Authors: David Hill
David Hill is an award-winning writer who lives in New Plymouth. His novels, stories and plays for young adults have been published in eight different countries.
For Cam Murray:
a friend for fifty years
âEnemy â range 900 yards and closing! Bearing 125 degrees. Prepare to fire!'
Captain Moore's voice crackled from the gun-turret speaker. Boy Seaman Russell Purchas clutched one of the big bolts on the turret's steel wall, and waited. His shoulders felt tight; his heart beat harder.
â900 yards! Bearing 125!' As Petty Officer Lucas repeated the words, Russell sensed HMNZS
surge forwards in the water. He held harder to the bolt. Just five feet in front of him, Leading Hand Kingi Patu spun a wheel, and the frigate's four-inch gun swivelled to the right. Beside Kingi, another seaman stood, feet wide apart as the warship dipped and rose, a new shell cradled in his arms.
âReady!' PO Lucas's call rang through the turret's metal chamber. Russell felt the others brace, as they'd done so often at training. He tried to imagine an enemy, just half a mile away across the Pacific Ocean, getting closer with every second.
â800 yards!' The captain's voice again. PO Lucas turned a handle, and the gun barrel lowered slightly. â800 yards,' he repeated. âReady!'
The moment Captain Moore spoke, Russell let go of the bolt, and clamped both hands to his ears.
The sound was like twenty sledgehammers hitting iron. The whole turret rang with the din. Russell glimpsed flakes of grey paint falling from the steel walls. The gun recoiled, Kingi wrenched open the breech and the sour smell of burned gunpowder filled the air. A second wrench from Kingi and the empty brass casing went clanging and smoking across the floor. Russell sprang forwards and seized it in his gloved hands, feeling the metal's heat even through the thick material. He dropped it in the steel bin at one side of the turret. The other seaman, unrecognisable under his canvas anti-flash hood, was already sliding the next round into the breech.
âOver by 20 yards!' The captain sounded calm but tight with concentration.
was already wheeling
to starboard, changing course to confuse any guns preparing to shoot back at them. âRange 700. Bearing 90 degrees. Prepare to fire!'
The barrel swung back to the left, and lowered a fraction more. PO Lucas hunched over dials and buttons. â700 yards. Bearing 90.' Then, âReady!'
Again Russell rammed hands against ears. Again the gun bellowed and recoiled. Arms bent, clutched, levered. Inside three seconds, the empty shell-case was in its bin, and a third shell in the breech. Captain Moore began to call: âShort by 30 yarâ'
The voice of the 2-i-c, Commander Yates, burst from the speaker, quick and urgent. âMine! Mine 100 yards ahead. Port side.'
Captain Moore's command came instantly. âStarboard 30!' Again
heeled over, more sharply than before. The gun crew stood still, gripping the nearest handholds. Russell felt his breath catch. A mine, packed with high explosives â the slightest touch and it could blast a hole in the warship's side. His ears strained, listening for the scrape against the hull that could mean his last moments.
Then Commander Yates called again. âClear! Mine astern!'
The frigate's captain cut in almost before the last word was finished. â700 yards. Bearing 60 degrees.
Prepare to fire!'
â700 yards. Bearing 60.' The gun crew crouched. The barrel swung. âReady!'
A third explosion boomed through the turret. This time, Russell felt sure he heard the whistle of the shell as it flashed through the air. They stood poised, waiting.
âHit!' Two voices at once. âConfirmed. Hit confirmed!'
Whoops and grins from everyone. Kingi smacked PO Lucas on the shoulder, then remembered suddenly and went âSorry, sir'. But the petty officer just said, âGood work, lads. Top effort.' The other seaman was carefully sliding the shell he held back into its rack.
âHoods off,' PO Lucas ordered. Gratefully, they all pulled the stifling canvas from their shoulders and heads. Russell saw that the man handling the shells was Able Seaman Johnson â or was it Johansen? In the four weeks he'd been on board, he'd managed to learn half the names of
's hundred crew.
Captain Moore's voice came from the turret speaker again. âThat's one enemy rubbish-tin confirmed sunk. Well done, gun crew. A good practice. Let's make sure we do it just as well when we get to Korea and it's the real thing. Stand down.'
âAye, aye, sir.' PO Lucas turned to the others. âAll
right, lads. Secure the gun.'
The breech was swabbed with hot water. The barrel was lowered and locked. âHow about that mine, sir?' Kingi asked. The petty officer grinned. âThey'll send a boat to pick it up. We don't want any pink-painted fishing floats littering the ocean. Might frighten the whales.' He turned to Russell. âSo, Boy Seaman Purchas, what did you think of that?'
Russell brought his feet together so he was standing to attention. His ears were still ringing, and the smell of gunpowder still filled his nose. âIt â¦ it was amazing, sir.'
The PO nodded. âJust remember: next time it could be a North Korean gunboat, or even a Chinese invasion fleet. We need to stay on our toes. All right, you can sweep out.'
âAye, aye, sir.' As the petty officer left the turret, Russell sighed. This was one thing about the navy that
amazing: all the sweeping and scrubbing and cleaning. As a boy seaman, the youngest person on board, he had to do a lot of it. He reached for the heavy broom.
Kingi stuck his head back through the door. âSpecial treat for you. When you've finished doing that, you can polish my boots.'
âYouâ' Russell lifted the broom to throw it at Kingi. The leading hand's chuckle faded along the
deck outside. Russell started sweeping. In spite of the boring job, he was still fizzing with excitement. How many other sixteen-year-olds had seen and heard what he just had?
He thought of his friend Graham back home, halfway through his electrician's apprenticeship. Fancy wanting to do that for a living, when you could be in the navy! Yeah, this was amazing, all right. In fact, it couldn't be better. Had his Uncle Trevor felt this way during the battles he'd fought in? No â¦ no, he didn't want to think about him.
Thirty minutes later he stood by the rail watching the deep blue-green of the Pacific as
sliced steadily northward. Everything was quiet now; just the hiss of water along the sides, and the throb â a feeling in his body rather than a sound â of the engines deep below. The frigate's cutter had been hoisted back on board, and the big pink-painted fishing float stored in a locker. Someone had painted
on one of its pink sides, above a skull-and-crossbones. Someone else had painted
All right, yours
in smaller letters underneath. Russell wondered if it was Kingi.
The weather was warmer now. It still seemed weird, leaving New Zealand in spring and sailing up into the
northern hemisphere's autumn. Russell didn't mind. They'd spent three weeks off the coast of New South Wales, training with Australian warships, and the late September winds had been freezing. So had the September Tasman Sea, as
butted through heavy waves that broke and surged across the deck, sending icy spray flying in front of them. He'd felt glad when they'd started heading north.
And now, finally, they were just a few days away from Japan. They'd take on oil, supplies and ammunition there. Then it was Korea and the â he still swallowed when he thought of it â the war.
Fighting in the small Asian country had been raging for nearly a year now. During his first months of training, Russell learned how in June 1950, communist North Korea invaded the South with tanks and infantry, the South's army retreating before the advance, along with thousands of exhausted, frightened refugees.
The South Korean forces, along with some US troops, had been pushed back into a tiny area at the very bottom of the country. Then the United Nations began sending reinforcements to help â soldiers, sailors, airmen from countries all across the world, including a New Zealand artillery battery and naval frigates. Suddenly it was the North Koreans who were being hurled back, attacked from land, sea and air. Only four months after they'd invaded, the forces
of the North were in retreat, deep inside their own country.
And then the Chinese had come storming in to help their fellow communists. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers had streamed across the border into North Korea and thrown themselves into fierce battles against UN forces. Once again the communists advanced, pushing further and further south, while UN airstrikes and bombardments from warships tried to stop them.
By June 1951, almost exactly a year after it began, the war had become a series of grim struggles along an area close to the original border between Korea's two halves. Peace talks had started, but didn't seem to be making much progress.
Secretly, Russell hoped the war wouldn't end before he arrived. He wanted to show what he could do. âWe've got to stop those commies,' he'd heard people saying. âRussia and China and North Korea â they'll take over the whole world if they can.'
That was one of the reasons he'd enlisted in the navy almost as soon as he'd turned fifteen. His mother hadn't tried to stop him. âJust promise me you'll be careful,' she'd asked. âYou're the only one left now. If anything hapâ' She stood up suddenly and left the room. Russell sat, gazing at the papers she'd just signed, the
ROYAL NEW ZEALAND NAVY
crest at the top.
He knew what his mother meant. His dad had died of TB when Russell was just a baby, and then Uncle Trevor, his mum's brother, had supported them. But Trevor had joined the army to fight in World War II, and was killed a year before it ended.
Everyone knew about Russell's uncle, Lieutenant Trevor MacKenzie, DSO, MC. âA special bloke,' the recruiting officer said when he was taking down Russell's details. âYou must be very proud of him, son. You look a lot like him, too.'
He'd heard words like that so many times. âA hero â¦ proud of him â¦ look like him.' He could hear them now inside his head as he stood watching the sea foam and murmur along
's sides. People thought his uncle had died bravely, just the way he'd fought through North Africa and Italy earlier in the war.
But Russell knew the truth. So did his mother, though she'd never admitted it to him. His uncle wasn't brave, wasn't a hero. He was a coward. And a traitor.