My First Australian Liberty

 by C.R. (Bart) Bartholomew

I dashed after the bus. It didn't stop. On 7 March 1942, it was quiet in the early morning sunshine. My first escapade in Perth, Western Australia made me believe I had found Utopia. The next scheduled bus would make me AWOL. I knew the Executive Officer on USS SARGO (SS188) wouldn't believe, "I missed the bus, sir." The thought of being restricted to the ship after finding my dreamed about liberty port made me shudder. My odyssey had begun the afternoon before.

Trying to quench my thirst after three frustrating and sometimes exciting months, I drank too much rum and something. Coke arrived in Western Australia months after the friendly invasion by U.S. submarine sailors. At the small bar in the Adelphi Hotel, Carol the barmaid insisted I try all the Australian mixes. None tasted like rum and Coke but after several I didn't care. As my nerves became numb my hormonal activity spurted all ahead full.

Carol had a face and shape like a Rockefeller Center Rockette. She wouldn't allow me to pay for my drinks.

"Yank, did you sink any ships?"

To enhance my chance for a romantic evening, I lied. "A few . . . can't talk about it."

The SARGO had tried. But the thirteen Mark XIV torpedoes fired were duds. Carol accepted my silence as my thoughts race back to December.

Manila was dark on 8 December 1941 when we left. After firing the duds, we entered Balikpapan, Borneo for fuel. Next was a refit at Surabaya, Java. The Dutch invited us to spend three days in the mountains at Malang, their submarine rest camp. Then a million rounds of small arm ammunition was loaded and delivered to the Philippines. SARGO arrived off Fremantle, Australia 5 March 1942 and was welcomed with TNT.

An Aussie pilot having read too many, "Sighted Sub Sank Same," headlines lined up SARGO in his bombsight. His thoughts were on being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross as he dropped his bombs. SARGO dove to escape but sustained extensive damage throughout.

Carol interrupted my thoughts by placing another rum and something before me. Having reached my liquid load capacity, I asked Carol to recommend a good restaurant. Two blocks from the Adelphi, I satisfied my hunger with a plate of fish and chips. When I returned to the hotel, the bar was closed. Wartime regulations required bars to close early. Carol was gone. My romantic contemplation were shattered until I remembered her mentioning the Embassy Ballroom.

Double time brought me to the Embassy out of breath. Six sailors were gyrating around the dance floor with lovely partners. The other 300 smiling beauties all in formals were dancing with each other. My courage melted away like it had before the first depth charge rattled SARGO. I was no Fred Astaire and had never heard about Arthur Murray's dancing lessons. My footwork had been developed behind a hand held plow drawn by two Belgian draft horses. To retreat seemed foolish but prudent. Carol blocked my exit. My lookout trained eyes told me she wasn't a mirage. The floor length blue formal made her look like a finalist in the Miss America contest. Carol took me into protective custody. We danced until my corns ached. I carried her dancing shoes, as we walked to her apartment. And I woke late.

Dreading being AWOL, I hurried away from the bus stop. Anxiety shook me until I spied a taxi. Rushing toward it, I had to rub my eyes. A portly man with a cap perched on his head was stoking a fire in a barrel. The twenty-five gallon barrel was sitting on the rear bumper of a 1937 Buick. "What's that?" I pointed at the contraption.

"Good day, Yank . . . it's my whatyucallit."

"Can you get me to Fremantle before 07:45?"

"Hop in, Yank ... it'll take twenty minutes." With some trepidation, I slid onto the front seat of the Buick. The engine roared to life. "Everything's apples (under control) Yank. Bloody nuisance my charcoal burner," the driver muttered as the Buick moved away from the curb.

I turned my head and looked at the barrel. "Just what is it?"

"A Powell charcoals burner. Petrol is rationed with the war and all. The burner was first used during the great depression. Worked good on tractors, pumps and trucks. Take my engine... had to shave down the head to increase my compression; otherwise, I'd have no power." The countryside was flat. The driver opened a butter fly valve.

"Tell me how it works."

“Got to start my Buick on petrol... by opening this valve charcoal gas is sucked to the engine." He closed another valve. The engine settled down to a purr. "I shut off the petrol," he explained. The Buick slowed going up a

hill. The driver opened the petrol valve. The engine backfired as gasoline was sucked into the cylinders. After topping the rise, the engine was shifted back to charcoal gas. The driver continued explaining. "Kerosene was used in farm trucks, tractors and pumps during the depression. It sold for nine pence a gallon, which many couldn't afford. Wood, especially gum wood was plentiful and makes good charcoal. Lots of Boss-Cocky (farmers) built their own charcoal burner. The Powell Company became one of the most successful builders of burners." I waited for him to go on. "The barrel is the generator and the gas given off by burning charcoal is siphoned off the bottom. It passes through a spark trap and two filters. The gas reaching the engine is very clean."

"That's hard to believe," I said wondering if I was being had by a bull artist.

"I've run my Buick for two years on charcoal. . . a fortnight ago the engine was taken down. It showed no wear and the parts were clean."

"Sounds too good . . . how much charcoal does it burn?”

"I can make a couple round trips to Fremantle on a bag . . . otherwise I'd be at the bloody bowser (gasoline pump) all the time."

True to his word the driver got me back to SARGO before Quarters for Muster. I continued making euphoric liberties and rode with the same taxi driver many times. The fond memories I have about the land down under haven't faded. I've always felt lucky because I made nine war patrols from Australian ports and none from Pearl Harbor, Midway or Guam. There's no charcoal burners in Australia today. But if the Powell charcoal burner had proven to be successful, we could be using charcoal to propel our cars instead of cooking with it.

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