Gordon Bass’s father and grandfather both came into contact with Ben Carlin when he was preparing for his around-the-world trek in a Ford GPA amphibious jeep and provided some pre-journey assistance. Gordon first became aware of his family’s connection to the Australian adventurer through their being mentioned in Carlin’s book, Half-Safe, that was published in 1955.
J4: Bob Bass, the ham radio buff who’s mentioned early in the book ‘Half-Safe’, was your grandfather, and there’s a connection between Carlin, your father and uncle, too?
GB: Yes, Bob Bass is my grandfather Robert Bass. He was an English professor at the United States Naval Academy – and an avid ham radio operator – when he and Ben met in 1947. He tried teaching Ben how to operate the radio in his jeep, without much success. I think they became close because they were both from small towns and felt they had to prove something to the world. Ben stayed in touch with my grandfather, dad and Uncle Bob until the end of the ’60s.
J4: How long did the research and writing take, and what was the most interesting nugget of information you found in your research?
GB: The main research and writing took a year, although I’d started talking to people who knew Ben years before that. It’s hard to pick one nugget – I was as interested in Ben’s odd jealousy of Thor Heyerdahl as I was in discovering records of his service in Britain’s covert Special Operations Executive during the war.
J4: In your conversations with those who had first-hand contact with Carlin, what was the general consensus on Carlin the man?
GB: Some remember Ben as hard drinking, belligerent, opinionated and still getting into fights even in his fifties. A former co-pilot and wife compared him to William Bligh. But others remember his incredible charm, and the way he could hold an audience with his tales, especially in the early years of his adventure. So he was a classic dichotomy. He could be brutal, and that was directed at both men and women, but he made a chosen few friends feel like he’d go to the ends of the earth for them.
J4: Carlin’s around-the-world journey has plenty of “Wow!” and “How did he survive that?” moments. Which ones stood out to you?
GB: Two stand out. The most unbelievable has to be Ben surviving a mid-Atlantic storm in the stalled jeep with hurricane-force winds and crashing waves that battered it under tons of seawater for days on end. Somehow everything held together, but if a single rubber gasket had failed, a window had shattered, or the manual bilge pump had broken, Ben and Elinore and the jeep would have simply vanished. Remember, the GPA wasn’t designed for anything more treacherous than crossing an occasional creek.
There’s another memorable, though sadder moment. In early 1956, Ben was sailing solo across the Bay of Bengal. His wife had left him. He was wired on amphetamines and nicotine, fading in and out of hallucinations, and dripping sweat in the 38 degree Celsius heat of the jeep’s cramped cabin. A few days into the crossing he suddenly collapsed from apparent carbon monoxide poisoning, likely due to the leaky exhaust system that plagued him for years. As he faded from consciousness he was dimly aware that he’d stopped breathing. But he somehow managed to pull himself out of the jeep’s roof hatch into fresh air through some primal survival instinct and forced himself to breath by pressing against the edge of the hatch to expel the poisonous gas in his lungs. If he’d passed out, there would have been no one to save him, and he would have died alone at sea.
J4: Carlin’s mental state seems to have deteriorated the longer the journey went, becoming more of an obsession than an ambition. Is there a point in the journey you can identify where a form of mania to complete the trek sets in?
GB: By the end of 1955, as he was leaving Calcutta, his wife had left him, his book was failing to sell, and the media had lost interest, partly because Ben arrogantly refused to answer questions about anything at all personal, especially why he kept going. From there, the journey became nothing more than what he called an “awful endlessness,” and he became depressed and increasingly difficult to be around.
J4: Your research took you to Australia, including Carlin’s high school, Guildford Grammar in Perth, to view the actual Half-Safe jeep displayed there. What was the general reaction to enquiries you made while researching here?
GB: Even in Perth, I didn’t meet many people who remembered Ben or Half-Safe. One day I was making copies at an Officeworks and struck up a conversation with a retired teacher. I told her about Ben and she said, “he’s the man who welded all the bits onto a jeep, isn’t he?” I was thrilled someone remembered! But mostly I got blank stares. The exception was at Perth’s Guildford Grammar School. Ben is a legend there, and Half-Safe is displayed in a virtual shrine on the campus.
J4: Upon seeing Half-Safe for yourself, what were your impressions of the vehicle?
GB: The first thing you think is: How could anyone get behind the wheel of a vehicle like that and head into an ocean?
When a friend heard Ben’s incredible story and saw a photo of the jeep he asked, “how did his balls fit in it?”
It looks just as home-built as it really is. You can sort of make out the underlying jeep DNA, but mostly it looks like a wheeled boat with a boxy cabin on top. The cramped cabin is essentially unchanged from the day Ben completed his journey in 1958. As I write in my book, “it looked like the interior of a spartan military spaceship designed by a madman.”
But everything had a purpose, and the fact that it all worked, from desert to mountains to ocean, was a testament to Ben’s mechanical and engineering genius, and his absolute understanding of every inch of the vehicle. I was allowed to crawl into the jeep, which was a thrill – especially because Ben’s daughter was with me.
Ben’s journey was a highwire act without a safety net. To do it any other way today might be a lot saner – but it would be more than ‘half-safe’, and that wouldn’t be the same.
Excerpt from The Last Great Australian Adventurer by Gordon Bass
26 June 1957.
A small Japanese fishing trawler from the port of Hakodate rolls over dark swells on the North Pacific, treading Russian waters to the south-east of the Kamchatka Peninsula. A cold wind slices in from the north-east, whipping salt spray across the deck. Under the slate predawn sky, oilskin-clad fishermen winch a driftnet up from the sea, its nylon web taut with the weight of salmon.
A bright flash of yellow a hundred yards away catches the eye of a leathered fisherman. He turns to squint into the distance. He sees it again. It’s an improbable speck riding low in the water, a tiny boat of some sort, no bigger than a car, looking almost like a drifting shipping crate. A stumpy mast juts from its boxy cabin, flying a traditional Japanese carp flag that’s torn and blackened by exhaust.
As the vessel crests each wave, the fisherman sees something even stranger: it has wheels.
Now a hatch flips open on the boat’s roof and, as the fisherman watches, a man pulls himself out. He appears solid and powerful. He has a full grey beard and a large knife clenched in his teeth.
He is naked.
It’s as if Ernest Hemingway himself has materialised in the vastness of the North Pacific, barrel-chested and strong, a strange sight indeed.
The fisherman motions for the rest of the crew to join him. Together they watch as across the waves the bearded man stands on top of his small boat in the sharp wind, pauses and dives into the 4-degree Celsius water.
The two vessels drift closer, until they are just 50 yards apart. Now the crew sees the madman break the surface to fill his lungs. In the icy water his body is the colour of pale marble; in survival mode, it has shunted its warm blood inward to vital organs.
The fishermen see a second man, thinner and much younger, a wool cap pulled low against the cold, emerge from the hatch of the odd vessel. He doesn’t try to help the bearded man, but instead aims a camera at him and starts taking pictures, as if it’s all he can do.
The bearded man clings to the side of the strange yellow boat for a moment, gasping for breath. Then he inhales deeply and plunges back below the surface.
On the trawler, Captain Amiya Daiichi joins his crew, watching in vain for the man to reappear. He knows now what has happened: the strange boat has snared itself on the submerged skein of his trawler’s huge driftnet, which is suspended from a series of floats and stretches for more than a mile across the Pacific. And instead of asking for help, the boat’s pilot is in the water, trying to hack through the netting to free his odd vessel.
It’s madness. Suicidal.
Two minutes pass, then five. Captain Daiichi knows from experience that the man’s core body temperature is plummeting. Once it reaches 32 degrees he will lapse into semi-consciousness, and at 26 degrees he will experience cardiac arrest and respiratory failure. Without protective gear, death will come in minutes. Perhaps he’s already dead.
The boat bobs alone in the ocean.
And then –
Sliding over the trawler’s gunwale, tangled up in netting with tons of salmon, the bearded man reappears. He’s been caught in the trawler’s driftnet, hauled up with the teeming catch, and now he collapses onto the gore-slick deck and gasps for air. Stunned, the fishermen pull him free of the net and hustle him into their smoky galley, where they prop him in front of a coal-burning stove, wrap him in a fur coat and force hot sake down his throat to speed his sluggish heartbeat.
As his body warms up, the man turns lucid, then belligerent. In fragments of Japanese he asks for a knife to cut their lines from his propeller. He insists on returning to his vessel. He tears off the coat and storms out of the galley into the cold grey morning, pausing at the gunwale before diving back into the ocean.
He tells the fishermen that he is driving around the world.
Back in the driver’s seat of his small yellow vessel, the bearded man pressed a starter button with his foot, glanced at the compass and pushed in the throttle.
His copilot knew better than to say anything.
Ben Carlin, 44 years old, son of Western Australia, veteran of the goldfields, former major in the Indian Army, was two weeks out of northern Japan, rumbling across the North Pacific towards Alaska on his way to Montreal, where he’d begun his journey in 1950. He was seven years into one of the great adventures of the twentieth century. Nine if you counted the two years of false starts.
He was circling the world in a surplus World War II Ford GPA amphibious army jeep called Half-Safe.
It was an audacious, death-defying adventure, unlike anything attempted before. And it had once brought the rugged Australian adventurer a measure of fame and notoriety. In the early 1950s, he had appeared on radio and TV after an astonishing, near-fatal Atlantic crossing. He had mingled with royalty and celebrities. He had written a highly anticipated book about the gruelling first stage of the journey. He had been praised by Life magazine, profiled by the BBC, splashed across the front pages of newspapers in Australia and around the world.
But then things had taken a puzzling turn. Before he was even halfway around the world friends and lovers began abandoning him, the media turned their attention elsewhere, his book failed to sell, and his fame began to ebb. By 1957, the journey was mostly regarded as a pointless stunt, to the extent that anyone thought about it at all. And by the time I found an inscribed copy of Ben’s book on my parents’ bookshelf, twenty-five years after his death, he was little more than an occasional, obscure footnote in the annals of adventuring.
I was fascinated. Why had Ben Carlin’s circumnavigation taken so long, and what made him press on year after year, long after the world lost interest? What had he done next? Why had he been forgotten? Who was he? The answers, I would eventually find, were evasive and complex. They had to be teased out of the arc of his life.
The Last Great Australian Adventurer
Written by Gordon Bass
Photography by Deirdre Carlin, Guildford Grammar School, Alicia Freile/Tango Media
Published by Ebury Australia
<a href="https://www.angusrobertson.com.au/books/the-last-great-australian-adventurer-gordon-bass/p/9781925324990">Angus & Robertson</a>
<a href="http://www.collinsbooks.com.au/book/The-Last-Great-Australian-Adventurer-Ben-Carlin-s-epic-journey-around-the-world-by-amphibious-Jeep/9781925324990">Collins Books</a>