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World War II U.S. Merchant Marine

In Memory of Tom Bowerman



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© 2009 Dale E. Carlson

U. S. Merchant Marine Career of Otto W. Thiele

(Note: Dates indicate voyage periods only and do not include port time on board the various ships.)

July 5, 1944 (17th birthday) -- Sworn into U. S. Merchant Marine/ U.S. Maritime Service, Houston, TX, and departed next day via train to U. S. Maritime Service Training School, St. Petersburg, FL.

August 2, 1944 -- Completed training (short wartime course -- only ~3 weeks) and was awarded U. S. Coast Guard/ Merchant Marine ordinary seaman (OS) papers, seaman passport, etc. I was fortunate to start off on deck. Only three OS out of a class of 24! The rest received wiper and messman papers. Sent to Tampa, FL, for first ship, a brand-new concrete ship built in Tampa, the S. S. Edwin Thatcher.

August 7, 1944 - August 23, 1944 -- S. S. Edwin Thatcher (OS). Voyage to Matanzas, Cuba, for a load of sugar and delivered to the Domino Sugar Company in Baltimore, MD. Steamed independently, ran blacked-out because of reported U-boat activity along the Atlantic coast. Not happy with a concrete ship and paid off there in Baltimore.

August 31, 1944 - November 8, 1944 -- S. S. S.M. Shoemaker) (Liberty ship) (OS). Voyage to Glasgow, Scotland, via New York with a load of war materials (8" howitzers, ammunition, etc.). This was a brand-new Liberty ship out of the Fairfield yards in Baltimore. Two days out of New York, ran into the "Great Atlantic Hurricane of September 1944," most severe ever in the North Atlantic at those latitudes -- over 200 knot winds, seas at and over 120 feet! Lost some deck cargo over the side and all lifeboats and life rafts were carried away. Out of a convoy of 110 ships, lost two ships with all hands and all remaining ships were severely damaged. Some lost tanks right through the hull of the ship. Half the ships returned to New York and half to Halifax, Canada, for repairs and reload as required. Upon return to New York from Glasgow, a telegram was waiting that my father had had a heart attack; took train to Austin.

December 11, 1944 - February 13, 1945 -- S. S. Samuel Samuels (OS) -- "Hog Islander" freighter, smaller than the Liberty ship. 95 of these smaller steamers were built during World War II. Voyages to San Juan, Ponce and Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, for a load of sugar to New Orleans and then to Cuba for more sugar to Houston, TX. Ship had steam triple expansion uniflow engine. Took a brief visit home to Austin.

March 1, 1945 - May 4, 1945 -- S. S. Jacob Thompson (Liberty ship converted to an oil tanker) (acting able bodied seaman [AB]). -- Voyages coastwise from Corpus Christi, TX, via Pensacola, FL, to Boston, then to Baton Rouge, LA, for another load of diesel oil and back to Boston. On the first trip, a convoy had to be formed off Key West, FL because of heavy "last-ditch" U-boat activity off the Atlantic coast. Although carrying only diesel oil, the ship was always smelly and two months was enough!

May 9, 1945 - May 19, 1945 -- S. S. J. L. Chamberlain (Liberty ship) (acting AB). Voyage coastwise via the Cape Cod Canal through Buzzards Bay, inside Long Island and down the East River to New York for cargo. While just starting to load cargo, the war in Europe ended and all ship routing orders were cancelled (57 ships) in New York harbor, resulting in most crews being laid off. It was a blast that night at Times Square for the VE celebration! My friend and I from Corpus Christi knew we would soon run out of money so we were really hustling to get another ship! We were nearly broke so the union hiring hall folks gave us a few dollars and asked my partner and me to go over to the non-union Immelman Steamship Company office where they did their hiring directly and scatter some union literature around their office. They soon ran us out! A few days later we heard they were hiring and went back to their office (somehow they didn't recognize us) and we were hired as ABs on the S.S. John Barton Payne which was berthed at Staten Island. Fortunately, the union hall gave us enough money (along with a satchel full of union literature) for taxi and ferry fare to get to the ship. It was great to have room and board again!

May 31, 1945 - October 2, 1945 -- S. S. John Barton Payne (Liberty ship) (acting AB). Voyage to Naples, Italy, to Calcutta, India, via the Suez Canal and return to Newark, NJ. How we got this ship is a story in itself. The ship was out at Staten Island and by now we were out of money so the union loaned us $5.00 for a taxi and ferry ride out to it. This was a Liberty ship converted with king posts in order to carry 50-ton Sherman tanks. General cargo, mostly food, to Naples and then a load of P-51 fighter planes from Naples to Calcutta for use against the Japanese in the Burma Theater. On rounding the point of India (between the continent and Ceylon (Sri Lanka now), our radio operator picked up a signal that a bomb with a blast of 20,000 tons TNT equivalent had been dropped on Japan. Those of us who had seen what a ship with 10,000 tons of munitions blowing up could do to a harbor and city couldn't believe it. How could a plane carry anything like that? We couldn't imagine anything like an atom bomb. The war with Japan ended while we were in port and that evening we had a huge victory party at the American Merchant Seaman's Club with a sumptuous dinner. A letter arrived while there (there were no radiograms at that time) advising me of my father's death in Austin, Texas, on July 19, which had happened just after our leaving Naples. We didn't unload the P-51s and after about a week we departed for Newark, New Jersey, after a stop for fuel at Ceylon. U.S. service personnel in the area were eager to get home with the war over, so we took on 75 Army Air Force pilots and navigators who had been flying the "Hump" supplying China. They weren't too happy at the 42-day voyage home at standard Liberty ship speed. Also a number of them got sick in mostly calm waters!

November 7, 1945 - March 8, 1946 -- S. S. Harold I. Pratt (Liberty ship) (AB). Voyages from New York to Rotterdam, Holland, (general cargo) and from Halifax, Canada, to Gdansk, Poland (UNRA relief cargo). On return from Poland, went through the Kiel Canal for a stop at Copenhagen to take on ballast. While going through the canal lock, the propeller hit a floating fender damaging one blade of the propeller. After loading the ballast, we put into what was left of Bremmerhaven, Germany, to get a new propeller. Noted one of the Liberty ships that had broken in half, immediately in front of the bridge. Departed for New Orleans.

April 2, 1946 - August 14, l946 -- S. S. Levi Woodbury (Liberty ship) (4/2/46 - 6/20/46 as AB and 6/21/46 - 8/14/46 as ship's carpenter). Voyages from Galveston, TX, to Bari, Italy (general cargo), from Charleston, SC, to Toulon, France, (coal) and Albany, NY, to LeHarve, France (grain). Returned to Boston, MA. This was my last voyage "in the foc'sl," i.e., as an unlicensed seaman.

August 15, 1946 - September 28, 1946 -- U. S. Maritime Navigation and U. S. Merchant Marine Officers Training School, Boston, MA. Total immersion school six days a week in all aspects of ship management as a deck officer. Courses included celestial and coastal navigation, ship to ship and ship to shore communications, cargo handling and stowage, ship mensurations, admiralty law, rules of the road, ship safety procedures, etc. Eligibility for the school required 18 months' sea time as able bodied seaman of which at least three months had to be as ship's bos'n or ship's carpenter. The examination, conducted by the U. S. Coast Guard, required four days at eight hours a day.

October 1, 1946 -- Received my license as U. S. Merchant Marine officer (third mate) for ships of any tonnage on any ocean issued by the U. S. Coast Guard at Boston, MA. Took train to Austin, TX, for a brief vacation, my last long ride with a steam engine pulling the train. After visit to Austin, departed for Houston, TX, to obtain a job with the Lykes Bros. Steamship Company.

November 1, 1946 - January 3, 1947 -- M/V Cape Lookout (C-1 diesel-powered ship) (junior 3rd mate). Two voyages to Cuba for sugar, my first voyage as a ship's deck officer. New Orleans-Cuba-Galveston and back to Cuba returning to New Orleans. After the second voyage, the ship was sold to a Dutch steamship company. To replace that ship, Lykes sent most of the officers to Norfolk, VA, to restore a ship located in the "boneyard" in the James River. This occasioned my first commercial airplane trip, to Norfolk via Washington, DC.

March 15, 1947 - April 15, 1947 -- S. S. John Lykes (C-1 steamship). Lived in hotel in Norfolk during ship refit. After about a week working on getting the ship ready, I became seriously ill with acute appendicitis and was admitted to the Marine Hospital in Norfolk. Because the ship had to depart before I could recover they had to take on a new 3rd mate. When I recovered (including a tonsillectomy) I was advised to go to see the Lykes Bros. port captain in New York for another ship. After flying up there, he said he had a ship for me -- right back in Norfolk! This ship was another Liberty ship, the S. S. Mack Bruton Bryan, also just coming out of the "boneyard." It took about two weeks to get her ready for sea.

April 11, 1947 - June 11, 1948 -- S. S. Mack Bruton Bryan (Liberty ship) (3rd mate). After refit in Norfolk, sailed coastwise to Galveston for first cargo. Five foreign voyages: one each to Liverpool, Manchester, and London, England, one to Antwerp, Belgium, and one to Athens, Greece. All were from Gulf of Mexico ports with return to Savannah, Ga. Then sailed coastwise to Mobile, AL, where I left to go to Houston, TX, after a short visit to Austin. During visit to Austin, went to Dallas, TX, to receive a commission as ensign in the United States Naval Reserve. Lykes Bros. Steam Ship Company needed to have half of its officers to be commissioned in the U. S. Naval Reserve to be eligible for U. S. mail contracts.

July 10, 1948 - September 7, 1948 -- Houston, TX. Worked as night relief officer on various Lykes Bros. ships that were in port. (Ships' officers did not have to stand night watches in port, they worked normal daytime hours only). The purpose of this extended stay in Houston was to study and sit for my 2nd mate's license which I received in early September 1948.

September 8, 1948 - October 15, 1948 -- S. S. Adabelle Lykes (C-1 steamship) (3rd mate). Two voyages to Cuba as relief officer while awaiting a permanent billet on another Lykes ship. Operated out of Lake Charles, LA, and Galveston, TX.

October 16, 1948 - November 15, 1948 -- S. S. Thompson Lykes (C-2 steamship) (3rd mate). Two voyages to Puerto Rico and Cuba, still awaiting a permanent billet. Operated out of Galveston, Lake Charles, LA, and Houston, TX. While in Houston, sat for and received my 2nd mate's license.

November 16, 1948 - June 24, 1949 -- S. S. Sue Lykes (C-2 steamship) (3rd mate, permanent billet). Four voyages to Manchester, England, Genoa, Italy, Athens, Greece, and Venice, Italy. Acting second mate on the last voyage. At about this time I decided not to pursue a career at sea. The crazy Russian captain we had on this ship hurried my decision a bit. The circumstances with that pompous ---- is a story in itself upon which I may elaborate sometime. His inept ship handling in a North Atlantic storm caused the loss of one of my watch's ABs who was washed overboard.

Thus my seagoing career in the U.S. Merchant Marine ended at Tampa, FL (coincidentally where it began), on June 24, 1949 - a land lubber until called to active duty in the United States Navy in March 1951 for the Korean War.

Contributed June 2009

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