ONCE A FOOL! – From Japan to Alaska by Amphibious Jeep!


In 1956 when I was a journalist working for The Japan Times in Tokyo an Australian named Ben Carlin showed up on the southern tip of Kyushu Island in an amphibious jeep named HALF-SAFE [after a popular deodorant of the day] in which he was circumventing the globe. He had renovated the jeep by building a cab over the top, adding a false prow that served as an extra gas tank, and a narrow fantail tank that also carried gas.

Carlin drove overland up to Tokyo and rented a room in the Shinagawa district to wait out the winter before attempting to cross the North Pacific, the last leg of his journey…which had begun in 1946, first from New York and then from Nova Scotia after a breakdown at sea resulted in him and his new American wife [the jeep’s deckhand!] were picked up by a freighter and dropped off in Canada.

On the second attempt Carlin and his wife succeeded in crossing the Atlantic in the weird looking jeep, made landfall in northern Africa, made their way to England, rebuilt the jeep, and began the next long leg to and through Southeast Asia. Carlin’s wife jumped jeep in India [and latter divorced him]. He picked up a young Australian man as his new deckhand and proceeded on toward Japan, where the new mate decamped.

It was reported in The Japan Times that Carlin was looking for a new mate to complete the journey to the U.S. In short, I went to Shinagawa, met him, and volunteered to join him on the last and longest water-leg of the journey.

We left Tokyo on May 4, 1957, beginning an experience that, from this distant perspective, was amazing, unbelievable, incredibly dangerous, and more than foolish. We did not reach Alaska until September 4, precisely four months later.

I parted ways with Carlin in Anchorage, ending a relationship and an experience that now boggles the mind. After recovering in Phoenix, Arizona [where my parents lived] I returned to Tokyo as editor of The IMPORTER Magazine….and it was not until six years later that I completed the chronicle of my 4 months on HALF-SAFE with its vile, obscene, short-tempered captain.

I entitled the book, ONCE A FOOL – From Japan to Alaska by Amphibious Jeep, and now, over 50 years later, the story has not ended. Hundreds of times over the years I have had letters, phone calls and now emails from people who have something to say about the jeep or some question to ask me about the trip…during which we encountered breakdowns, Russians, frigid water, Japanese fishing nets that were miles long, the challenge of controlling a long torpedo-like tank of gas that we towed behind us and had to pull in and pump air into it to force gas into the jeep’s tanks during high waves and rain, fog in the Bering Sea that hid the Aleutian Islands from us; rip-tides between the islands, and on and on….! That’s me on the book cover, standing on the jeep during our first landfall on Shemya Island.

One of the most incredible events occurred in Phoenix, Arizona some 15 years after the trip by which time I had moved back to the states. One of my friends, an attorney who had run across my book in Hong Kong, called me and told me with great excitement that he had just spotted HALF-SAFE cruising slowly through downtown Phoenix and followed it for several minutes. Carlin, like an ancient ghost, was still tied to the jeep.

The jeep itself is now on permanent display in Perth, Australia, Carlin’s hometown, at a school for boys that he went to when young. Last year [2009] one of my friends, who was in Perth on vacation from Tokyo, sent me a picture of himself posing in front of HALF-SAFE.

ONCE A FOOL is available from Amazon.com. It includes a dozen or so photographs of me and Carlin during the first stages of the journey. After our truncated departure from Wakkanai, Hokkaido, Carlin’s camera was actually lost at sea…knocked overboard by a young Japanese fishermen who had boarded the jeep in mid-ocean to help us cut loose from a fishing net. That whole scenario, with me on the jeep by myself, and Carlin on the fishing boat naked as a jaybird and screaming his head off for over an hour, is beyond imagination!


Boyé Lafayette De Mente has been involved with Asia since the late 1940s as a member of a U.S. intelligence agency, journalist and editor. He is a graduate of Jōchi University in Tokyo, Japan and Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Arizona, USA. In addition to books on the business practices, social behavior and languages of China, Japan, Korea and Mexico he has written extensively about the plague of male dominance and the moral collapse of the U.S. and the Western world in general. Recent books include: CHINA Understanding & Dealing with the Chinese Way of Doing Business; JAPAN Understanding & Dealing with the NEW Japanese Way of Doing Business; AMERICA’S FAMOUS HOPI INDIANS; ARIZONA’S LORDS OF THE LAND [the Navajos] and SPEAK JAPANESE TODAY – A Little Language Goes a Long Way! To see a full list of his 60-plus books go to: www.authorsonlinebookshop.com. All of his titles are available from Amazon.com.