Thursday 29 Sep 2016

A Big Bomb
AJ Robinson

Among the tales, my father told me about his adventures in North Africa, the most exciting was about the bomb in the ship. Early in 1943, if I remember correctly, he was designated Port Safety Officer for the Port of Bizerte in Tunisia. This meant, he was responsible for arranging the ships as they came into port so that any with explosives were positioned as far apart as possible. For a couple weeks, this was an easy job - every ship that came in was full of tires! They had no idea why that was, but my Dad said that some pin-head at the Pentagon had probably moved a decimal point, and they ended up shipping out ten times more tires than they needed.

On the street of Bizerte, piles and stacks of tires went on for blocks. They were everywhere; the Americans couldn't give them away, thieves wouldn't even steal them - so you know there was a glut on the Black Market!

Then, finally came the day when they got a harbor full of munitions ships. Well, as it turned out, they also had a problem with the Germans - they came over every day to bomb the city. Now, this was not the sort of bombing run from the movies; no skies full of planes, no wail and screech of bombs dropping. No, the Germans were in retreat in North Africa; their resources were severely limited, and their idea of a bombing was to send over a single plane - yes, one plane - with one bomb. It would come down out of the sun and cut its engine as it got over the city. No one could see or hear it - until it dropped its bomb, and then they'd heard that long loud whistle as it plunged toward the ground.

That day - as like the others - the bomber came over, dropped its bomb, and it headed right for the hold of one of the ships. It went in, and nothing happened.

Was it a dud, or on a timer?

Normally, the Bomb Disposal Officer handled such things. Such officers had a notoriously short lifespan; so there wasn't one available. That meant the task fell to the Secondary Bomb Disposal Officer, and that was the Port Safety Officer - my Dad! Now, his way of dealing with a UXB (Unexploded Bomb) was very simple: slap (gently) some plastic explosive on it, stick in a fuse, light it and run. As most of the bombs dropped on the city fell on ruins, it wasn't as if anything important was going to get damaged. Well, he couldn't do that this time!

Taking a deep breath, he marched out onto the dock - while everyone else was running (and swimming) the other way - and went up onto the ship. Using a crane, he lowered a cable into the hold, and then climbed down in there. He tied it around the bomb, went back up to the deck, and - gently - lifted it up and out, and set it in the back of a nearby jeep. Now the fun really began!

Slowly, carefully, he drove through town - with everyone scattering in all directions as he approached. At a crossroad, he came to the main marketplace, and had to stop as carts and camels raced to get away from him.

A ground of Arab children raced up to him shouting, "Johnny, bonbon; Johnny, bonbon!"

It was there way of asking for candy from the soldiers. As most of them knew how to speak French - the French ruled Tunisia for many years - they used the French word for candy - bonbon; and they couldn't say "G.I. Joe," it just didn't come out right. To them, American soldiers were called "Johnny".

He tried to wave them off and warn them about the bomb, but "bomb" sounded like "bonbon," and they asked for more. Finally, he pointed to the back of the jeep, the tall children saw the bomb and they all scattered. A moment later, the road cleared, and he took off through the center of town.

A few minutes later, he was out on the sandy road beyond the city. He stopped, slapped the plastic explosive on the bomb, stuck the fuse in, lit it, and ran to hide behind a sand dune. After that, he had to walk back to town, but he didn't see that as a problem; he dealt with the situation, and all was well.

Not exactly.

His CO (Commanding Officer), Lt. Something-or-other was royally po'd - do I have to tell you what that stands for - at what he'd done. He hadn't defused the bomb, he'd driven it through a civilian area and he'd destroyed a jeep!

Fortunately, Dad knew a thing or two about his CO - and officers in general. When a war starts, the army needs officers - right away - so any sort of professional person is an officer, right away. As he put it: an insurance sales person might be a lieutenant, the president of a bank a captain or colonel. The point is, they don't necessarily know all the rules. So, my Dad just rattled off a bunch of numbers and said that according to Regulation such-and-such, he'd acted in an appropriate manner.

That was all it took; he was off the hook for one of his many wartime adventures. Fortunately, he never again had to deal with a UXB. An exploded bomb - yes, but that's another story.

Combining the gimlet-eye, of Philip Roth, with the precisive mind of Lionel Trilling, AJ Robinson writes about what goes bump in the mind, of 21st century adults. Raised in Boston, with summers on Martha's Vineyard, AJ now lives in Florida. Most of the time he writes, but sometimes he works at Disney World to renew his fantasies and get a few dollars more. AJ writes, with insight and passion, about his family and his dog. His liberal, note the small "l," sensibilities often lead to bouts of righteous indignation, well focused and true.

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