Stories of the Sea by David C. Holmes

First Story:

“One thing that stands out in my memory at the U. S. Merchant Marine Academy in October of 1942 was a close friendship formed, namely Norman Vail of Tea Neck, N. J.  Norman’s father was an alleged executive with Standard Oil Company, and Norm made it very clear to me that his dad “had influence” when it came to being assigned to ships in late November. Standard Oil tankers had their danger factor, but the food was reputed to be great and the quarters nothing less than luxurious. When the assignments came, instead of being assigned to a fine tanker, Norm and I found ourselves on the S.S. Gargoyle, a 1918 Socony Vacuum Oil Company tanker with a top speed of 8 knots and a capacity of breaking down on frequent occasions out at sea.

The food was passable, but the quarters for the four cadets was a kind of locker with port holes directly next to the engine room exit. During the winter time, the heat was bearable, but in the tropics, it was murder. Roaches abounded and at night would crawl over us when asleep.
I might mention that the S.S. Gargoyle had a kind of international crew left over from the old time when service in the U.S. Merchant Marine was the means that many foreigners chose to become U.S. citizens. the captain was Norwegian, Second Mate Russian from St. Petersburg, a Third Engineer from Germany, a Chinese cook, Greek pump-man and so on. American sailors were in the minority.

I might mention the Chinese cook wasn’t half bad at what he had to prepare.”  On another cadet voyage months later same ship he wrote, ”One beautiful evening in August when sailing in the Gulf of Mexico, a brand spanking new tanker over took us and sailed grandly towards the horizon. I can remember standing at the rail, watching this ship with a kind of fascination and a bit of jealousy. I was about to turn away when there was a bright flash, followed by a large volume of black smoke. I had a watch cap on at the time and pulled it purposely over my eyes to keep anyone from noticing how scared I was. The time of that torpedoing was 7:22 PM.”

Second Story:

This was November 1942 on the S.S. Gargoyle (foreign voyage) before and after weighing anchor off Staten Island. Four cadets from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, Kings Point, Long Island were aboard among an international crew from the old merchant marine days. My dad was one of the cadets (graduating USMMA June 6, 1944 by then already a veteran mariner having seen plenty of action at sea). So in his own words we begin:
“One incident which I remember with great clarity was as follows: Prior to our leaving the dock to anchor off Staten Island and putting to sea a very large Coast Guard commander came aboard with an entourage of sailors and wanted to demonstrate a new life saving device intended to save the lives of sailors swimming in cold seas.

It was a heavy rubber suit which covered the whole body excepting a space for the face. The Commander was in a hurry with his demonstration and volunteered the Chinese cook much to the amusement of everyone. The object was to put the suit on and jump into the water. The Captain, who spoke with a heavy Norwegian accent, was not a bit amused and protested to the Commander that ” you can’t throw my cook in da water”! The Commander was very reassuring, “The inventors made this whole thing perfectly safe.”

The Captain’s answer was ” I don’t give a (expletive) about the inventors put a line around that (expletive).” To get the whole thing over and done with, a line was tied around the cook and he was pushed into the bay. He sank like a stone. Bubbles commenced coming up at the spot where he sank. The Captain screamed for someone to pull up on the line, and the cook was hauled up on board swearing in Chinese and threatening to kill someone if he had the chance. The Commander had in his haste neglected to insist that a life preserver be worn under the suit. The Commander, and his men, left in a great huff, but the crew were laughing about it for days.

The following day, being Sunday, and unreasonably warm for the last of November, we anchored off Staten Island. I can remember the cows being herded into a barn at a nearby farm. At around eight in the evening, we weighed anchor. I grabbed four hours of sleep prior to going on watch at 12:00 AM. When I climbed up on the bridge to join the Second Mate, on the starboard side was the burning wreckage of a single cargo vessel. No survivors. This was how close the U-boats got to our shores. We pressed on knowing any second our fate could be the same, but it rarely came up in conversation as we all went about our duties.”

Third story told still as a cadet on the S.S, Gargoyle: Dad thought this story was written up in the “Saturday Evening Post” circa 1943 but I have not researched it as yet.

“One incident which I thought was interesting concerned the Third Engineer, who was German and spoke English with great difficulty. Apparently he had become despondent, possibly feeling that he should be home fighting against the Allies instead of helping them. The mess boy and I were at the back of the ship when the Third Engineer ran past us and leaped over the ship’s fan tail in a suicide attempt. In our excitement the mess boy and I threw the engineer a broom instead of a life ring, which wasn’t far away. It is amazing what one will do when there isn’t time for logic.  However, it was the broom that saved his life.

Now you have heard stories of survivors being spotted in the ocean and consequently rescued.  These have to be sheer fabrication. Once in the water, a swimmer blends in incredibly with his surroundings and becomes almost invisible.  The captain (Norwegian), who acted with promptness as upon learning of the man over board immediately ordered a life boat launched, being manned by the closest available sailors which included myself.  The boat in question was propelled by oars, not by motor. As we rowed away from the ship, I can to this day hear the captain’s voice booming from the bridge, “He’s over dere” which happened to be quite a distance from where we were located. After we had rowed to the point where the captain indicated, we could hear, “No, No, No, he’s over dere!”. By this time my arms were in pain. It was terribly hot. I didn’t think I could lift another stroke, and then we heard a voice crying, “sharks!”.

Looking in that direction we could see the broom. When reaching that point, we pulled the engineer into our boat with numerous cuts on his body where the sharks had tried to bite him. He had literally fought the sharks off with that broom.  The Third Mate Matson wrote up this account and submitted it to “The Saturday Evening Post”, and it was published in a kind of digest form.”

This next account is of the last wartime voyage of the Jeremiah O’Brien leaving July 27th 1945 and returning back to San Francisco January 22, 1946 (see the pdf attached of dad’s “Continuous Discharge Book” showing the stamped dates of departure and return).  In his account he lists wartime ports of call and ports of call right after the war which I’ll will write down. His last stop was Freemantle, Australia (The War Bride Story). Now as to this I’ll write down what he said happened on that voyage (dad was Second Mate on that ship). You may or may not want to publish it as it showed the captain in an unflattering light, but here it is. Also look at the jpeg labeled May 5th 1945. This was a San Francisco night club where that night May 5th 1945 he was there with another Merchant Marine officer and their girlfriends and some other ladies. Dad is to the left looking down at his drink and holding the hand of a pretty woman to his left. His friend is on the far right of the picture. Just for human interest the club was “Dave Hersh’s Richelieu Casino” in San Francisco 1039 Gerry Street near Van Ness. Of course today I have no idea of what is there. Now to his last voyage of WW II and the ports of call.

“The remaining part of the war was spent in the South Pacific with various duties to all battle areas from Milne Bay, Holandia, Williams haven, New Guinea, Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Enewetok, Funa Futi, Saipan, and lastly Australia, India, and China. Also we briefly touched down at Pitcairn Island, of Munity on the Bounty, fame. The people there were very polite and welcoming. The war did not seem to touch them and life went on there as it always had been.

At the end of the war (War Bride Story) when stopping at Fremantle, Australia we took on a non-military cargo of wool and 39 Australian war brides or wives of U.S. service men.

In addition to this the U.S. Counsel to New Zealand came aboard with his new bride and told me confidently that she was in the personal charge of the captain.  In fact, the captain had made special arrangements to have her cabin right next to his in order to see “after her comforts”.

The captain, a degenerate, double dealing, lying, drunken specimen of manhood assured the Counsel, who seemed to dote on every word of the captain, that his wife would be very safe with him. He would personally see to it. I pleaded with the Counsel to put his wife’s quarters down with the other women, but he would hear nothing of it.

Well, during one of those beautiful moonlit nights when I was on watch, I saw the girl in question running down the fore deck, scantily clad, with the captain in close pursuit, saying “here kitty, kitty”. This is a true story so help me.

There was a general relief of all on board due to the war finally being over and some of the crew and the other women on board took advantage of the situation and I guess decided that any port was OK in a storm sort of speak with all night card playing and romantic activities going on in lifeboats and other hidden parts of the ship. We arrived thirty-two days later at San Francisco with all such activities at an end and life in a post war world about to begin.”

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