The High Barbaree - Charles Bernard Nordhoff - ebook

The High Barbaree ebook

Charles Bernard Nordhoff



The hundred and sixtieth meridian of east longitude bisects the island of Guadalcanal. The same meridian, nearly a thousand miles to the north, narrowly misses Ponapé, in the Caroline Group. Truk lies west of Ponapé, Kusaie east-southeast. Six hundred miles to the southeast and below the line is Nauru. Seven hundred miles west of Nauru, but above the Equator, is a tiny island with a formidable name: Kapingamarangi.

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Published October 1945









The High Barbaree


The hundred and sixtieth meridian of east longitude bisects the island of Guadalcanal. The same meridian, nearly a thousand miles to the north, narrowly misses Ponapé, in the Caroline Group. Truk lies west of Ponapé, Kusaie east-southeast. Six hundred miles to the southeast and below the line is Nauru. Seven hundred miles west of Nauru, but above the Equator, is a tiny island with a formidable name: Kapingamarangi. From the point where the hundred and sixtieth meridian crosses the Line, no island closer than three hundred miles is laid down on modern charts.

The islands of this distant sea, with their wild inhabitants and outlandish names, were only less familiar than the New Bedford waterfront to the American whalers of a century ago. In the great days of sperm whaling, shortly before the Civil War, this region was a part of the Line Grounds, resorted to by schools of cachalots at certain times of the year. Here the beamy old vessels from New Bedford and Nantucket filled their barrels with oil and spermaceti, some to be carried home in their own bottoms, some to be transshipped from Russell, New Zealand. On the rich volcanic islands, where a runaway sailor stood no chance of escape and hogs, fruit, and vegetables abounded, the skippers would give their men a run ashore, and fill their ships for a week or two with Micronesian girls. The Yankees were the great explorers of these out-of-the-way corners of the Pacific; they were on the lookout for whales and bound nowhere in particular. At night they hove-to, like old East Indiamen; at daybreak they made sail once more, with men aloft, on the watch for the bushy, forward-slanting spouts of their prey.

When petroleum put an end to sperm whaling, and steam, little by little, put an end to sail, these regions, formerly frequented by whalers, were rarely visited by white men who now kept to the arbitrary sea lanes. A few vessels, most of them flying the British flag, still plied among the islands, in search of copra and indentured labor. At the close of the last war, the Marshalls and Carolines, mandated to Japan, were closed to other navigation, becoming forbidden islands to any but Japanese, where the farsighted Yamamoto was building great air and naval bases in defiance of the League of Nations.

The Japanese gave no encouragement to cartographers, nor to the British and American scientists who wished to study Micronesia; white travelers who wanted a glimpse of the mandated islands found visas impossible to obtain. At the outbreak of the present war, our charts of the Caroline and Marshall groups were old and unreliable. Save for a scattering of Germans, the whalers had been the only men of white blood to know these regions well, but they had trusted more to seamanship than to sextant and chronometer. Today, with the tide of Japanese triumph ebbing fast, Americans have again penetrated the lonely regions their forefathers sailed.

On a morning late in the year 1943, calm reigned over a wide stretch of that equatorial sea. The constellations of the tropics paled with approaching dawn and the first shafts of sunlight revealed an unbroken horizon fringed with stationary tufts of fair-weather cloud. A flock of pelagic birds of the gannet kind rose from the water and trailed off to begin their day’s fishing. The sea was empty in all directions save one. Scarcely more than a mile distant from where the birds had rested, a navy patrol bomber rode the gentle swell, a sea anchor keeping her head to a light easterly breeze.

She was a Catalina, or PBY, one of those dependable old ships of the American and British navies, built in San Diego and known and admired by airmen the world over. Catalinas had fought bitter combats with German subs in the Caribbean, marked down the mighty Bismarck for destruction, helped turn the tide of war in the Aleutians, and torpedoed Japanese men-of-war in the Battle of Midway.

The name on her hull—High Barbaree—and the squadron insignia, a spitting tomcat, were half obliterated by splinters of AA shell. Both of her engines had been wrecked beyond repair and her wing riddled by flak.

Prone on the wing, near the starboard engine nacelle, Lieutenant Alec Brooke kept watch. He was a tall spare fellow in his early twenties, with unkempt blond hair, a deeply tanned face, and blue eyes reddened by a sleepless night. He was dressed in a singlet and a pair of shorts. The sun was an hour high when his navigator, Lieutenant Eugene Mauriac, crawled through the hatch onto the wing. Mauriac was an American of French descent whose family through four generations had lived in Napa County, California. He wore a handkerchief knotted at the corners over his head. Stretching out on the wing beside the pilot, he stared at the sea with a stony, incredulous look.

“I’ve slept like a fool,” he remarked, presently. “Sorry, Alec.”

“Good thing you did. . . . We’re lucky. She’s making very little water. . . . You’ll need more than a handkerchief over your head in another hour.”

“Lucky, you say? I’m not so sure. The still’s wrecked.”

Brooke turned to glance at his companion.

“Why did it have to be that? Well, we can’t expect to have all the luck in the world. . . . How far from here to Guadal?”

“About five hours.”

“If they waited for first light they could be here by eleven.”

Mauriac nodded.

“Go down and get some sleep. My turn now. Toss out my cap, will you?”

Alone on the wing, Mauriac stretched out, his chin resting on his crossed arms. For a little while he forgot their predicament as what seemed a nightmare, in retrospect, took on the hard outlines of reality. Of the crew of the High Barbaree only he and Brooke remained.

There had been five of them, bound together by the closest of all associations. He thought of Willock, the bombardier, the crazy kid from Texas who could perform miracles with a pair of dice or a pair of 500-pound bombs. Over the interphone he had heard Willock, bleeding to death in his compartment in the nose, announce in a weak voice: “One egg left, and she’s hot!” He thought of Meyers, the tough little radioman from Brooklyn, with his cynical humor and his passion for Jap souvenirs which he expected to take home on his first leave. George Lyman, the co-pilot, had died of his wounds late in the afternoon. He and Brooke had buried the three of them during the early part of the night. Mauriac’s thoughts shied away from that memory, back to the beginning of the patrol when they had taken their final jeep ride down to the revetment area at Henderson.

The Navy had reason to suspect that an enemy convoy was setting out from Truk or Ponapé in an attempt to relieve the Gilberts; the situation at those islands was becoming desperate from the Japanese point of view. The High Barbaree had taken off before dawn, bound on a solitary long-range reconnaissance with orders to proceed 800 miles on a course of 335 degrees, and then to fly 300 miles at 112 before heading home for her base.

The big amphibian had droned hour after hour on her course, flying at 8000 feet. The sun rose in a cloudless sky, illuminating horizons such as only the airman knows. The Pacific stretched away without land in sight, a flat boundless desert of blue. As the morning advanced, heavy cloud banks appeared to the northwest; raising them on the horizon and watching their swift approach had given Mauriac his only impression of the rotundity of the earth. A little before noon he had informed Brooke that it was time to turn to starboard on their new course. They had sighted nothing so far.

It was midafternoon when they emerged from a rain squall to come suddenly upon a big enemy submarine on the surface not three miles distant. The Jap made no attempt to crash-dive, realizing, perhaps, from the sound of the engines, that he had only one plane to deal with. Nothing but a slow patrol bomber would be so far distant from any American base. The enemy had decided to shoot it out, with a fair prospect of bagging the PBY like a sitting duck. They’d come close to finishing her with their first salvos. The black bursts with momentary cores of scarlet, blossoming at short intervals, had riddled the Cat with fragments of hot metal. Brooke had made two runs on the sub, straddling it with a pair of 500-pounders and scoring a near miss astern. Then, with one engine dead, he swept down through a storm of flak to 500 feet. As the pilot banked to turn into his final run, Mauriac caught himself yelling while his fifty-caliber Browning in the port blister stitched a seam fore and aft on the pigboat. Next moment the last of Willock’s bombs exploded in a beautiful direct hit, amidships. The plane lurched, staggered, and leveled off. Score for the High Barbaree even if they couldn’t fetch the captain’s pants back to Henderson.

Both engines were dead now and Henderson Field seemed very far away as Brooke brought the plane down in a flat glide. Glancing aft, Mauriac had seen the sub rise bow up and disappear in seething water mixed with oil. Then a great explosion shot spray and debris high in air. Scarcely a mile distant, the High Barbaree squattered down unsteadily and came to rest. Turning, Mauriac had seen the radioman slumped beneath the starboard waist gun in a pool of blood. Then he heard Brooke calling: “Gene! Gene!”

Torn and gashed as she was by shellfire, some freak of battle had preserved the Catalina’s hull from serious damage below the waterline. She rode the sea well, but her topsides were so badly riddled it seemed a miracle that neither Brooke nor Mauriac had been hit. The radio compartment was a wreck and three of their water breakers had been holed by machine-gun fire or fragments of shell.

The two survivors spent a grim afternoon plugging what holes there were below the waterline and bringing some order from the chaos within the plane. The night, when they buried their dead comrades, was grimmer still, and lonelier.

Toward midday the breeze freshened and heavy rain clouds were banking up in the east. Drifting slowly astern as she rode to her sea anchor, the Catalina faced the wavelets that slapped briskly at her bow. At noon when Mauriac took a latitude, Brooke was awake. Together they examined once more the plugged holes in the hull. So little water had seeped through that they were able to clear it easily with their hand bilge pump. Neither of them had eaten in more than twenty-four hours. They now felt a sudden sharp appetite. There was plenty of food for the time being, including a hamper filled with fruit.

The Catalina was equipped with five three-gallon breakers for water and all had been filled before the take-off. Two gallons had been used during the patrol. A full breaker had been so holed that no water remained in it, and another had lost half its contents. Being hopeful, the two men allowed themselves a pint of water each at this first meal.

The distant curtain of clouds, bearing slowly down on them, cast its cool shadow over the sea. Then the sun was hidden; the breeze slackened as the squall approached, to be succeeded by a sharp cold gust that made the plane dip and roll uneasily. Then it was dead calm once more and a light vertical rain began to fall. They were prepared for it and saved two gallons before the shower ceased. The sky brightened a little and it was soon evident that no more rain would come. Brooke handed the containers down through the hatch to Mauriac, who stowed them safely below. A moment later the navigator heard him calling: “Gene! Come up here, quick!”

Listening so intently that they scarcely dared breathe, the two men heard the droning of far-distant motors, now clearly audible, now dying away to silence in the flaws of air. Little by little the volume of sound increased. It was coming from the west.

Though the ceiling was still low, the clouds were beginning to break; here and there golden shafts of sunlight fell upon the sea. Brooke pulled out the pin of a smoke grenade and they watched the dense murky billows trail slowly to leeward, a signal that would have been visible at a great distance on a clear day. The plane was still hidden by clouds though the sound of its motors now filled the air.

“It’s a Cat,” Mauriac said, in a tense voice. “Oh, God, let ’em see us!”

They stared upward, their hopes high. Then, for the fragment of a second, they had a glimpse of the friendly plane, indistinct and wreathed in vapor as it flitted like a ghost across a lane of partially clear air between two clouds.

Straining their eyes they stood silent, expecting every moment to hear the subdued sound of the engines as the Catalina turned to glide to a lower level. But the steady droning remained unchanged, save that the sound diminished, to die away completely at last. The silence of mid-ocean flowed into the vacuum made by its passage.


They had no illusions about the gravity of their situation, but they were young, full of life, and, on the evening of the fourth day, still hopeful. The sun was near to setting and the light breeze died away until only the faintest cat’s-paws blurred the reflections of a few scattered clouds that seemed as motionless as the derelict plane. Presently Mauriac said: “You can’t see it, Alec, but there’s a kind of aureole around your head—an angelic golden light. Nearest thing I’ve ever seen to a halo.”

Brooke smiled.

“Already? I don’t see any around yours.”

“That’s where a towhead scores. You don’t know how other-worldly you look with that corona.”

“What were you thinking about just now?”

“I was going to tell you. I was thinking of the jam we’re in; and then, all of a sudden, the lines of a song I heard over the radio popped into my head.”

“What song is that?”

“An old-timer, I guess. It sounds like one:—

The Cat came back;

He couldn’t stay no longer

So the Cat came back

The very next day . . .

Pretty, don’t you think? And comforting to men in our fix.”

Brooke clasped his hands around his knees.

“I know that song,” he said. “It is an old-timer; I’ve heard my dad sing it. It’s a Capital-C Cat with wings, with an old spitting tom painted on the hull. But not this one. She’ll never come back anywhere again.”

“One of ours will. I don’t know about ‘the very next day.’ ”

“That means tomorrow. Gene, we’ll make that our Vesper hymn. Let’s have it again. Come on, now; wring it out, this time.”

The Cat came back;

He couldn’t stay no longer

So the Cat came back

The very next day.

Yes, the Cat came back;

He couldn’t stay no longer

But the Cat came back

’Cause he wouldn’t stay away.

“I’ll bet that’s never been sung with more enthusiasm,” Mauriac said. “You put a lot of conviction into it, Alec.”

“Brother, I’ve got conviction. That was one of our outfit, certainly, that we caught a glimpse of.”

“Sure it was. They won’t give up after one search on a cloudy day. But there’s an awful lot of sea to cover.”

“Gene . . .”


“What did you say our position was, yesterday, at noon?”

“One hundred and sixty-one degrees, twenty-nine minutes east; forty-six minutes north.”

Brooke was silent for some time; then he remarked: “That’s curious! More than curious!”

“What’s curious about it?”

“Ever hear of Turnbull’s Island?”


“It’s not a hundred miles west of where we are now, and in the same latitude.”

Mauriac smiled.

“Dream on! You’re telling this to your navigator? You don’t really believe there is such an island?”

“I’ve believed in Turnbull’s Island ever since I was ten years old.”

“You’re crazy, Alec! It’s not on the charts, and I’ve got the best Uncle Sam provides.”

“I’ve heard you admit that they’re none too accurate for this region. Furthermore, the Hydrographic Office hasn’t checked on every square mile of the Pacific.”

“It doesn’t have to. Was this what’s-its-name island supposed to be high or low?”

“High. A thousand feet high.”

“Not a hope, Alec. Not a hope. Do you suppose any island, high or low, would have a chance to remain undiscovered?”

“Why not, in this part of the Pacific? It was a mighty lonely region up to the outbreak of the war. . . . Got a copy of Yardley’s Pacific Directory?”

“Never heard of it.”

“I suppose it’s out of print in these days. There’s an account of Turnbull’s Island in Yardley; at least there was, in an edition I saw years ago.”

“Remember what it said about the place?”

“I read it so often when I was a kid that I believe I can still quote it, almost word for word.”

“Okay. Let’s have it.”

“I got interested in the island back in those days. That’s why I remember Yardley’s account of it so well. This is what he says:—

This island was first reported to the U. S. Hydrographic Office in 1842, by Captain Ezra Turnbull of the whaling barque Gay Head. Two of his boats were fast to whales when the clouds broke to the west and he sighted land at a distance of about four leagues. He estimated its height at a thousand feet, and described a sheer cliff on the eastern side, between two sharp volcanic pinnacles. Night was falling and he was unable to stand in closer because of his boats which were far from the ship. The island was again reported in 1857 by a Captain Eastman of New Bedford. He claimed to have caught a glimpse of it far to windward, in the position given by Turnbull. No further report of it has ever been received. In the opinion of the Editor, the existence of Turnbull’s Island is doubtful indeed.”

“That goes for me, too,” Mauriac remarked. “If there were such an island, the fact would have been known long since . . . definitely proven.”

“Not necessarily. Think of the size of the Pacific.”

“In the old days. Not now. Even if there were such an island the Nips would have it, way up here.”

“Yes, I suppose they would. Well . . .”

Chin in hands, their elbows resting on their knees, bare feet braced on the gently sloping wing, the two men fell silent, as though suddenly awed by the immensity of the solitude which enclosed them. They stared to the west, still glorious with the fading splendor of the afterglow.

“I’m going down for a cigarette,” Mauriac remarked. “Want one?”

“Better go butts on yours, hadn’t we?”

“Just as you say.”

The Catalina rocked gently as Mauriac climbed down from the wing. Ripples moved out from the hull as though they were visible waves of the small distinct noises made by the navigator as he proceeded aft to the tail compartment beyond bulkhead seven. Brooke could follow his progress until he reappeared, the lone cigarette behind his ear.

“That’s an odd notion of yours, stowing the cigarettes all the way back in the tail,” Mauriac said. “What’s the idea?”

“We’ve only got the one carton.”

“Not a bad idea at that. They’ll last longer, certainly, if we have to go all the way aft for them, one at a time.”

“In the old days of sail they had a system like that when a ship was short of water. They kept a musket barrel in the main-top. When a man wanted a drink he had to climb-up there for the musket barrel, come down with it to the scuttlebutt outside the galley, suck up his drink, and carry the gun barrel to the main-top again. A seaman wouldn’t take the trouble unless he was really thirsty. . . . Everything okay below?”

Mauriac nodded, soberly.

“I wish we could live on the wing,” he said. “I hate going down. They’re still there, in a way . . . all three.”

“I know. I feel the same.”

“It’s the loneliness, and the emptiness; their being there and not being there.”

Mauriac lighted the cigarette, and after two or three inhales passed it to his companion. They smoked in silence, passing the cigarette back and forth until there was little left but the coal. Brooke tossed the butt into the sea.

“Gene, let’s have it out now . . . what do you say?”

“About ourselves?”

Brooke nodded.

“Our chances are . . . well, what do you think?”

“One in twenty, perhaps.”

“That’s about where I’d put them. This is the fourth day.”

“We can hope, at least, for another three. After that . . .”

“They’ll keep on searching as long as they think there’s a ghost of a chance.”

“Sure they will,” Mauriac replied. “Now we can forget it, for tonight, at least. Alec, we’ve been together through a lot of hell, haven’t we?”

“You said it. We’re going through this, too, and come out on the other side.”

“The other side of what?”

“I’ll tell you that when we get there.”

They had no further speech for some time. Mauriac let his glance travel over the wrecked plane, its outlines becoming indistinct in the twilight.

“How well she rides,” he said. “You know, there’s something safe about a Cat, no matter how rugged things get.”

“She’s a good old crate.”

Mauriac smiled.

“It’s just as well we’re out here by ourselves. We can praise the old girl as she deserves, with no dissenting voices.”

“Don’t say ‘the old girl.’ This is a Tomcat.”

“High Barbaree . . . is that masculine? Pretty fanciful name for a PBY, if you ask me.”

“No more so than a lot of other names.”

“But what does it mean? I don’t see why you’ve always kept so quiet about it.”

“I haven’t meant to,” Brooke replied.

“But you’ve never explained it, have you? All you’ve said is that the name took your fancy a long time ago.”

“So it did. It’s a dream name, if you want to know.”

“A dream name?”

“Yes. I got it out of a dream . . . that is, partly. Do you really want the story of it?”

“Sure. Why not?”

“I’d have to go back to when I was a kid to give you the picture. Tell you the story of my life.”

“Well, that’s jake with me. It looks as though there’d be time enough. Remember the night at Port Moresby when I told you my sad story? You were damned polite, Alec.”

“Polite, hell. I was interested.”

“All right. Now it’s my turn to be interested. We’ve got the night before us. Shoot!”

Brooke was silent for a moment or two. Then he said: “There’s something uncanny about this. I mean, about our being in this particular part of the Pacific, somewhere near Turnbull’s Island. . . . Gene, Turnbull’s Island is the High Barbaree. At least it’s my High Barbaree.”

Mauriac peered at his companion through the gathering gloom.

“You haven’t had a touch of the sun, I hope?”

“No fear!”

“Then what in hell are you talking about?”

“Give me time to explain, will you? I said there was something funny about this. You’ll soon see the connection.”

“Go ahead.”

“I’ve told you that I come from Iowa. You know what people say about us Iowans: that we’re always ‘from’ our home state. We’re no more ‘from’ than the people of any other state. We like to move around, of course. We’re great travelers, but we always have round-trip tickets. I’ve got one in my pocket now. I’m going to use it, too . . . maybe.”

“That’s talking, Alec! You and me both. Mine reads: ‘Good until used to any destination in Napa County, California.’ ”

“We’ll travel that far together when we get leave,” Brooke said. “Farther, if I can persuade you to come to Westview. It’s the prettiest little town; got ’em all beat, in my opinion—east or west. My part of Iowa began to be settled in the forties of the last century; we’ll be having our centenary in 1949. I’ve got to be back for that.”

“I thought all forty-niners were Californians.”

“That’s what all you Native Sons think. Ours were: going-to-be Californians. But when they saw Iowa they forgot about the gold rush. They found a better kind of gold right there than you pan out of gravel beds. So they stayed. And the descendants of those pioneers are still living in Westview.

“A generation after the town was founded the people began building their homes. Their real homes, I mean, where their grandchildren and great-grandchildren were to be born and live after them: substantial, roomy, comfortable homes made to last. Architects of these days can’t see them, but they belong to the country; they’re as native to it as the trees that shade the lawns around them.

“The town hasn’t changed much since the early days, and the people living there are the descendants of the old-timers. Maybe Westview was lucky in having the kind of people it did; those who founded it, settled there and stayed there. They were men and women of good blood and education, some from New England, some from upper New York State, some from Virginia and Pennsylvania. They were individuals, every one, and they loved the land. It needed only a generation to make Iowans of them. They were hard workers—they had to be in those early days—but it wasn’t long until they could take things easier and get some real pleasure out of life.

“The name, Westview, doesn’t really fit; there is no wide view from the town itself. It was sited, originally, three miles to the west, where there is a superb view. The first log cabins were built there, but when the railroad came it was decided to move down beside it. For all that, Westview has always seemed to me exactly right for the name. Ever since I was old enough to see I’ve looked to those hills where the old town stood. To me, the song ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’ has always meant those particular hills; and ‘far away’ has meant west, as though there could be no end to ‘far’ in that direction.

“Our house is on a broad street shaded by elms planted sixty years ago. It isn’t much to look at; the homes of country-town doctors rarely are, but I wouldn’t trade it for any of the others. It had been my Grandfather Brooke’s home, and when it was built, his office was built into it. That shabby old room with its rows of bottles and its smell of drugs has always been a romantic place to me. Dad followed my grandfather in his profession and I would have, too, except for the war. Country-town doctoring seems to be in the blood of the Brookes.

“From the time I was six I used to ride with my father on his calls around that part of the country. He had an old Ford that everyone in the county knew. He also kept a surrey, if you know what that is: a two-seater carriage. It was built by the long-since-defunct Spaulding Wagon & Carriage factory, of Grinnell, Iowa. That was my dad’s real love. Often, when he had a country call to make, if there was no hurry, he would hitch Toby to the surrey and take me with him.

“There was one road that led due south out of the town. It had never been paved, and is no wider now than it was in the old days. The strip of ground on either side is still a part of the old prairie, with wild roses and geraniums, goldenrod and black-eyed Susans growing there according to the time of year. This was my father’s favorite road, and I came to love it as much as he did. A mile beyond the town it turns west and mounts the long slope leading to the hills I’ve spoken of, and by the time you’ve reached the top it is a westward-leading road with a view across miles of country. You’ll have to imagine what you can see from there. I couldn’t begin to tell you of the beauty of the landscape, particularly on a still midsummer afternoon, with nothing to break the silence, perhaps, but the call of a peewee coming from far away. I’ve always associated that view with the faint lonely call, ‘Pee-wee . . . Pee-wee,’ as though it were the very voice of silence and midsummer peace.

“I’ll not take you any farther along that road. You’ll see why I’ve brought it in. But there’s something else I want to speak of in this connection. It concerns my mother and her piano.

“She was twenty years younger than my father, but they were a happily mated pair. She rarely called him by his first name, John. It was usually ‘Doctor’ and somehow that was just right, the way my mother said it. You seemed to feel in it the gap in years that separated without dividing them.

“They were both music lovers. My father played the flute and had been a member of the Westview orchestra as long as I could remember. Mother was really good on the piano, though she rarely played except at home. I remember how I used to stand beside her as she played my father’s favorite songs, or accompanied him as he played the flute. He had old-fashioned tastes in music. So did Mother. Maybe that’s why my own tastes run somewhat in the same direction: into the past.