Life in the Fast Lane - John Adams
This story is written by John Adams detailing his time on Christmas Island.
We are very grateful to John for his story and for the fantastic pictures, which I am sure will bring back memories to many of our readers.
A fantastic recollection from 61 years ago.
March 1958 / March 1
After I finished my plant training in Ripon I was posted to 12th Independent Field Squadron at Erlestoke nr Devizes in Wiltshire. I was the only plant operator on the camp and the only plant that they had was a Caterpillar D7 bulldozer but it wasn't running. The C/O said had I any idea what was wrong with it? I had a look and found that as there was water leaking from the head, it was a head gasket. I said if they could get me a head gasket I could try and fix it. So true to form a new head gasket and a clean up on the head and it was away, ran like a bird. So with a bulldozer that now worked I was sent off to build a new car park on a camp at Chiseldon nr Swindon.
I had taken my new Greeves trials bike with me to the camp (I put it on the plant lorry). Which Consisted of a Scammell tractor and tasker turntable trailer. The caterpillar tractors didn’t have electric start, they had a petrol donkey engine which you had to start first & then engage that to start the main engine.then turn the donkey engine off. So it only ran for about a minute or so.I sent back to camp for some petrol for the donkey engine, and they sent 40 gallons. So Erlestoke thought I was staying at Chiseldon, and Chiseldon thought I was going back to Erlestoke,but I was riding my bike HOME!
After a while I got a message to pack up and return to camp at once. This was early March 1958. And we had just had a heavy snowstorm and about 2ft of snow. Anyway we loaded the Cat onto the trailer and started off. It was only a small B road that lead from Chiseldon Via Ogbourne st George towards Marlborough, but we didn’t get very far, the first hill out of the camp, we got about halfway up when the whole lot Scammell trailer with Cat slid back down the hill.
So unhitch the Scammell drive it to the top of the hill, chock the wheels, pull out the winch rope and winch the trailer up the hill. We managed to get to the top eventually, and hitched the Scammell up again and off we went again, until we got to the first sharp bend where the driver thought it safer to keep two wheels on the grass verge going round the bend for more grip, but no the trailer passed us on the inside and jackknifed the Scammell and blocked the road completely. It was dark by this time. It had taken us about 4 hours to go less than 2 miles, so it was decided to leave it till morning to sort it out. But I would have to stay with MY machine to guard it in case someone tried to steal it. Luckily I had got an insulated tank drivers suit to use on the bike from the stores, I told them it was for the tractor.
Anyway I had this to sleep in it across the bench seats in the Scammell. It was about 3 o’clock in the morning that I woke up so cold I was stiff and had a job to move.I realised that I was almost frozen to death .It was minus 10 degrees. I eventually managed to get up and get some circulation going. I fell out of the Scammell into the snow, managed to find something to burn and light a fire and get a little warmth and thaw out a bit, and wait for the recovery crew in the morning. That was a close call!
We eventually got the Cat back to Erlestoke late that day about 24 hours late, only to be told that we had been posted to Christmas Island. And were leaving in 1 week so we could go home for a few days before departing. We had never heard of Christmas Island so the research began. We found out that it was in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, wowee what a place to get posted to. It wasn’t until sometime later that we found out that it was also where we were testing H Bombs. Not so good!!!!
After our few days at home, it was back to camp and then off to Heathrow Airport, which at that time was just a row of single story huts alongside the A4.
We flew on a BOAC super constellation plane, which was a 4 engine turboprop.
The first stop was Shannon in Ireland to refuel before crossing the Atlantic. We flew over Greenland before landing in New York where we stayed for a day I remember nearly getting arrested for jaywalking.
Apparently you are not allowed to cross the road there unless the traffic lights are on red, the cops pulled their guns first and then after they stopped us and we explained that we had just got off the plane and weren't aware of the laws, they let us off with a caution.
The next stage was to San Diego to refuel before flying on to Honolulu, where we stayed in a American Army camp for a couple of nights until an R A F Hastings aircraft picked us up for our final flight to Christmas Island. It was HOT right on the equator but with a constant sea breeze it was bearable, not like Hawaii which was very humid and heavy.
We were taken to the main camp for briefing and medicals etc, then I was told that I would be going to the Quarry troop and living in a tent at airfield camp for the next year.
There were 4 of us to a tent. These were square canvas tents with a pole in the centre with a large cable drum on its side in the middle with the tent pole through the hole in the drum so we had a table in the centre of the tent. And the beds around the outside. And we had electric from the camp generator. We all went to the cookhouse for meals at any time. As I was to find out, we were working shifts. 6-2 & 2-10 & 10-6 as we had to get as much coral
crushed as possible to supply the tarmac plant and concrete making.
We were scraping coral from the beach and stockpiling it to feed the stone crusher to make aggregate. I started out with a Cat D7 pushing up the stockpile to feed the 19 R B face shovel to load the stone crusher. Then a Fowler 33 tractor & scraper. And then the 19 R B face shovel. And even on the stone crusher at times. As I had passed my B 3 plant operators test at Ripon I was qualified to operate all of them so plenty of variety.
I crushed my feet on the tractor and scraper on the left. Someone said I bet you wouldn't drive over the top of the stockpile? So of course I did.which pulled the winch ropes off the drums. So I was putting them back on while standing on the tracks but while the tractor was on the level, the rear wheels of the scraper were still on the slope, so as soon as the bowl of the scraper came off the ground, the tractor rolled forwards trapping my feet between the tracks and the mudguards / battery housings, breaking a few bones in my feet.
So I had 2 weeks holiday in the camp hospital, then it was back to work with both legs in plaster up to my knees which in that heat was agony. The itching was unbearable, because I couldn’t get at it,and the sand used to get down inside. Anyway another 2 weeks and they were off.
I had spells on the 19 RB face shovel and the stone crusher, so a good variety of jobs.
When you think about it today, scraping coral from the beach today would be totally out of bounds, but then we scraped tons and tons everyday no wonder the island is sinking into the sea today.
The tarmac plant made all the tarmac for the roads and runways and was working round the clock. We laid 10 miles of road plus the new runway and all the ancillary roads etc.
It wasn’t all work, we had time off there was the NAFFI were we could drink in the evenings and the cinema. Where films were shown about twice a week, Depending what planes were coming out and what films they could get.
Then there was the lagoon where we used to swim. There was a regular swimming truck going from the camp which was always full. I learnt to swim here, it was easier to swim underwater than on the surface. I bought flippers & mask, it must have been from the NAFFI. I can't think of anywhere else that I could have got them from.
We used to go there at least once a week there were loads of fish in the coral around the lagoon.
One of the other things we were plagued with where Coconut crabs. They used to scuttle across the road in droves, I once woke up in the middle of the night with one sat on my chest. It was about the size of a dinner plate, they used to climb into the tents at night, so we put boards around the sides to try to keep them out, but they could climb, they lived in the coconut groves and fed off the coconuts.
When we first got there the Americans who were there before had left loads of jeeps and other stuff behind when they left. I found a Studebaker 5 ton truck and managed to get it going. But then so many lads were getting injured driving at night and start chasing the crabs and ending up in the coconut trees, that we were banned from using private vehicles on the Island so that all came to an end and we had to walk everywhere again Someone always spoils things. I think they just dug a hole and buried them all. The jeeps etc I mean.
One of the other things that spring to mind were our electric kettles. A catering sized baked bean tin with a piece of wood across the top with a 6ins nail through the wood with the positive wire to the nail and the negative wire to the tin. then plug it in. All the lights used to dim when everyone got back from shift and put their kettles on, And when we had a brew at work we just poured some petrol on the sand and set fire to it, and put a billy on the fire.
I remember our sergeant one day as the fire was going out, decided to throw some more petrol on the fire and ended up with 3rd degree burns and was flown home.
I also used to go fishing quite a lot. I only had a hand line. We made hooks in the blacksmith shop, some as big as a tea plate. I used to drive a stake into the sand, carry the baited hook out to the edge of the reef and throw it over, then go and loop the line around the stake and sit on the sand and wait.
Sometimes I caught quite big tuna. And other smaller fish which I used to take to the cookhouse, so we had a change of diet occasionally. At one time a shark had been spotted offshore, so I had to have a go at catching it. I had caught a good sized tuna earlier, so put that on whole for bait for the shark,waded out and tossed it over the reef. Nothing happened for ages and it was just getting dark at about 7 o’clock. It got dark at the same time all year round being on the equator and the same in the morning at 7 AM dawn.
I had just pulled the stake out of the sand before packing up, when I spotted the fish jumping on the reef, the shark was coming! I sat down on the beach and tied the line around my waist and sure enough it was the shark, at least 10 ft long, it took the bait and made a rush for the open sea, I went down that beach like a rocket, next I was water skiing in my bare feet, heading for the edge of the reef. So I just managed to cut the line as I reached the edge of the reef. That was a close call!
Because there was no deep water around the Island, all the supplies had to be brought ashore by landing craft. The port was quite a busy place as any ships coming in would have to anchor about a mile off shore and load their cargo onto the landing craft and then the landing craft would bring it ashore and off load it again so everything that came to the island was double handled.
In fact I remember at one time there were no matches or lighters on the Island, so I used to buy 2 tins of 50 capstan full strength cigarettes a day and get a light from the cookhouse in the morning, and chain smoke all day, 100 cigs a day!!!
The port was next to the native village. This used to be only used in season when the native Gilbert & Ellice Islanders came to harvest the copra. (the coconut) But when we came to the Island they stayed, and used to work for us. apart from that the Island used to be uninhabited. Not now though.
When we were there they built a children's playground but I never ever saw it used.The kids even very small ones would go out with the fathers in their canoes over the reef, the kids tied a line around their waists and dived down over the reef find an octopus tease it until it grabbed them then tug the line and father would pull them up. It’s amazing how long they could stay down. I tried it once. If I dived down 3 or 4 meters I could hold my breath for 4 minutes. But they could go a lot longer than that.
Back in airfield camp we used to see all the planes coming in to land and take off as our tent was right on the edge of the runway so we knew when a new influx were arriving as Britannia airways had got the contract to fly out, using the then new Bristol Britannia Aircraft.
We also saw the Valiant bomber coming in that had arrived to drop the H bomb or Atom bomb, whichever was on the menu.
And the Canberra jet that sampled the bomb cloud, all these pictures were taken from our tent. So we were there right in the action. A Vulcan bomber that came in, but I wasn’t there to record that, but I know that it caused quite a stir over the States. It was flying so high that they couldn't identify it and they hadn’t got anything that could reach that height.
Another plane that came in was an American Super Fortress which made an emergency landing with engine trouble. So we had a grandstand view of all the air traffic movements from our tent.
The other plane that was a regular was the Shackleton long range bomber that used to go out before a blast to make sure the seas around the Island were clear of shipping or any other hazard to interfere with the tests, he could fly for a very long distance so could cover a large area without refueling.
The other one I mustn’t forget is Captain Flit. He was the king of fly swatting. He used to fly around all the camps on the Island spraying his DDT fly spray everywhere When you think about it now, that was probably just as dangerous as watching the nuclear tests, We used to get soaked in it, he used to fly around every few days in his little Auster plane.
We arrived on Christmas Island about the 28th of March 1958. On April the 28th our first experience of a H bomb Grapple Y this was the biggest nuclear device Britain ever exploded. Equal to 3 million tons of TNT. We were taken to an open space clear of the trees and all sat on the ground in rows, with our backs to the blast zone.We had our eyes closed and our hands over our eyes and pressed against our knees, then came the flash. I could see the bones in my hands just like an x ray. Then the deafening bang.then an eerie silence.
Then the wind which flattened the trees, but being coconut they sprang back up but it did flatten some of the buildings on the other end of the Island. Then it was back to work as normal until August when I had 1 weeks leave we had 2 options Fiji or Hawaii, I chose Fiji, but typical army, there were no flights going to Fiji that week so you’ll have to go to Hawaii.
So it was back on the Hastings, which did a mail run to the american airbase at Hickam fields in Honolulu every few days. To start our weeks holiday.I went out on the town. There was a dance at the YMCA where we were staying,and the hula dancers in the town square.This was the time the US were taking over as the 50th state so there was all of the hullabaloo that went with it.
It was only a short walk to Waikiki beach, which was practically deserted. And hardly any skyscrapers then. About 5 of us hired a taxi for a trip around the Island and went all around the Island of Oahu. We went to the rim of the extinct volcano where the forces cemetery was for Pearl Harbour, there were thousands of gravestones all in row after row covering the whole of the crater floor. All flat slabs engraved with names and set in the grass. So easy to mow over and keep tidy, which it was. Immaculate!!! There were 34000 graves there and it was called The Punchbowl Cemetery.
We drove all around the Island. Through the sugarcane fields and the pineapple fields around the north of the island, along roads very reminiscent of home with the telegraph poles just looked so much like an English country road.
Then through the mountains and stopped at some beautiful secluded beaches.
Then when we got back to Honolulu the driver said would we like to have a look around Pearl Harbour? So of course we said yes. He said have you got anything that looks like a pass? I said we’ve got our army passes. So he said just hold them up as we go through the gate,so we did. And sure enough we drove straight into one of America's top security bases. I took a complete 35 exposure film in there. All the war ships at anchor and the guided missiles on their launch ramps. If we had been stopped coming out we would have been locked up for a long time.
I’m surprised that the film even came back from the processors, because it was a slide film, in those days you had to send it off to Kodak for processing, and get the slides back by post. And anything deemed to be a security risk would have been confiscated. Anyway that was coming to the end of our week’s holiday, but when we went to the airbase we were told that there was no plane, so we had to stay on the airbase for another 3 days before we could get a plane back to Christmas Island, so we ended up with 10 days holiday.
We got a flight back. I think in a DC3 Dakota. I know we could see through the cracks in the sides of the fuselage, not bad for a 2,000 mile flight across the pacific.
One of the first jobs was to build a new airstrip with a longer runway further up the island.
I took my B2 plant operators test doing the final levels on the runway before it was tarmaced with a Blaw Knox motor grader like the one here, and passed with flying colours, and the feedback from pilots later was one of the smoothest runways anywhere.
The next thing was a rush of nuclear tests before the test ban came in. First was on the 22nd of August 1958 with a bomb suspended on a balloon on the end of the Island, but this was only equal to 24,000 tons of TNT. Next came one on the 2nd of September, an airdrop from a Valiant Bomber, this one was a bit bigger at 1,000,000 ton of TNT. Then another on the 11th of September, another airdrop of 800,000 tons of TNT. And then finally on the 23rd of September, the last of the British tests, another balloon suspension of 25,000 tons of TNT. And that was it for the British tests on Christmas Island. But I think that after we left the Americans started testing there again until 1960.
The next big thing was my 20th birthday in November. We had a good night in the NAFFI with plenty of beers.Then it was Christmas dinner on Christmas Island We had a good day in the sun, with our paper hats and bunting etc.
Then it was looking forward to March and coming home. That was 22nd of March 1959. So almost a year by the time we got home it would be. We flew home in a Mk 1 Comet of RAF transport command, this was the first jet engined passenger plane in the world, but the bad news was that since their introduction in 1952 in the first 2 years 3 had crashed.They were taken out of service and redesigned, and went back into service in 1958, but the RAF still had their version, which is what we were coming home on.
They only carried about 40 passengers, and as there were only about 20 of us coming home on that flight, when we stopped in Honolulu to refuel, we filled the empty seats with American servicemen traveling home. They seemed a bit nervy, and talking on the plane, it emerged that some of the planes taking them back to the states had disappeared without trace on the flight back, it had all been hushed up, but of course they all knew.
So when the RAF pilot took off from Honolulu and virtually stood the Comet on its tail and shot up to cruising height, It was no wonder that the Comets were suffering metal fatigue if they were flying them like fighter planes. Anyway we got there ok, and after we dropped them off in Sacramento, we flew on over the Rockies and Salt Lake to Winnipeg where we refueled, it was deep snow and minus 10 deg, a bit of a shock from 70 deg and humid in Honolulu, a few hours before.
But then after that we flew on to Goose Bay in Labrador where it was minus 30 deg and 10 foot of snow, we even landed on hard packed ice. We stayed here overnight, in a 3 story wooden building with stairs on the outside to each floor, which was just as well because the ground floor was completely buried, but they were surprisingly warm once you were inside.
We were glad that we had our army greatcoats when outside as we were only a couple of degrees off the arctic circle. The next day we were off again, this time flying over Greenland and Iceland and eventually in to RAF Lynham nr Swindon then on to Earlstoke for debriefing, and then home for a couple of weeks leave.
And then, news that I was being posted to R E Bomb Disposal at Horsham in West Sussex. To look for ex ww2 bombs etc.