Merchant Marine recounts career

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From left, Janet and Ross Pollock, a retired Merchant Marine, are enjoying life along the shores of the Mississippi River in Guttenberg. (Press photo by Caroline Rosacker)

By Caroline Rosacker

Ross and Janet Pollock relocated to Guttenberg  from Mineral Point, Wis., in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Ross, a retired career merchant mariner, and his wife, Janet, a retired registered nurse, have found peace and comfort along the shores of the Mississippi River in their home on River Park Drive.

"We are both getting older with increasing health issues. My daughter, who lives in Monona, encouraged us to move closer – but not too close so she could help out when needed," commented Janet.

Joining the Merchant Marine

Ross joined the Sea-Scouts while in high school which stoked his interest in going to sea for a living. He furthered his education and training at the Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, Maine, graduating in 1962. "I joined the Master Mates & Pilots labor union, and initially shipped out of Savannah Ga.," Ross explained. "I moved up quite rapidly – you need a license for each level. I graduated with a third mate and sailed for a year and a day."

United States Lines, the company Ross worked for, had 55 freight ships and two large passenger ships that were split up in to "runs" where they stayed for many years at a time. "I was on the South Atlantic run, which covered the southeastern ports from Norfolk down to Jacksonville Fla.," commented Ross. "We alternated trips to Liverpool England, London, England and Antwerp Belgium, and then from those same U.S. ports to Rotterdam, Bremerhaven, Bremen, Hamburg and Antwerp the next trip. Each round trip took about 55 days – weather permitting. The North Atlantic Ocean is a place of almost continuous storms. Our trip could easily stretch into 60 days or more!"

Ross met his first wife during one of his trips.  "When we married she had two boys. We eventually had four more boys – the youngest died in infancy, and I later adopted her children," he said. "We made our home in Bremen for the next eight years."

The merchant mariner would sail a year-and-a-half before he sat for his chief mate exam. The Viet Nam war began, and with it a major expansion in the size of the U.S. Merchant Marine. "The ship I was on was grabbed by the government and sent to Viet Nam with a full load of high explosives," he told The Press. "When we returned I sat for my Master’s license. My former chief mate was promoted to captain on another ship and invited me to join him as chief mate." 

The government was reactivating ships out of lay-up in the national reserve fleet to help supply the war. "We joined our new ship in Jacksonville, Fla. She was the only 'Liberty Ship' sent to Viet Nam. I sailed in her twice – first when she came out of the Reserve Fleet, and then as chief mate on her last trip before she was decommissioned and scrapped," he sadly shared. "In the interim I was given a job as chief mate on a ship in the New York to England run. At the end of the Viet Nam War, the industry imploded, and I lost my job."

Ross stepped back to third mate and worked for a number of steam ship companies. He landed a permanent job as third mate of a U.S. Navy owned, civilian manned and operated tanker carrying jet fuel from the U.S. Gulf coast and Caribbean tanker ports to U.S. bases around the world. "We would run coastwise from the U.S. Gulf of Mexico ports to Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard bases along the U.S. east coast. Then we would sail to the Caribbean and load for European ports in the winter or Pacific Ocean ports in the summer. Our destinations included such places as Subic Bay in the Phillipines, Guam, Rota, Spain, even Easter Island, an Air Force weather station. When we returned we would run coastwise again before sailing to Arctic ports in Greenland and Labrador in the summer and McMurdo Station in the Antarctic in the winter," he listed. 

The trips involved navigation through areas not normally visited by ships. Nautical charts of the areas included little or no information about water depth or currents. "Some of charts showed vast white areas with no information at all, or a line of soundings (depth of the water) at intervals of several hundred miles or so!" he exclaimed. "There were notations on the line of shoal reported by HMS Bouncer in 1876, but the position might be off by a hundred miles or more. It was a unique experience. I sailed in the USNS Maumee for four years."

The system for assigning jobs changed, keeping Ross away from home for a full year. His wife was not able to deal with his long absences and the couple divorced. He moved back to the United States and settled in a small town off the coast of Maine. He would eventually meet and marry his second wife, a union that would last until her death 29 years later. 

Moore McCormack Lines  chief mate

The Marine Superintendent at Moore McCormack Lines offered Ross a job as a relief chief mate. "'MorMac' was an excellent company to work for. In addition to generally good weather runs they offered better food, quarters and allowed officer's wives to travel on overseas trips for free once a year," he reported.          

The seaman's wife experienced health problems, changing the trajectory of his career. "My wife developed some major health problems  while I was on a ship that had just sailed from Florida for Cape Town, South Africa," he recalled. "I was stuck on the ship. I could have gotten off during our stop at Ascension Island in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean, but they only had one flight a week, and if the weather wasn't perfect they flew right over, so I waited until we got to Cape Town. By the time we were in port her health had stabilized, but the experience was a wake-up call." 

Six months later Ross was asked to be a Port Captain/Safety Director. “I accepted the offer because I would be able to be home most every night. I worked in that capacity for several years, and sailed from time to time as a ship’s captain,” he remembered. 

Ross’ original company, United States Lines, purchased Moore McCormack Lines. “Most of the MorMac shore-side employees lost their jobs. I was fortunate enough to be hired as a combination Assistant Marine Superintendent and Safety Director for United State Lines. After three years with USL the company went bankrupt. I was kept on, but after six months I lost my job too,” he shared. 


Ross sailed to Vietnam during and following the Vietnam War. "Even when the United States officially withdrew from the war, we still shipped over artillery shells, explosives, fuel and ammunition," he reported. "After we discharged our cargo they would backload us with trucks or tanks that had been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade or had run over a land mine, or ran off the road. We carried them to Taiwan for repairs and returned them back to Vietnam."

A strange occurence in Danang was noticed. "There was no one there to meet us, and Danang – which was usually a noisy, bustling metropolis was very, very quiet. We steamed around in circles in the Bay until we could find out what was going on," he recollected. "The American Military Sea Lift Command representative said there was a slight change in plans. Instead of wrecked trucks we would be transporting Vietnamese refugees to Cam Rahn Bay, along with the American Counsel and his staff, plus most of the remaining US and Europe citizens in the city." 

Ross requested two sailor to help build "over-the-side-toilets for the passengers. His Captain refused his request. "In the end we carried 28,000 people on board with no toilet facilities of any kind," he commented. 

The crew loaded approximately 4,500 refugees onto the main deck and into the top deck of the cargo hatches."It was just an over-night voyage so the lack of food and water did not matter too much. I won't go into the lack of toilets," he said. 

A group of on-board nurses set up an emergency hospital in the small deck house on the stern of the ship. "I took a tour of the main deck before going on watch and saw the nurses," Ross said. "They were a mess. They all looked as if they had been working straight through for the last several days without much rest or a bath. I gave the head nurse my room key and told them they could use it to clean up while I was on watch. They were grateful and left my room in better shape than before."

He went on to say, "When we got to Cam Rahn things were well organized and in very good shape. We were taken in and docked at the 'Ammunition Pier.' They had Boy Scouts in uniform to help the elderly and wounded. We went back to Danang for another load, but by the time we returned things had fallen apart. I was told that a company of Vietnamese rangers did not like how they were being treated and shot the area up. We still managed to load and unload about 6,000 people." 

The ship was running low on fuel and was rerouted to Vung Tau at the mouth of the Saigon River to bunker before returning to Cam Ranh for orders. "Once again there was a change. We could not tie up to the pier, and we were afraid to anchor out because of the possibility of Viet Cong frogmen attaching a mine to the ship," he recalled. We were the last ship out and were told to take as many people as we could. They brought out ammunition barges packed with Vietnamese. They even had people packed down in the bilges under the deck – a hot and airless space in the tropics. Some of the refugees were in really bad shape." 

North Vietnamese tanks arrived while the refugees were being loaded. "They drove down the beach, flattening the Cam Rahn Officer’s Club, and chased us out of the harbor. We were still loading Vietnamese while they shot at us. We cut the last ammo barge loose and left it drifting once we were out to sea," he relived. "The incident ended up on the nightly news back in the States.  Someone onboard a U.S. helicopter had filmed the whole thing. My parents saw the report and were terribly worried until I was able to call them a couple of weeks later."

17,000 onboard

The ship would load over 17,000 Vietnamese refugees. "We had people jammed in everywhere. We were told it would only be for overnight. When we arrived at Vung Tau harbor control they said, 'You can’t bring those people here, keep going.' We took them all the way to the southern-most part of South Vietnam to a large island in the Gulf of Thailand called, Phu Quoc. It took five days to get there," he regrettably shared. "The government finally realized how vulnerable we were and put a platoon of armed U.S. Marine infantry on board to take care of security."

Conditions on the ship went from bad to worse. There were no sanitary facilities, or food, and only 40 men on board to assist the Vietnamese. "Our captain and many of the crew members were reluctant to assist the passengers despite orders from the MSC Rep, who said, 'Do whatever is necessary. Expend any material, use unlimited overtime, do whatever to get the job done. Make it work!'"

Ross and other crewmen worked tirelessly to make sure the Vietnamese had adequate drinking water. "We put out new galvanized trash cans around the decks and in the upper decks of the hatches to hold water.  We distributed the drinking water with a garden hose from a freshwater hydrant outside of the engine room," he explained. "We started at the bow of the ship, stuck the hose down into a trash can, and filled it while the Vietnamese were frantically taking water out of it. When we reached the stern we turned around and repeated the process again and again. We would stand another watch, sleep some, and then do it over again and again and again." 

When the ship arrived at Phu Quoc there were already 20-30 other ships waiting to discharge their passengers. "Because we had the capacity to make drinking water from sea water we were low priority," he noted. "Through all this the refugees had only the food they had brought with them, if any, until the government finally sent some Conex boxes of food out to us. The ship had enough food to feed the crew but that would only have been enough to feed 17,000 people a single day."

A nineteen-year-old Navy Hospital Corpsman was onboard specifically to take care of the Marines. "He was really out of his element. Many of the Vietnamese were sick, wounded or pregnant, and the sheer number of them was overwhelming. He pitched in and did what he could, including delivering babies successfully with very little training." 

He continued, "I was on watch when the young Corpsman came up on the bridge to get advice from a doctor on another ship. He had a breech birth to deal with. He had seen me around on the water detail and asked me what time I got off. He had another woman in labor that was straight forward and asked if I could help out. I had a one hour, one semester course in ‘Ship’s Medicine and First Aid at Sea’, which most definitely did not include pregnancy and birth!  I ended up delivering the baby and the mother named it after me," he said with emotion.

The ship would eventually discharge the Vietnamese at Phu Quoc Island. "There were casualties among the very young and the very old. Although there were occasional fights, most of the adults survived in our care," he shared.   

The ship sailed back up river to Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, where the ship was cleaned, and made ready for another load. "We were such a mess! It took about two weeks to clean us up again!" he added. 

A Navy doctor came onboard and inspected the ship's preparations. "He asked the captain where our sanitary facilities were. The captain said we didn’t have any and weren’t planning on building any either. The doctor soon put him straight on that one!" he said with a smile. "The captain didn’t want excrement blowing back on the ship’s house so wouldn’t allow over-the-side toilets to be built in the forward half of the ship. Instead we built platforms over empty 55 gallon oil drums on each side of each forward hatch and a bigger facility with several drums in the upper deck of each of the hatches."

Ten thousand people were on board this trip but it was still chaos. "Fortunately, we had a new platoon of Marines on board to help," commented Ross.  "All those oil drums needed to be emptied daily, so the captain assigned the job to me. I had the ship’s boatswain to work with, and borrowed a few Marines to help too. There were a fair number of uniformed Vietnamese soldiers mixed in with the rest of the refugees."

The Marines would draft half a dozen Vietnamese soldiers to hook the drums up to the ship’s cargo booms.  The boatswain would run the winches to lift each drum out of the hatch, or out of its on-deck platform, swing it over to the lee side of the ship and the Vietnamese would trip the barrel so it would dump into the sea. "Another party of Vietnamese would wash the barrel out with a fire hose and it would be returned back into place for another day. After the first day or two we got it down to a science where we were able to empty all the barrels in about three hours," he was happy to report.  

Four thousand of the ten thousand passengers were dropped off in the Philippines at Subic Bay. "They had some claim on the government and had done things to help the U.S. during the Vietnam War," said Ross. 

Things became more manageable on board.  "We carried the remaining 6,000 passengers, who were laborers, shopkeepers, farmers and such, and transported them to Guam to be sorted out. "My mother caught wind that I was in Guam and wrote to me and told me to get in touch with my uncle, who was temporarily stationed there," he chuckled. "We did meet and I had lunch with him one day. He worked for the old U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. He had experience running a 'sorting out camp' from when Fidel Castro swept up all the actual criminals in his jails, and mixed them together with the ordinary people who just wanted to get out, and sent them all over to Miami."

During his career in the U.S. Merchant Marine Ross sailed on 21 ships owned by nine steamship companies and the U.S. government. He spent 26 years actively at sea or in school and a further five years ashore working in the industry.


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