By WJ Lederer
It was the morning of April 1, 1939, and our destroyer, the USS Appleby, swung around her anchor in Manila Bay. In the wardroom a heated debate was under way. We officers had a problem to solve before the captain returned to the ship.
"We've got to find a way to scroggle him," said the first lieutenant. "April Fool's Day is our only chance―we may never get another legitimate shot at the old buzzard."
I should point out that we loved our commanding officer, Lt. Comdr. JJ Sweeney. No ship ever had a better skipper. But Sweeney had a passion for practical jokes and, at one time or another, had successfully shafted all the officers on the Appleby. In my case, he had subscribed to a Lonely Hearts Association in my name. He intercepted replies and carried on a correspondence until I finally received a telegram from a widow with four children―saying she was flying from Arizona to Manila to marry me.
We all agreed that on this first of April we had to hang a deluxe, extra-special gag on the old boy. The medical officer (the captain had once put a snapping beetle in his stethoscope) suggested mixing a purgative in the captain's oatmeal. The chief engineer recommended loosening the propeller nut in the gig, so that after the captain started ashore the propeller would drop off and leave him adrift.
These, I felt, were schoolboy plots.
Here's the way I had it figured. The captain owned a home in Manila, and he delighted in having his wife and children there with him. He hated the ship's annual summer cruise to China. For one thing, it isolated him from his family; for another, it subjected him to Chinese food, which he loathed.
These facts left no doubt in my mind about how to hoax the captain. We'd send him to China. Even if he fell for it only momentarily, he'd get a terrific jolt. The other officers saw the beauty of my plan, and I was given the responsibility for its execution.
As communications officer, it was no trouble for me to fake a radio dispatch. I made up a set of authentic-looking orders detaching Commander Sweeney from the Appleby and sending him to Chungking. (Chungking, 1600 miles into the interior of China, was one of the few places where Navy families were not permitted―and where one lived almost entirely on Chinese food.)
After breakfast, the communications messenger handed the captain the morning's radio traffic. In the pile was my message: LT COMDR JJ SWEENEY USN DETACHED 9 APRIL AS COMMANDING OFFICER USS APPLEBY WITHOUT RELIEF AND PROCEED IMMEDIATELY CHUNGKING CHINA AS COMMANDING OFFICER USS TUTUILA.
After reading this the Old Man began cursing, spilling his coffee and working himself into a five-star temper. "They're sending me to Chungking on ten days' notice!" he roared. And he beat the deck with both feet, like a child in a tantrum.
Then he turned to the exec. "Call the gig away." he yelled. "And be damned quick about it." When the gig came alongside the Old Man embarked for Manila. He stayed ashore all morning, returning to the ship for lunch.
He looked like a beaten man and he didn't dig into the food with his normal relish. "It's a lousy break," he said. "My wife cried when I told her. She loves it here. But the normal tour of duty in Chungking is a year and there's no getting out of it, so I decided to send the family back to the States."
This, I thought happily, is really working.
"It's unpleasant all right," the captain continued, blowing his nose with a red bandanna handkerchief, "but there are rosy sides to everything." He smiled with obvious effort. "I was lucky enough this morning to find a man with ready cash who bought my house. Matter of fact, I made a $1,200 profit on it." He showed us a certified check for $17,200 from a real estate agency.
"There's no Navy transport touching Manila for six weeks," the Old Man went on, "So I'm sending the family back by commercial steamer. They sail day after tomorrow on the Jewel of Manila." He laid four steamer tickets on the table. "The movers are coming tomorrow."
We were beginning to see that this joke had its dangers. When should we sing out "April Fool"?
The captain kept on talking. "Of course, orders is orders. But the part that burns me is the short notice. I spoke to the admiral about it, and he's sent a stinker of a message to Washington."
"The admiral did what, sir?"
"He sent a message of protest to the chief of the Bureau of Personnel saying that my arbitrary orders to Chungking were rude and irregular and that he should have been consulted first."
My mouth felt awfully dry. The executive officer excused himself from the table. "Well," said the Old Man, "I better start packing." And he too got up.
I followed him to his cabin and stood in the doorway while he stuffed shirts into a suitcase. "C-c-c-captain," I finally stuttered. "About your orders―I'm the guilty party…."
He interrupted me, "Of course we'll have a party! And it'll be a pistol. We can start at the Army-Navy Club, move over to the Manila Hotel…."
"No, sir," I said. "You've misunderstood me. Your orders…to Chungking…they're phonies. It was an April Fool's joke…."
The captain stomped across the cabin and placed his reddening face close to mine. "Mister," he said, "did I hear you right?"
"Y-y-yes, sir," I said.
He sat down suddenly on the edge of his bunk and groaned. "I've sold my house. I've made arrangements to send my family home. And the admiral is burning up the wires with mutinous messages to the Navy Department. Do you know the penalty for writing a false message?"
"Y-y-yes, sir," I said. "I can get a general court-martial."
"And that's no April Fool's joke!" Sweeney stormed. "You've really mucked things up with your grotesque sense of humor. But I'll give you a chance to straighten things out. I want to be fair."
He handed me three things: the check for $17,200, the steamship tickets for his family and a copy of the message which the admiral had sent to the Bureau of Personnel. "You go to the real estate agent," he said, "and buy my house back at no loss to me. Then go to the steamship line and get my money back on these tickets. Then go to the admiral and tell him about your little joke―and get me off the hook with him."
"Aye, aye, Sir," I said.
He looked at his watch. "It's now ten to two. I'll give you until tomorrow morning to straighten things out―before I commence court-martial proceedings."
I got in the gig and went ashore. The real estate agent already had a client who had offered him $18,000 for the house. The place was as good as resold.
"Look," I said after an hour of bickering, "sell me the captain's house for the amount of this check. I'll pay you the extra $800 profit out of my own pocket. I haven't got it in cash, but I'll send you 50 bucks a month." Then I explained the situation in full. I told him that if I was court-martialed I certainly would be convicted. It was worth 800 bucks to me to get out of this scrape unscathed. "Okay," said the agent wearily. "Here's a receipt for the captain's check. I'll send the deed around in the morning." I smothered the guy with gratitude, ran into the street and got a taxi.
At a quarter to six I arrived at the steamship line's office. The man in charge said it was against rules to refund money on such short notice.
"There is only one person who can authorize it―the manager of our Far Eastern office, Mr. Gonzales."
"Where can I find him?"
"He's at the Polo Club throwing a cocktail party in honor of President Quezon and High Commissioner McNutt. About 300 guests. Mr. Gonzales is leaving for Hong Kong at six tomorrow morning."
It was eight o'clock when I arrived at the Polo Club. Guests in evening clothes were entering; an attendant at the door collected invitations. "Yes?" he questioned, eyeing my uniform.
"I'd like to see Mr. Gonzales. I have an important message for him."
"Sorry, only people with invitations―and in evening dress―may enter."
"Well, please page Mr. Gonzales then. I'll speak with him out here."
"Oh, no, señor," said the attendant. "Impossible."
I felt like a beggar who had been refused alms. At this miserable moment along came my friend Bessie Hackett, society editor of the Manila Bulletin. "What are you doing off the Appleby?" she asked. I told her.
"C'mon, I've got an extra invitation at home," she said, pushing me into her car.
At home Bessie found the invitation and dragged out her brother John's evening clothes. John weighs 220 and is six feet tall. I'm five nine and weigh 150. We turned up the pants legs about a foot and pinned them in place. There was so much excess cloth around my waist that we had to fold it over―a pleated effect. The crotch of the trousers hung a few inches above my knees; the seat flopped about my thighs like an empty potato sack. The coat hung to my knees.
Within a half hour we were back at the club. The attendant, at Bessie's urging, now let me in. Everyone gaped, then laughed. The assistant manager politely informed me that entertainers were not allowed to mix with the guests. But finally I found Mr. Gonzales. I held his Martini while he scribbled out a note saying it was okay to give a refund on the four tickets.
It was now after ten and I hadn't seen the admiral yet. I changed back into uniform and taxied over to his residence, a good ten miles away. The steward who came to the door said the admiral had turned in. His orders were that he wasn't to be disturbed unless it was something official and important.
"Call the admiral," I said, drawing the steward's attention to my one gold stripe.
Eventually the admiral, putting in his false teeth and straightening his pajamas, came down. When I told him why I was there, he exploded like a 16-inch shell hitting a fuel dump. He chewed me out from rim to rim, then rushed into the next room and picked up the telephone.
"You may now go back to the Appleby," he said when he returned. "I've sent a message to Commander Sweeney informing him that the message to Washington has been canceled―and suggesting to him appropriate disciplinary action for you."
"Thank you, sir," I said, saluting. It was two in the morning when I got back aboard the Appleby. The captain was up and waiting.
"The admiral sent me a message. I know what happened there. How'd you make out on the other deals?"
I handed him the receipt for his house and showed him the note from Mr. Gonzales authorizing the return of his steamer money.
"Okay" he said in a kindly manner. Then, "Did the admiral mention the disciplinary action we've decided to take with you?"
He held up some papers. "These," he said, "are the outcome of your little faux pas this morning. It is absolutely necessary that they get into the mail tonight. The exec and I have just looked them over, and find them in good form. But as they concerned you, I want you to check them for accuracy."
"Aye, aye, sir," I said, reaching for what looked like my death warrant.
The captain went on, "The motor whaleboat will take you to the fleet post office; it's alongside now―embark and shove off. Check the papers on the way ashore. If any of the facts about you are wrong, you have my permission to change them. Now hurry," he said, handing me the papers and stamped envelopes for the papers. "The mail closes in 20 minutes."
I ran topside, leaped down the accommodation ladder and into the boat. We roared away. I switched on the battle lantern which hung under the boat canopy, and spread the papers on the seat cushion.
They consisted of three letters: one to the admiral, one to the real estate agent and one to Mr. Gonzales. Except for the addresses and salutations, they were identical:
Thank you for your cooperation in the leg-pulling job on my Communications Officer. He went for the gag―hook, line and sinker. I've manipulated some lulus in my day; but, believe me, this is the best April Fool's joke I ever pulled.