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nonFICTION: Barnacles and Bedlam, Part 54

JD&P arranged for water, bottled at a local plant, to be delivered daily to all salvage projects, including the Chamberlain.

Additionally, we received a large supply of ice to make the almost hot water even somewhat drinkable.

Because of the intense heat, perspiration oozed from our bodies, even without exertion.

In a climate with normal humidity, the evaporation of the sweat provides some relief from the intense heat.

The perspiration also leeched out the body mineral salts, so vital to maintain protection against fatigue and the sun's heat.

But in Massawa, the degree of humidity being one of the highest in the world, it clung to our bodies, increasing the discomfort.

Besides gulping lots of liquids, we frequently swallowed salt tablets.

What you've missed: During World War II, I, Paul, whose limited business experience is strictly land-based, sign on as third officer of a salvage vessel, manned by a similarly motley crew, sent to North Africa, on a priority mission, to clear a port of vessels sunk by the retreating Italian navy.

After sampling the beer, wines, and liquors produced by the Mellotti brothers in Massawa... , I diligently avoided imbibing further, because all the local alcoholic beverages tasted foul....

During the early part of our stay in Massawa, there was an adequate supply of coke, root beer, and grape and pineapple juice. Every few weeks a truckload of American beer was shipped from Asmara to our canteen. It was rationed, one can at a time, so five of us made trips between our table and the beer counter until twenty-five cans or more had been accumulated. We then returned to the ship for an evening of tippling.

As time passed the beer trucks arrived less often, and the supply of root beer, coke, and grape and pineapple juice was not replenished.

On rare occasions the British officers' bar sold me a bottle of Haig and Haig Scotch whiskey, but word traveled fast and friends emptied my bottle in short order.

After sampling the beer, wines, and liquors produced by the Mellotti brothers in Massawa and served at the Turino night club, I diligently avoided imbibing further, because all the local alcoholic beverages tasted foul and were harsh to the throat.

During the first week after arrival, prickly heat eruptions that itched unbearably covered my body. After the initial attack, I spent more time in my air-conditioned office and the rash subsided.

But the workmen who labored under the Massawa sun suffered interminably. After a week or two, working twelve to sixteen hours a day, some at strenuous labor, most of them developed extensive heat rashes and convalesced for a few days in Asmara or Ghinda, enjoying the cool breezes of the plateau. Frequently the open sores became infected by contact with rusty metal, barnacles, and sometimes by the African flies that clung to the skin like honey and abounded ashore in great numbers; but fortunately they seldom frequented the dry docks or the ships at anchor.

Enormous cockroaches invaded our deck, and my assistant and I often interrupted the preparation of time sheets to go on a swatting spree to keep them in check.

After only a few weeks on the job some of the American workers made an exodus to the JD&P office in Asmara to hand in their resignations. At first the administrative officers gave a number of them a raise in pay and talked them into returning to Massawa and continue working. To others they offered construction jobs in the cool hill areas. Men who faithfully stayed on the job, without complaining, were ignored and continued working at their original pay scale.

After awhile JD&P authorities no longer pampered the complainers but accepted their resignations. The work contract required that the resigning employee be returned to the place where he had been hired, but transportation out of Massawa or Asmara was unavailable for weeks at a time. Meanwhile, his pay having been terminated, he had to provide his own food and lodging at great expense. Furthermore, upon returning to the United States, a young ex-employee faced the possibility of a call from his draft board.

Through it all, we never lacked for news or scuttlebutt about what was going on in our little part of the world.

One evening an American worker was found injured and unconscious on the road into Massawa. Tire marks on the dusty road indicated that he had been hit by a jeep. None had been released from the JP&D car pool for that evening, but the authorities suspected Wes Hewson of having hot-wired a jeep and gone out on the town. At the Massawa base, he was assigned to service the launches that transported the men from job to job.

by Paul B. Behm
Part 54

Chapter 18
Massawa Adventures And Misadventures
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