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Interview with William S. Chambers [5/8/2004]

Kathryn Chambers Torpey:

This recording is being made on May 8, 2004, at 9221 West Broward Boulevard, Plantation, Florida, the home of William Scott Chambers who is being interviewed by his daughter, Kathryn Chambers Torpey. For the record, what branch of the service did you serve in?

William S. Chambers:

I served throughout World War II from start to finish on merchant ships of the United States Merchant Marine.

Kathryn Chambers Torpey:

Which war did you serve in?

William S. Chambers:

Well, I served during World War II.

Kathryn Chambers Torpey:

What rank were you?

William S. Chambers:

I was a Deck Officer ranging from third officer up through and including Master.

Kathryn Chambers Torpey:

Where did you serve?

William S. Chambers:

Well, I served... When the war... When the United States entered the war on December 7, 1941,1 was at sea en route from the East Coast via the Panama Canal to Honolulu. Well, I was at sea also at the end of the war en route from Europe to the Philippine Islands.

Kathryn Chambers Torpey:

After high school, you were admitted to Class 40 at the Pennsylvania State Nautical School. Please tell me about the school. Where was it and does it still exist today?

William S. Chambers:

The Pennsylvania State Nautical School was established on a training ship stationed at berth in the Philadelphia Navy Yard and, that is, when it was not on a training cruise at sea. The school nor the ship no longer exist.

Kathryn Chambers Torpey:

You attended the Pennsylvania Nautical School for a period of two years, October 18, 1939, to October 24, 1941. While you were at that school where did you live?

William S. Chambers:

All of the cadets were stationed and trained on the schoolship Annapolis which was a combination sailing and steam vessel and it was a steam propelled training ship actually

Kathryn Chambers Torpey:

What was it like to live on the Schoolship Annapolis?

William S. Chambers:

Well, the ship was very old, it was built in 1897 and it was quite cramped and all cadets slept in hammocks. A bit primate by any standards.

Kathryn Chambers Torpey:

Tell me about the training cruises you took as a cadet on the Navy ship U.S.S. Omaha and U.S.S. Pyro and on the Schoolship P.N.S. Seneca?

William S. Chambers:

About the time I entered the Pennsylvania Nautical School in October 1939, World War II had started in Europe between the UK, that is, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany as well as others. It was decided to give the cadets some training on U.S. Naval vessels. All cadets were assigned to the U.S.S. Omaha, a Light Cruiser, for a training cruise along the East Coast of the United States and throughout the West Indies. A trip was also made on the U.S.S. Pyro, which was a Naval Ammunition Carrier. Subsequently, the Coast Guard Cutter Seneca was converted to a Schoolship and we trained extensively on this ship along the Atlantic Coast and throughout the Caribbean Sea.

Kathryn Chambers Torpey:

When and where was your original seaman's certificate of identification issued?

William S. Chambers:

My original Z certificate or identification as it's sometimes called, and all original seaman's papers were issued in June 1939 in Philadelphia.

Kathryn Chambers Torpey:

What was your original seaman's certificate number?

William S. Chambers:

The number was Z-129718. These certificates were sometimes referred to as the Z certificates.

Kathryn Chambers Torpey:

Upon graduation from the Pennsylvania State Nautical School, what type of license did you hold?

William S. Chambers:

I held a Third Mate's License which was issued in October 1941. Upon graduation all cadets were eligible to sit for a license of third assistant engineer or third mate on U.S. merchant ships, that is for vessels of any tonnage and on all oceans. I obtained a Third Mate's License in October 1941.

Kathryn Chambers Torpey:

Your first voyage as Junior Third Mate was on the SS Steel Maker. You were on board that vessel when the war started. Please tell me about that voyage.

William S. Chambers:

Well, the SS Steel Maker was a cargo ship owned by the Ithmian Steamship Company. We were on a commercial voyage en route from New York via the Panama Canal to Honolulu. While eating breakfast before going on the eight to twelve morning watch, the Captain came into the officers saloon and announced the receipt of a radio message from the U.S. Navy San Francisco to the effect that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor a few hours earlier and we were to follow sealed orders the Captain had received in Panama. Upon arrival in Honolulu Harbor on December 15th, we only heard rumors about what had happened. We were not allowed to see the damage in Pearl Harbor nor around any other parts of the waterfront. The longshoremen where Japanese. They were under guard of the military at the time. We were allowed off the ship, but only on the pier and in the very near vicinity. We were not allowed to go into Honolulu. We returned to San Francisco in a convoy, which was the first convoy I had experienced. We had a U.S. Navy signalman on board for communication with other ships. We were shelled by a Japanese submarine in Kahului Harbor on December 30th, 1941, shortly before we left for San Francisco.

Kathryn Chambers Torpey:

During the rest of the war you sailed in various convoys. Please describe the nature of a convoy.

William S. Chambers:

In a convoy each ship flies a number and the number is visible to all the other ships in the convoy. For example, if the ship was number fifteen that means the ship was in column one and row five of the convoy. The convoy commander was a high ranking Naval officer on the lead merchant ship. The convoy commander would send signals or messages to the other ships and the other ships were to keep in position on station and be ready to receive orders from the convoy commander at any time. As to the course and distance and speed and maneuvering, instructions in the event of an attack, were constantly going back and forth.

Kathryn Chambers Torpey:

Your first voyage in a convoy across the North Atlantic was on the SS Steel Worker which was also owned by the Ithmian Steamship Company. You were a Third Mate. The ship departed from Philadelphia on March 26, 1942, en route to Murmansk, Russia. Please tell me about that voyage.

William S. Chambers:

Our ship was loaded with cargo for Russia including 250 tons of explosives. The explosives were in number five hatch which is at the stern of the ship. The ship was armed with machine guns to be used by the merchant seaman. There was no U.S. Navy armed guard on board only two U.S. [Navy] signalmen for communications purposes with the other ships and the convoy commodore. According to my notes, from May 25th to May 31st we were under continuous air attack. My notes say that 8 ships were sunk, 3 were hit and made port, many damaged from near hits, 4 enemy planes were destroyed, and many were damaged. When we finally arrived at our destination in Murmansk, we unloaded the 250 tons of explosives straight away. On our way to discharge the remaining cargo for Russia at another berth in this great Kola Inlet a heavy explosion hit number fivehatch which had been loaded with explosives. The ship sank on June 3, 1942, while navigating through the Kola Inlet. It may have struck a mine, we don't know. It struck (sic) [sank] in the half an hour. We abandoned ship by the ship's lifeboats and a British escort vessel picked us up and took the transferred crew members to the SS Alcoa Cadet. Russian divers subsequently reviewed the cargo plans for the Steel Worker and were able to salvage much of the cargo that could be of military use because the ship had sunk in water that was less than 100 feet deep. The SS Alcoa Cadet had completely discharged its cargo and was waiting for orders to proceed to another port or perhaps back to the United States. As far as the sinking of the ship is concerned [i.e., the SS Alcoa Cadet which sank on June 21, 1942], the British said it was a mine and the Russians said it was a torpedo. We could have been... It could have been a mine dropped from a German plane. I was standing beside my desk in my office (sic) [cabin] when the ship blew up. I was rescued from a life raft along with the Captain of the ship by a Russian patrol craft and transferred to a Russian military barracks across the river from Murmansk. I remember that I had gotten my first wristwatch when I graduated from high school. Both my wristwatch and my original seaman's certificate and other papers went down with the SS Steel Worker on June the 3rd, 1942.

Kathryn Chambers Torpey:

How did you get back to the United States after the SS Alcoa Cadet sunk?

William S. Chambers:

On June 27th, I and some of the other surviving crew members were transferred from the Russian military barracks to the SS American Press for transportation in a southbound convoy to Hoboken, New Jersey, via Iceland. According to my notes, on July 5th at 9:00 PM off the West Coast of Iceland we experienced a submarine attack and 6 ships were sunk. One ship was hit and made the port of Reykjavik. The convoy scattered. We turned about to the North and headed for the town of Akureyi which is in a fiord on the North Coast of Iceland. The Captain of the American Press always questioned this attack and thought we may have hit a mine field because all the ships went up almost at the same time. Eventually we were able to reach Reykjavik and there we joined a convoy to the United States.

Kathryn Chambers Torpey:

You were also a Junior Third Mate on a cargo ship in a convoy carrying supplies for the Allied invasion of North Africa. Please tell me about that voyage.

William S. Chambers:

That ship was the SS Robin Sherwood which was owned by the Robin Line. We loaded military supplies in New York and on September 11th, 1942, we sailed for an undisclosed port in North Africa. By the time we arrived off the African Coast, Casa Blanca had fallen to the French and, that is, it had been recaptured from the Germans. We discharged our cargo in Casa Blanca and returned directly home to New York.

Kathryn Chambers Torpey:

What was your next voyage after that one?

William S. Chambers:

My next voyage was again on the SS Robin Sherwood, but it was not in convoy. I was the Third Mate on the ship. And, on December 30th, 1942 we sailed from New York destined for the Panama Canal. We were en route to Iran and were loaded with supplies which would be delivered through Iran and then transshipped overland to southern Russia. This was apparently the safest way to go. Upon clearing the Panama Canal we took a circuitous route from Balboa to (sic) the Canal Zone and then on to Freemantle in Western Australia. The voyage from Balboa to Freemantle took 28 days, with the route that we were given, with no land or any other ship ever sighted. In order to avoid any contact with the Japanese we sailed in an indirect route from Freemantle to the Persian Gulf where we discharged military supplies in three Iranian ports for further transport over land to Russia. In Khorram Shahr, before leaving, we picked up 10 American civilians which were..., who were being transferred home from Iran. After we sailed from the Persian Gulf we proceeded south along the East Coast of Africa where we stopped at Mombasa in Kenya; Dar-es-Salaam in Tanganyika; and Beira, Mozambique, to load commercial cargo. We then sailed around South Africa first stopping at Durban before we headed across the South Atlantic toward South America. My notes say that on Friday, June 18th at 7:00 PM, one David Collins died at sea. He was one of the civilian contractors we had picked up in Iran. We buried him at sea at 11:06 AM the next morning which was Saturday. Then on June 21st, at 3:00 PM one of the seamen, a man named P.D. Zoller, died. The Captain wanted to bury him at sea, but the seamen objected so we took his body on to Rio de Janeiro. After landing the body in Rio de Janeiro, we sailed for New York for a total of 36,000 miles for the round trip from New York to New York. We got back on July 23rd, 1943.

Kathryn Chambers Torpey:

Up until this point, all your voyages have been on cargo ships owned and operated by private steamship companies. Later you sailed on Liberty Ships. What were Liberty Ships and are Liberty Ships different from Victory Ships?

William S. Chambers:

Liberty Ships were all of one rather simple design and were propelled by reciprocating steam engines with a maximum speed of about 10 knots. There was about 2700 of these ships built during the war and, of course, they were carrying cargo all over the world. Victory Ships were a refinement of the Liberty Ships and they had steam turbine propulsion. They were quite a bit faster and they traveled in excess of 15 knots.

Kathryn Chambers Torpey:

When did you begin to sail on Liberty Ships?

William S. Chambers:

Well, I, .... The first few ships I was on during the war, of course, were commercially built and owned cargo ships, but beginning in September the 10th,1943,1 made various voyages across the North Atlantic as Second Mate on the SS Charles J. Folger. The SS Charles J. Folger was a Liberty Ship. It was owned by the Maritime...., by the United States Maritime Commission which was part of the Federal government, but it was operated by the U.S. Lines Company. Almost all my voyages on this ship were military voyages in convoy. First, the crew was flown in a DC[-3] aircraft to New Orleans where we joined the vessel and then we sailed to Cuba where we loaded sugar and headed for New York where we joined the North Atlantic convoy.

Kathryn Chambers Torpey:

Was it very dangerous to sail a Liberty Ship loaded with sugar, coastwise, from Cuba to New York during World War II?

William S. Chambers:

Well, yes. The coastwise voyages were unescorted by any Naval vessels or even airplanes and they were easy prey for the submarines and many ships were sunk along the coast. Later in the war, however, the submarines were apparently transferred to the North Atlantic to join the Wolfpacks that the Germans had established attacking the North Atlantic convoy ships which were moving eastward to supply the European theater.

Kathryn Chambers Torpey:

Where did you take the sugar that you picked up in Cuba?

William S. Chambers:

We took the sugar to Scotland and Wales, and then we returned to Saint John, New Brunswick, and Halifax, Nova Scotia, loaded up, joining another convoy and sailed for Liverpool, England. After that we returned to New York, loaded up, and sailed to Avonmouth, England, and Belfast, Ireland. We then joined a convoy back to New York. We loaded up again and sailed for Londonderry, Ireland, and Glasgow, Scotland, and then back to Boston. From there we went to Searsport, Maine, where we loaded airplane bombs. We delivered the bombs to the East Coast of England. I think they were to be used by the Allied planes to bomb the European mainland and the German army and the coastal defenses during the invasion which was going to start in the very near future.

Kathryn Chambers Torpey:

Where were you during the Normandy invasion in June of 1944?

William S. Chambers:

Well, on the same ship that was mentioned above, the a ..., after we had discharged our ammunition, we were..., the invasion of Europe had just about started and we were told to proceed to the Firth of Forth in Scotland to await further orders to see if the ship would be needed in the Normandy invasion in June 1944. Eventually, our orders were to return to the United States which we did as our ship was not needed.

Kathryn Chambers Torpey:

Did you sail in the Mediterranean Sea on Liberty Ships?

William S. Chambers:

Yes, I sailed on the SS Charles J. Folger in a convoy delivering military supplies to Naples during the Allied invasion of Italy. The Mediterranean Sea had been subdued by September 1944 and the United States Navy protected this convoy very successfully. I was also Chief Mate on the SS Thomas J. Walsh, a Liberty Ship that sailed in a convoy delivering military supplies to Italy in March 1945. By the time we returned to the United States the war in Europe was over. Question. What did you do after the war was over in Europe?

William S. Chambers:

Well, after the war was over in Europe I made my last voyage on the SS Thomas J. Walsh. On this ship I was Master of the vessel. We were not in a convoy. We left Charleston, South Carolina, on May 24th, 1945. This was the beginning of what was to become a long journey that lasted until January 18th, 1946. From Charleston we sailed to Gibraltar and then various ports in Italy and France. In Marseille, France, after our ship had been completely discharged of all cargo, we then loaded military vehicles and armored cars for the Far East. From there we headed to the Panama Canal. While we were en route from Marseilles to San Fernando in the Lingayen Gulf in the Philippines, the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan and the war effectively was over. I remember that day very well, V.J. Day. I..., we eventually arrived in Japan by October of 1945. The ship stayed in Yokohama Bay for an entire month and we never unloaded our military supplies at all. We... Eventually we were directed to return to the United States which we did. We sailed back through the Panama Canal to Philadelphia and then to Norfolk where all the military supplies were unloaded from the ship.

Kathryn Chambers Torpey:

Were you awarded any medals or citations?

William S. Chambers:

Yes, by the United States Government I was awarded the Merchant Marine Emblem, the Atlantic War Zone Bar, the Pacific War Zone Bar, the Mediterranean Middle East War Zone Bar, and the Victory Medal, the Combat Bar with two stars, the Honorable Service Button, and the Presidential Testimonial Letter by President Harry Truman. Fifty years after the war I was also awarded a commemorative medal by the Russian Government in recognition of courage and personal contribution to the Allied support in the North of Russia during her fight for freedom from Germany. This medal is called The 50th Anniversary of the Victory in the Great Patriotic War.

Kathryn Chambers Torpey:

How did you stay in touch with your family during your voyages?

William S. Chambers:

The usual method to communicate with home was by letter through the regular mail from the country in which the ship happened to be and that worked prettywell. If there was no mail from the place why one could use the so-called Fleet Post Office. For people at home trying to communicate with you from (sic) the ship, why they would send it to your name and the ship's name and send it to the Fleet Post Office in New York who in turn would deliver it to where ever the ship was. And the service was pretty good. When you got back into the United States, of course, the best way to try to get in touch with anyone was by phone except during those days long distance phone was frequently impossible to complete it was just so busy and overworked.

Kathryn Chambers Torpey:

What was the food like aboard ship?

William S. Chambers:

Well, in general, the food was very good. The cooks were not always of the best, but we had plenty of food and good food, in fact, we had a lot of the foods that were rare at home such as butter and sugar and all that type of stuff. Of course, on some of the long voyages and the long anchorages that you went through on these voyages, why you would run out of fresh vegetables, but other food was always available.

Kathryn Chambers Torpey:

Did you feel pressure or stress sailing in these convoys?

William S. Chambers:

Well, only at times, of course, but when you are under attack from the air or submarines why there was a lot of stress. And, whenever action was going on in the area, but other than that I don't think that I felt much stress. No.

Kathryn Chambers Torpey:

What were the men like who served on these ships?

William S. Chambers:

Well, on every ship there were a few salty old-timers around, but most of the crew were young men who were sailing on merchant ships in trying to fill the thousands of newly built Liberty Ships.

Kathryn Chambers Torpey:

Did you keep a personal diary during these voyages?

William S. Chambers:

Yes, to a limited extent. We were not encouraged to keep diaries during the war, but, to a limited extent, I kept notes of unusual events, but that's about it.

Kathryn Chambers Torpey:

You paid off as Captain of the SS Thomas J. Walsh on January 18, 1946, in Norfolk, Virginia, what did you do in the days and weeks afterward?

William S. Chambers:

Well, in coming back, the first thing I did at least in the first month was to get married and then I decided to return to school and try to get a Bachelor's degree. I applied to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or MIT as it's normallycalled and began to prepare for taking the SAT exams and whatever other exams were necessary.

Kathryn Chambers Torpey:

Did you work or go back to school?

William S. Chambers:

Well, as I mentioned, I applied for the university and then while awaiting I went back to sea and I sailed as Master on a cargo ship that made two trips on the trans- Atlantic trade. And then when I came back from the second trip I had received notice that I had been accepted so I resigned from the ship and started preparing to go up to school in September.

Kathryn Chambers Torpey:

Was your college education supported by the GI Bill?

William S. Chambers:

No. The merchant seamen were not included in the GI Bill.

Kathryn Chambers Torpey:

Did you make any close friendships while in the U.S. Maritime Merchant Marine Service?

William S. Chambers:

Well, of course, I did make quite a number and one in particular was Victor Tyson who I sailed with for a year or more on the ship and he was the one who introduced me to my wife and we kept in touch with him for a long time after the war until he died about 1990.

Kathryn Chambers Torpey:

Did you join any U. S. Merchant Marine Service organizations after the war?

William S. Chambers:

Well, only one, and that was the Association of American Master Mariners which I still belong to.

Kathryn Chambers Torpey:

What did you go on to do as a career after the war?

William S. Chambers:

Well, I entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in September 1946.1 was in the Department of Naval Architecture and I majored in marine transportation. Upon graduation in June 1950 with a degree in Marine Transportation I went to work in New York for the New York and Cuba Mail Steamship Company in their ship operations department. In December 1950 I was transferred by that company to their office in Havana, Cuba and I was originally in the market development department in Havana until I became acquainted with the country and so forth, but later I took over the terminal and ship operations function. That continued for several years, but later, in 1956 I was asked by the United Fruit Company to take over their terminal and ship operations in Cuba. I remained with that company for the rest of my stay on the island. Internal dissension and dissatisfaction of the populace with the Batista Regime was growing and Fidel Castro was gaining a lot of support. Working conditions for Americans were far from pleasant or even satisfactory. Eventually, Batista fled and Fidel Castro's followers began to take over the government in January of 1959 to be followed shortly by Mr. Castro's arrival in Havana from the mountains in eastern Cuba. Conditions regularly deteriorated and Americans, other foreigners, and many Cubans were not in a satisfactory position and the conditions got so bad that I finally resigned and moved with my family back to the United States in March 31st, 1960. I joined the Amerind Shipping Corporation in New York in May 1960 as Operations Manager. Amerind was owned by the Hans Isbransen Company who were fairly large ship owners and operators in New York. Amerind itself was a pier and terminal operator and general agent for European and South American companies who also owned and operated cargo ships and tankers. For much of the same period, I was also the General Manager for Ship and Terminal Operations for the U.S. Bulk Carriers, a subsidiary of Amerind. U.S. Bulk Carriers operated 15 American ships under charter to the United States government in support of the Viet Nam War effort. These positions entailed extensive travel to the Middle-East, India, Japan, Viet Nam, and so forth, including a one-month business trip (with your mother) around the world in 1966. We left New York for Japan in mid- September and returned, via Rome, in October. You were away at college at the time and Cindy stayed at home with both of your grandparents. I left Amerind in April 1967 to pursue a career as a Marine Consultant with the firm known as Coverdale and Colpitts. For nine months in 1968,1 was assigned to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Your mother and Cindy accompanied me during that period. That was the first trip around the world for your sister and the second for your mother. I later returned to Malaysia for a three month further study of the Island and Port of Penang. Then, I made a number of other maritime studies before leaving that position in June of 1970. After that, I was engaged briefly by Amerind Container Services, Incorporated, as General Manager of Operations to supervise operation of seven new container ships. In August 1971,1 joined the Maritime Administration Eastern Region Headquarters in New York City where I served as Port and Inter-modal Development Officer. The waterfront was changing rapidly in those days. As a result, one of our principal concerns was facilitating the evolution of East Coast ports and port facilities so that they could load and unload ships carrying the newly developed containers which were some 40 feet long and weighed between 30 and 1040 tons. During this time, I was also an alternate member of the New England River Basins Commission. While with the Commission, why we produced a fairly comprehensive report on New England ports and facilities which was well received by industry as well as the government and the local ports. We put out five reports concerning the transfer of containers from ships to railcars (and vice versa) at five east coast ports. In January 1978,1 was appointed Ship Operations Officer. My responsibilities in this job included administration of Eastern Region activities relating to ship operations and ship repair including all the government-owned training ships that were on loan to the state maritime colleges that is in the state of Maine, Massachusetts, and New York. We also operated training facilities in New York and New Jersey such as the Radar and Fire Fighting Schools where ships officers received up-grade training and re-certification that was required from time to time by the U.S. Coast Guard. At some point, the Maritime Administration was transferred from the Department of Commerce to the Department of Transportation. And, in 1980, the Maritime Administration Eastern Region began to reorganize itself in support of the newly established Ready Reserve Fleet known as the RRF with the objective of creating and maintaining some thirty ships in such a reserve state that they could be activated and fully manned by the merchant service for service within 5 to 10 days. During this time, a bit of a power struggle developed between the Eastern, Western, and Central Regions and the Office of Ship Operations in Washington, DC. I was temporarily assigned as Deputy Director of the Eastern Region Office from August 1980 to January 1982. Then I was appointed Ship Operation Officer. My office was in New York, and I reported to the Office of Ship Operations in Washington, DC. Eventually, I was transferred to Norfolk, Virginia, in September of 1985 to become Chief of the Division of East Coast Ship Operations, a newly created entity. At first, the division consisted of a National Defense Reserve Fleet anchored in the James River off Fort Eustice with about 120 employees, the office in Norfolk had 3 or 4 senior marine engineers and surveyors and supporting clerical staff, and a ship operations office in New York. We immediately began to augment the engineering staff to about 20 professionals over a two year period. The new division was part of the Office of Ship Operations in Washington, DC, and it was responsible for all Maritime Administration ship operation activities on the East Coast of the United States. In October 1987, the Division of East Coast Ship Operations was abolished and the South Atlantic Region was established with me as Director reporting directly 11to the Maritime Administrator in Washington, D.C. We continued with all of our ship operations and training functions, but our big emphasis was on developing the Ready Reserve Fleet to a level of about 30 ships. We were quite successful in this effort which was proven when most of the fleet was activated and manned by the merchant marine for the transport of equipment and supplies in support of the U.S. armed forces during Operation Desert Storm (also known as the Gulf War) which began in January 1991. I retired in the end of 1992 after almost 22 years with the Maritime Administration. They capped my career with a big retirement party--dinner dance and cruise on the Elizabeth River. As you know, it was well attended.

Kathryn Chambers Torpey:

Is there anything else you would like to add that we haven't covered in this interview?

William S. Chambers:

I think not. That's about all. Okay then, Thank you very much for sharing your recollections. This is the end of the interview.

 
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