Chapter VIII: Corfu
Finally, after having sailed for two months, the coast of Greece gratified our longing eyes. It was an inspiring sight! The rugged mountains running straight down to the water's edge, sparsely covered with dark green trees, while a low-lying plateau on the southern extremity of Corfu hid its entrance behind the island. As we approached, a French patrol boat came to meet us and led us through the mysteries of the mine fields and submarine nets that lie between the island and the mainland. On turning the southern point of the island and standing to the northwest the town of Corfu could not be seen, but after an hour's run we picked up with the glass a town off our port bow and found this to be Corfu. We came to another submarine net and after passing through were right in the harbor.
As we had found the other harbors we had visited, so we found this one, crowded with shipping. There was a French fleet of big battleships, Greek merchantmen, English trawlers and a British sloop, many Italian vessels and some nondescripts. There were no American boats to be seen. At slow speed in column formation we made our way across the harbor between Vido Island and the town. We continued past the town and wondered how far back we would have to go for liberty, when, about six miles farther, opposite a small bay, the signal was given to lay to, and the Leonidas, proceeding into the bay dropped anchor close to the beach. Lines were soon run to the shore and our mother ship was berthed for the remainder of the war.
We chasers were ordered to tie by units to buoys already set out, and a great rush was made for those nearest the source of our supplies. When we got tied up and the ships made secure, we found time to look around and take in the beautiful sight that presented itself.
The cove was well protected on three sides by high mountains and the fourth looked down the shore to Corfu. Beautiful green grass ran to the edge of an embankment which was about ten feet high, of rocky formation and almost perpendicular, which insured sufficient depth of water. Olive trees grew on this embankment all the way up to the hills in the background. There were no buildings except a sheep herder's but a few yards from shore. As the cove ran inland with gentle variations of coast line one got a glimpse of a French hydro-aeroplane base. Except for these two spots there was not a mark of civilized habitation to be seen. Looking across the water in the other direction, we saw the Albanian hills, which seemed a reddish brown in the waning sunlight, standing out magnificiently rugged, hard, and uncompromising. Still a milder note seemed to prevail also as one looked at the outlines which gently undulated, each top gradually meeting the other in almost perfect harmony, wave-like till lost far away in the blue of the sky.
Soon, however, our thoughts were brought back to earth by the receipt of orders for all officers to report aboard the Leonidas. The weather was intensely hot just now and our uniform was white trousers and blue blouses, which was followed out by such as were lucky enough to have the whites in condition. Here we met Captain Leigh and Lieutenant-Commander Spafford, who had preceded us by land and had made the preparations we found there. The situation was discussed and directions outlined at this meeting.
It was decided that a line, or barrage, of chasers was to be maintained across the Adriatic from Albania to the Italian coast, a distance of forty miles. The barrage was not on a parallel of latitude but between the nearest points, which made the line approximately on an eighty degree bearing. The chasers were to hold this line. To the north ten miles were English destroyers, and to the south were other British crafts such as trawlers, motor launches, and kite balloon sloops. The line was to be held by twelve chasers for four days before being relieved. As there were ten units of chasers this gave a four on, four off, four on, eight off. The barrage was to be established at once, but as a gasoline tanker had to be brought from Italy before regular operations could be maintained, it took a little time to inaugurate the line properly. Confidential information, charts, plans of mine fields, submarine net emplacements, and recognition signals were distributed to each commanding officer, who already had his safe so full of such matter that there was little space outside the icebox and bilges for this last lot of official writing. Captain Leigh questioned the officers as to the condition of their equipment, their supplies, etc., and found the boats to be very well supplied and equipped. The Leonidas appeared to have on board everything that through lack of foresight or accident might be requisitioned. She seemed capable of entirely refitting the chasers and without seeming to have depleted her stores, yet she had maintained the chasers all the way over from the States. Everyone of the chaser crews is ready to take his hat off to this most efficiently managed ship.
That night tents were pitched on the adjacent neck of land for the supernumeraries of the Leonidas, and extensive preparations were made to establish a base. Working parties were made up to erect living quarters on shore, paths were leveled, and the lot of stores that had cluttered up the deck and every passageway of the mother ship were put on land. Captain Nelson took five chasers to Taranto, Italy, to convoy back our fuel ship. After some delay owing to a report of a suspected raid on the barrage, the captain crossed the straits and ran into Taranto harbor. A most unexpected greeting met him. An Italian ship just outside the harbor knocked off target practice to man the rails as these five little wooden affairs, with the American flag flying, passed. Aeroplanes met him and a most dare-devil exhibition of flying was staged around, between, and over the chasers' masts. To the crews viewing this it seemed the most remarkable and efficient exhibition of flying control they had ever seen.
When they came into the harbor the entire Italian fleet manned the rails and saluted them. This was the first time that the American flag had been in Taranto since the beginning of the war. They tied up alongside the British ship Queen, where they were royally treated, both the officers and crew. It was learned, however, that the tanker was at Augusta, and so they shoved off after a couple of hours for Sicily. The run to Augusta was to be made at utmost speed. The night was very dark. The officers were ashamed to report when their engines had broken down, therefore, they became badly scattered. However, the next morning, since by that time each one of them had had their period of breakdown, their actual runs averaged so that they were in sight of one another. At Augusta they found the tanker ready to get under way and she was brought safely to Corfu.
Now that we had the most important factor of our work, namely, our fuel supply, Captain Nelson led out the first barrage of chasers. At two o'clock in the morning G. M. T. they got under way in column formation and proceeded out of the north end of the harbor. It was impossible to traverse the submarine nets and mine fields before daylight, but as the first streaks of dawn appeared they began making their way through these obstructions by chart. Outside the nets there were three or four miles of swept channel, but beyond that they had to take their chance. Position was taken up at noon and patrol begun. The system was to run for ten minutes towards one shore and listen for five. Distance between the chaser units was five miles, with one mile between boats. At night they lay to wherever they happened to be and put out the K tube. This listening device is a metal triangle with an ear at each vertex. Sound is transmitted to the listener by electricity in much the same manner as in our telephone. By adjustment of movable dials the reading of two successive ears can be gotten, and these dials being graduated the bearing of the sound relative to the K tube can be read from them. The K tube has a small rudder and is attached to the chaser by wire cable, with a buoy so placed that the triangle is suspended sixty-five feet below the surface, and its bearing relative to the ship is known, as the leeway made by the drifting chaser affects the rudder.
The barrage lasted four days, and at noon of the fourth having been relieved by twelve others the start for home was made. Generally it was planned to arrive at the base before dark, for if one did not get to the nets by sundown there was nothing to do but wait until the next morning, which was a serious loss of time, owing to the fact that only three days were allowed for re-fueling, provisioning, and so on, for the next trip. The Leonidas, had a most efficient engine room force; night and day shifts were maintained during the entire stay at Corfu. The only thing necessary to insure always having engine parts back in time was to properly tag them. They were acquainted with the time of individual sailings or barrage work, and never in the six months that we operated from this base was the failure of a chaser being able to get under way due to the machinist department of the mother ship.
In the way of food supplies there was a great lack when taken as a whole. For weeks milk would not be available; then sugar ran low, canned preserves, and even flour for a time was unprocurable. Meat was always obtainable from the French fleet in the harbor. Fruits varied with the seasons, and although prices were exorbitant, no complaint could be made on that point when the location and circumstances were considered.
Here six more chasers joined us the early part of July. They came from the States and convoyed the U. S. S. Carib, which we expected would bring supplies and luxuries, such as candy and tobacco. To our great disappointment her cargo consisted mainly of lumber and building material for the base. There was a flood of applications the days she was in port from the enlisted personnel for transfer to this ship, as it was reported she was to return to the States. Generally, attachment to a vessel of this character would have been considered a hardship; when, however, compared to the cramped crew's quarters of the chasers, with no washroom, nor room for recreation or exercise, and the necessity of being ready for call twenty-four hours of the day, and with no liberty in Corfu, this cargo ship appeared a "snap job."
About two weeks after we arrived a big draft of men and officers came from England. These were put on shore and made to build their own lodgings. They started roads, barracks, storehouses, and erected enormous gas tanks. When any vacancy occurred in the chaser complement, these men were used to fill in. Each day schools for signals and radio were held on the beach, but during this time no liberty was granted in Corfu because of the filthy condition of the town. It was considered hard on the men, especially those who had just come in from five days on the barrage, not to be able to celebrate. Near the middle of July some Y. M. C. A. men and women showed up but their apparatus, such as movies, huts and so on, did not get there for a month.
The question of hair cuts was a big one. The unsanitary and dirty appearance of the barber shops in Corfu with their greasy attendants was not conducive to our trade. A crop of amateur barbers suddenly appeared on the chasers who came mostly from the machinist gangs, who knew much better how to handle a wrench than the small horse clippers and shears they unearthed from somewhere. From their character of scalp treatment, shaved heads became popular, as most of the crew preferred having all their hair pulled out at once to having a number of such applications all tending towards but not accomplishing the same thing.