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Continued from Bill Taylor's Memoir, Part One


Owing to the shelling and bombing on the south coast, my parents moved to the north West Coast to a town called Blackpool. I tried working at different jobs, but they bored me. I missed the ships and that way of life. I went to join the Royal Navy . (As I had served in the Officers Training Core at school, I thought there would be no problem.) I also tried the Air Force and the Army--there was only one difficulty. They were not allowed to accept anybody who had sailed on a merchant ship as so many men had been lost they could not find crews. I decided to go back to sea.

I journeyed to Liverpool and went to the Canadian Pacific Offices, to see the Catering Superintendent. He remembered me as he had hired me previously. He gave me my papers to join the Empress of Asia . (I had put my age up to 18 years so that I would get full pay). He said I had to report to the Merchant Navy Pool and to confirm my posting etc. I went round to the Gladstone Dock (click for Map) where the Asia was tied up.
Empress of Asia 1928 Empress of Asia at Vancouver, B.C., November 1928.
When I saw her I was not terribly impressed. She was fairly old and not anything like the Britain. It had been my choice so I made the most of it. I started working by doing various jobs and living aboard officially supplying my own food but I managed to maneuver some food on the ship. At the end of three weeks I knew we would soon be sailing. It had been a bit hectic with the constant bombing every night so I decided to go home for the weekend.

The railway stations had been damaged by the bombings and no trains were coming into the city. At the station I was talking to a Royal Mail van driver he said he was going to the suburbs where the trains were running to and although strictly illegal he said he would take me if I hid in his van, which I did. At the station a porter told me there were no trains running to Blackpool (my hometown) that day. So I stood not knowing quite what to do. There was a goods train in the station, so I started talking to the Engine Driver of it and told him my problem. He said he was going to Blackpool and if I wanted and was discreet he would take me on the engine with him. He gave some coveralls to slip over my uniform and off we went. I managed to get a weekend at home thanks to his help and I will always be grateful. It was my last visit for over four years.

I made it back to ship on the Monday and we were told we had to have our medical as we would be signing articles ready for sailing. The medical consisted of us lining up on deck and the ship's doctor asking us were we fit, as our reply was yes, we all passed easily as physically fit for duty.

A few days later we sailed from the Gladstone Dock to the Pier Head to load our troops. They started coming on board, 2,235 in number, it was rather chaotic as most had never been on a ship before, which was overcrowded and over filled. They had no idea how to sling a hammock and in the course of learning collected more wounds to their bodies than they got the rest of the trip. They were dissatisfied with their accommodation, which was very over crowded, no room to sling hammocks. A lot decided that they were not happy and decided to leave, so armed guards were put on the gangways to stop anybody from leaving the ship. (Some even went down the hawsers to the quay). It was decided to take the ship into the river to anchor to ease our problems. The date was 11th November, 1941--Armistice Day.


Map UK to Gibraltar

We set sail amidst the turmoil of irate men to Greenock where the convoy was to be formed. It was quite a sight to see all the ships taking up their positions ready to sail. Some were pretty fast boats, and some from the same company as mine--Canadian Pacific. We pulled anchors and left for places unknown. Out on deck I realized what type of ship I was on (one of the last big coal burners)-- there was more ash on deck than I had ever seen and the smoke from the funnels would have made a marvelous smoke screen, a preview of things to come.

The first day at sea, I was awake early as always, 5:00 am, and headed out on deck, it was really good weather, sunny, and the ship was gently rolling. All around us were the various ships in the convoy. I believe there were about 27 ships in the convoy. I started work, doing whatever I was ordered to do. Everything was quiet and the days melted together. I made some good friends-- most of the waiters were a good crowd, easy to get on with and although the youngest, I was accepted because of my previous experience. I found out we were going to Freetown, West Africa for coal and water. (I should mention we carried 160 firemen and trimmers--nothing but trouble as you will learn later).


Map Gibraltar to West Africa

With the French capitulating, we thought we would have trouble off Dakar because the Germans now had their submarine pens etc. However, we cruised along losing speed (I found out later this was a regular occurrence)and before Freetown the firemen decided to break into the canteen and sample the stock. They were then unable to work--we dropped behind the convoy because we were going so slowly. I did not hear or see of any disciplinary action being taken against them--they appeared to be able to do as they wished. The convoy left us and we continued on to Freetown. The Germans must have decided to take a holiday or we would never have made it.

After a few days here, taking on coal and water--no shore leave was allowed--we headed out (the convoy had gone ahead) to Durban, South Africa. During the next few days I was sent to help out with the Officer's Steward and his Assistant. I was living very well and getting all the good food I needed from the main dining saloon (first class fare).

Prior to taking over this new job, I was sent to clear one of the locker cabins (storeroom) where was stored various items from the days of Chinese crew and passengers. There were about twenty-four wicker baskets containing beautiful china packed in silk quilted padding. Knowing they would be liked as presents by the boys to take home with them I packed them into another locker until I could arrange some trades. Unfortunately I must have been bitten on my hand by some type of poisonous insect, as a few days later my hand started to well and discolour and as the days passed it just got bigger and bigger. I reported to the second steward and showed him my hand. He sent me to the doctor who examined it, gave me some pills and told me to take it easy, and he would see what happened. I was told to carry on and only do what work I could manage. I had life easy except for the pain. I spent my time seeing what I could scrounge etc.

We sailed on into very warm weather it was so hot, I decided to sleep on deck whenever possible, this was comfortable and certainly safer. Sometimes I heard depth charges exploding in the distance and could see the escort vessels sailing fast through the lanes of ships. My hand got much worse and I asked the doctor to lance it, but he seemed a bit unsure of himself. A few days later I forced him to do something about it, as the pain was impossible to stand and my hand was like a balloon. He lanced it with a local freezing anesthetic. Everything seemed OK, I got up to leave the dispensary and passed out. I spent two days in the hospital and felt almost back to normal and could carry on working.

The SS Empress of Asia in Better Times

Oil Painting Empress of Asia

When she was new in 1914, the Empress of Asia and her sister the Empress of Russia were the Pride of CPR's Pacific Fleet. Both Empresses were coal-fired, but their Chinese firemen and trimmers were so skilled that the sisters were able to achieve service speeds of 19 knots and to set speed records on the Pacific.

This beautiful oil painting which belongs to the Vancouver Maritime Museum's Collection, is from W. Kaye Lamb's Empress to the Orient (Vancouver Maritime Museum, Vancouver, B.C., 1991).

We were still having trouble with the firemen and trimmers. They invaded the galley and the pantries after food or anything else they could get. They were always fighting in the stokehold and generally causing trouble. It was quite evident there was no authority or discipline used on them, even when there was not enough water pressure to flush the toilets through lack of steam or have a shower. I always wondered whether we would reach the next port.


Map of Durban and Area

Eventually we arrived in Durban. We anchored off for a couple of days before we tied up to the quay near the clock tower. The troops were disembarked and as we had been at sea six weeks, it was time for some shore leave. I went to the Purser and got a draw from my wages. Off I went ashore to explore the city. Dressed to kill I wandered around this beautiful city, did some shopping and really enjoyed myself. It was very warm at this time of the year, and everywhere the stores were getting ready for Christmas.

I went into a department store for further purchases, and decided to sample the soda fountain. I received my drink, looked around but every table was occupied the place was crowded. I looked again and noticed two girls at a table waving to me to go over to them. They said I could share their table. They were very attractive and we struck up a conversation and I had a very happy time. They were full of fun, my luck was in, and life was great.

One of the girls said she had to leave, so here friend Vickie asked me where I was going in town. I explained I was merely seeing the sights and I was free for the rest of the day. I had in mind visiting the Playhouse which was quite famous there for a nice bar and movie theatres etc., and could she tell me where it was situated in town. Vickie said she would show me the way. When we arrived I thanked her and told her I felt indebted to her, so would she come in with me so I could buy her a drink to clear my debt. We enjoyed each other's company.

Vickie told me she lived with her Aunt during the week and went home at the weekend. She was a volunteer helping at various forces places restaurants. She asked me if I would like to go with her to her Aunt's apartment for dinner. I happily agreed. We went to the car park where she said she had parked her car. The car was I believe a Hudson Terraplane convertible, like new, so we traveled in style. I was made very welcome and had an excellent meal waited on by two coloured servants. Her Aunt was full of fun so I really enjoyed their company.

We decided to go dancing at the Athlone Gardens, an open air ballroom in the park. After a fun evening, time had passed so quickly it was past midnight, time to end our day with regret. I would not let Vickie take me back to the ship, as it would be dangerous driving in around the docks. I caught a cab and on my way back I picked up some fellows of the ship, and we shared the expense. I had arranged to meet Vickie at the dock gates at noon, as I would be able to sneak away them. However, as I was leaving the ship, Vickie's car came driving along the dock right up to the gangway. When the fellows saw me getting in her car, they started catcalls etc. and joking. Then the second steward, my boss, came up and much to my embarrassment said "How are you today, Admiral?" and saluted me. Vickie saw the funny side of our joking and we drove off laughing.

I was asked to visit her parents for Christmas, so I arranged with friends to sneak off the ship with my clothes etc. As we were going for four days, that was the most time I dare risk, although I had bribed a couple of the boys to cover for me. I met Vickie's parents--they were really friendly and made me very welcome. They had a very large but beautiful home. They treated me like I was family. Her father was very wealthy and must have had a lot of power. He suggested that I leave the ship and stay with they and he would give me a top job in his company. He explained he could deal with the authorities so no one would bother me (I would not be put in jail the normal sentence if you jumped ship). I had a wonderful Christmas with them and before leaving I told them that I would stay on the ship until it returned, consider his very kind offer, and call them as soon as I returned. I was never to see them again--fate was against me. I often used to wonder how my brother, Ken was getting along, as I had had to news of him for a year.

New Years was upon us, and we were told there would be no shore leave. This almost caused a riot--extra police were called to stop us leaving the ship. Vegetables and fruit had been delivered and stacked on deck, and when the boys saw the Captain and Chief Officer returning to the ship they pelted them and the Police with the cabbages, oranges, potatoes, etc. At least we had a good laugh and it made some holiday spirit.

Bill Taylor's Memoir is continued in Part Three