HMAS Curlew, Capers from "Up Top">
Anecdotes, some funny, some serious but all mostly true, from "The Real Up Top", a personal view from the decks of HMAS Curlew, a Royal Australian Navy Minesweeper during the Indonesian Confrontation, October 1965 to April 1966.
Challenge to USS Enterprise
On 24th. November, 1965, at 1615hrs, a huge aircraft carrier appeared to the north of our patrol line off One Fathom Bank in Malacca Strait, just north of the junction with Singapore Strait. We knew the USS Enterprise and her escort, USS Bainbridge was traversing the Strait while proceeding from the Mediterranean Sea to the South China Sea off Vietnam. There had been some discussion on board about the "Big E", it was at the time the most powerful warship in the world, nuclear powered and carrying about 130 aircraft (HMS Ark Royal carried 40 aircraft and our HMAS Melbourne carried about 14). USS Bainbridge was also nuclear powered and there was conjecture that both ships would be nuclear armed.
As is the naval custom the Skipper had the TO issue a challenge by light "This is warship Curlew, what ship, where bound?" to Bainbridge as she was the lead ship. The answer came back identifying the ships and destination so Curlew sent back "Wait!". There was a noticeable decrease in bow waves to confirm that the two ships had slowed down. The CO sat in his chair, took off his wristwatch and studied it absorbedly, then after 10 minutes he said "I think the smallest warship in the world has held the two most powerful warships in the world up for long enough" and sent "Proceed". We (the crew) all got a real buzz out of that little dare to the "spunk tanks"!! (Photo: Bainbridge as seen through our bow chaser, stopped awaiting signal to proceed, island in the background is Indonesian).
USN media release: "The Big E transferred from the Mediterranean Sixth Fleet to the Pacific Seventh Fleet in November 1965 and became the first nuclear-powered ship to engage in combat when it launched bomb-laden aircraft in a projection of power against the Viet Cong on Dec.2, 1965. It's hot decks launched 125 sorties on the first day, unleashing 167 tons of bombs and rockets on the enemy supply lines. The next day it set a record of 165 strike sorties in a single day."
Curlew inherited two mascots from minesweepers returning to Australia (Hawk & Gull), one was a big black Alsatian bitch called "Elvis" and the other a Green or Velvet Monkey called "Malacca Fred" by the prvious owners. We renamed this pesky monkey "Green Balls" or "The Little Shit". During our tour in the Tawau Assault Group in Borneo the Curlew acquired a third mascot albeit only for a short period and that was a Borneo orang-utan. Most RN minesweepers had a mascot, usually a chow dog and they were a bit of a pest in that they would go over to another ship and urinate and excrete, even during graunch transfers. When any dog came onboard our ship, Elvis defended her domain aggressively and the problem of visiting dogs soon stopped. Elvis could be sicked onto outsiders (people or dogs) and she barked and growled, sometimes biting trussed up prisoners or the interpreter, after all, they all smelled and looked the same!! Alsatian dogs were uncommon in Malaysia and Singapore in 1965/66 and even the interpreters that we carried were frightened of big Elvis, although she was very gentle most of the time.
The green monkey that Curlew inherited had some bad habits which did not take long to manifest themselves. Whether he had previously been trained or not I never found out however this pestly monkey would come into the bridge and jump & swing round the place but always settled on the compass repeater on the top of the binnacle. After preening itself it stood up and urinated into the voice pipe to the wheel house where the helmsman would find a warm liquid dripping from the voice pipe onto him.
Another trick of this monkey was when the crew were sitting on the forecastle having a beer issue in the late afternoon it would jump onto someones shoulder. At first we thought this was great until the monkeys motive became apparent. The little shit would move from shoulder to shoulder until no one was paying any attention, then without warning would have quick intercourse with the hair on the back of ones neck and ejaculate almost immediately. He also did this to our dog Elvis.
The radar antenna always intrigued the monkey and it would climb on top of the bridge watching the antenna going round. When he had judged the speed of the rotation it would leap up and pull itself up and sit on top of the radar. Then it would start to preen itself until it became so giddy that it was slung off and a loud thud usually indicated that an angry and confused little monkey had hit the deck, but unfortunately he never fell over the side!
The final straw was that the monkey would excrete in the TOs flag locker so eventually Green Balls was given his swimming test and no one knew if he passed or not as the ship was proceeding at full speed at the time of his demise.
Some previous patrol craft, assuming a minesweeper as they carried many dan buoys, had laid a dan to mark the border with Indonesia and to assist with navigation in the Nunukan River, at Tawau, Sabah. There was only a narrow channel between mudbanks when proceeding to the night anchorage off the Indonesian island of Nunukan. The dan buoy went missing for what ever reason and we laid another to remark the official sea border between Malaysia and Indonesia. As the laying of the dan buoy was on completion of our night patrol and the last duty for Curlew in the river that day, we, the sweep deck crew who assembled the buoy and dropped it, attached a sailors cap, chin stay down, complete with tally band "HMAS Curlew" as the top mark! We were heading to Tawau for a stand down and the humor of the situation lasted well into the night at the local "Curlew Bar".
The minesweepers did not carry a huge quantity of fuel and needed to be regularly refuelled with diesel and fresh water. Underway refuelling was a common evolution, however this particular time in Malacca Strait was different. Never seen before or since, the idea to keep the ship in position opposite the fueling point on the RFA Tidesurge was to pass a headrope and "layback" on it while still being propelled by own engines. Worked extremely well but would have been hopeless with any sort of a sea running.
The rules by which RAN ships operated dictated that where possible fuel reserves must not fall below 30%, that provided a buffer for emergencies. This meant that the ship refuelled at every opportunity - it also meant that if the refuelling was from an RFA then we could swap movies with them, as the RFAs usually carried a selection of movies.
Hands to bathe was a common occurrence on warships in hot climates. Curlew regularly stopped for a swim during the afternoon and even the watch would be over the side. There is a deep trench along the coast of Borneo off Sarawak and we often joked that once the water was so deep that you could not touch the bottom it did not really matter the actual depth. Swimming in some of the deepest waters in the world had a buzz to it. (Photo: HMAS Curlew, Hands to Bathe in waters between Royal Charlotte Reef and Rizal Shoal in a depth of 3036 metres or in the old scale 10,019 feet or 1.89 miles deep.)
I was OOW this day and the Navigator was working in the chart house so I whistled up the CO in his cabin to ask if it was OK to stop for a swim. Having the OK, I informed the crew we would be stopping and proceeded to the engine controls and went astern on both. Once I thought that the ship was stopped I challenged the Nav. to see who could be in the water first. We both jumped from the port wing of the bridge and upon surfacing discovered that the ship had not been fully stopped but was still moving ahead slowly. As the watch had not yet rigged the jumping ladder we had nothing to grab so had to swim after the ship for a cable or so as the ship was NUC.
Couple of newspaper clippings from Australia
|This photo appeared in the Sydney Sun in 1965 although none of us knew at the time, however it was proof that we were there!||This is an extract that same article "Ships of the Australian Minesweeping Flotilla have mascots of many descriptions....For instance the Australian Minesweeper Curlew has a stately palm growing in a colourful pot and is affectionately known as "Humphrey Willcox" after the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Bill Wilcox of Rose Bay, Sydney. LTO John Hawkins inspects the palm."