Below is an interview that I conducted in March of 2009 for a college assignment. Bill and his wife Marion are very close family friends and I consider them family. Their son Bob, KC9BUZ, was my ham radio "Elmer" and was my greatest supporter when I got my start in amateur radio and is still a good friend to this day.

   Perhaps the most rewarding part of this interview was being able to track down the complete history and the ships and companies that Bill served for. Thanks to the internet, this information is readily available.

Interview with a Merchant Marine

Written By Jeremy Schotter

*Logo courtesy of Wikipedia


             The Merchant Marines have been active in all American wars, from the Civil War to the current war in Iraq. The Merchant Marines in general are merchant ships owned and operated by private individuals or the government, considered a civilian auxiliary to the U.S. Navy. While not a uniformed service, according to the Merchant Marine Act of 1936, during times of war mariners are considered military personal.

            Throughout WWII, being a mariner was one of the deadliest occupations, with a 1 in 24 death rate. Of the 215,000 who served, 8,651 perished onboard 733 cargo ships. Nonetheless, without the support of the Merchant Marines during the war, victory could not have been achieved. During peacetime, the Merchant Marines are responsible for transporting cargo and passengers, and can be called upon at any time for service in the military. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill into law granting veterans status to those mariners who served during wartime. Prior to this bill they were considered civilians and did not receive veteran benefits.

-Interview with a former Mariner

            In March of 2009 I had the opportunity and privilege to sit down and talk with my good friend Robert (Bill) Adams. Bill and  his wife of 50 years Marion, reside on a quiet farm in New Salisbury, Indiana. Bill joined the Merchant Marines in late 1943, in the midst of World War II. After serving his country during the war, Bill continued serving as a crew member on various merchant ships for several years, before moving back to Louisville.

    When I arrived at Bill’s house, he was already flipping through a photo album that he purchased in Cairo, Egypt in the 1940’s. Bill tells the story behind each photograph, a vivid recollection of his times long ago as a mariner. He tells each story in such detail that you almost feel like you were there.

Left: Bill with children overseas. The children would run to men in uniform as they usually handed out candy. Right: Working hard or hardly working?

Q: How did you end up becoming a Merchant Marine?
 Bill: Well, that’s interesting, would be a good beginning. I worked at the K&I railroad, and I was a call boy. A call boy would go out to the people (railroad employees) who didn’t have telephones when you were getting ready to run a train. If they lived within two miles of the railroad tracks they didn’t have to have a telephone, and the ones that lived beyond two miles had to have one. I’d call the crew and tell them what time they had to leave and everything. I worked in what they called the “callers office”.

            A guy came there from the Merchant Marine recruiting office. The railroad engineers were qualified to be engineers on a ship, cause in those days all the locomotives were steam powered and the ships were steam powered. So this recruiter came down there trying to talk some of the railroaders into joining the Merchant Marines, cause they needed engineers.

            Of coarse he was hanging out in the office and I got to talking to him. At that time I was about 17 years old and I ask what kind of job they would have for me. Cause I said I was going to get drafted when I turn 18 and he gave me allot of brochures and all. The recruiting office was in Cincinnati Ohio, and when I got up and ready to turn 18 in November of 43’ I decided to join the Merchant Marines. So he gave me a certificate or something and he talked to me and I went to the recruiting office in Cincinnati and signed up then came back.

            In January of 1944 they took me to New York to a place called Sheepshead Bay, New York. That was a training center, similar to a boot camp in the Navy or when you first go in the army, allota running, marching, exercises and all. I went through the training there. In May of 1944 I completed the training session and they sent me out on a ship.

Bill's Merchant Marine identification card.

Q: What kind of training did you have to go through?

Bill: Well, basically something that didn’t do us any good. All that marching I done, carrying packs on my back and so forth, that was totally useless. We’d put 100 pound packs on our backs and walk 20 miles and stuff like that. It was totally useless and had nothing to do with operating a ship. Of course we had classes, so I decided to go into the engine department. I studied up on the engines, maintaining them and so forth.

* Bill shows me the back of his identification card that lists the jobs he was qualified to do..

            I had deck engineer and junior engineer. Those were my qualifications I done in New Orleans, Louisiana on March 11th, 1946. The deck engineer took care of the winches on the ship and the junior engineer worked in the engine room and he kind of assisted the engineer. Mainly what they done was nothing (laughs..).

Q: During your training you had to learn to swim through burning oil and water, can you tell me more about that?           

They made everyone learn to swim. Some of the guys absolutely couldn’t swim; they went ahead and passed them anyways. Part of the training was if a ship was torpedoed, with the tremendous amount of oil onboard for fuel since they burnt oil. So they taught us how to swim through burning oil. What you do is take you hand likes this and throw it away from you and paddle yourself by kicking your feet cause you gotta use your arms to keep the oil away from you.

* Bill demonstrates what he learned in training to swim through burning oil.

            If you swim through it, it will close in behind you so you want to move along as fast as you can. They made us dive off of a real high dive cause it was about 50 feet from the bridge down to the water level on a ship. If you fall flat its likely bust your gut. You had to hit with your head or your feet, either one.           

Q: Did your ships ever come under attack?

            No, I never got a scratch on me the whole war.

While going through the Straight of Gibraltar, going from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea, we were in a convoy. Some German planes attacked. They didn’t hit the ship I was on, but they hit the ship next to us.

The most action I saw was in North Africa. I think the straight there was about 16-17 miles wide. The German planes would come out of Southern France. An American fighter got behind the German plane. There were about 80 – 90 ships in the convoy and we were spaced out about a 1000 feet apart. This German was trying to get away from that fighter, so he dropped down as low as he could to the water and went down in between the row of ships. When that Navy plane came through he was on his tail, but he was up a little higher. When they got to the end of all those ships the German had nowhere to go. He went straight out across the water, and when he hit the water that American was really working on him. He hit him and the German caught fire and hit the water.

-Encountering Mines

The only time we were close (in reference to a mine in the water) was when we got to Naples harbor on the SS George M Bibb. We had to go right up the Italian coast to Northern Italy. They had two mine sweepers pulling a net in front of us. About four ships went and we got in a straight line directly behind that net. They caught a mine in that net so we stopped. They pulled that mine out into deeper water and there was a Navy Destroyer. After they left the mine and backed away, they shot the mine and made it explode.

Q: Bill talks about the different ships he served on and places he went.

Bill: The first ship I was on was called the Freeman, it was owned by the Pocahontas Coal Company in New Bedford Massachusetts and it was a coal burner. I was what they call a coal passer, in other words I shoveled coal all night. We went from New Bedford down to Norfolk Virginia and got a load of coal and took it back to New Bedford. I’d had all the coal passing I wanted for the rest of my life.

 When they paid us off you could get off the ship, so I got off after one trip. Then I went back to New York and got on a ship owned by the City Service Oil Company and the name of the ship was the S.S. Koolmotor and I got a job as a fireman on that. It hauled oil and it was allot easier to pump oil than to shovel coal. I made two trips on that ship, one to Venezuela and we picked up a load of oil and brought it back to New York. I made another trip where we went to an island in the Caribbean Sea called Aruba, and that was owned by the Dutch and Shell Oil Company had a big refinery on the island. There was no oil on the island, but there were all those (oil fields) in Venezuela, none of those islands down there had oil. I think we brought that back to Boston.

I was qualified for 30 days leave by then so I got off the S.S. Koolmotor and came back to Louisville for 30 days. Then I went back to New York and to the City Service Oil Company and I got on a tanker called the Oklahoma. I thought we’d go somewhere on that, but the same thing. Go down to the Caribbean and get a load of oil to take that back to somewhere on the east coast. I stayed on that about three trips when I decided I wanted to see the world. So I got on a Liberty ship that was owned by the Isthmian Steam Ship Company and we went to North Africa and Sicily. It took around three months to make a round trip

When I came back I was qualified for more leave, so I took another 30 days. I went back on got on a Liberty ship called the SS George M Bibb and we went to Italy on that. On the day we arrived in Naples Harbor the war was over in Europe. We went up to Leghorn, Italy and unloaded, that took about two to three weeks. We had all kinds of trucks and jeeps, stuff for the Army on there. Then we come back to Naples and went into a shipyard. They converted all the top hull or cargo hold; they built bunks, three to four high. We brought back seven to eight hundred troops to Norfolk, Virginia.

The I got on the Stephen Girard. We went down to Norfolk Virginia and loaded her up with all sorts of Army Supplies; truck, jeeps, food, and everything. We went to the Philippine Islands. We got to somewhere between the Panama Canal and the Philippine Islands when they dropped the atomic bomb on Japan, the war was over there. We got to Samar in the Philippine Islands and we stayed there around 60 days before they decided what to do with us. Finally they took us ashore and unloaded us and sent us up to the island of Leyte to the Port Tacloben , there they converted us to hold bunks just like they did in Italy.

We unloaded troops back in San Francisco. Then we cam from San Francisco and went through the Panama Canal back to New Orleans and they put that ship in mothballs.

The SS Stephen Girard

I got off her when they paid us off and I came home for 30 days. Then I went back to New York and I got on a ship called the Marine Star. They loaded up with a load of pipe and we went to Saudi Arabia. They were developing the oil fields over there. It took them a long time to get that pipe unloaded, and we came back to New York and they put the Marine Star in mothballs.

            Then I got on a ship called the Steel Worker, and I stayed on it about two years. The Steel Worker was owned by the Isthmian Steam lines. In that two year period I don’t know how many times we went around the world, I think around four or five. We would leave New York and go down the east coast, would usually stop at Philadelphia, sometimes Savannah Georgian and go around to New Orleans, sometimes Houston Texas. Then we’d go down to the Panama Canal and we’d go up the California Coast, and we’d usually go to Long Beach which was a port in Las Angeles. Went to San Francisco, a couple times went to Portland, Oregon.  Then we’d head west and stop at the Hawaiian Islands and drop freight off. Then we went to the Philippine Islands, then Hong Kong, then Saigon, then Singapore. We’d usually be empty by the time we got to Singapore.

            We’d start the process over. We’d go down to Indonesia. The government was buying all the native live rubber they could get. The rubber was put in bundles, about a couple hundred pounds. We’d load up with rubber, we never did get a full load out of Indonesia. Then we’d come back on the Malay Peninsula and finish loading out with rubber. The we would go up the Benain (?) and they had tin ore there. We would get a load of tin ore. We’d then come back to Solan (India) and we’d pick up allot of tea there. We would come back through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean Sea. From there we’d go to Halifax, Nova Scotia, then to Boston and New York, and that would be the end of the voyage around the world.

I went on the Steel Worker as a junior engineer, and when I got off I was a second engineer. That was the best ship I was ever on, and the one I enjoyed the most.  I was what they called a crew member until I got off the Stephen Girard. You had to have 18 months service as a crew member, then you could take examinations to be an engineer. When I turned 21 I took an examination pretty quick. I passed the examination and I was a third engineer. Life was allot better after I got to be an engineer. I had my own living quarters and everything. It paid a whole lot more. In fact it more than doubled my salary.


Q: Bill speaks of his last voyage on the Steel Worker and decision not to go back.


            In 1949 I got off the Steel Worker and I fully intended to go back but I had allot of leave built up. I had about 60 days leave. I came back to Louisville to visit my family and all and mother and dad talked me into not going back. Instead of going back I bought a truck and traveled all over the United States, about like I traveled all over the world on the Steel Worker.


            I got tired of that so I wanted to have a day job, so I got a job with a trucking company. I worked from eight in the morning to about four or five in the afternoon. I think that was in 1952. By 1959 I had saved enough money to buy a farm. Met my wife and married her, and have been in New Salisbury ever since.


Q: What were some of your experiences you had while working on a ship?

    -Encountering rough weather.

            I remember one incident it got so rough that in a 24 hour period we made 30 miles. The rougher the water the slower you had to go, cause when you run fast and the bow dips down you pick up allot of water. That water would come down the deck sometimes four foot deep. If you went real slow, instead of the bow dipping under water it would lift up.

 It would get so rough that the cooks couldn’t cook at all. They had kettles with real tall sides, and you could only fill them half full. When it got real rough we had to eat soup until the water calmed down. That was the only thing they could do is make soup.

The main thing was you just had to hold on to something when you walked. After a bad storm like that you’d look down the passageways and there would be footprints on the side of the wall. The ship would lean so bad you had to put one foot up on the wall. There was a water tight door to go outside; if it was that rough you didn’t dare go outside.

I was on a ship that took a 45 degree roll one time. That’s halfway to being upside, but she rolled 45 degrees. A 40 degree roll was pretty common place. When you got past that then it got scary.

- The missionary

That girl was a missionary.

*Bill points to a girl in a photo.

Bill and the missionary onboard the Steel Worker.

She was a passenger who got on the ship in New York. She was going to Saigon, which use to be called French-Indo China, called Vietnam now. I didn’t know it, but she was madly in love with me. (*Bill laughs...)  She got to the point when I’d come up out of the engine room, they had a little lounge there with settees, as soon as I’d walk through the door she’d get my coffee. She’d always be there and would come in the state room and talk to me. You can see I took her picture allot of times. When we got to Saigon, that’s when she was getting off. All of us were out there on the gang plant and two men came with a van and got her suitcases and everything.

            She started down the gang plank, stopped, and looked back up at me. I just waved to her and let her go. Anyways, one of the guys said “Adams you rotten son-of-a-bitch, all you had to do was tell that girl was come on, and she’d forgotten about that (missionary work). Now she’s out there in the jungle trying to save them damn Coolies. You’re rotten to the core!” But I wasn’t interested in her; she was interested in me though. I was too dumb to know it! She was a nice girl and all, but I can’t even remember her name now.

I’d rather have Marion though (his wife). I’d rather have Marion than a thousand missionaries.

* We both laugh; Marion thanks her husband for the compliment.

Bill in March 2009 with his old uniform.


The complete history of the SS Steel Worker: Isthmian Lines-Steel Worker

History of the Isthmian Lines: Isthmian Lines

Forgotten Buffalo & Tours - Information and history on the Marine Star and it's unique past.

Wikipedia Article on the Marine Star.

More detailed information on the Aqurama/ Marine Star.

American Merchant Marine at War - Lots of information about the Merchant Marines

United States Merchant Marines - Wikipedia