Fishing helped supplement crew's diet
Name: Morris Ochert
Unit: Merchant seaman
Morris Ochert OAM was a merchant seaman throughout World War II. He served as an engineer on a variety of ships, sailing to all parts of the world.
He survived air and torpedo attacks, storms and crew members ranging from plain stupid to totally insane - particularly when in the grip of the demon drink.
Throughout the many hours spent at sea and in port waiting for convoys to form or cargoes to be unloaded, Morris developed a number of hobbies - among them was fishing.
He takes up the story:
Fishing was a major pastime, particularly on the Ban Hong Liong on which I sailed for about two years. We would ply to and from various eastern Australian ports to Papua New Guinea, Dutch New Guinea, Darwin and to the islands in the north.
Mainly we passed through the Great Barrier Reef in convoy. We'd troll a heavy line astern, having fabricated a steel arrangement as a rod, using a strong spring to provide some flexure if a big fish struck. About a metre of chain just before the hook prevented the line from snapping - sometimes.
One of the Lascars would be stationed to watch and blow a whistle when a fish had struck. There was also a red flag on the "rod" which waved when a load was on the line and which could be seen from the bridge. As soon as that happened a signal "dead slow ahead" was rung to the engine room and the line would be wound in on a hand winch.
There was such excitement when our catch was dumped on the deck - it could be shark, salmon or any kind of reef fish. Some were huge. Our fat little Chinese cook would be ready with his huge cleaver, the catch would be chopped up and dressed right there and it would be served at the next meal.
You may ask how could we do this when in convoy? Our skipper would try to ensure that we were in the rear. Sometimes we had troopships, Australian or American, alongside us and to break the monotony, hundreds of boys would line their decks to watch the fun. If we, for any reason, failed to realise we had a fish on the line, their cheers soon told us.
Cookie had an amazing knowledge of fish - at a glance he could tell whether a fish had edible or toxic flesh. There were some of the latter and it was just as well he knew.
At a wharf or anchorage in some northern ports, we'd swing out a cargo derrick and lower a coal basket with pieces of bait (dead fish, etc) tied inside it. These baskets were about 4 feet (1.2m) in diameter by about 3 feet (0.9m) deep, woven in heavy rattan (flexible bamboo). They were used in Asian ports to take coal aboard.
On the end of a cargo derrick, the basket was slowly lowered to the seabed and handfuls of stale bread and weevily rice (we always had bags of that) were thrown into the water to act as burley. After a couple of minutes the basket would be slowly raised and, when clear of the surface, the water would pour from between the spaces in the weave, leaving a terrific catch of fish.
One night when the basket was tipped, out slithered a huge, sleek, long, black sea snake. The crowd on deck, native crew and white officers alike, scattered. This snake was really wild and it went everywhere like greased lightning! Cargo lamps were plugged in so that we could see our unwelcome visitor. Fire hoses played powerful jets of water on it in an effort to induce it into one of the freeports - those elliptical holes through which water can escape when a big sea breaks over the deck. But he just got madder and wouldn't leave.
The Skipper brought his rifle and aimed a few shots which went bouncing off the deck and bulkheads and caused even greater panic. One of the officers shouted "Get the ******* thing orf the old bastard. He'll kill more uv us than the ******* snake".
Suddenly the snake calmed down, slithered to a freeport and was gone forever. Fishing was over for the night.
We tried once more - and only once - in the same port and at the same berth. After a time, when we tipped out the basket, there amongst the fish was the badly mutilated body of a young woman. Two limbs were missing and it had been terribly torn about. The police came, the body was wrapped in old canvas (it was before the days of plastic body bags) and, next day, the skipper had to attend the Coroner's Court. We left port later that day and never fished using a coal bucket again.
This article was written by Morris Ochert of Queensland, who served in the Merchant Marine throughout World War II