In the second half of the fifties we brought kerosene on a Shell tanker to a French Air Force base in northern Tunisia. There was only a small harbor and one jetty, no tugs and it was part of this large military airport. This place didn’t have a name, just the name of the base. The unloading turned out to take a few days because the discharge pipe turned out to be a kind of glorified garden hose. By the way, the French boys were in no rush and the discharge was often stopped for no apparent reason.
There was no sign of any security at the base and that with a Chinese crew. We were allowed to roam freely over the base and soon we went in and out planes, everything was open.
Once we got out of such a military plane when a couple of French officers just passed by. We expected that they would not be unhappy with our presence in the plane, we thought, but no, the gentlemen smiled at us kindly and saluted us. They even came over to have a chat and it turned out that if we wanted we could take a ride on a plane for a couple of hours the next day. We told them that due to the watch system only one of us could attend, providing that the captain permitted this which he did. That person happened to be me, the others would fill in for me.
Early the next morning I was neatly picked up and dropped off at a twin-engine plane that turned out to be a Lockheed Neptune, I thought P-2. We were there, with me, with eight I thought. The thing could drop mines and depth charges and even torpedoes and fly endlessly because every space was used to put fuel in it. I later read that in 1946 one such Neptune flew non-stop from Australia to a base in Ohio, nearly 12,000 miles away. Nothing fasten seatbelts and before I knew it all I saw was water below me. Everyone on board was more or less my age. The Captain was a little older, about 28 years old. Without exception they had a kind of light-hearted ‘never mind’ attitude that I liked. I assumed it was a reconnaissance flight and a French warship was rendezvoused along the way for a low flying radar exercise. The aircraft had to approach the ship as unnoticed as possible. They did this by flying into the ship from behind, skimming as low above the water as possible. That was quite exciting. After a few more laps around the ship and a lot of French chatter over the radio, nothing could be heard, we continued.
After a 1 or 2 hours of flying I asked how long it would take, but they said we were almost there. And indeed the coast came into view again. To starboard in the distance lay a gigantic city that I could not place at all. And suddenly I noticed that everything was much too green, no desert and emptiness. I started to worry a little about the navigation skills of these otherwise very friendly and cheerful guys. When I asked them which city we had just passed, the answer was: “C’était Marseille” I started to feel slightly unwell. What is happening here? There was no time to think because fifteen minutes later we landed on another military base. After leaving the plane we were given an extensive lunch in the officers’ mess. It was a miracle that I could still swallow a bite quite effortlessly, but the generously poured wine probably contributed to that. In order not to look like an asshole and since it wouldn’t help much, I pretended it was all very normal, while inquiring about the return journey. How do you explain something like that on board? About 650 kilometers from the ship to grab a lunch… You don’t.
One purpose of the flight was to transport French provisions back to base. Wine and frozen pork, as well as flour for bread and whatnot were part of the return freight. At a quarter past four five we landed back at the base in Tunisia. "Was it nice playing in the meadow?” was one of the things asked later at the dinner table and I said with a steel face: “Yes, sure. We also went to have lunch on the French Riviera”. Homeric laughter. Once I speak the truth and then I get laughed at…
I realize that this could happen only then in those days. It is a totally different ball game now.