Java China Trading Company

A few days after our arrival in Shanghai, we turned the ships over to the Chinese and arrangements were made for us to temporarily stay at the Shanghai American Club Hotel. One day just before we moved ashore, Bob Peterson returned to the FS-261 brimming with excitement. "I met a Russian in town today," he said, "Felix Hertzka, business manager of Java China Trading Company, a Dutch import, export firm."

Pete went on to explain that Java‑China had recently purchased four mothballed freighters, F boats, from the U.S. government and they were looking for qualified men to re-outfit the vessels and deliver them to Shanghai. With his engineering skills and my knowledge of navigation, Pete figured the two of us could handle the job. I was skeptical at first but agreed to at least look into it and so a meeting was arranged with Dr. Samet, the company's V.P.

The freighters, Dr. Samet explained, had been purchased for thirty thousand dollars each from the U.S. Foreign Liquidation Commission in Manila. Java‑China had paid an additional seven thousand dollars each for the Army to make the ships seaworthy by the first week of June 1946. The company was anxious for us to start as soon as possible since they had already resold the freighters to several Chinese firms for one hundred-twenty thousand dollars each, payable upon delivery.

After some negotiation, we agreed upon salaries of six hundred dollars per month each for Peterson and I, plus three hundred dollars per month for subsistence and quarters, which was a tidy sum in those days. Not wanting to miss an opportunity and thinking we could sever our ATC contracts when we returned to Manila, we signed an agreement with Java-China while still in Shanghai.

By mid April, the Army arranged for our return to Manila on board the Liberty Ship, SS John McLean. Somewhere between Shanghai and Manila, a case of smallpox was discovered on board so when we pulled into Manila harbor, we were held aboard ship for three additional days as a precaution. Since no other cases of smallpox emerged by the end of April, the quarantine was lifted and we disembarked the McLean, returning to our primitive former quarters under the Quonset hut at Camp #2.

Peterson had no difficulty getting out of the ATC since his one-year contract had nearly expired, but I ran into a major snag. When I had aborted my discharge at Fort Mason, I signed a new contract for the duration of the war plus six months. I now expected an immediate discharge since it had been over six months since the Japanese surrendered, but the government saw things differently. In their view, since men were still deployed overseas, the war technically had not ended.

When my discharge request was refused, I decided to again invoke the matter of my flat feet. I had apparently used that excuse one time to many however, and was promptly advised to, "Just get arch supports." By this time, the ATC was so determined to quell the post war stampede of departing officers that they not only denied my discharge, but also elevated my rank to Captain and assigned me command of an FS boat scheduled to arrive soon at Tacloban.

The promotion and assignment would have been welcome under different circumstances but I was now in a real dilemma. By this time, Peterson and I were up to our necks in the affairs of our new employer, Java China Trading Company. The F boats purchased by Java‑China had already been moved out of the ship's graveyard to an Army shipyard in Cavite for re-outfitting.

Pete and I had made a trip to Cavite to inspect the ships and our hearts sank when we first saw them. The four rusty hulled F boats had been stripped of anything loose or usable. All navigation equipment including compasses, transmitters and radios were gone. All tools and mechanical equipment were missing including even large items like generators and boilers. Anything that was left on board was in such disrepair it would have to be replaced or rebuilt.

It soon became obvious that Army supply systems were so broken down since the end of the war that there was no way they could fulfill their commitment to Java‑China. Java‑China had failed to make their own obligations contingent upon the Army's performance so they instructed Peterson and I to move ahead with preparation of the F boats with or without the Army.

We obtained whatever equipment we could from the Army requisition depot in Manila but much of what we needed was no longer available. The only solution was to tap the civilian market using company funds. We found the parts we needed available from other shipping firms operating in the harbor but it would now take several months before the ships were seaworthy again.

We combed the market and found machinists, mechanics, painters, and other trade specialists we needed to expedite the process but naturally, this also added considerable expense. Our efforts were further exacerbated by constant changes in Army personnel. No sooner did one commanding officer learn the complex details relating to our project than he would be replaced and another commanding officer had to learn the whole shebang all over again.

Meanwhile, Peterson had received his discharge and was now living with a chic young Filipino girl named Connie. I was still housed under the Quonset hut at camp #2 but that was the least of my problems. I was desperately trying to scheme up another dodge to secure my discharge, while in fear that orders might arrive any day to proceed to Tacloban and take over my assigned FS boat command.

Peterson and I continued our work for Java‑China. In addition to parts for the F boats, we purchased several Jeeps, two motorcycles, and a 22‑foot Army motor launch for our own use in Manila. Theft being a constant problem, we loaded a couple of the Jeeps with spare parts and stored them in Connie's garage. During this time, the company purchased three additional F boats bringing the total of undelivered ships to seven.

Since there would be plenty of room aboard the ships when we delivered them, I decided to invest in some cargo to sell when we arrived in Shanghai. Among other things, I bought another Army motorcycle for $200.00 and about 40 Parker‑51 fountain pens at $20.00 each. With prices inflated in Shanghai, I would sell the motorcycle for $1,000.00 and the fountain pens for $50.00 each.

Eventually the FS boat I was assigned to command for the ATC arrived in Tacloban. Out of time and with no alternative, I found the highest ranking official I could get an audience with and confessed the whole thing. To my surprise, when I explained my commitment to Java-China, my ATC contract was canceled. The single caveat to my untimely discharge was that my promotion to the rank of Captain was rescinded, and I was discharged with my former rank of 1st mate.

All the discharge paperwork was cleared on May 23, 1946, but was retroactive to May 13. Anxious to get out of the Quonset hut and concentrate fully on my obligations to Java‑China, I immediately moved in with Peterson and Connie, becoming officially at that point, a Resident Alien of the Philippines.

In spite of all the problems we encountered with preparation of the F boats, Java‑China continued to invest in surplus equipment they intended to eventually resell. They sent Pete and I to Subic Bay where we purchased two LCM's from the Navy boat pool and three more Jeeps which were to be delivered to the Dutch Consulate in Shanghai.

We transported the Jeeps to back to Manila in a caravan, crossing the Bataan Peninsula where we traversed some of the roughest terrain I had ever seen. The LCM's we moved by sea, this also turned out to be a rough trip due to extremely bad weather encountered along the way. LCM's aren't exactly pleasure boats to begin with so we were battered and completely exhausted by the time we made cover of Manila harbor. We just couldn't catch a break. It seemed like everything we did had to be accomplished on raw determination.

Peterson and I had little time for recreation but feeling the strain of work, we tried to get a little respite seeing an occasional prize‑fight, or going to the Seaman's Club. Neither of those were places you would want to take a lady so other than an occasional picture show, if a person didn't enjoy drinking, gambling, or the salacious pursuits of the city, Manila had little to offer in the form of relaxing entertainment.

By this time Pete and I had transformed into quite the dapper pair. We were rubbing shoulders with people in high places as a result of our business dealings and so in keeping with the current style we upgraded our wardrobe and grew sideburns and Clark Gable mustaches. Due heavy business obligations, we were now spending most of our time together.

As different as we were, Pete and I developed an amicable attitude toward one another. When we weren't meeting Philippine or U.S. officials or suppliers or out looking for parts or equipment in Manila, we left early each morning for the drive to Cavite where most of our time was dedicated to preventing work on the F boats from stalling.

We thought we had kept things moving along as fast as was humanly possible but one day in May, a dashing fair-haired young man approached us at the Cavite shipyard. Speaking with a thick Russian accent, the man introduced himself and informed us he had been sent by the company to expedite our project. Though Pete and I could scarcely imagine at the time, our lives were about to change drastically.

Stories of Philip A. Mehan - Written by Scott Dawes © 2005-2009