Still on Patrol
‘The art gallery’s haunted you know.’
‘Yes, I’d heard that.’ I turned away from Vykopal’s haunting, earth-toned images of Anzac Cove and looked at the person who had spoken to me. He had sparse white hair and a deeply wrinkled face. But his blue eyes were strong and clear, his back was straight and his bearing sprightly. From his accent I guessed that he was American, close to New York.
‘Are you here for the Anzac Day march?’
‘That, and to pay respects to some old buddies.’ I felt his eyes run appraisingly over me. Then he nodded towards the paintings. ‘Ya had a relative there? Poor bastards, never stood a chance having to assault beaches like that.’
‘No, my grandfather fought in that war but not at Gallipoli. It’s a sacred site for Australians though. I’ve never been there but these paintings are the closest things I’ve seen to how I imagine it to be.’
‘Do ya paint, yerself?’
‘No, I write.’ I felt a flush of embarrassment. ‘Well actually, I like to write but I wouldn’t exactly claim to be a writer. I’m here to attend a writers’ class this afternoon.’
‘Writer eh! This building’s full o’ stories and some pretty dark. What these walls have seen, oh boy!’
‘Were you based here, then? During the war?’
‘Ya know much about that?’
‘I know the old Asylum was used by the US Navy for the crews of its submarines based in Fremantle. That’s pretty well known here, you probably saw the pictures by the door when you came in?’
‘Yes Siree. It was a pretty bustling place back then. Almost three hundred guys workin' and livin' here.’ He pointed through the doorway into the main courtyard. ‘We used to parade out there, the Stars and Stripes flew from a signal mast. At night those who didn’t have a rack in the bunk rooms slung their hammocks under the beams of the verandah. We had a bar, pub I think ya call it, where we drank your local beer. I liked Swan the best. There was another one with an ostrich on the label.’
‘Emu, it’s very similar. But ostriches come from South Africa.’
‘Is that so? Well you learn somethin’ every day.’ He stuck out a hand. ‘Aiple, Fred Aiple, from Newark, New Jersey, Quartermaster, long retired now of course.’ He pronounced it “Noowak Noo Joysee”. The hand was thin and bony but the grip surprisingly firm. I introduced myself and asked if he had made a special trip to Fremantle to see what was left of the submarine base.
‘Ya know what they say. Spend part of your youth in a place and a bit o’ ya always wants to come back. The bunk room I was in was upstairs. I still remember the way, come on. I’ll show ya, if ya’ve got time.’
I followed him along the corridor, past the entrance hall and the exhibition galleries, to the stairs. He rested with his hand on the rail. ‘I’m not so bad on the flat, but I’m slow on the stairs.’ He mounted them one at a time, pausing at the halfway landing. ‘Sorry, I’m not as young was I was.’
‘You take your time, there’s no rush.’
He grinned. ‘Easy for you to say, with half a lifetime still ahead o’ ya.’
At the top of the stars he turned to the right, his footsteps echoing along the empty corridor. He stopped at one of the doors and tried the tarnished brass handle. It turned and he pushed the door open. ‘This is it, over a dozen sailors slept in here.’
It was large enough. Several desks had been pushed together to form a long central table around which brown, tubular plastic framed chairs were clustered, ready for a meeting or a class. A large whiteboard hung on one wall. The tall, narrow windows looked across to the trees, lawn and pools of Fremantle Leisure Centre and muffled the noise of the cars on Ord Street. The floor was covered with a faded and worn dun-coloured carpet beneath which I could feel the uneven floorboards.
‘There were six or seven old metal frame bunks on either side, probably the same ones the women slept on. Lockers at the end. Everything painted battleship grey,’ he pointed to the cornicing. ‘Ya can still see traces of it up there. Except the floorboards, no carpet then. We had to scrub and polish those boards every week for inspection.’
‘Was it a women’s dormitory then, before?’
‘I guess so. I was told the place was in a pretty bad state when the navy took it over. Damp and mouldy and infested with mice and roaches. By the time I got here the building had been pretty well done over. But they couldn’t erase its past. It was built as lunatic asylum ya know and then used as a women’s prison.’
‘I don’t think it was a prison. I thought it was more of a refuge for destitute women.’
‘Don’t let the fancy title fool ya. The conditions for the women who lived here were no better than they were for the lunatics, worse than any prison. Like I said, this building’s full o’ stories. Budding writer, like yourself maybe, ought to be able to make something outta them.’
‘I suppose you must have heard some of those stories from the people who lived nearby?’
‘Yeah, and from some of the former inmates.’
‘Did they come back to have a look at what the Navy had done to the old place, then?’
‘You could kinda say that. Yeah, they did came back to visit. Still do. I’m not surprised that this place has ghosts mind. Apart from what they did to those poor women, the place looks like the set for some B grade horror movie.’
‘It’s the style of architecture, Gothic. It’s meant to look a bit like those old British cathedrals and castles. A relic of our colonial past.’
‘Sounds about right. All that’s missing are Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein and those devilish looking things on the roof, gargoyles, is that what ya call ‘em?’
I chuckled. ‘It does look a bit creepy I admit. And I’ve heard it called the most haunted place in Australia. But I’m a bit of a sceptic myself. Did you really experience ghosts while you were here?’
‘Listen buddy, there were nights when it was hard to sleep with the creakin’ and the bangin’. One night me and the boys, right here in this bunk room, heard footsteps clankin’ along the corridor, like someone draggin’ a chain as they walked. Middle of the night, after curfew, shoulda been nobody about. Softly at first like he was some ways down the corridor. Then clank, clank, clank getting’ louder and louder. The hairs on the back o’ my neck shot straight up, my scalp felt like it was crawlin’ with ants. The clankin’ stopped right outside the door. We was all sittin’ up on our bunks, eyes strainin’ in the darkness. One of the guys laughed. “Come on fellers, it’s a joke. Some wise guy from one of the other dorms trying to wind us up. O’Halloran or Mack. They’re always tellin’ ghost stories. One of you open the door, you’ll see.”
‘Nobody made a move. What the heck, I thought, it must be a joke so I threw off the blanket, jumped across to the door and yanked it open. There was no one there, of course. I looked up and down the corridor, there was a bit o’ moonlight shinin’ in through the windows, but I could see nuttin and there was nowhere in the corridor to hide. But no man could have walked with those chains and not made a sound.’
I shivered, feeling as if something cold was passing through my body. The door to the room was still open and I glanced out into the corridor to reassure myself there was nothing there, at the same time telling myself to stop being so silly.
Behind me Mr Aiple chuckled. ‘Maybe it was a joke but if it was no one ever claimed it. And all the boys heard it. But another night I woke up feelin’ an urgent call of nature. Might have been the chow at suppertime. Anyways I was in too much of a hurry to reach the head to worry about men clankin’ about the corridors. On the way back though, I was climbin’ the stairs and was a few steps from the top when I saw an elderly dame in a white gown cross in front o’ me. It was pitch black in that corridor but I could see that woman as clear as I see ya now. Flowing white hair, eyes wide and red rimmed like she’d been cryin’. She swept passed and I could hear her naked feet slappin’ on the floorboards. There were no women living on the base so I knew she ought not to be there. I jumped up the last few steps and turned into the corridor to follow her. I figured she must have been lost or somethin’. She turned the corner at the bend in the corridor and I hurried to catch up but when I got round the corner she’d vanished. I tell ya, that got me worked up into a cold sweat. First the invisible man with the clankin’ footsteps and then a vanishin’ dame in white. The guys in the bunkroom thought I was just bustin’ their balls. But that wasn’t the only time I saw her. They say she was the ghost of a broad whose daughter had been taken away from her. She went mad with grief and was locked up in here. But the bars didn’t hold her. She managed to open the window and jumped out, killing herself. They say she still searches the corridors for that daughter and that might be true. One day I heard a girl singin’ in one of the upstairs rooms. Same story as before. I went to check it out but there was no one there. But guess what, turned out that was the room where the old broad was locked away.’
‘You must have been here for quite a while then, to have learned all this about the old place?’
‘Learned about its ghosts you mean. Hell no, I was only here about a month. But it was pretty common knowledge to all the guys. Many of ‘em reported hearing bangin’s and whisperin’s after lights out. Some of them even said that they had felt hands touching them as they walked down the corridors late at night.’
‘But weren’t you scared?’
‘If ya wanna to know what being scared’s like then try being depth charged by a team o’ Jap destroyers. Forced down so deep the hull’s groanin’ and creakin’ like a castle full of banshees, the charges bustin’ so close that your ears bleed with the shock and the boat shakin’ so hard that ya teeth rattle. No, we didn’t feel so much frightened as sorry for ‘em, trapped in a place like this where they’d suffered so much.
‘You really think that there were evil things done here?’
‘Stands to reason. Ya lock people up, vulnerable people, women and girls, and there’s always some bastard who’ll make their lives even more miserable. There was three girls locked away here. Teenagers. Their father had them committed because of mental problems. And ya know what, the screws used to sell them for sex to men who’d come sneaking up after dark. One of those girls was locked in a room alone with some guy and started bangin’ on the door crying to be let out. They say that every window in the place started rattlin’ and doors were flung open and banged shut by themselves. Seems as if even the old buildin’ itself couldn’t abide what was going on.’
‘You must have been pleased to get away?’
‘It wasn’t so bad. Fremantle was a good town, the people was friendly. And once we’d gotten used to them the previous inhabitants of this place didn’t bother us too much. But, like I said, I wasn’t here that long. We pulled in off patrol at the end o’ June ’45 and sailed again after a refit at the beginning of August. That was in the Bullhead. A fine boat and a good crew. We all joined when she was commissioned in ’44 and stayed together until she paid off.’
Mr Aiple stopped and glanced at his watch. ‘But hey, I’m holdin’ ya up. Ya gotta class to go to and I have to get back.’ He stuck out a hand. ‘It’s been real nice talkin’ to ya. Given ya something to write about, maybe.’
‘Are you visiting other places while you’re here?’
‘Yeah, I’d like to have a look at the US Navy submarine memorial up on the hill. It’s a favourite place with some of the old timers. We’re headin’ up that way now.’ I shook his hand and watched as he made his way stiffly down the stairs. Then I walked further along the corridor to the room where the writers’ group held its classes.
It was interesting class and the discussion on self-publishing a best seller along the lines of “Fifty Shades of Gray” pushed the veteran and his story to the back of my mind. But as I drove up Ord Street towards Monument Hill I decided to take a detour via the war memorial.
The Fremantle Tram bus had just pulled up disgorging a handful of tourists clutching cameras and smartphones to inspect the limestone obelisk erected to the memory of the Anzacs. But the memorial I was looking for was to the side, a single, grey painted torpedo mounted on a stone plinth, its nose pointed towards Gage Roads. I read the inscription on the base dedicated to the US submariners of the 52 submarines lost during the war and still on patrol.
I pulled my smartphone out of my bag, opened the internet browser, typed in Bullhead and read down the entry. Commissioned in December 1944, nearly sunk on her maiden cruise when a valve failed to close. Spent the first half of 1945 operating in the Gulf of Siam. Refitted in Fremantle in July and then sailed on her third cruise, hunting in the Java Sea. My eyes scanned down to the bottom and I shivered in surprise. Bullhead had been last heard from on 6 August while passing through the Lombok Strait. Japan surrendered on 14 August, Bullhead had been posted missing; she was recorded as the last American submarine to be lost during the war.
The last American submarine to be lost during the war. I let the words sink in as I read the inscription on the memorial again Dedicated to those submarines – Bullhead, and all her crew, among them - still on their eternal patrol. Still on patrol!