TIMES OF OUR LIVES
Written on July 7, 1988 -
by my father, Andrew Desmond Sheppard
(transcribed from personal family memorabilia)
TRINIDAD was and is a predominantly Roman Catholic Country because of its Spanish and French origins. I was Presbyterian. Being the last of six sons, obtaining a place in the Government-run main secondary school was a problem for my brother Robert and I because we had four older brothers attending that college, Queen’s Royal College, and their regulations did not permit any more than four pupils from any one family.
St. Mary's College (College of the Immaculate Conception)
Frederick Street, Port of Spain
Consequently, Robert and I found ourselves at St. Mary’s College, otherwise known as C.I.C. (College of the Immaculate Conception) almost entirely Roman Catholic. We were definitely out of place. Apart from studies, the only other activities that we could perform were football, athletics, boxing. We were not allowed to join the Sea Scouts, nor could we join choirs nor drama clubs. Cadets was also on the list of restricted areas. We were also prevented from entering the school chapel. Whenever our Catholic friends attended Mass, we were obliged to remain in our classrooms for the period under the supervision of a Protestant teacher or a Head Boy. It was uncomfortable and confusing to be in this situation. It was not our imagination either that non-Catholics were the victims of discrimination. We were always severely punished for any infringement of the rules of the school. Being late or forgetting poetry or not completing homework always guaranteed us a beating by the Dean of Studies or the Dean of Discipline.
The former was German with very bushy eyebrows and thick, horn-rimmed glasses. He had the largest wrists I have ever seen on a medium sized man. He was deadly accurate when he administered the mandatory six strokes of the thick cane which always caught you on the finger-tips or just below. Three on each hand. Very painful and humiliating. Eventually, I found out that by rubbing the affected fingers with a garlic pod, the result was all fingers swollen to twice their size. Of course, the garlic pod was in your pants pocket and you had to use it immediately for maximum effect. Then you displayed to your form teacher and fellow pupils, the result of this unnecessary cruelty administered by a priest, of all people. I think now that it was their means of expressing frustration. Of course, the Dean of Discipline was a larger man. The biggest Irish priest in the island, I am sure. He was tall, fat and ruddy-faced, like Goering. He really enjoyed hurting poor little defenseless boys. He preferred to beat you on your backside. Poor fellow, it must have been his heart or blood pressure. He dropped down dead in his office one day. His successor was worse. He had a bad temper and he was a Trinidad-Chinese. It was my good fortune not to have known him.
In spite of everything, Robert and I succeeded up to a point. Our widowed mother could no longer afford to pay the school fees of $12.00 per three month term each, so we had to leave and find gainful employment to assist in supporting our large family of twelve children.
Robert got a job with a large, diverse commercial company as an office boy and I got a similar job at A. S. Brydens nearby. Soon, I was promoted to Senior Office Boy and was taught Customs procedures as well as salesmanship. Our firm had good agencies. One day I would be selling Ponds Cold Cream, Tatoo lipstick and Erasmic Herbal Soap, the next day Gestetner duplicating machines, the next day medical lines. The island of Trinidad was my territory. On Tuesdays I would walk to the Railway Station and take a 3rd class seat in the train to either San Fernando, Princes Town, Rio Claro or Sangre Grande with my sample case, to sell and get orders for delivery next day. Most of my clients were druggists and were pleasant people. I was rewarded with more territory. I was given Belmont, St. James, Woodbrook and downtown Port-of-Spain. My shoes became worn so quickly, it was expensive to walk all over the city all day. I received only $12.00 per month.
One day I gathered the courage and approached Mr. Burslem, Sales Manager, who was from New Zealand. I told him that I wanted to do a better job but was restricted due to lack of transportation. He said that I was doing a good job and offered me an increase in salary of $3.00. I would now be earning $15.00 per month. The year was 1938. He also offered to buy a bicycle from Mr. Gonzalez who were distributors of a brand of bicycle of which Bryden’s were agents. This I could have immediately but my company would deduct $3.00 per month as repayment. I gladly agreed and got my cherished bicycle. I rode it all over Trinidad and cared it like a baby.
Start of World War II
Mr. Bryden, who held the rank of Captain in the British Army during the 1914-1918 war, was in charge of a machine-gun company and suffered bad leg injuries in action. He called me one day and told me that he believed that another World War was imminent because a mad-man in Germany named Hitler was getting too powerful. He suggested that all young men should learn to bear arms and be prepared to defend their country. To this I agreed and joined Captain Bryden’s newly formed Machine Gun Corps, a branch of the 1st Battalion of the Trinidad Volunteers. There were 30 of us volunteers and we attended “parade” thrice weekly, after work, from 5.00 p.m.. to 7.00 p.m. We were instructed in the use and care of all available firearms, the .303 rifle, .45 revolver, bayonet use and the Vickers .303 machine gun.
When war was declared, we already knew all about firearms and military drill and discipline. War was declared on 3rd September, 1939 and on 4th September, the next day being Monday, I reported to the Harbour Master as a volunteer for service in the yet to be formed TRINIDAD ROYAL NAVAL VOLUNTEER RESERVE. Our local “navy” was sold for $1.00 each, the following vessels:-
The “Lady Hollis”, a wooden, flat bottomed boat which was used by Government to service the adjacent islands.
The “Berwynd”, a steel hulled vessel used by the Archer Coal Depot for ship to shore operations.
The “Lobelia”, the private yacht of the General Manager of Trinidad Leaseholds Ltd., Trinidad’s largest oil company and oil refinery. We also commandeered a Chris-Craft speed boat for conveying officers mainly to and from the boats, plus a couple of row boats. That was our navy, September/October 1939.
Our Commanding Officer, with the rank of Lieutenant Commander, was George Lindsay who had previously gained fame by coming from England to Trinidad and taking back to England a trawler named “Girl Pat” which was stolen and brought to Trinidad. His second in command was Archie Arnold, also English, long resident in Trinidad. Ken Ball, George Black, Eric Scandella, Eric Norman, Peter Golding, < space> comprised the commissioned officers. Leading seamen included Pat Castagne, Archie Larsen and others. I became cook on “Lobelia” and machine gunner on Berwynd.
In all we numbered 100 other ranks (sailors) with approximately twelve commissioned and non-commissioned officers. Our base was Staubles Bay which was a resort area on the North-West Peninsula of Trinidad and which contained a large club house with swimming pool and diving boards and a jetty. It was surrounded by beach bungalows which accommodated Command H.Q. and Officers’ quarters. We were a well trained group and our morale was high. We worked hard and long hours but never complained – until one night! One never-to-be-forgotten night!
It occurred when the Quartermaster and the Armourer from Military Headquarters arrived at the Naval Base and took away all the rifles and live ammunition for checking their efficiency and to complete their inventory. That night, when everyone but the sentries was asleep, a squad of Dutch Marines arrived and quickly captured the base. These marines were from Holland, an ally of the British, and they were survivors from a sunken Dutch warship who were brought to Trinidad to await conveyance back to Holland. The local military authorities thought it would be a good opportunity to test the defenses at the gates of Trinidad. The Dutch uniforms and helmets were similar to that of the Germans. Their accents are also similar to German. These invading “Germans” arrived by sea and land. They used rubber bullets and quickly captured the base and all personnel. The Sentry at the Main Gate must have broken the world’s record for running. He has not been seen since that night. A helpless situation and a dirty trick.
My family’s need for money was great and I was persuaded to leave the TRNVR and join the Canadian Bank of Commerce where I worked for just over one year. I was offered and accepted a Commission as Second Lieutenant in the newly formed 1st Works Company of the South Caribbean Force, which included all the islands of the Eastern Caribbean and British Guiana. There were only two locally appointed officers – my superior officer was a Lieutenant and we were commanded by a Captain of the Royal Engineers who was sent to train us. Our original C.O. was a World War I officer of the R.E., Captain Watson, who was the head of Ash & Watson, Construction Engineers. He was also previously in charge of Public Works. Initially our personnel were drawn from the Public Works and comprised all of the construction and maintenance trades. We had plumbers, masons, electricians, carpenters, joiners, drivers, painters, labourers, mechanics, a total complement of 120 men. Public Works foremen were appointed according to value and quality of leadership to the posts of Sergeant Major, Sergeants, Corporals, etc.
We were based at St. James Barracks, Port-of-Spain, but we worked in turn or collectively at British Army Camps all over Trinidad. This included camps of the Royal Artillery and of course, the Infantry. Other than constructing roads, drains, septic tanks, we also erected all of the personnel huts, offices, garages, etc. We constructed anti-aircraft sites to accommodate the AcK-AcK guns; coastal battery bases at Gasparee, Point Fortin, Point-a-Pierre; observation towers at La Brea, San Fernando Point Fortin and other locations. Bomb shelters and underground command posts were also constructed by our Company.
July 31, 1943 marks the day of our marriage. My wife Betty was Barbadian whom I met during a short vacation to Barbados. We resided in Port-of-Spain but my duties took me away constantly. It was war-time and everything was in short supply but we were grateful for the availability of certain consumables from the NAAFI (British Navy, Army & Airforce Institute) and the US Army Post Exchange.
While performing work at army camps, as visiting officers we were respected and treated well. I always sat at meals on the right side and next to the Commanding Officer of the Camp. One day I arrived in time for lunch at Kerry Camp, Pointe-a-Pierre and was greeted by the Commanding Officer at the door of the Officers’ Mess. “Hello, there you are Sheppard, and just in time. How are you? I say, do you notice that strong scent coming from the direction of the valley? Rather awkward to eat with that around. Please investigate and attend to it post-haste! Thank you!”
So true, the smell of human excreta pervaded the atmosphere. I soon discovered the cause. The large septic tank at the bottom of the hill, below the camp, was overflowing. The camp accommodated 500 men and about 25 commissioned officers. It being my duty as Officer in Charge of the engineers, I called my Sergeant and all available men of the engineers Company. I put on bathing trunks, gum boots and a handkerchief over my nose and together with similarly dressed men, four of us removed the heavy concrete cover of the septic tank receiver. The contents gushed out and then stopped. I volunteered to find out why and placed my hand in the down pipe and pulled away the obstruction – pieces of clothing and stockings, etc. I almost drowned in this filthy mess which came down the hill like the rapids in a river. I had to be rescued by Sapper Daniel James (the light-heavyweight boxing champion of Trinidad – Gentle Daniel) who volunteered from the beginning to help. The Borough Council of San Fernando supplied a Merryweather pump truck to clear the remaining obstruction and we had to resume the septic action by putting three jitney-loads of cow manure in the well chamber. I did not and could not eat on the memorable Friday.
Another day we were being conveyed up a steep hill called San Fernando Hill where we were constructing 480 concrete steps from bottom to top, where we were were also constructing an observation post. Our mode of transport was a box-like arrangement which was used to carry material such as cement. It ran on two rails and was powered by a winch at the top and pulled by a steel cable. Inside the contraption were our Commanding Officer, the Second-in-Command and myself, together with six bags of cement. Half way up the hill the cable broke and we found ourselves hurtling downhill to certain death. We opted to jump out and into the surrounding bushes. The trolley with its load of six bags of cement plummeted down the incline and collided with a solid stone wall of a house owned by a rich East Indian man. The wall was demolished. We escaped with minor cuts and bruises. Thrilling business!
My Captain (Commanding Officer) and I were sent early one morning to fly over Trinidad in a “Grumman Goose” aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy based in Trinidad. Our pilot was a scar-faced veteran of the First World War who was shot down by the enemy and survived many battles. He loved thrills and action. We were sent aloft to observe and report on the camouflage requirements of all British Army camps and installations with the intention of disguising them from enemy aircraft.
After flying over all the targets, our pilot decided to fly off-course and went over a large coastal battery on an island off the coast. All of the other areas were notified in advance with times of over-flying, estimated heights and a description of our plane. This last call was not informed as they were not scheduled for observation. Our daredevil pilot climbed to about 10,000 feet and shouted to his two passengers to "hold tight, we're going down" and with that nosed the little "goose" directly for the gun emplacement which contained a naval 12" gun. Just before crashing, he pulled out and up, causing my Commanding Officer and I to be thrown and flattened to the floor of the plane and blacked-out. The military personnel were apparently cleaning the gun and scampered for the safety of the gun recesses. Before we realized it, our crazy pilot called over the intercom “Ho ho, would you care for another bouncer?” We shouted “No, let’s go back now!” Mr. Daredevil decided otherwise. Down again he went, wings and struts screaming and shuddering. But this time they were waiting for us. Every man had a rifle or machine gun pointed at us if we got close enough. Our world War I veteran chose evasive action and we flew back to base at Piarco. There to greet us were the Commanding Officer Fleet Air Arm and other top brass from the British Army. He told them he did it for a lark. Do not know what happened to him afterwards. My Commanding Officer got out of the plane very quickly, like myself, and accidentally pulled the rip-cord of the parachute which was on his back. With the aircraft engines still working the breeze opened the parachute and pulled our hapless Captain down the runway. It took six men an entire day to fold it back. The language used by all was atrocious and unprintable. That was our last camouflage observation flight.
Lots of fun.
Staubles Bay, Trinidad
SAN FERNANDO HILL
Photo by Chris Anderson
Royal-Navy Rn Fleet Air Arm Grumman Goose
(Photo courtesy Geoffrey MacLean)
(Photo courtesy Geoffrey MacLean)