Cocos - No Paradise Island!

My last RAF base was Cocos, in the middle of the Indian Ocean. No paradise island this, with land crabs, giant centipedes with poisonous legs, the perils of falling coconuts, sharks, and the boiling reef that sucked five airmen to their deaths just as the war was ending. Five years later, courtesy of Qantas, I rattled down the old metal strip again, and spent an hour endeavouring to find the tablet honouring their names, but the undergrowth had crept back. It seemed such a lonely place. If fate should ever take you to Cocos and you can find where an old friend, Tommy Reakes, is lying, say a prayer for me. He was an excellent artist, helped with the squadron magazine and was such a cheerful and willing chap.

For me on Cocos it was an extremely busy time, with normal wireless duties by day and the production of Atoll, the daily paper of the Cocos Islands, in the evening. Our HQ was a tent, pitched on the beach between the two squadrons, with news pirated from Reuter transmissions, printing courtesy of Gestetner, and circulation throughout the islands.

Since we were helped in our task by aircrew members, some took copies on ops over enemy territory for wider distribution. It is certain that a good many copies fell into the right hands and brought fresh hope to long suffering captives of the Japanese. Proof of this became evident later.

Strange to relate, the isolated Cocos group, some 1,500 miles from Ceylon and 1,200 from Australia, disappeared from every official map and record during the war years. They were blotted out to fool the Japanese. Why? Because of a vital cable station which linked the Allies with Australia.

During the early part of the war the Japanese made regular bombing and reconnaisance runs over the islands, and everyone expected a landing with all the violence associated with the Japanese. The small garrison realised they wouldn't stand a chance against a concentrated attack, and with the realisation that the Japanese had already occupied a great chunk of Asia, went through agonies of suspense. So it was decided to deceive the Japanese by disappearing. All ships and aircraft (apart from those with vital supplies) were warned off, the word Cocos was delated from all messages and a code name substituted. The radio station was closed down, and every effort was made to bluff the Japanese into thinking the Cocos Islands were of no strategic importance and not worth invading.

In March, 1942, the islands were bombarded by a Japanese warship. The cable station was hit but escaped serious damage. The Japanese must have thought they had flattened everything because there were no further attacks, and the bluff continued. When they occupied Christmas Island 500 miles away it seemed certain Cocos would be next, but strangely the Imperial Army stayed away.

When we landed in 1945 the fear of a Japanese attack did not diminish. We were poorly armed and, what with all the razamatazz of flying in two squadrons of heavy Liberator bombers together with hundreds of ground staff, and with wireless signals buzzing away into outer space, our presence must have been apparent to anyone and everyone for hundreds of miles around. However, our only casualties were from falling coconuts, barracudas and sharks. The Japanese Intelligence Service must have been fast asleep to have missed such an opportunity.

Sad to say, we succeeded in outmatching the Japanese in our destructive ability. Thousands of precious coconut trees on West Island were bulldozed into the sea and a 2,000 yard metal strip laid. In a few weeks we constructed one of the most advanced air bases in Southeast Asia, and effectively ruined the economy of the islands as well as uprooting the peaceful lives of the islanders.

It was a glorious setting - an almost perfect coral atoll in a circle of low islands surrounding a blue lagoon - but the nasties that creeped and crawled beneath the palm fronds and swam in the sea made what looked a paradise more of a nightmare.

You may be interested in the background to the place. The history of the Cocos or Keeling Islands began way back in 1609 when a captain of the East India Company, William Keeling, first sighted them. Though he did not land himself, his name has always been associated with them. In December 1825 the first "king" of the Cocos, John Clunies Ross, went ashore and found the islands uninhabited. After establishing his claim in London he returned to find a British eccentric named Alexander Hare firmly established complete with harem and acting the role of despot.

It was then decided that each should occupy different islands, Hare with his harem and Ross with ideas of an island Utopia. There are many stories of quarrels between the two, of nocturnal exploits, hasty flights and adventures in which women were stolen from Hare's camp and carried (often not unwillingly) to that of Ross.

Disaster befell Hare in 1836 when the wholesale desertion of his followers brought to an end his dream of becoming monarch of a slavish eastern court. He was forced to leave and Ross took over and established his own more peaceful kingdom. He died in 1854. Other Rosses followed, and over the years a community was developed which had all the hallmarks of a Utopia. Every man was trained to work in iron, brass and wood, and the women were taught sewing and cooking. Each family was provided with a small furnished house, enclosed in a garden and close to the water's edge so that they had easy access to a boat. Every child was educated and most became fluent in English and Malay. Cocos even had its own currency which enabled the islanders to buy goods from the company shop. Most work, of course, was involved in copra making.

What all this meant in terms of social security was as follows: employment for all; optional retirement on half-pay at 65; free medical attention; care of the widowed and fatherless; a high standard of living; a simple code of justice; free electricity, and no income tax. Those who left Cocos were not allowed to return. The Ross family thought this would bring disease and discontent and be a disturbing factor.

Alas, when we arrived we brought all those things with us, and when we left it was the beginning of the end for the last King John. The loss of so many coconut trees was hard to bear but the health of his community also began to suffer. Then came a dispute with the Australian government which tried to buy him out for four million pounds, followed by local discord when some islanders themselves endeavoured to oust him.

You have to blame the United Nations for sticking their feet in. In the 1970s a UN team visited the islands and accused John of running a feudal fiefdom. Horror! They found he was still paying his workers in plastic tokens that could only be used in the family's store. What else did they expect? Perhaps he should have given them American dollars and flown them to the nearest big city a few thousand miles away to do their shopping?

Anyway, there was a long legal wrangle, Australia was told to take whatever action was needed, and the Clunies-Ross family was forced to sell everything except its old mansion house on Home Island. Then, in 1988, the greedy Aussies took that, too, to settle "outstanding debts". And so poor King John got the boot, the authority invested in his family by Queen Victoria to govern the place "in perpetuity" overuled by the do-gooders. What price promises?

Such is the story of paradise lost and my own brief part in running its one and only daily newspaper.

There is an exotic brochure from Cocos Island Travel Centre, Perth, Australia, building up Cocos as a luxury holiday centre. There are two flights a week from Perth to Cocos and Christmas Island. Chalets have been built on West Island and the Clunies Ross mansion on Home Island is also being used for holiday accommodation. The cost for two weeks is between Aust.$1,590 and $2,390. It was much cheaper 45 years ago!

Some PR chap has done a smooth job of work with the brochure. It's a haven on earth with beautiful unspoilt beaches and acquamarine waters. "No biters or stingers... and the land crabs make you laugh as they scoot around fossicking for coconuts." That's not as I remember it. The land crabs were a curse and the giant centipedes with their poisonous claws a menace. Enormous jellyfish had stings that knocked you unconscious and the MO himself was laid out for several days after one encounter. The dangerous reef off West Island claimed five lives in one afternoon and you had to watch out for sharks and barracudas.


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