CHRISTMAS 1954 – SASEBO, JAPAN

by J P Hugh Sproule

Setting the Scene: - HMCS Huron was just completing a 6-month Korean deployment as a member of the UN Naval ‘Peacekeeping’ Task Force. We spent Christmas in Japan and New Years in Hong Kong before we left the far east for home via the Suez Canal completing a circumnavigation referred to as ‘West About’. I was 20 years old, the ship’s only Physical Education Instructor and newly promoted to Leading Seaman (LSPT2 J P Hugh Sproule 16479-H HMCS Huron July 1954 to December 1955).
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LSPT2 J P Hugh Sproule in 1954.
 
It all started Christmas Eve ashore in a Sasebo drinking establishment frequented by Canadians, Brits and a few US sailors who could appreciate our brand of humour. The guys from my ship, HMCS Huron and our sister ship HMCS Iroquois, had brought pickled eggs, and the Brits had brought untold quantities of Solomon Gundy (pickled herring). Yeah, let the party begin! With more than two beers to my credit and the availability of these delicacies, I must admit to indulging. A shipmate warned me about the effect of this highly combustible combination could have on my system, but the warning went unheeded. “No sweat – it’s under control.” His doubtful retort was “Yeah, right – I’ll remind you of that tomorrow.”

Christmas Day - - My Boatswains’ Mate (an Able Seaman) and I (a Leading Seaman) relieved the gangway staff. I was in charge of the watch, and was referred to as Corporal of the Gangway. We were paired with two others of equal rank, and would rotate for the next 24 hours – four hours on and four hours off. We took over at 0800 sharp and soon the fresh air was clearing our heads of the previous evening’s cobwebs. As it was Christmas, we expected a quiet day. Shortly after ‘hands’ were mustered for cleaning stations, the XO (Executive Officer – known to lower deck guys as ’the Jimmy’) advised me to pipe (a call on the ship’s broadcast system) that the ship’s harmonium was to be returned to the wardroom (officer’s mess) ASAP by those who borrowed it. Being not too swift this early in the day, I asked, “Sir, what’s a harmonium?” To which he replied, “It’s a small organ.” So the following pipe was made -  Tweet - taweet on the bosun’s call, followed by the voice message, “Do you hear there - - The First Lieutenant has misplaced his organ and the person in possession of same is to return it to the wardroom immediately. That is all.” I no sooner turned off the ship’s broadcast system than the Jimmy appeared in front of me looking rather perplexed – “You will repeat the pipe, only replace First Lieutenant with the words ’ship’s company’ and replace organ with its proper name, harmonium.” “Yes Sir.” “I will also wait while you make the pipe.” - - Tweet – taweet on the bosun’s call – “Belay the last pipe”. I repeated the last pipe with the Jimmy’s corrections. As a parting shot the Jimmy said, “Sproule, I want you to round up the other two members of your trio and report to the padre in the wardroom flats 12 Noon sharp. The padre wants to practice your carol one more time.” - - Damn, I’ll miss my tot (standard daily issue of rum) and we’ll be lucky to get some of the better cuts of the turkey, I thought, - but replied - - “Yes Sir.”

A bit of background info - - Shortly after leaving Halifax for the Far East, three of us discovered that we had a love for merriment, song and entertaining. There was Stoker Parks, Spud the Sparker who also played the guitar (both tenors) and myself, the lone baritone. We trained hard all the way to the Far East in the many bars and drinking establishments of the ports-o-call along the way. Unfortunately, we made the mistake of clowning in the mess deck one day with an upbeat version of a rather raunchy tune we’d just learned from the Brits. The padre heard us and with the Jimmy’s help, volunteered us to sing ‘We Three Kings” at the ship’s company Christmas Concert. Now back to the day in question.

The Bosun’s Mate and I knew something was up when several stokers (engine room types) started appearing on the upper deck. Stokers on the upper deck in cold weather? Now that is rare! They much prefer the warmer climate of their mess deck or engine room. I inquired about this phenomenon and discovered that “the Petty Officer ERA (Engine Room Artificer – we’ll call him Fred) is pissed out of his tree and has decided to hold a ‘revival’ meeting in the stokers’ mess. It’s all a little too much, so we chose the cooler upper deck.” - - Damn, Fred’s at it again. The only time he gets ‘holy’ is when he’s on the sauce. After about 15 – 20 minutes the cold upper deck was too much and they wandered back inside.  - - It wasn’t a half hour later when one of the cooks came flying up to us (in the shelter of the officer cabin flats) on the port side aft. “Hey guys, someone has fallen overboard amidships starboard side.” We rushed over and there was PO ERA Fred splashing about in the water of Sasebo Harbour on Christmas Day. So much for his revival meeting. I threw him the kisby ring, but he was too wasted to reach it. The cook worried, looked at me and asked, “Are you going in to get him?”  “Not on your life!” - - I told the cook to go to the wardroom and tell the officer-of-the-day and notify the PO Tiffy (Medical Assistant) of the problem. The Bosun’s Mate and I headed for the ship’s whaler (30 foot oared life boat) tied to the lower boom on the starboard side. I instructed the Bosun’s Mate to slack off the boat’s painter (bow line) and let the whaler drift back to PO Fred. I was eventually able to grab him, but he was no help at all so we had to elicit help from the many members of the crew who had now gathered to watch the fun. With help we got him into the boat and with the aid of the horse collar and many hands we got him aboard the ship, into Sick Bay and under the care of the Tiffy. When we climbed back aboard and resumed our work, we were greeted by the First Lieutenant, “Well done lads, that was quick thinking – good effort.” Christmas was back on schedule, all is right with the world. Oh, look at the time - our watch is almost over. Time for my tot. - - Oooops, I had almost forgotten the rehearsal, - damn.

1400 Christmas afternoon – the ship’s broadcast system crackled, then came the tweet – taweet of the bosun’s call followed by, “Do you hear there, all ship’s company personnel not required for duty are to muster in the after upper mess deck for the Christmas Service and Carol Concert commencing at

1430. That is all.”  As arranged by the padre the three of us gathered in the forward upper mess to prepare for our moment of stardom. At the padre’s suggestion we were to dress up like Kings of old.  Where in this ship are we going to get costumes that depicted the parts we were to play? As true sailors do, we improvised. With towels tied around our heads using tarred marlin and a pussers’ blanket around our shoulders – we were a sight to behold. Stoker Parks best describes the scene, “Hey guys, we look like refugees from a Barrington Street (Halifax, NS) pawn shop.” Come what may, we were ready. We were slated to ‘do our thing’ after the padre had warmed everyone up with a prayer and three or four carols.

At approximately 1425 the padre left us to play the harmonium and lead the carol sing. As the singing began the Cox’n (senior Chief Petty Officer in the Ship) appeared in the forward upper mess deck and wagged a finger at me. Oh, oh, what have I done now? When I approached him, he smiled and said, “That was quick thinking on your part this morning Sproule – great job, well done. You missed your tot so I saved it for you.” At that point he pulled a small bottle and a glass out of his jacket pocket. ”I’m afraid there’s no mix, so you’ll have to drink it neet.” He handed me the glass with two ounces of pussers’ rum (over proof) and left. I took a couple of sips; oh, am I going to enjoy this! At that point the door to the mess deck opened and a guy shouted, “You goons are on in two minutes.” - - Damn, I’m not going to waste my rum. It will probably enhance my performance - down the hatch.
The GI (CPO Gunnery Instructor) was acting as the MC. We were introduced as the ‘Mess Deck Troubadours’ and entered amid applause, whistles and snide remarks. We took our positions. The padre nodded to us, played the intro and we were off.

- - “We three kings of Orient are, bearing gifts we traverse afar.” etc. - - - “
- - then the chorus - - “Star of wonder, star of night, Star with royal beauty bright, - - -“
”Did we sound great! We were a real hit. Oh, oh, - I started to feel some rumblings in my stomach – I’ll have to watch that.  Stoker Parks started his solo a little hesitantly, but quickly picked up steam (no pun intended).
- -“Born a king on Bethlehem's plain, Gold I bring to crown Him again,“ etc.
- - “Star of wonder, star of night, Star - - - - - -
 - - Oh, oh - I have more rumbling and a tightness in my stomach. Playing his guitar and singing Spud the Sparker entered right on queue.
“Frankincense to offer have I. Incense owns a Deity nigh”
-  Star of wonder, star of night - - -
- I’ll have to watch it, I’m really feeling very uncomfortable now; however, my voice is on key and my baritone is as sweet as ever.  Here we go.
“Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume - - - - “
I never got any farther.  I don’t know whether it was the Cox’ns tot of rum, the beer, pickled eggs, Solomon Gundy from the night before or all four, but whatever it was, at that exact moment full blown ‘flatulence’ struck, - - loudly - - baruuuuuummmmmph.
 
 I stopped singing; the padre stopped playing, no one spoke and there was complete silence for about 10 seconds. Then gales of laughter broke forth – even the padre had a smile on his face. No one moved. The Cox’n was doubled over in hysteria as he wagged his finger at me. The First Lieutenant looked at me, shook his head and left the area, followed closely by the remainder of those gathered, since the aroma was considerably less than pleasant (read unbearable). One of the last to leave was my shipmate from the night before who, as he wiped the tears from his eyes said, “You’ve got it all under control eh, - - yeah right.”!

So much for my big moment - - Christmas 1954 slid into history.

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