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Pvt. William H. Thomas

by Willie Lagarde

In the late forties, most but not all shipping companies claimed they were no longer able to compete in global commerce unless they cut operating costs, mainly wages of officers and crew. How best to do this; register their ships in foreign countries, fly the flag of that country and hire foreign seamen. Both officers and sailors unions cried foul but anti-union sentiment was such that complaints fell on deaf ears. “Featherbedding” was the catch word used to sway public opinion against organized labor and later justify the outsourcing of jobs overseas.
Activists and others didn’t realize when organized labor was removed from the hiring process most jobs on American flag ships would go to foreigners who were willing to work for third world pay on these same ships now flying “flags of convenience.” Pay that was not nearly enough to support a family in America and benefits were meager if any at all.

On my last trip as third mate I was the only deck officer without a masters license and when I left that ship I was replaced by a captain. Yep, it got that bad. But still no hue and cry from our citizens; only sailors were affected. Nationwide shutdown of entire segments of American industry with shuttered towns and idle rusting manufacturing plants was yet to come. Nobody complains until they’re affected.

In 1948 all USCG licensed Merchant Marine officers who hadn’t yet done so, were required to apply for commissions in the US Naval Reserve. Application was all that was required and though I was surprised to receive a letter of acceptance telling me to submit the usual documents; birth certificate, military discharge etc., I declined. I had already decided it best to look for another line of work But that was long ago and not what I wanted to talk about; however it is the reason I made my last trips aboard merchant vessels as quartermaster rather than deck officer.

In spring of 1949 I used my veterans privilege to obtain a job as quartermaster aboard USAT Pvt. William H. Thomas for what would be my last voyage as an unmarried man.

She had been built for the Navy as USS Rixey APH3 and designed to carry troops or civilians or both.You may have heard of this ship, after I left her she was one of the first responders to the Italian liner Andrea Doria’s SOS and rescued some of the passengers. I was on the second mate’s 12 to 4 watch and except for inland waterways, docking and undocking we used the “iron mike” or automatic steering most of the time. Since he was also the official navigation officer I assisted him along with other small chores in the wheel house. These were the days before satellite navigation and global positioning. Sextants, octants and chronometers etc were still tools of the trade.

In the absence of any emergencies to contend with, it was a cush job and would have been boring except for a female aboard. A very young female as it turned out. She was traveling with a younger sister and her grandmother who I would guess to be in her sixties. She told me she was eighteen, she looked it and I believed her. They were dependents but not of any of the two or three hundred troops we had aboard. We had picked up these troops and dependents in San Juan PR and Cristobal Panama. About five hundred persons in all. On this trip at least, the soldiers living spaces were forward of the deck house or super structure. They were never allowed to mix with the civilian passengers but as best I could determine they were comfortable, well fed and had the entire forward deck to themselves for exercise. I shared a room with the other two quartermasters and the ship’s bosun in the forward part of the passenger spaces.

Our passengers were all women and children dependents but not necessarily of the soldiers aboard. Although the captain allowed our civilian passengers free access to the bridge and wheel house two or three at a time, only a few ever came up but this girl took to following me around almost standing the day portion of the watch with me. She was young but sophisticated beyond her years. Did I entertain the possibility of a more intimate relationship with her; it crossed my mind. When the captain first noticed her on the wing of the bridge and her obvious attachment to the quartermaster he took me aside and told me she was a much younger precocious girl. He reminded me of international maritime law with reference to and severe punishment for, “carnal knowledge at sea with a female under the age of sixteen with or without consent.” I didn’t know if that law was still on the books and in force but the message was clear. Out here he was the law.

I was on the wheel when we picked up the bar pilot and approached southwest pass of the Mississippi river outlet to the Gulf. Once aboard he gave the order to “come ahead one third and right a bit”. Then “ease your wheel and steady as she goes.”This means stay on the compass heading or whatever land mark is visible at that time. I was heading for the center of the pass but long ground swells were lifting the ship and swinging the bow as much as fifteen degrees. The second mate was watching me anxiously and kept looking at the rudder indicator. There was a Corp of Engineers dredge sitting in the pass with barely enough room to get by. At times during the swings the mast was dead center on the dredge. I had been up the pass a couple of times but not on watch and never had this experience before. I looked for some sign from the pilot and at one point he turned toward me and nodded affirmatively. In spite of the bow swinging through at least fifteen degrees and the gyro repeater ticking crazily until we got in the pass, I resisted the urge and never once moved the rudder. At times I thought the nervous mate was going to grab the wheel. Once safely over the bar and into the pass I looked at my pretty young friend out on the wing and would you believe she gave me a thumbs up. Is it possible, whatever her age, she could sense and share my anxiety. As the troops and passengers were leaving the ship at the New Orleans Port of Embarkation we said goodbye on the dock with very uncarnal hugs from her, the little sister and Granny. Within 90 days my unmarried status would end and I never got the chance to check out the little town in the Oklahoma hills where she was born.


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