THE PRISONER FROM SHELTER COVE
One day, upon checking the roster in one of the wards, I thought I recognized the name of a fisherman who had spent his summers in Shelter Cove. I was excited at the possibility of seeing someone I had known from back home. I planned to look him up the next day.
I did and found him in the ward. He immediately remembered me. We talked the whole day about our mutual friends and experiences we had shared at the cove. He reminded me how his father, like mine, had fished the area for many years. He seemed very happy, not with his lot, but that he had survived diphtheria and been dismissed from the tent a few short days before I met him. He was now recuperating in another ward.
In the days that followed, we spent many hours together talking about the cove and the people we knew. We talked about going out for salmon, and the fog suddenly rolling in, and the times the sea got bad and how some boats had a tough time returning to shore. Our conversations were punctuated with “remember the time” and on and on we’d go. What was so rewarding for us both was the pleasure we had in finding someone in camp from back home. After his bout with death he seemed to have recovered remarkably. I came to see him one afternoon, excited about a friend I had remembered and was anxious to see if he too knew him. He greeted me warmly, as he always did, but as I began to talk his eyes suddenly got a faraway look, as if he were looking far across the oceans, and then, without warning he collapsed. He stopped breathing. We did all we could to revive him, but our efforts failed. The doctor on the ward explained that he had died of paralysis caused by diphtheria. Many of those who had contacted diphtheria and did survive later developed paralysis as an after effect.
The loss of this newly discovered friend made me realize how impossible it was for friendships to last under these conditions. No one was ever sure that he’d live to see another day.
The diphtheria plague raged through the prison camp like a grass fire out of control. It became so serious that a group of Japanese officers finally came for an inspection. What they saw was a pitiful sight, hundreds upon hundreds of prisoners dying. The officers just stood there, in their neat uniforms, sabres hanging at their sides, when a doctor suddenly appeared and placed himself directly in front of the officer in charge of the inspection party. He was fearless, and under other circumstances his action could have led to a severe beating or even his death. “I demand,” he shouted out, within hearing distance of everyone around, “I demand that we receive medical aid immediately.” The officer was obviously astonished and taken back by this sudden outburst, but what the doctor had to say next threw him further off guard. “I am a medical doctor and I know this disease. If we do not receive help, the whole camp will die, everyone, including Japanese soldiers and not only those guarding us. The disease will kill all Japanese as well. It can become a plague that has no bounds!”
He made an impression. Within a few days the antitoxin we needed to combat the disease arrived in camp. Every prisoner was immediately inoculated and the menace of diphtheria was lessened.
The short friendship with my friend from Shelter Cove brought back many fond memories of home. It was as though he opened a flood gate and every night when I lay down to sleep my thoughts turned to Shelter Cove.
The thought of this beautiful secluded spot helped me forget the death and suffering around me. It also helped to sustain me at this time. It gave me something to hang on to, something to remember. I would close my eyes, putting the horrible reality of Cabanatuan out of my mind, and again I would be walking from the dock to the hotel. I had arrived aboard International No. 3 to work for the summer. In my mind I could so clearly see the faces of my brother Tony and Sal Russo, the company manager. They were there to greet me. They led me to the hotel, talking all the way about the good fishing, and showed me my room. The window opened out to the cove, and I could hear seagulls calling. They then anxiously showed me around the area. What a delightful little spot.
Next to the hotel was a small grocery store. “Long ago the building was a trading post,” Sal said pointing out the structure to me. A little farther on we came to another spacious building. “This was the barn when horses were used to cross over the mountains to Garberville,” he continued. Sal pointed to the blacksmith shop that was still there, but now instead of horse stalls there was a large garage, a cooking shack and living quarters for those who worked there. There were also two large tanbark sheds.
The company had five head of yearling calves and two cows which were milked twice daily, some chickens and a hay field.
Tony was the engineer for the company. He was responsible for the refrigeration and ice machine, the saltwater pumps, and the tanbark engine.
I was introduced to the crew. Strange that I could remember all their names, and what names. There was Vince Argento, Toni Davi, Bradley Radcliffe, Charlie Farnsworth and Slim Knapp. Slim was the caretaker; Salvatore Pizzimenti was the salmon splitter.
The pier at that time was used to unload salmon from the small boats for processing in the fishhouse. I had been given the job of helping to unload the boats at the end of the dock and to push the boxes of salmon into the plant, where they were cleaned and iced. It was common to unload sixty or seventy boats during a day, and the job might last until ten or eleven o’clock at night. All the salmon were shipped by drag boat to San Francisco.
Our mornings we spent preparing the large salmon for mild curing. Salvatore Pizzimenti, the salmon splitter, would slice the big fish and take the backbone out. The fish were then dipped into the brine and salted in barrels.
Besides the San Francisco International Fish Company, there were several other companies with short-term storage barges anchored in the cove receiving fish. Pick-up boats carried the fish from barges to Fort Bragg, where they emptied their load and returned for more. The largest total daily catch that I could remember was 140,000 pounds. What relief a mere tenth of those fish could bring to our sick and starving men at Cabanatuan!
Fishing boat crews dreaded the winds that came from the northwest. When they blew, the boats were unable to fish and the men were put to work in the tanbark sheds. During July, the tan oak trees were cut and the bark peeled and stored in the sheds until it dried. After it was processed, it was used to tan leather and fish nets.
Some individuals stuck in my mind more than others. One was Charlie Farnsworth. I used to wonder what he would do if the Japanese had him in camp. He was a no nonsense man. Charlie was a truck driver, and I had the pleasure of working with him. He was also my teacher. He was a skilled woodsman and an expert hunter, and he taught me how to use an axe and how to hunt deer. Charlie was about sixty-two then, and I would wonder if he still might be alive. How I missed Charlie.
There were amusing times at Shelter Cove, and recalling these moments made me chuckle to myself. There was the time they wouldn’t let us in the hotel and we had to eat outside. They had good reason. We had spent the day cutting hay, getting it ready for storing in the barn. All was going well until the hay mower cut through some skunk holes. A couple skunks dashed out running for cover when our dogs grabbed hold them and shook them by the necks. The skunks sprayed the dogs, us and the hay field. We stunk terribly, and nothing could get rid of the smell. It wasn’t very pleasant eating dinner outside in the cold. But then, even on Bataan in the humid tropics it got cold, terribly cold. And the cold seemed to go right through our weakened bodies.