By Les Hooper
Go aisatsu. In early May, 1955, the motor vessel MV Kowloon, steamed into Japan’s Inland Sea and anchored out in the harbour of the port of Kure. I didn’t weigh it but the Kowloon was a small steamship of some 3000 tons and was on secondment to the War Office and employed to convey supplies around the Far East, Korea and Japan.
You wouldn’t think that such an everyday event would attract the attention of the SIB Section of the British Commonwealth Forces Korea, whose HQ was in Kure. Well, it did, for around half-nine on that particular day, the Big Cheese, Major Bill Butcher, after his morning coffee, sauntered into the investigators’ office. He usually remained anonymously in his own office reading books so his appearance was akin to the arrival of an apparition, remarkable enough for the half-a-dozen investigators present to sit up and take notice.
But no miracle happened. The OC ran his eyes over us and they alighted on me. “Sergeant Hooper, come with me.” No explanation. He didn’t smile. I wondered if I was about to be honoured for the recent arrest of a drug dealer from the Military Hospital in Kure or in the mire for committing some foul deed. I stood up, shrugged and followed him outside, my mind racing.
We climbed aboard a jeep and I assumed my taxi driver mode. “To the harbour,” he murmured.
I had to say it. “Are we going on a mystery tour, sir?”
I think he nearly smiled. He was a very taciturn, pleasant man. I was in his good books, not only for the drug bust but also, along with my mate, Jack Coombes, for making eight arrests for various crimes one evening in the vicinity of the Kure NAAFI Club, a couple for flogging drugs but mostly currency offences. He left me in the dark. Perhaps he had been struck dumb.
I pulled up alongside the edge of the harbour wall. Small green waves lapped hungrily at the stones. The major found his tongue. He pointed to a ship anchored a few hundred yards out in the harbor. “We’re going out to that boat.”
That was going to be tricky. The Jeep wouldn’t float and he hadn’t suggested bringing swimming trunks. He allayed my fears, climbed out of the Jeep and marched, no, strolled, to a wharf 50 yards distant, where the RMP launch bobbed in the gentle swell. Several military units were stationed on islands in the Inland Sea, hence the need for the launch. It was piloted by a local. The major jumped and I fell aboard and we chugged out to the anchored ship, the MV Kowloon, and I wasn’t seasick.
The major didn’t shout, “Ship ahoy!” We climbed up a short ladder to the deck where we were met by a stocky, bearded man who introduced himself as Jock McRoberts, the captain. The shrill of bosun’s pipes didn’t greet us. I suppose that only happens for visitors to Royal Navy vessels. Anyway, the major introduced us and the captain escorted us to his cramped cabin. As we negotiated a path around the paraphernalia scattered on the deck I noticed several of the Chinese crew eyeing us with blatant curiosity – and hostility?
I won’t bore you with the detail of the cabin discussion. Sufficient to explain that the reason for the SIB involvement was the disappearance of the ship’s refueling pipes. These were long lengths of flexible copper pipes, worth several thousand quid apparently, kept in storage racks alongside the port side gunwale. The captain noticed their absence after leaving the Korean port of Pusan, where he had stopped to offload supplies on the voyage from Hong Kong.
He questioned the crew and got nowhere so he radioed the loss to his owners in Hong Kong. As the ship was contracted to the army, they got on to the military in Hong Kong, who, in turn, signalled the news to the War Office in London, which relayed the info to Headquarters in Kure, demanding action. High powered stuff, which sheds light on the kick in the backside that encouraged Bill Butcher to leave the safety of his office.
The Scottish master ended his story and waited in anticipation, probably expecting the OC to spring a perfect answer. If so, he was bitterly disappointed. I knew what to expect so wasn’t in any way disappointed. Bill stood up, stretched as if to say that he was satisfied and said, “I get the picture.” That gave me the biggest laugh of the day, although I kept it a secret. “Sergeant Hooper here is one of my best men. He’ll do a good job and root out the culprit.”
Gold-plated flattery, said to please the captain, not to boost my ego. The major, of course, was withdrawing from the firing line and leaving me to face the flak and produce a solution to the missing pipe. Time for me to speak up.
“Thank you, sir, for clearing off and leaving me to risk life and limb facing this gang of cut-throats while you sneak back to the security of your office. I’ll cope. After all, I speak fluent Chinese. I spent several hours in Singapore and Hong Kong on the voyage here. Plenty of time to learn the language.”
No, you’re right, I didn’t say that. I merely shrugged. I did a lot of shrugging those days.
I watched the major climb back down the ladder to the RMP launch and meander back to the wharf. I felt awfully lonely. A stranger amongst a bunch of evil-looking foreigners. Helpless!
Captain McRoberts spoke at my shoulder. “Where would you like to begin?”
So I began. I inspected the empty racks that had held the pipes, which told me nothing. I didn’t need a brain like Einstein’s to realize that one or more of the deckhands must have knowledge of the missing items, so who better to question first than the person in charge of the deck – the bosun.
He was a Chinaman called Danny Lee, whose real name was Chen Lei. He was a short, squat, muscular man with permanent frown. Surprisingly, his face wasn’t scarred, he didn’t wear an eye patch or bandana and didn’t carry a cutlass. Perhaps I wasn’t in as much danger as I’d feared.
He spoke reasonable English but I was banging my head against a brick wall, which is a clever trick on a ship, because he said he knew nothing and wouldn’t answer questions directly, constantly pleading ignorance. I had to employ him to translate my questions to other deckhands with the same result – nothing.
Mr Lee was obviously comfortable in his shipboard environment. Being questioned by a young Englishman caused him little grief. It’s usually expedient to remove a suspect from his natural surroundings where he feels safe and take him elsewhere. In this case back to the office. Two hours after my boarding, the launch returned and I took Danny Lee with me.
The ploy worked. The Oriental is only inscrutable when feeling secure. The mask drops when confronted with uncertainty. When I told Danny I considered he was responsible for the theft because it couldn’t happen without his knowledge, he wilted. Well, almost. He admitted knowing about the theft but because of the status of the person involved he daren’t say any more. This time he wouldn’t budge further.
What was the next step? The culprit was on board the ship. So that was where I headed. I left Danny Lee at the office. Once again I risked the choppy waters of the harbour as I took the launch back to the MV Kowloon.
Captain McRoberts stood at the head of the gangway, looking extremely agitated for a dour Scotsman. I didn’t expect to be piped aboard and I wasn’t.
“I’m glad you’re here,” he said. It’s a nice feeling to be wanted. “Since you carted the bosun off, the crew have refused to work and won’t lift a finger until you bring him back.”
I stared at him. “A mutiny?”
He snorted. “I wouldn’t go that far. On strike.” I thought it was the same thing. “They’re frightened about what might happen to him.” I took that with a pinch of salt. “I’d like him returned before the crew get ugly.” Having seen a few of them I thought they already were.
I felt elated. I had a useful weapon in my locker. The detention of the crews’ leader and champion. I asked the captain, “And where’s Fletcher Christian?” You see, I know about Mutiny on the Bounty.
Captain Bligh didn’t. “Who?”
“Whose leading the mutiny, er, strike?”
“The bosun’s mate.” It would be. “He’s abaft with some of the men.” He meant he was at the back of the ship. Thought you’d like to know.
‘What’s his job?”
“He assists the bosun and takes over when the bosun’s off duty. He’s also the derrick operator usually.”
Ah! That rang a bell. A derrick must have been used to offload the pipes. My brain was in top gear now. “I’ll have a word with him.”
“That’s okay. He speaks pretty good English.”
It wasn’t okay. The bosun’s mate spoke pretty bad English. His name was Zhou Xueju. Impossible! I called him Charlie. He liked that. But we managed to understand each other. We eventually reached agreement. He told me who nicked the pipes in Hong Kong and I promised to release Danny Lee.
The wind was favourable. I broke out the top-s’ls and sailed merrily to success. I’ve read the Hornblower books too. I returned to the office, collected Danny, whose memory miraculously returned and confirmed Charlie’s story, and took him back to his ship. I think the crew was pleased to see him although they didn’t line the rails and wave chopsticks. And I was happy because despite all those launch trips across choppy water I still wasn’t seasick and the crew no longer wanted to cut my throat. Another cause for joy. I became more popular than Chairman Mao. They went back to work. I’d quelled the mutiny. Sorry, strike.
So that’s that! Oh, you’d like to know who the culprit was? Understandable. It was, of all people, the Chief Engineer, Antonio Bertotelli. He was easy meat and never tried to argue.
It was a strange case. I never recorded any written statements. The OC was pleased. He could inform HQ BCFK that he’d supervised a successful conclusion to the investigation. The lovely man retired after his Japan stint and emigrated Down Under. It was England’s loss and Australia’s gain. I don’t know what happened to Senor Bertotelli. He probably got the boot and used his ill-gotten gains to buy a spaghetti farm in Naples.
One unsolved puzzle. Why did a scruffy tramp steamer on hire to the British Army carry valuable sea transfer refuelling pipes? I’ll slip on my dark glasses.