OF THE S.S. COLUMBIA MARINER
by William R. Carr
The Vietnam War era was the last "boom time" for the American merchant marine. Few seamen who participated in the Vietnam sea-lift will ever forget the experience. "It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times."
On May 16th, 1997 Captain Alfred P. Jump, of Marlborough, Connecticut passed away at the age of 85. Though I hadn't seen Captain Jump in 27 years, I sat up and took note when I read of his death. Our acquaintance was rather brief, but the occasion of our meeting was one of those events indelibly etched in my memory.
I met him in Saigon in March of 1970 when he was the master of the S.S. Columbia Mariner, one of several freighters, of the C-2 design, owned and operated by the Columbia Steamship company of Portland, Oregon. It was the second voyage of that vessel, under Columbia Steamship Company ownership, and a memorable voyage it had thus far been for Captain Jump and his crew. I missed the most memorable legs of that eventful voyage, having joined the ship after the events which are the subject of this article had already occurred. In fact, I was shipped as a replacement for one of the ill-fated outbound crew members who had failed to made it to Saigon.
In March of 1970, in addition to the ill-luck experienced by
the Columbia Mariner, it was beginning to appear that the Columbia Steamship
Company, was laboring under some sort of evil curse. On Thursday, 14 March, one
of its other ships, the Columbia Eagle, had been Hijacked. I was on the beach in
Saigon at the time the news hit the wires, and I made the following notation in
Tuesday, 17 March, 1970: "...Yesterday the SS Columbia Eagle became a victim of mutiny. Loaded with ammo en route to Satahip, Thailand, a couple of war protesters in the crew implemented a bomb scare to induce 24 of the crew members to abandon ship in the lifeboats. Two members of the 15 crew remaining aboard, (the two mutineers) forced the ship into Cambodian waters where it is currently anchored. The two mutineers, according to news casts so far, have been granted political asylum in Cambodia."
I'd been languishing in Saigon for seven months, having signed off of my last ship on the 28th of August of the previous year. I say languished, though I actually had a rather good reason for staying ashore for many of those months. After all, Saigon had become home, and... Well, beach-combers are noted for spending a good deal of time stranded on the beach — and enjoying it. But even more to the point, I had been with my wife during the final months of her pregnancy, and present for the birth of our son who had debuted on November 17th of 1969. After that, of course, it had become even more difficult to entertain the thought of actively seeking a berth — and perhaps sailing away from my wife and infant son for untold months.
In short, I hadn't sought a berth for fear of landing one, though I had called at the consulate from time to time to just to keep my ear to the ground, so to speak. I was hoping for a ship that would bring me back home frequently, but Far East shuttles were becoming fewer and farther between. It was beginning to look as if I would be forced to take a berth on a ship bound for the States — a prospect I didn't relish. It had been nice laying around home, reading, writing, and listening... listening, among other things, to the sounds of the war — the distant thuds of bombs blowing holes in rice paddies, (always wondering how many humans had also been blown to shreds along with the rice crop) and the much nearer sounds of mortar shells crashing into the city most nights, (always wondering whether, or when, the war would return to the city as it had done during the Tet offensive only two years before). But the time had finally arrived when I could put off the inevitable no longer. The cash larder was getting dangerously low, and I had a family to feed.
On Friday, the 27th of March, with no small degree of trepidation, I mounted my trusty bicycle and sojourned to the U.S. consulate in downtown Saigon. As I entered the old consulate building I noticed a lone figure seated in one of the chairs that lined the wall to the left. It was a distinguished, trim-looking, gentlemen perhaps in his mid fifties. He was clad in plain khakis, in the fashion of a merchant marine officer. Though he worn no hat nor insignia of any kind, I deduced by his age and general appearance, and the document folder he held on his lap, that he was probably the captain of one of the ships in the harbor. Most striking about his appearance, however, was his somber, almost dejected, demeanor.
I greeted him with as cheerful a "good morning" as I could muster, and passed on to the long counter which separated the waiting area from the consular office and officialdom. He acknowledged my greeting with a slight nod and rather grim smile.
I looked at the board on the wall to the right upon which various notices were posted, including a list of American ships in port and where they were berthed. There were usually at least two or three, but sometimes half a dozen or so. The Columbia Mariner was one, I noticed, and I'd noticed it in particular because of the recent news of the Columbia Eagle mutiny.
The attractive Vietnamese secretary greeted me from behind the counter with her usual smile and "What can I do for you today?" I told her I was getting serious about going to work, and wondered about the availability of any third mate berths. As she called to the resident Coast Guard officer in the back office, I became aware of a slight stirring of the seated gentleman I'd just passed. I wondered whether my query had stirred him for some reason.
The officer in charge of merchant marine Inspection detail at that time was Lt. Commander Phil Spiker. He had replaced the infamous Commander Oliver, who had earned the reputation of being the "Matt Dillon" of the Saigon waterfront. Oliver had arrived on the scene about three or four years earlier to whip some order out of chaotic, and sometimes lawless, conditions that had resulted from the rapid escalation of the war and increase in the number of American ships and seamen in the area. (I'd had occasion to taste some of Commander Oliver's marine inspection zeal in the past, but that's another story. As an added point of interest, I believe this was the same Commander Edward F. Oliver, who authored an article promoting the "Rapid Radar Plotting Method" which appeared in the April 1969 issue of the Master, Mate, & Pilot union newspaper — a transcript of which I keep to this day. This was the basis of the "Real Time Method" of radar plotting widely taught today.)
An acute and ongoing shortage of qualified American seamen meant that all sorts of inexperienced men were being recruited, along with many old salts who were enticed out of retirement. Many were recruited from waterfront skid-rows and gutters of the various ports all over the world, where old seamen were often found in varied states of terminal deterioration or inebriation. If they could be made to stand at all, it was considered, they could stand a sea watch. Jails were cleared, (or at least so it seemed) of anything claiming an affinity with the sea and ships. Almost every crew was laced with a few incompetents, mal-contents, misfits, and alcoholics — the cause of numerous bizarre and violent shipboard incidents, and such anomalies as the recent mutiny aboard the S.S. Columbia Eagle.
Commander Spiker, with whom I was well acquainted, appeared behind the counter. Only a few weeks before, he had been telling me about the offshore oil boom going on down in Singapore, and told me they needed licensed American captains down there. I had been considering heading down that way if I was unable to get a ship soon.
Upon hearing that I was now serious about shipping out, he nodded toward the seated gentleman, saying, "That's the master of the Columbia Mariner over there. I believe he needs a third mate."
So saying, he came around the counter and introduced me to Captain Jump. "This may be your third mate captain," he said to the captain. "I can vouch that he is a good man. He may be a jail-bird, but he's not a drunk."
The commander had added the last remark with a chuckle, and quickly explained it away to Captain Jump. Only a little over a month before, he'd had occasion to vouch me out of the Long Binh military jail, (the infamous LBJ) where I'd spent and uncomfortable night as a suspected army deserter. I'd been "captured" by American M.P.s while riding my bicycle in the countryside just outside of Saigon. (I'd left my wallet and identification at home, and thus had been presumed guilty of desertion rather than simple stupidity. Consequently, I'd been interrogated for hours by army intelligence officers determined to find out when, and from which unit, I had deserted.) But for Commander Spiker, (who was reached by phone the following morning) I might have spent several more nights at the LBJ.
The captain stood, and we shook hands.
"I don't know whether he'll want the job once I've told him of the luck we've been having," the captain said to the commander.
Oh, oh, I thought. Looks like I've already found a berth, and I'm not sure I want it.
"Why do you say that sir?" I inquired, somewhat skeptically. Seldom had I been in a position where it seemed a given that I'd been accepted for a job before even a cursory conversation. Ordinarily, a captain might have looked me up and down critically, sizing me up, while carefully reserving judgment, and maintaining a condescending bearing. But apparently Commander Spiker's assurance was enough recommendation for him — or, alternately, he was really desperate for a third mate.
Captain Jump spoke to me more as an old friend, or a fatherly figure cautioning a young man against acting hastily. I immediately perceived that he was a kindly person, and most probably a good captain to work for, though many a seaman has had a rude awakening after having such first impressions. The stories have been many of the kindly old man turning into a tyrant once articles are signed and the sailor safely installed on board.
The captain rolled his eyes up and tossed his head back in a gesture of mock despair, "Sit down, and let me tell you about the worst passage of my career."
We sat down and he told me about his recent trials and tribulations. The story he told was as good a sea yarn as I've ever heard. I've heard many in my day, but this is one of the few I that has stuck in my memory. I recall it as if I had experienced it myself rather than merely heard it. What made it so memorable, was that it was all absolutely true — and so very recent. Of course, I don't pretend to recall his exact words. The following is a reconstruction. I'm sure, if I could recount the captain's exact words, the narrative would be much better than what I've written below. Yet I've taken the liberty of writing in quotes, as if the words below were the very ones I heard that day. Unavoidable inaccuracies notwithstanding, I can assure the reader that the main points are all there and all correct.
"Our troubles commenced, appropriately enough I suppose, on Friday, the 13th of February," the captain began. "We were berthed at Garrison Terminal, Tampa, loading bagged fertilizer. We'd just finished loading ten thousand tons of the stuff, and at about 2100 the sailors started securing the gear for sea. While securing, they managed to drop one of the booms at number four hatch. No great damage was done, but one ordinary seaman was slightly hurt by a cargo runner, and our run of bad luck had begun.
"The shipping commissioner came aboard just after midnight to supervise the signing of articles, and we were finally secured and ready for sea by about two in the morning. I breathed a sigh of relief as we took departure at about dawn on the 14th. We'd survived the hectic coastal loading period and Friday the thirteenth. The crew were finally on articles, and a clear day was in the offing as we headed southwestward for Cape San Antonio and Panama.
"We arrived at Christobal on the 18th, and transited the canal the same night without a hitch. We departed Balboa for Honolulu early on the morning of the 19th.
"With the prospects of a fair weather passage to Hawaii ahead, things should have been going along just fine, but I soon became aware that we had some potential problems on board."
The captain shifted in his weight slightly, to face me a little more squarely. He placed his folder on the floor beside his chair and continued in a sad and slow monotone. I was sitting to his left and, as he proceeded, he used his right hand from time to time to add emphasis to his words or punctuate his statements. Not wildly, for Captain Jump was not a frantic sort of person, but with slow deliberative gestures. Sometimes both hands would come into play for a moment or two, then his left hand would find the side of his chair seat and grasp it as if to steady him.
"One of our third engineers..." he continued, pausing again momentarily, "Well, it seems he had just got married prior to his signing aboard. He thought his new wife was pretty attractive, I take it, and I think he had sort of robbed the cradle. Anyway, he apparently commenced worrying that it might have been unwise to leave such a beautiful young wife alone. At least this is what I have been given to believe.
"He started acting a little strange soon after we sailed from Tampa. He didn't want the bedroom steward to clean, or even enter, his room. I don't know why. The only thing I've been able to figure is that he had a picture of his new bride on his desk and didn't want the BR to be able to look at it. That's how sensitive he was about his wife, I guess. We didn't have any idea at the time how irrational he had become. After all, he was an experienced seaman — a licensed officer, and presumably somewhat level-headed. Afterwards I heard that he'd wanted to sign off in Panama. Why he hadn't come to me with his problem, I don't know. I wish to God he had. I'd have paid him off.
"It's a tragedy about the BR. He was a very pleasant young fellow. It was his first trip to sea, and he was doing a good job. He took his work seriously — apparently more seriously than he took the third engineer's request that he stay out of his room. Anyway, a couple of days out of Balboa, (at about noon on the 21st of February, I believe it was) the young BR was cleaning up in the third engineer's room, as he was supposed to, when the third walked in. The engineer literally went berserk. He grabbed a knife he had handy and attacked the BR, cutting him up pretty badly. I mean he stabbed and hacked at him mercilessly. It's a wonder the poor kid wasn't killed. His head — yes, his head — was a real mess, but luckily his eyes escaped the butchery. The kid was a good-looking young fellow, too — just starting out — what a shame! His left arm was very badly slashed up too. I bet he'll never want to go to sea again..."
At this juncture Captain Jump's voice trailed off slightly, as his right hand closed in a tight fist. For the briefest moment, he seemed on the brink of tears. Then he took a deep breath, brought his fist down gently onto his right knee, and resumed.
"Of all the guys something like that had to happen to! But he wasn't the only one to get cut. The commotion of the struggle, accompanied by a considerable amount of yelling and screaming, could be heard throughout the passageways. The second mate, Henry Lawrence, was first on the scene. He dove into the fray in an attempt to get between the two and separate them. Next thing he knew he was rather seriously cut or stabbed in the chest. He was a good man, too.
"About that time, James Smith, the chief mate, who happens to be a former Mobile police officer, arrived. He started going about the business of disarming and subduing the engineer, but the engineer managed to break away. He fled into the passageway and ran out onto the deck. Then the crazy s.o.b. jumped over the side!
"I'd heard some of the commotion from my office one deck up and was headed down to investigate when I heard someone yelling 'man overboard!' I turned and scrambled up to the bridge, joining Mr. Roland, the third mate who was on watch. We sounded the man overboard alarm and started a Williamson turn. Things were pretty confused for a couple of minutes, but we got the ship turned around and Mr. Smith lowered and took command of number two life boat. By the grace of God, we spotted the man and they managed to recover him without too much trouble.
"We got the boat back aboard and the engineer chained and locked up under double guard. Mr. Smith and Mr. Roland attended to the wounded, as I got the ship underway for the nearest port, which happened to be Corinto, Nicaragua.
"The next morning we arrived in Corinto and got our two wounded men ashore by evening. A squad of police and military personnel came abroad and took the prisoner ashore a little later the same evening, and we got under way again early the following morning. I'd lost three crew members — apparently because of a husband's irrational jealousy. Two officers and a steward utility. Now, I thought, we may be a little short-handed, but at least the worst is over."
"Surly it was," I echoed, already sufficiently impressed by the magnitude of their misfortunes — believing that must be about the end of the story. "That was about enough trouble for one voyage."
"Enough, yes, but not quite all," the captain countered, raising his hand as if to tell me to wait. "We had more coming. I promoted Mr. Roland to second mate, and when we docked in Honolulu on March 7th, crew replacements, including a new third mate, were ready and waiting on the dock. I thought perhaps our difficulties were behind us. Our call in Honolulu was very brief, and we sailed for Saigon in the evening of that same day. But not with a full compliment of crew as we thought there would be. One of the ordinaries, a wiper, and a messman had failed to join. Not new men, mind you, but members of the original crew. They didn't come back to the ship, and I can't say that I really blamed them.
"The ordinary who deserted was the one who'd been slightly injured in Tampa. I guess he and the others had come to the conclusion that the ship was jinxed. We'd begun the voyage on a Friday the thirteenth, and bad luck had followed, and the voyage had only begun. I suppose they figured that they'd better get while the getting was good. At least we had a full compliment of officers and watch-standers aboard, and that was something. Personally, I thought little more was likely to go wrong. We'd had enough bad luck to last us a while, and things ought to be sort of weighted in our favor. You know — the odds, and all that. Of course, I was wrong.
"We got underway before mid-night. The next day was Sunday, (8 March) and things seemed to be going rather smoothly. The new third mate had been on watch from mid-night to 0400, and seemed to be a decent fellow. I'd stayed on the bridge with him for some time after we took departure — until I'd determined that he was a fit watch stander, and that we were safely clear of Oahu. I hadn't noticed anything to indicate anything was wrong with him. Being free and clear, with several thousand miles of ocean to cross, I thought perhaps I could finally relax. Once again I breathed a sigh of relief. I actually went below and got a good night's sleep for a change.
"I got up, had a good breakfast, relaxed with a book most of the morning, and had a good dinner. I was in my office attending to some paper work when, at about 1400, I heard some rather loud thumping sounds overhead. The pilot house being directly above my quarters, I hastened to the bridge to see what was making such a confounded noise. To my great surprise, and horror, it was the new third mate — the watch officer! — floundering around on the deck, unable to keep his feet. Obviously, he was very drunk — falling-down drunk! Oh, God, I said to myself, we've drawn a real loser here. At that, I didn't realize quite how correct I was.
"I roused all the other mates, summoning them to the bridge, and turned the watch over to Mr. Peon, the other third mate. Looking at our new third mate with disgust and revulsion, I sent Mr. Smith and Mr. Roland down to his room to conduct a search for liquor. I shook my head and watched him a few moments, by then sitting quietly on the deck leaning on the compass binnacle. 'God, what next?' Mr. Peon said. 'Damned if I know,' I said.
"The next order of business was to get this acute disappointment off the bridge and down to his room. I was also contemplating the idea of turning the vessel around and putting him right back ashore where we'd got him. But, it was just a flash of wishful thinking. I knew I couldn't afford to do that. We'd have to carry him all the way to Saigon — almost three weeks away. Well, I thought, maybe he'd be okay in a day or two when we'd got him thoroughly dried out.
"Mr. Peon and I helped him regain a standing position. To our surprise, he seemed to be pretty steady once we got him back on his feet. I ordered him below and told the watch mate to assist him, but he sloughed off the mate's helping hand, saying he was okay now. Off he went toward the ladder, with a pretty steady gait. He started down the ladder, made a couple of steps down and then pitched forward head-first — right down — I mean he went all the way down onto the boatdeck below. He almost dove, striking his face and forehead solidly on the steel deck. It happened so fast — was so unexpected — that nothing could be done. He wouldn't allow Mr. Peon's assistance.
"He was out cold, of course, and it was a wonder it hadn't killed him outright. Again I called upon Mr. Smith and Roland to attend to the wounded as I put the vessel on a reciprocal course back for Honolulu. We knew he was very seriously hurt. I sent a message advising the Coast Guard of the accident as soon as sparks could get it off. Before long we received instructions to divert to Nawiliwili, Kauai, where we arrived an hour or so before mid-night. The third mate died a few minutes after our arrival, without ever regaining consciousness, and his body was taken ashore about mid-night.
"So, that's it," the captain concluded, shrugging, and making a 'what's-to-be-done now?' gesture with both hands. He sat back straight in his chair, looking straight ahead at the opposite wall. Then he said, "The passage from Kauai to here has been relatively routine. The weather was decent, and we had a good passage. We arrived at Vung Tau yesterday morning and came right on up the river, docking at berth 29 at about 1600."
Captain Jump turned to look at me again, and said, "I could use a third mate, but I thought you ought to hear the story before I offered you the job. I don't know whether you're superstitious or not, but in any case I wouldn't blame you for passing this berth up. But, there's a job if you want it. I think we've got rid of all of the bad eggs in the crew. The remaining men seem to be a pretty good bunch."
Later on that day, back at home, I made the following entry in my journal: "...Well, I gritted my teeth and signed articles, come what may. It'll be bound for the U.S. East or Gulf Coast when the ship leaves here... At least I'm on a payroll again, and I guess I'm now enjoying my last day of leisure for some time to come, as I report for duty in the morning..."
Captain Jump proved to be a true gentleman in accordance with my first impression of him. He was an excellent ship master and a pleasure to work with, and I had no regrets about signing articles. There was certainly nothing in his character or personality that deserved the tragic luck he had experienced on the outbound legs of the voyage. He deserved nothing but the best from his crew, and that is generally what he received — at least for the duration of voyage number two of the Columbia Mariner.
We completed voyage 2 without further significant incident. The voyage ended at Beaumont, Texas on the 13th of May. Captain Jump was relieved for vacation by Captain John Folan, at Mobile on the 18th. I never saw Captain Jump again. Voyage 3, also to Saigon, and other Far East ports, was uneventful. I paid off the Columbia Mariner at Galveston, Texas, on the 27th of August, 1970. My employment status was permanent, and I'd decided to hang on to a job for a change. I thought I was merely taking a voyage off. After a nice long visit with my parents, I went to the west coast to rejoin the ship on its return about six months later. I met the vessel in Long Beach only to find that it was being taken out of service. Several other of the company's ships had already been laid up, so my "permanent" job had evaporated. The hay day of the Vietnam sealift was over, and with it an era of my seagoing career.
Though shipping was still good, and I could have shipped out from the coast, I returned to Saigon as a passenger on the States Lines ship, S.S. Washington, in April of 1971, (Captain John P. Beale, master). When I got back to Saigon, Commander Spiker had retired, and I figured I'd never see him again. Shipping opportunities out of Vietnam were declining as American involvement declined. I thought about Commander Spiker's suggestion and determined to give the offshore oil field a try.
After spending a month with my family in Saigon, I took passage aboard another State's Line ship to Bangkok. From there I took the train to Singapore to see about a job in oil patch. My job search took me to a Louisiana company called Offshore Logistics. Imagine my surprise when I was ushered into the office of none other than Mr. Phil Spiker, (USCG, retired) personnel manager of Offshore Logistics, Pte., Ltd. I got the job, and spent the next few years as a supply boat and tug captain in Southeast Asia. Those turned out to be some of the most interesting years of my life, as I had the privilege of becoming intimately acquainted with Joseph Conrad's fabled Eastern Archipelago.
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