While far away from the intense fighting of World War II taking place in Europe and the Pacific, the war’s long reach touched the Cayman Islands. Overseas and on home soil, Caymanians played an active role in Allied wartime efforts.
Clifton Bodden, now 92 and enjoying retirement in George Town, played his part in protecting Britain’s far-flung Caribbean outpost as a member of Cayman’s Home Guard. He recently shared some of his wartime memories with the Cayman Compass.
Mr. Bodden was raised by his Caymanian parents on the Isle of Pines, Cuba. At the outbreak of war, his life suddenly changed. Shortly after Sept. 1, 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland, he and dozens of fellow Caymanians living in Cuba fled to Cayman.
Eighty people made the trip on the Rambro, a sailing boat belonging to Cayman’s Dr. Roy McTaggart.
“Everyone was trying to get out of Cuba because things were so bad,” recalled Mr. Bodden.
“We felt the Germans were going to invade Cuba because Americans and other nationalities were working there supplying products to America. The Cuban government had already put a number of Japanese farm workers under arrest because Japan was associated with the Germans,” he continued. “All the farms were closing down and at a standstill because German submarines had already sunk seven merchant ships taking goods to America, and we were scared they would attack the island, so we ran.”
The Rambro anchored off George Town harbor and Mr. Bodden, then 19, took a small boat to shore with the other passengers, and walked to his parent’s home to start what would be a new and eventful life in Grand Cayman.
Home Guard defense
The Home Guard, a defense organization of the British Army for the island, was calling for recruits, and Mr. Bodden joined up.
“I chose to join the army because there was nothing else to do and I had to help defend our country,” he said.
Ninety-six Caymanians were trained at the U.S. Army base in George Town, according to Mr. Bodden, where, among other things, they learned how to use a three-inch naval landing gun.
Mr. Bodden said he was skilled in gun practice and was chosen by Lieutenant Colonel Clark, who was in charge of the Turks and Caicos Islands, Jamaica, Cayman and Belize, to join the Jamaica auxiliary force.
Mr. Bodden’s duty was to keep watch over the Cayman coastline for German submarines.
“Submarines were plentiful around the Caribbean and the Cayman Islands was right in the path of merchant ships traveling to and fro from America to Panama, and South America, so we had to put up a defense. Residents didn’t know when they would have attacked the island.”
In 1942, the Camaya 1, a U.S. merchant marine ship carrying fruit, was sunk by submarines off George Town harbor.
Mr. Bodden recalled how the third marine engineer and others went down with the ship. After the attack, Cayman’s Commissioner John Jones ordered the local ship Cimboco to pick up the survivors. They were brought to shore, carried to the U.S. Army base and later transported to the U.S. by sea plane.
There were submarine lookout points in each district; the lookout in George Town was up a cotton tree in Fort George on Fort Street.
“When I climbed the cotton tree I could see everything, from Spotts to George Town and all the way into Northwest Point [in West Bay],” said Mr. Bodden. “It also gave a clear view of any submarines surfacing in the waters.” Contact with other guards was made by battery-operated telephones, and each post was identified by a specific number of rings. At a time where automobiles were few and far between, the trek from each station was made on foot.
Mr. Bodden recounted how Cayman even had its own German spy. The man posed as a mouth organ and accordion salesman, and lived in the house where First Cayman Bank is now located.
“Commissioner Allen Cardinall, who spoke German, got the butler to confiscate [the man’s] letters and found out he was indeed a spy,” said Mr. Bodden. The man was subsequently arrested and taken to an internment camp in Jamaica.
Moving on after the war
After the war, Mr. Bodden recollected staples like rice and sugar were being rationed, and meat was scarce. Locals did their best to make do with what was available. Every Saturday morning a cow was butchered at the George Town market on Cardinall Avenue, and the meat was strung on thatch strings for people to take home. When the catboats came in, turtles were butchered on the harbor rocks. Beef sold for a shilling a pound, while turtle meat was sixpence a pound.
Fish and other seafood, on the other hand, were in abundance. Produce like bottlers, breadfruit, cassava, pumpkins and other farm products were cooked with the meats and seafood. The majority of the cows on island were used only for milk, which sold for sixpence a bottle.
Life also went on in other ways. Mr. Bodden recalled noticing a very attractive lady named Gladys who was staying with her grandmother in Bodden Town.
“When I passed her way I would always see her on the road and called out to her. We got to talking and then married in 1947.” The couple had four children: Lois, Jewel, Marie and Floyd.
In need of work, like many local men Mr. Bodden soon went to sea, joining the Samcon oiler ship which took goods around the world. He went to school on the ship and became a chief engineer at age 33, eventually spending 16 years at sea.
On his return to Grand Cayman in 1968, Mr. Bodden joined the Public Works Department, a job he held until he retired.
On a recent morning, he proudly held up a plaque depicting a stamp of himself and Sir Vassel Johnson as young members of the Home Guard, issued to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II.
“I have no regrets about joining the Home Guard,” he said. “If I had the choice to do it again, I would.”