the film off to give us the chance to watch the Russian ‘Sputnik’ spacecraft pass over our heads. That was a first that can not be equalled.

    In the spring of 1960 there was an earthquake in Chile that produced a tidal wave which swept across the Pacific in our direction. As the highest occupied point at our end of Christmas Island was only a few feet above sea level and this was going to be a big tidal wave, a state of emergency was declared. The island is shaped like a flat mushroom on a tall stem so there was nothing for the wave to build up on. It passed us by with no damaged caused to anything or any one. However, Honolulu, 1300 miles north of us, was not so lucky. With it’s long sloping shore line, famous for its surfing community, the wave built up and lifted motor cars and stuck them through first floor windows, and caused very bad flooding. We really were incredibly lucky.

    One of the tasks we had to deal with was to control the number of stray dogs that wandered the island. The natives had brought dogs with them, and the departed servicemen had left pets behind, the dogs had bred, as dogs do. It was decided, by the powers that be, that there were far to many of them and they were now causing a nuisance. We RAF policemen were given the task of organising and operating the cull. A gas chamber was built at the rear of the MGR., and it was adapted to allow it to be connected to the exhaust pipe of our patrol Land Rover. We had to catch the strays, put them in the box, gas them then take them for incineration. A very unpleasant duty I can assure you, but some one had to do it.

     The beach walks along the waters edge was something I did, as often as I could, and at all times of the day and sometimes night. I was fascinated by the tips of manta ray’s outstretched wings appearing just above the water. They were often as much as eight to nine feet apart. At first I did not know what these black tips were until someone pointed out the ray’s dark shape under water. We would often fish for lagoon sharks as they prowled about in the shallow water in which we were not allowed to swim. Some people fished for the larger reef sharks that stayed on the other side of the barrier reef but not a sport I ever took part in.

I departed the island on the 10th November 1960 and travelled back to the United Kingdom from Hickham by civilian aircraft, stopping, as on the outbound journey, in San Francisco and New York. I was the senior man on the flight and was responsible for the behaviour and welfare of my six charges, one was a clerk and the remaining five were vehicle mechanics.

JOHN HAS RECENTLY RETURNED FROM A RETURN TRIP TO THE ISLAND. THAT STORY FOLLOWS

 ©: John Curtis 18 Jan 03