On a sweltering April afternoon in 1944, the Bombay waterfront became a raging inferno when a ship carrying munitions exploded, killing thousands. In a sad parrallel to the recent terrorist attacks in New York City, Indian and British firefighters who rushed to fight the first fire perished when a second explosion rocked the waterfront.
The USS Mount Vernon (AP-22), stripped of her glory as the luxury liner Washington , knifed southwest at flank speed bound for Bombay, India. Departing Los Angeles's San Pedro Harbor in early March 1944, she ran silent and deep in the water with a full payload of U.S. GIs, pausing briefly en route at Melbourne, Australia. We rode an ocean of glass in the southern latitudes and still we got seasick. The Navy, however, was solicitous in our winter of discontent and provided us with salt tablets. Finally, Bombay Island popped out of the sea to greet us. Built on tidal flats, it blends easily with the mainland. The city was a bizarre chunk of real estate back then. It was a rare compendium of narrow streets that coiled into a spiderweb maze. Large, suspended cages lined one of the roads; cells that held rare birds of paradise: Indian prostitutes on display. Modern theaters, with bars and waiters who brought mixed drinks to your seat, featured the latest American films with Indian subtitles.