Sunday, February 27, 2005

The Old Dominion Mariner

The ceiling above his head was heavy, slime gray and omnipresent. The wooden bunk rails that kept his remains from rolling out onto the deck still held the sickening smell of fresh varnish. In the bunk, the prostrate outline of a young body, by now a pallid shade of green, heaved and fell in harmony with the churning North Atlantic. As the heaving ship rose and fell, a bucket on the deck was doing it's own original flash-dance, careening crazily from one bulkhead to the other. Like a pin ball bouncing off the side bumpers to the manipulations of a skilled player, it never ceased its dizzying clanking movements. The body in the bunk was doing a kind of shadow dance with the bucket, restrained only by the rails from tumbling down and embracing it face to face on the deck below.

The Old Dominion Mariner, the largest commercial cargo ship in the world, was into the fifth day of its maiden voyage, having departed Hampton Roads, VA in early November, 1952. It was riding high above its waterline and for the past three days was pitching and lurching like a drunken sailor on shore leave. Everything in the galley from food to pots and pans had become goulash from the wild churning of the ship and, not unlike the content of our stomachs, was strewn unceremoniously about the deck. Below in the holds, the cinched down cargo strained against it's riggings while trucks, semi trailers and army tanks pitched and rolled in harmony with the wild waves, held in place only by the heavy nylon tethers.

The body in the upper bunk, along with three other equally pallid specimens rolled and heaved in harmony with the tossing ship. This was definitely not one of the touted benefits of a cruise to Europe, the first (and decidedly the last) for any of the four airmen who were sent along to supervise the movement and trans-shipment of their Squadron's gear. But I digress.

How I became the body in the bunk started some months before at Donaldson Air Force Base in Greenville, SC. Our Air Force group consisting of four squadrons had been issued POM (Preparation for Overseas Movement) orders. This overseas movement was part of a growing reaction to the mounting tensions between the US and Soviet Union and the heating up of the cold war. Western democracy was being tested in the Korean peninsula and in Europe where the Soviets were rattling sabers and threatening invasion. Several totally new air bases were under construction in Germany- one at Bitburg and another at Spangdahlem. Our group operated all the ground electronic gear needed to control and vector aircraft to targets and to identify unfriendly approaching targets. We also were working with setting up one of the first US pilotless bombers, a mobile missile called the TM-61 Matador. It was to be deployed in the valleys of the Eifel mountains and could be guided electronically to it's target, purportedly to interdict the mechanized advance of the Red Army and supplement 12th Air Force's air interdiction operations.

Anyway, when my Lieutenant approached me and asked if I would like to do this job it sounded exciting and I jumped at the opportunity. Now, as my head reeled and my stomach churned in harmony with the wild seas, I was thinking of the old admonition so prominent in the military, "Never, never volunteer for nuthin!"

I left Donaldson Air Base with my three compatriots four months earlier and we set up shop at the sprawling Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation in Norfolk, VA. Equipment was arriving daily by rail from our base and also directly from manufacturers and supply depots - all marked for our deployment. Our job was to supervise the deliveries, document the temporary storage locations in warehouses, and subsequently supervise the loading of the equipment onto the ship that would transport it all to Bremerhaven, Germany. From there we would accompany the shipments by freight trains to the new base.

It was a unique and rewarding experience for a 19 year old Buck Sergeant. I'd go out on the docks every day, and with my clipboard in hand and a sheaf of shipping documents I'd manifest cargo as the stevedores moved it from box cars or semi-trailers to warehouses, noting location, aisle, and other necessary tracers.

When nothing was being moved or unloaded, I lounged around the naval offices where I'd been inspired by the gentle attentions of Janie, a young lady who worked there as a clerk-typist. My three compatriots had charted out some similar attentiveness from other young lasses in the labyrinth of offices at Hampton Roads. I guess we cut a pretty smart look with the spanking new blue uniforms we'd been issued just before arriving at the port. That and the fact that there were few if any Air Force folks at Hampton Roads made us a curiosity. The uniforms were so new we were repeatedly asked if we were from a foreign country. We had previously donned khaki or olive drab uniforms like the Army with the insignia being the only thing that differentiated us.

In the old uniform.

During our tour of duty at the port we were paid an additional fixed stipend of $12.00 a day to cover food and lodging. We soon learned how to capitalize on this windfall by economizing and cutting corners. Rather than staying in a motel that would have decimated our extra funds, we learned that we could have a room at the YMCA for 50 cents a night so we jumped at the chance. However slight the charge, this proved to be an ill-fated decision, as the YMCA at Norfolk quickly revealed itself as a homosexual haven. We learned almost immediately that some bargains are not what they seem to be. However, one thing invariably leads to another and we met a Marine who invited us to live in his barracks which was partially empty because of those deployed to Korea on the Battleship Missouri. We jumped at the chance and never looked back. With their First Sergeant's tacit approval, we ate and slept with the Marines and commuted by bus to the port. By the time we left for Germany on the Old Dominion we had a pretty good little savings accumulated from our per diem payments. It helped us throw a great farewell party for our Marine buddies.

The only regret I had about leaving this delightful and unique duty assignment was tempered with the anticipation of a return to Germany where I had earlier been a high school student. I was not happy to leave Janie, to whom I had become quite attracted. She had been lot of fun and we enjoyed many pleasant times together. However, her surprise disclosure shortly before I left that she was married certainly went the distance to persuade me to move on. Her hubby was one of those Swabbies on the big battleship Missouri that was due back in a few weeks. That little revelation sure made parting a lot more bearable and went a long way toward this young man's orientation to the big world. I always felt sorry for that sailor as I would imagine the two of them embracing as he came off his ship.

These thoughts were very much on my mind the first days out of port. But by the third day current events had erased these and any other thoughts I might have had as the seas picked up and we began to turn green. I vowed after that crossing never to step foot on another ship but of course in the ensuing years I have -many times - and never experienced another bout of seasickness. One time with Robbie on a barefoot windjammer cruise I thought I was going to revisit these early experiences, but the timely application of a Transderm Scop patch saved the day.

By the time we disembarked in Bremerhaven we were well on our way to recovery. I took great pleasure in introducing my little group of airmen to the German scene. It brings to mind the lyrics to an old song, "How ya gonna keep em down on the farm, once they have seen Paris?" In this case substitute Bremerhaven for Paris and you get my drift. We hung around until the ship was unloaded and took the slow freight to Bitburg. By this time my guys were speaking pretty good German. Their vocabulary included words like bier, bratwurst, kase and schatzie. That's a pretty good start.

© 2005 David Agniel


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bravo Bravo my friend!

10:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How very interesting to someone who has Never been overseas. You should be a writer Dave.

12:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a large panoramic photo of the Old Dominion Mariner at sea. Call and leave message or email if interested. 803-409-9415 or

11:33 AM  
Blogger Anthony Tormey said...

LOL, quite the story and experience. Thanks for sharing.

4:48 PM  

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