William F. Nesser
US Merchant Marine
I'm William F. Nesser that started to sea in September of '37. To Start at the beginning the 36 seaman's strike split the union into two parts, one the International seafarer union, the one I joined in 37, and the National Maritime Union. When I first started to sea it cost me 2 dollars to join, 1 dollar dues and 1 dolllar starting fee, but then the unions were not very strong. I was just 17 just out of high school and came south to visit relatives and the state of Ohio due to hard times passed a law that you had to be 18 to hold a permanent job so my Mother wrote me not to hurry home from New Orleans. My Uncle Bill was a cop who had done favors for the Union during the strike and also knew the people in Delta Line and said if I wanted a job he could get me one on one of their ships. I was offered a cadet's job but none would be open until early 1938 and I did not want to wait that long so Mr. Herbert told me that if I could get clearance from the Union I could have the Ordinary Seaman job on their ship the Del Sud which I took. When I went to get my seamen's papers being I was under age they said I needed my family's permission so my Uncle went to an attorney tat he knew and had a document prepared stating that my Mom and Dad had given me the OK to go to sea. The Attorney failed to say that he knew my uncle and they still would not give me my papers saying I could have taken anyone off of the street to swear it was OK for me to go. I had started work on the ship and prior to sailing the mate came around to pickup the seamen's papers and I told him I had asked for some time off to go get them and was told I did not need the pink paper as it was called till we sailed foreign. So I was given three days pay and promised my job would be saved and when I got them to come on over to Mobile. Being Monday was Labor day I had to wait till Tuesday morning to get my papers, I had went back to the attorney and he had inserted the necessary phrase in the document, and Tuesday as soon as I got my papers, I went to the bus depot and caught the first bus for Mobile arriving there in the afternoon.
I was assigned on coastal articles right away and went to work. The Del Sud was a converted old Hog Islander. They got the name Hog Islanders from the fact that they were built mostly during WW1 at Hog or Hogg Island PA. They had a raised forecastle, and poop deck as well as a midship island as they say. The Del Sud could carry 36 passengers as well as cargo.
We loaded a large deck load of Pine timber that was secured with half inch chain and turnbuckles. We further went on to Pensacola, Florida, and back to New Orleans to finish loading and take on our passengers. I was on the 4 to 8 watch with 2 able bodied seaman which was a normal work method for at sea. We worked 8 to 5 in port with an hour off for lunch. When we sailed for South America a bad storm was in the gulf and a lot of ships were anchored at pilot town where you normally changed from the river pilot to the bar pilot but the skipper said if you can get the pilot off outside I'm going as we have a mail contract and every mile I make is one less I have to make up so out we went. Normally the lookout would be on the forecastle head but the fact that seas were coming over the bow he was on the wing of the bridge. The ordinary seaman relieved one of the AB on lookout in time for him to get a cup of coffee before he relived the wheel man who then took his coffee and went to work. No lookout during daylight hours. The AB and I had to scrub the promenade deck, where the passengers walked, this was an every morning job and once each way we holly stoned it, in effect we sanded it to make it smooth using heavy blocks of sand stones with handles, during washing the deck. One we got off the coast of Cuba the weather moderated and we had smooth sailing the rest of the trip. Our first stop was Rio de Janeiro then overnight to Santos usually a couple days in port then a couple of days in Montevideo, one day stay and an overnight trip to Buenos Aires our turnaround port and were generally there about 15 days. Some cargo was loaded in BA and then on to Brazil's several ports to load coffee and then home on a normal trip took two month and eight days on articles. I stayed on this ship for 18 months and then took off for a vacation to go home to see my family for awhile. Shipping was slow and I had hoped to rejoin the Del Sud but missed out, the man who had been register in the Union hall the longest has first chance at any job that was put on board. The next ship was a freighter the S.S. Del Mar that generally made the same ports but was slower so our time in BA was shorter as well as out time in the States. The company maintained about a two weekly sailing at that time. We sometimes stopped in St. Thomas southbound or Trinidad north bound for refueling. These ship were steam power turbines, the Del Sud made on average 13 knots and the Del Mar only made 9 knots. I do not remember the Hp as I had no desire to learn about the machinery, and only wanted to become a Captain of my own ship eventually.
After about another 18 months on the Del Mar I took another vacation and being I had three years sea time I was able to pass a test oral to get an Able Bodied Seaman papers which was the first step up the way, also at this time I got my lifeboat certificate. You had to have one of those to sail AB normally as the law required a certain number of the crew to have life boat certificates which just happen to be the number of AB's the ship carried. My next ship was a new modified C2 passenger ship that made about 16 Knots and made the foreign trip in about six weeks, My best buddy from the other two ships had gotten his third mates license and was in that position on this ship. I only made on trip as AB and then went to Quartermaster for another one. After that trip in July 1941 the government was taking over the ship to make it a troop transport and at the pay off table each member had to state whether he was staying or getting off and if so why. I told them I was getting off as I knew the government was starting a school where I could get my third mate's license, I had already been studying and knew most of the basic requirement for it but thought that the school would teach me more which proved true. I was told that there was no better reason to quit than that. They the government was trying to keep as many personnel as possible. I was sent out to Alameda, California to be in the first class of officers training school for mates or engineers. Being the government did not have a school built at that time we went on a US Coast Guard base. Being we were civilians we were able to go and come as we liked except on Saturday morning we had to clean and polish our rooms only, the Coast Guards men cleaned the heads and hallways, which made them dislike and jealous of us. During this time a coastal battery set up a battery of new big searchlights also on the base and asked local flyers to fly over so that they could practice keeping them in the spot lights. They were mostly more unregulated than the Coast Guard so we could go back there and have a cup of coffee at most anytime where we were only allowed in the mess hall at meal times. I had gotten married in February of 41 just after I turned 21 and had hoped to bring my wife to be with me out there but by the time I had saved enough on a chief Boatswain (Bo'sun) mate pay the same as the military got, someone got in my locker and stole all my money, so there went my dream as by the time I would be able to get enough money again it would be about finished. It was suppose to be a six month course but being we had gotten a late start it was cut short. The local Inspectors from San Francisco, who issued the licenses at that time had came over on base and we were given the test, I finished mine and been told I had passed on Thursday and that Sunday a friend and I went to San Francisco to see a movie and while in there a notice came up on the screen for all military personnel to report to their base immediately so we knew something must have happened and as soon as we got on the street we heard the news about Pearl Harbor. On Monday morning assembly we were told all of us that had passed and wanted to could go to San Francisco and pickup our licenses, before that we were going to have to wait till everyone had finished and there was to be a graduation ceremony where we would be issued out licenses. Several of us went over and had a hard time crossing the embarcadero as it was full of army trucks with troops going on a ship that they did not know where and they would not let us through the line. Finally we got everything and went back on base to be paid off in about an hour. A number of the gulf coast people caught the train that night to LA to catch the Sunset Limited to New Orleans the next morning, however the train turned a rail and we did not make our connection and would be stuck there till evening. So some of us hired a taxi and had him take us around Hollywood and see some of the star's homes having never been there before it was quite a site. We made the evening train which was a three night and two day trip. My wife met me at the station and then had to go to work but the next day I told her that I was going to Ohio and if she did not quit her job right then I'd leave her behind. Of course she did and home we went by train to meet my brother and sisters she had already met my mother and father when they had came South to visit me. After a short visit I had to go back South to get a job. I went up to Delta line and told them I wanted a third mates job and was told I could have a night mate's job on the West Gotomska being readied for a trip to Northern Russia which I took. The S.S. West Gotomska was an old WW 1 west coast that had been froze in up there after that war. "West Gotomska" that's an Indian name that I do not know what it means.
The ship was being outfitted for the trip including mounting a 3 inch 50 anti air craft gun on the bow and stern and 2 each 50 caliber machine guns on each wing of the bridge, including extra bunks to take care of the gun crews that included a Ens. F.J. Hoerat, who relieved the original man in England, and who six weeks earlier had pitched for the Phillies, a GM3, a Cox, a signalman, and 10 seamen that was increased by 4 in England when we got an additional 4 20mm cannon midships. The merchant crew filled in as loaders and passers to bring the 3 inch shells from their below deck lockers to the gun tubs.
After completion of repairs, in February of 1942, I became the third mate. I stood the eight to twelve watch at sea and the four to midnight watch in port.
We part loaded in New Orleans, and sailed alone to Houston where we thought we completed loading a cargo of mainly drum gas and oils and one part that makes TNT. From there we sailed again alone to New York. But just before getting there 3 AM bombers passed us and about a mile away one tried to make a sharp turn and one wing hit a wave and he crashed. We saw one man, who turned out to be the gunner, waving to his other planes but they made no indication that they saw him. We launched our motor lifeboat and went over to pick him up and recover whatever papers, etc. that we could find. I had wanted to go but the Captain said it was the Ch. Mate's job but he later said I should have let you go. The gunner told us that they had seen something in the water that they thought might be a periscope and if it had been we would have been right in the sub's sights. But it turned out to be a broom stick and he said he had been blown right through the skin of the bomber when the depth charges went off. We never found anyone else. We then proceeded to New York and radioed the facts of the crash so that arrangements could be made to take him off as soon as we anchored in port. Later we found out that he had only suffered a broken big toe. There we received orders to proceed to Boston where we were to top off our load. This would take about three days so both the Captain and I had our wife come up for those days. When the stevedores found out the cargo was for Russia they tried to refuse to load it but was ordered by the army to do so. From there we went to Halifax alone again but to make a convoy to England, PQ 14.
We had an uneventful trip across until south of Iceland several ships all for Russia was diverted to Iceland, which was being set up as the jumping off port to Russia. The Icelanders did not like the allies and we never were able to go ashore or get or receive mail. We were only there a few days and left for Russia in convoy. However, shortly afterwards we had a bad storm and fog and the convoy split up and when the fog cleared up another ship and us were in sight of each other. They blinked over what are you going to do and our Captain replied I'm going to Russia. We proceeded up the coast of Norway blowing fog signals back and forth when we went through fog banks. However, the morning before we would reach Bear Island a German rec. plane flew over and we fired at it and later the other ship got credit for knocking it down although they had not fired a shot. That evening a British corvette came in sight and ordered us to follow a course back and toward the coast for six hours and we all thought it was to divert us around a sub. But at midnight when we turned back north we were ordered by another corvette to fall in astern of a southbound convoy back to Iceland, QP 10. We were told that the plane had radioed our position and course and the next day we would have been sunk one way or the other. When we got back to Iceland and anchored in what we called Whale Bay being it was so big. On one swing of the tide we were over a bank and could catch cod fish like mad along with a few other fish so we had a fish fry every night and also used them to trade with any new ships that came in for reading material.
This we found out later the British had found out our cargo and wanted it for North Africa so for the next three convoy to leave we were not included, and much to our relief on the July convoy as it suffered a loss of 28 of the 32 ships and they captured a local fishing vessel off of the northwest coast of Iceland that was sending to Germany all the information about the convoy. It was then decided to send us down to England as no convoys would be sent out of Iceland an more and none as long as the summer lasted where as you might know you have 24 hours of day light in the far north, which allowed the Germans to attach the convoy both by sub and planes. As soon as we got to Scotland we were given a sea trial to see if we could make 12 Knots. Which of course we could not do, we were lucky to be able to make nine. So we could not make to convoy to Africa. Then I guess they just did not want us to be in port too long so we along with the other ships were scattered around the islands. While we were in Greenock every two weeks either the Queen Mary or the Queen Elizabeth came in with American troops on average 15,000 to 18,000 of them. First we were sent to Belfast for about three days then up to Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands, which was the British Navy base. From there back to Greenock and by this time it was early December.
We heard that a fast small convoy had went to Russia in September without too much trouble and were not surprised when we were ordered to lock Ewe for convoy orders. We were only there a couple of days and then headed back to Russia finally in Convoy JW 51 A. We had a good trip up and it was lighter at midnight due to the northern lights than it was at noon. However, we dropped the ships off on Christmas Eve to go to Murmansk with the ocean escort and we proceeded on down to the White Sea and being we could not get to Archangel due to the ice the Russians had built a port right on the sea and called it Molotof where we discharged our cargo on December 26th. We heard the German broadcast telling us we know a convoy has gotten through without being attached but you can be sure you will not get home the same way. We had 15 tons of special food stuff for the sailors that had been sunk and were waiting to get home. This was discharged first thing and that night we heard gunfire and found out that a guard had killed some one by the railway car with the food stuff. Then a couple of days later we were told that 18 sailors would be sent back on our ship. The steward said he did not have enough supplies for that additional men especially as they were half starved and ate twice as much as we did. We did get some supplies but not as much as we needed and were told that was all they had. After discharging we were escorted with ice breakers into the river to load some box lumber for England and also in place of ballast. Then we started back, however the ice was so thick that even the strongest ice breakers could not do much good. The ICE was so thick as soon as you stopped your engines you stopped, in fact while in the White river a team of horses and a sled passed between us an a ship astern when we stopped for a very short period of time. So the ice pilot had us move for each change of the tide and we gradually was drifted out of the bottleneck 21 miles in 21 days so when we got to Murmansk the convoy that we should have taken home had left so we were anchored in Kola Inlet to wait for about a month till the next convoy. They were usually about one a month at that time. While there we would see almost hourly air attacks and some bombs came very close. On one swing of the tide we went aground and a diver was sent down to inspect for damages to protect the Russian. One ship just a short distance from us was sunk by these attacks.
Finally the next convoy came up, RA 53, and we started for England, but in only a couple of days we were under constant air and sub attack. There were numerous S O S's heard from sub attacks. We had one day in particular when it cleared up we were attacked by both dive bombers and torpedo bombers. One string of bombs dropped just ahead of us and the Captain seeing them coming called out I'll sell her for fifty cents as he along with everyone else were sure they were going to hit us. The forward gun crew said the bombs missed by only ten feet. Later another company ship blinked over to say they saw our keel back amidship when the bombs went off. Also, apparently a sub was lying off and ahead of the convoy and just fired a salvo of eight torpedoes through the ships and several passed just to our stern and all the close ships were firing at them trying to hit them but none did. As far as I know no ship was hit at this time. However, a day or so later a bad storm came up and the convoy started to breakup and that night the radio operator beat a path between his office and the bridge with SSS messages and locations of sub attacks. We were lucky again not to get hit and made it not Liverpool. As soon as possible the Captain had wired the agent to either have supplies when we anchored or be prepared to take the whole crew ashore for a meal as we were completely out of food, in fact on the last menu the steward had put that all there is there is no more. They were on the ball and a launch tied up alongside as soon as we anchored with plenty of foodstuff to tide us over till the steward could make a full order for our trip home. The extra sailors wee also taken off as soon as we got to dock. Most generally they would be sent home on one of the Queens. It took about a week to discharge the lumber and then we loaded sand on the foredeck for the ballast and filled the #5 hold with water up to the top of the shaft alley, which is the usual method of coming west across the north Atlantic.
We were in a large convoy heading home when just south of Iceland our steering gear broke and so we had to drop out and proceed to Iceland using a jury rig to the tiller on the poop deck and the winch back there. I had never taken a deep sea sounding but of course knew all the thing to take one so the morning of the second day the Captain had me take one and it turned out as if it was much shallower than the ones the mate had been taking. Also just afterward the mate took one and his again was the same depth as he had been getting. Again I was asked are you sure you got bottom and I said I was sure and the arming in the bottom of the lead just had an impression as if it had hit a rock as the soap was partially displaced, on looking closely at the chart we found a very small spot with exactly the same depth as I had taken. The Captain said I know exactly where we are now better than a sight, and laid out the new course to Whale Bay arriving there within an hour one year later than the first time we had been there. There was an American Navy repair ship there that could have cast a new part for our steering gear but they were waiting for orders and they just did not care about us so stalled until they got orders and then said they did not have enough time to do the job and left it up to an English repair ship, however it did not have the equipment to cast another piece and could only braze our broken one to the best of their ability. The Captain told the mate to leave the rigging on the tiller because if we broke down again we would just go home that way. We were sent south to meet up with a 7 knot convoy headed back to the USA and on the second day the bracing started to crack but we had an excellent chief Engineer and he used all the clamps he could find and some he made but he kept it together all the way home. Just off of Boston when the ocean escort was relieved and the local escort took over we received orders to go into Boston and on arrival there a launch came out to take the Captain only ashore for orders, but he did take the Ensign who had become a father during this last leg of our trip so he could see if his wife was alright. The Captain came back to the ship in a couple of hours made as a hornet as he had been told to go on to New York via the inland route. He said he had told them to be sure to have a pilot where we were to enter the canal and be sure that everyone along the route be told we were coming so we would not have to be questioned by blinker at every way point. This did not happen and along with the pilot came a navy man saying he needed some information and the Captain again blew his stack and about threw the man overboard. He told the signal man when they blinked for our name to only send it once and not to worry about them. In morse code our name is mostly dashes and most signal men could not get it the first time. We finally made it and was taken directly to a shipyard in Brooklyn arriving there in early evening. A whole bunch of us went just outside the gate to a pay phone to phone our wives or mothers we were home safe and would be coming home right after payoff, which was two days later.
We payed off three days short of 15 months at that time it was the longest payoff in New York .
Whenever you completed a voyage under Articles you were payed off for that time and then had an option of staying on for another voyage or getting off and waiting for another ship. However during the war there was no waiting for a job. There was always one you could find. So I payed off in New York, left the West Gotomska and made the train trip back to NOLA for my months vacation (given supposedly for each three months on board ship by your draft board).
I also spent some time upgrading to 2nd Mate and getting my Radar, LORAN and Gyro certificates. I went to a maritime school for a month to study and then passed a written test by the U.S. Coast Guard for 2nd Mate as I did for all of my upgrades. During the war there was a government school in most ports that you could go to to get ready for your tests. I went to the one here in New Orleans as this was home. The other certificates were obtained also by going to a school run by Sperry for about two weeks each one and then passing a written as well as operating the pieces of equipment to show you knew how to operate it.
I later saw the West Gotomska flying a Chilean flag at the army base in here in New Orleans. Reportedly, she was one of the freighters the U.S. traded for 3 Chilean passenger ships. One of these, after the months vacation and schools, I joined as second mate here to take to Baltimore for conversion to a troop ship. The name of the ship was the U.S.A.T. "Aconcagua". The U S A T stands for United States Army Transport. The ship was really a motor ship and had a 6000 HP diesel main engine.
I made several other trips to Europe during the rest of the war, one of which we carried a load of ammunition to LaHavre were we unload it tied up to buoys as the docks had not been repaired yet and another trip on a shuttle to the low countries with biscuits for Denmark just before the end of the war where we all wanted another shuttle so we would be there at the end but no such luck and of course we got the word about midway home in convoy.
Because of my long voyage on the West Gotomaska I did not get my second mate for 14 months. About seven months more and I made my chief mate's license.
Right after I received my Chief Mates license, I went down to my company to see about a job and to be informed that what in those days were called TNT fever. The mate of a liberty ship had reported he was sick and so I was offered the job. It was loading a full load of ammo just below New Orleans at one of the dumps in this area. We signed on 9/20/1944. The skipper, as I came to find out, was drunk and I don't know how much liquor he brought on board before we sailed but it must have been plenty as shortly after leaving New York in convoy he said that we had to move to the Flying bridge. I did all I could to close in the platform where the Wheel and controls were to keep the wind out but it was so bad I let the sailors stand 1 hours watches at the wheel as it was so cold up there and NO heat. I found out why one day by accident as I caught the skipper drunk in the wheel house looking out the forward port hole, he could hardly stand up. His one claim to fame was he had been fired for being a drunk by every tug boat company in the U.S. We had a safe convoy crossing to the Mersy anchorage and he of course had to go; ashore for orders, which turned out to be we would leave that evening for the Isle of Wight thence on to Le Havre, however while I was forward ready to heave up anchor and all the other ships were leaving I called the bridge only to be told the skipper had not come out of his room. So I took charge and relayed my order to the bridge and the third mate while I heaved up the anchor and got underway. As soon as I could I went on the bridge and ordered full speed ahead to try to catch up with the convoy. Shortly thereafter, the skipper came staggering out of his room and said we had better speed up as we were behind the convoy. I replied we are going as fast as we can and if he had followed orders and gotten us under way like he should have we would not be in the fix. I told the other mates to keep track of where we were and he told them not to bother as we would just follow the other ships. However, the next morning we were at a stopping point and he came out and had the signalman call for a pilot to take us around the Island only to be told drop your anchor you are in the anchorage already. This was mid morning and we were told we would be going across the channel that night to Le Havre for discharge. We did go across without trouble but saw another liberty ship sunk just off the channel because it had hit a mine luckily it had a bed of sand in the hold and so he had not exploded.
There were no docks so we tied up bow and stern to buoys and discharged to ducks which are army combination land and sea vehicles that could haul one sling load of ammo at a time so we had a round robin of them going and coming all the time. We had a combination of French stevedores and Army personnel to handle the unloading. In loading ammo you have to built numerous bulkhead of lumber to separate it so every so often the stevedores would hook up a whole section and pull it out and put it on deck, so by the time we were finished we had lumber piled high on both sides of the hatches. I had been told to be sure not to bring any dunnage, as we call it in the trade, back to the states. On our way back across the channel I had the crew rig wires under the piles so it would be easy to dump them overboard once we got close to England. I knew that they had a shortage of lumber and I figured these exbulkheads could be one side of a room in a house as it was all tongue and groove lumber nailed on 2 by 4's. When the pilot came aboard he asked what we were going to do with the lumber and I told him I was going to dump it and he asked if he could have it which was alright by me. He called his boats to start to pick it up as soon as we dumped it but shortly the British lumber control said we could not do that and if we wanted to pay duty on it was the only way that it could be dumped overboard in their waters or landed in England. I ordered the crew to knock off the dumping and secure the gear.
We went in and loaded some china clay mostly for ballast and then waited for time to go out to meet a convoy heading home. I told my Bos'n to be ready to dump all the lumber as soon as we dropped off the pilot which we did and could see a lot of even row boats out trying to retrieve the lumber.
It was the same old story coming home as the skipper had been able to resupply himself with liquor. We did not see any action homeward bound but off new York we received orders to proceed on down the coast to Phila. He was so afraid to leave the convoy that we were way late getting down to the pilot's station off of the bay and when he came aboard he told us we had already been reported missing. We went on to dock and most of the crew paid off and one evening we had to shift one ships length down the dock and as usual the stevedores would be used as labor and I and the second mate on the stern would give direction to them. I told the colored men to take the spring wire, that is the one leading aft off and let the shore people move it down the dock and then we were to heave on it using the niggerhead and when I said that, one of them said you can't say that and I told him, that was named long before either of us were born and it will be that way after we are dead. But they sure did not like it and later the boss stevedore told me to be careful when I went ashore and they might try to harm them.
In the mean time the Skipper had taken the papers to New York so as to pay us off but per usual he got drunk and disappeared for three days, so we were late in getting paid off. This happened on the 8th of January 1945. The Port Captain in New York escorted the Skipper back to the ship so he didn't disappear again with the ships payroll before firing him. I quit and came back to New Orleans. I later learned he and the purser who was his drinking partner after being fired by Delta line went over and was hired by Lykes Line and went to the South Pacific where they ran out of liquor so took the liquid out of the compass and drank it, killing him and the purser was blinded.
It was another year near the end of the war before I got my Master's. I did get a masters license right at the end of the war but did not sail as master.
If you really want to get into us, the Merchant Marine, and the war I suggest you buy the book A Careless Word --- A Needless Sinking By Captain Arthur R. Moore. The seventh printing is just out and is the best yet and most complete listing of all the ships lost, when and where and by what method as well as stories about some of them and a list of men killed, captured and what happened to them. Best regards,
I'll Pick Up My Story Later
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