Bone Algeria, in 1943, to me, represented a mélange of the best of East and West. It is now called Annaba, but then it was the main supply port for the Allies fighting in Tunisia. This was our destination after leaving Arzew.
In the French section, there were broad tree lined avenues bordered with expensive shops and theaters, and a park where clean, polite children chased pigeons around sparkling fountains. Down at the waterfront was the native quarters, little changed since the Hippo of ancient times from which St. Augustine changed the theological world. The tinsmiths still created pans and pots by hand, while other artisans tooled beauty into that strange smelling Leather and the perfumers worked their secrets which wafted into the streets to mingle with the unending stream of humanity. A little way up from the docks, on the other side, was a massive open air market. Here, the flies far outnumbered the people. That is to say until shortly after noon when the people went home for their siesta, then only the flies remained.
Our First stop was a short one. An Army quartermaster outfit, with the help of native labor, loaded us with 105 and 155 ammunition and c4ations for the French up around Tabarka, and we were off again.
The day was cold and cloudy with not a strong but penetrating wind compelling us to wear our quilted foul weather gear. Around our waist was the ever present life belt. These belts were a rubberized affair about 5 inches wide. There were 2 separate compartments, each one had a co2 cartridge which inflated it when a lever was pressed. Two rubber tubes with valves at the end for inflation by mouth formed a back up system.
About an hour out of Bone, a fire started in the starboard comer of the tank deck up near the galley where the 20mm ammo was stored. It spread quickly and soon the 20mm ammo was going off by the case. when the heads of a number of 55 gal. drums of diesel fuel began to swell, the skipper ordered us to abandon ship.
In the water, I found the co2 cartridges in my lifebelt were empty. The one who designed this backup system must have tested it in a heated swimming pool wearing a bathing suit. Try as I might, the combination of cold 3 to 4 foot seas, foul weather gear and a lethal hailstorm of shells and scrap iron, frustrated every attempt to inflate it with the tubes as designed. The only solution was to return to the ship which was still drifting at a pretty good clip. I then accomplished what many fine athletes could not have done. I caught the ship and climbed onto the stern anchor chock.
While fumbling with those confounded tubes, I heard a voice. It was the cook. He had gone down into the cabin to get the atabrine tablets. It was his duty to see that the crew got a regular dose of them. He tossed me a cork filled donut preserver and left. He'd already stayed longer than he wanted.
The second time, after the heat of the ship, the water seemed doubly cold. I could see in the distance an Arab dhow standing by, but to reach it I had to once again go through that deadly hailstorm. At first, I swam overhand, and then I turned on my back. Though the stroke was slower, I could use different muscles and conserve energy. A piece of shrapnel whizzed within a half inch of my wrist, then a 20mm dropped between my legs exploding far below in the water. This was no place to rest. Once again I summoned that energy seemed lost. where did it come from? It came months ago from the trainers at Little Creek, Virginia. They were men whom I at the time deemed to be sadistic. The brutal three times a day calisthenics were kept up until the last man quit. I often heard, "You'll thank me for this someday." Although I cursed them then, I thanked them that day, and I thank them now.
The dhow was manned by soldiers of the British 1st Army. They had commandeered it to perform the same task we had been assigned. They took us back to Bone to a British LCT. I never knew tea and biscuits could taste so good.
Our officers put us up in a hotel near the waterfront. This sojourn in the heart of Bone where there was never a dull moment endeared me to the city.
I am not sure what the Navy concluded as the cause of the fire. Myself I have never ruled out the likes of that untidy individual in Algiers. These happenings were far too common in North African ports.
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