Signing On the SS Exford

Signing On
Pleasure Cruise

The SS Exford was a 'Hog Islander' built freighter of World War I vintage.  She was re-outfitted and chartered from the American Export Lines by the Armtorg Corporation, a capitalist type corporation used by the Soviets for dealing with countries like the United States, where individual and corporate ownership required specific legal types of arrangements and organizations. The charter was for the SS Exford to make one trip carrying war materials from the USA to the USSR.

It was December, 1941, Pearl Harbor had just been attacked and the USA was now at war with the Axis, joining our European Allies in the existing conflict.

I was desperately looking for a job having been let go by the Todd Shipbuilding Company when they closed down their third shift.

Radio was my hobby and I, as a 'Ham', had built my own radio station in my home. I was on the air almost every night. My station W6WQZ was in contact with other 'Hams' around the country and the world, getting news of the war and reporting to my friends in Brooklyn and the shipyard with my latest reports. Sometimes I would make contact with hams from Germany and Italy and get their versions of what was happening. The conflict dominated the airwaves and giving and getting news of what was happening around and in the American territories and other parts of the world was in demand from my neighbors. Even though I didn't have a regular job I was kept busy reporting what was happening around the world. My little news service was a pretty popular item in Brooklyn those days – until the government shut me down and informed me that I had to stop transmitting as it was now against the law.

In December, 1941 I decided to go for my commercial grade C2 Radio License. After a week of studying the manual, I took and passed the exam. Now I possessed, what I hoped, would get me a job.  I had been out of work for almost a month. 

Being the chief provider in our household, it was embarrassing sitting around all day waiting for the shipyard to call me back to work. I was desperate to get another job. We needed the income and the situation was becoming critical. Since the shipyard had cut out the third shift, I called everyday and they kept promising me that I was on the verge of getting my old job back. It was just taking a little longer than expected.  I could do nothing but wait.  Now that I passed the commercial radio exam, I had a second source of possible employment and was anxiously waiting to receive my C-2 License so I could start looking for a job in that field.

Three days after having passed the exam, I received my C-2 certificate in the mail. That same day I was contacted by the US Coast Guard, congratulated on my successful test, and informed that I was now eligible to become an Officer on an American Merchant Vessel. My name, they said, was given to the proper authorities and I would be contacted regarding employment. A few hours later I was called by the office of the American Export Lines and offered a job as an Officer on one of their ships.

I accepted immediately and was instructed to come down to their offices in lower Manhattan and sign the necessary papers and contracts for my position on their ship.

The pay was ninety dollars a month plus room and board, aboard ship. That was almost five dollars a week more than the shipyard. Things were really taking a turn for the better. "This," I thought, "was certainly my lucky day."

I went to the offices of the American Export Lines in lower Manhattan, and there, once I showed them my C-2 License, they had me sign a number of papers and directed me to Pier 32, where the ship I was to be on was docked.  In addition, they informed me I was entitled to travel money to get to the ship; where upon they handed me a crisp new five dollar bill.

Good Fortune was really smiling on me. When I decided to study for the C-2 License, I never dreamed that getting a job would be this easy, or they were that plentiful. Here I was struggling at the shipyard, on the graveyard shift, for the past eight months and didn't realize what opportunities lay around the corner.  My interest in radio was beginning to pay off.

My instructions were to get to the ship by 7AM in the morning. They wished me good luck and welcomed me as a new employee of the American Export Lines and practically shoved me out the door, to get me going.

No one had asked me about experience, or whether I had ever worked on a ship before, or even questioned me about anything. They wrote all my information on a special form, had me sign it, and gave me five dollars travel expense and directions to get to the ship. 

I was warned not to tell anyone the name of my ship, where it was docked, how large it was, what it was carrying and where it was going, and especially when it was leaving. I was further instructed on the importance of not giving any information to anyone, especially strangers; "it was 'WAR'," they said, "and we must now be wary of enemy spies. There were a lot of them around trying to find out about American ships, where they were going, what they were carrying, also who their crews were." The recipients of this information were the enemy submarines hovering off the coast of the United States. They told me that ships were being sunk by submarines every day and to take this warning very seriously. "While you're not in the Armed Forces, you will 'very much' be in the war! So take care!"

I went home, informed the family that I had a job and was leaving in the morning. "That's it?" my mother asked.

"Yes, that's it", I replied, "I can't discuss it or give any more information, right now. I'm not in the Army or Navy or in any danger; so don't worry. As soon as I find out anything, I will call or write and fill you in on what's happening."

They helped me pack the old suitcase and I was all set for the morning.

At 5AM I was up and dressed and ready to go. I said my goodbyes and walked the seven blocks to the IRT, plunked my nickel in the turnstiles and took a train for the Manhattan piers.

I reached the pier at 7AM and walked down to the only ship that was tied up at the dock. There was no name tag on the ship, it looked like a big, old rust bucket; I hoped it was sturdy. I walked up the gangplank to the guard standing on top and told him I was a new member of the ships crew and whom did I have to see?

He asked, "Are you the new Sparks? Everyone is waiting for you".

I realized he meant the Radio Operator, and said, "Yes."

"Come with me", he said. And I followed him inside the ship to a large chartroom where a number of men were standing around apparently waiting for me to show up. "You were supposed to be here at 5 AM, what took you so long", the one in the Captain's hat asked.

"I'm sorry, I was told me to be here at 7. They just said get here early in the morning. I didn't know they meant 5AM".

"Well that's what they meant, he said. "We've been waiting here from 4 AM for you to show up". 'You are the Radio Operator, aren't you", he shouted at me. 

I was standing only two feet from him and was wondering why he was shouting and what he was so angry about? He continued, "Every time I come to this Goddamn Jewtown, I find people afraid to spend a little money on anything," then pointing a finger at me he continued, "We gave you five dollars to take a taxi early this morning. But you're like the rest of the people in this Jewtown, taking the subway for a nickel, and pocketing the rest of the money for yourself!"

As I stood there listening to him my face started turning red and I became more and more angry.  By the time the Captain finished speaking to me I was ready to take a swing at him - but didn't. I didn't want to get involved in any kind of trouble that would make the situation worse.  I looked directly at him and said, "Mister, you can take this job and shove it – I don't work for you now or anytime"! And with that, I picked up my old suitcase and walked out of the ship's chartroom, down the ladder on the starboard side, where the gangplank was; and found that they had already lifted the gangplank to the ships deck and were releasing the mooring lines in preparation to leaving the pier. There was also a small tugboat at the ships bow.

I rushed down to the welldeck which was approximately level with the pier, threw my suitcase across the two and a half feet of open space between the ship and the pier and then climbed over the railing and jumped across to the dock. I picked up my suitcase and started walking back, up the pier, toward the street.

 I couldn't remember the last time I had been so angry. Where the hell did that guy get the gall to talk to me that way; and why did he bring the Jews into it? What did he mean by Jewtown? I had never heard that expression used before.

I felt a little sick about the entire situation. Here I was congratulating myself on my good fortune about getting this job and leaving my family thinking I was all set. - – Now I had to go back and tell them I blew the whole thing, by losing my temper - - and with the ships Captain, no less! 

Maybe I had been too hasty? Why didn't I control my temper? The whole affair was enough to give me a headache. I decided to stop into the first bar and spend the rest of the money I had for a couple of drinks, even though it was only 7:30 AM.  I was normally not a drinking man. What would I do for money now? Things could not have turned worse. I dreaded going home and telling this tale. In addition to not having a job anymore, I would be broke. I had really got myself into a mess this time. 

I decided to go down to Third Avenue, where the employment agencies had their jobs posted on bulletin boards at the street level. Most of the jobs were for 'dish washers', "cleaning men" or "street laborers" at rates of 20 to 25 cents per hour for pick and shovel work. This was my last resort. I felt that my whole future had just gone down the drain. I quickened my pace and decided to get it over with and take any job I could get.

I heard someone calling my name and turned to find one of the men from the ship running down the pier towards me. I stopped and waited for him to catch-up. When he reached me he stuck out his hand and introduced himself as the 2nd Mate and said the Captain had sent him and was sorry about the way he had spoken. He wanted to apologize and would like me to reconsider and return to the ship.  Now this was good news; he couldn't have come at a better time, I jumped at the chance to forgive and forget and start all over. 

He continued, "The skipper is sorry and didn't mean anything by the way he spoke, it was just the times. He had been stuck with the ship on this pier for about a week waiting for the new Radio Officer to show up and the last thing he wanted to do was get into an argument with him and have him leave. So – If I wouldn't mind – Forgive and forget and let's get back to work.

"It's OK with me, I said, if it's OK with the Captain."  I felt like someone had removed a two hundred pound weight from my shoulders.

"The ship is still ready to leave and the Pilot is still on board, so let's get back", he said. I turned around and followed him back to the ship. They had placed a small walkway across the space between the ship and the dock and we both walked across and I was back on board; I breathed a sigh of relief.

I felt really elated and headed directly for the Radio Shack to start becoming familiar with the radio equipment.  I took me about an hour. I got everything on and working. I immediately copied a message to our ship, The SS Exford, addressed to the Captain with sailing time and some coded message, which I felt sure was our destination and future plans.

I brought the messages up to the Captain and I could see he was very pleased that I had no trouble with the equipment and getting messages.

"What ships were you on", he asked?

'This is my first one', I replied.

"Really", he said, "You didn't seem to have any trouble getting the 'leave message'," he said!

"No", I answered, "I think I know the equipment on this ship," with that I left to return to my radio room.

One of the crew told me it was lunchtime and the meal was being served. I took off for one of the more pleasant activities on board. The Officer's dining room was a large room with one small table and four large tables, all bolted to the deck, so they wouldn't move during storms at sea. The tables had white tablecloths and all the settings were silver-plate. I took one of the chairs and a waiter came up and gave me a menu and waited for me to order.  I thought to myself, "Now, this is the way to live." Meals and service were the same every day.  I could see what the attraction was for 'going to sea.'

The first time I sat down at this table the other three men at the table introduced themselves and welcomed me aboard, and we became good friends. The table I had sat down at was for the Deck Officers and the other table was for the Engine Officers. They all knew each other and kept a running line of chatter until one of them turned to me and asked what ship I had come off of?

I then told them that this was my first ship and job as a Radio Officer. They all looked at each other rather quizzically – then one of them asked me, "Well how did you get the sailing orders for the Captain"?

I told them I knew the equipment and was confident that I could handle the job. "Then you were a shore radio operator before this?" one of them asked.

"No," I told them, "I never worked a commercial radio station before, but I had been an amateur radio operator and had my own station for years. They looked at me knowing immediately that I was new and young. One of them said, "That's great, the last ship I was on, the Sparks was so green he didn't even know how to turn the equipment on. So I guess you're OK."

I didn't know whether he was kidding me or complimenting me so I just smiled at him and continued eating my food.

The word passed around the ship pretty quickly that I was a complete novice and for the men to give me all the help they could. I also noticed that this was a crew of older men. They all looked to be in the forties or fifties. They spoke of many ships and trips all over the world and had apparently been on ships for many years. I was fascinated by their conversation, with references to different parts of the world in such a 'matter of fact manner'. All I could do is listen, having nothing really relevant to contribute.

One of the men volunteered to show me around the ship before we got out to sea.  I felt better about the whole situation. My fellow officers all seemed like a very congenial bunch of guys and I knew our relationships would be friendly and really looked forward to getting to know them better.

The Pilot guided the ship through the Narrows and then left the ship on a small boat that had pulled aside. The SS Exford was now on her own and heading out to sea.

The Captain came down and informed all the men that our destination was Halifax, Nova Scotia where we would join with other ships in convoy for Cardiff, Wales. He then started to address me directly and told me that I must keep radio watch at least 8 hours a day. Normal radio watch would be from 8 AM to 12 noon and 4 PM to 8 PM with the automatic 'Radio Alarm' on whenever I left the Radio Room. I nodded my head in agreement, as I recognized the instructions as the same information I had in my 'packet of orders' I was given when I came aboard ship.

I finished my lunch (I must say it was one of the best lunches I had ever had and realized the food on this ship was going to be great, much better than I was used to at home.

The SS Exford sailed to Baltimore, where some of the crew quit and were paid off. New Hands were hired to replace them and that took an extra day waiting for the men to come down from the Union hall.

That day, notice went around the ship that there was going to be an important Union meeting in the Crew's Mess and that Sparks was invited. So I went and found them involved in an intense argument about the ship's soap.

'Heavy', one of the 'Oilers' in the 'Black Gang' had the floor and was making an impassioned plea for the crew to vote yes on his proposition.  "Be it resolved that the ship's Captain be asked to remove all the poor quality, orange, 'Lifebuoy Soap' and replace it with some "good standard American green 'Palmolive' soap."

The proposal was moved, and voted upon and passed in the affirmative. A committee was appointed to take the complaint to the Captain and get the problem resolved. When they asked for my vote, I abstained, saying that I didn't know anything about soaps.

"Do you want to be on the committee?" they asked.

"No," I answered.

This was my first experience with the Union Meetings of the NMU on the ship and I thought they were going to get into a fist fight over the qualities of Lifebuoy and Palmolive soap, I was worried. I envisioned a Mutiny over bacon and eggs in the morning.

The Committee went straight to the Captain, in the Chartroom, and presented the complaint. We all heard the load cursing and swearing by the Captain,  "What kind of 'chicken-shit' complaint is this?" he shouted

"Heavy", who was the head of the committee, said, "Captain we all feel strongly about this and would like this acted upon immediately".

"OK', said the Captain, "I'll turn this over to the ship's Chandler."

He did, and the next thing I knew, a launch came along side with twenty cases of 'Green Palmolive" soap and picked up 20 cases of 'Un-American Orange Lifebuoy' soap. We also pick up two able bodied seamen, one ordinary seaman and a Steward for the Officer's Mess.

The Captain breathed a sigh of relief and we joined a convoy for Halifax, Nova Scotia in the morning. We stayed at Halifax for six days. The Captain and I went to three meetings with the British Admiralty, discussing convoy procedures in the North Atlantic.  Mainly, we discussed what to do during emergencies if we are attacked by enemy submarines. I spent most of my evenings at the Green Lantern Café, at the waterfront, listening to seamen talk about the North Atlantic Convoys and the many ships that were lost - and continued to be lost.  Specific questions asked would be answered with: "You'll see, it's going to get worse before it gets any better, out there."  The horror stories were enough to scare the pants off Tarzan.

I was the designated secretary of the National Maritime Union meetings on the ship. The Union Steward, Jim Wolcelka, informed me that as a rule the radio operator was always invited to join in the Union meetings on board and would act as the Secretary at the meeting. There was apparently some agreement between the ACA (American Communications Association), a Radio Officers Union and the NMU (National Maritime Union) A seaman's union, for this type of arrangement. Being a Novice and the least experienced seaman aboard the Exford, I went along with this idea and became a regular member of the Union Meetings on the ship - - and there were a lot of them. I seemed like every complaint required a meeting and an action decision by the crew.

Every time I went into the Officers salon for meals the Captain would ask out loud," so Sparks, when is the next revolution going to take place? And I would answer, "Next Wednesday at 6 bells, Captain." And everyone would chuckle.

This ship consisted of older seaman who had been sailing for at least twenty years. They were all unionized in the NMU. As they told me at the first ships meeting there were no 'Finks' on board this ship. This was serious business to them and I learned not to joke about it.

I went along with the entire situation mainly because I was very young and had no experience with any of these people. I later found out that the Deck Officers and the Engine Officers also had there own Unions and everyone aboard was a member of something., From January 1942 until June, 1942 while we were sailing back and forth across the North Atlantic, I was getting my sea legs and becoming more and more familiar with the crew on this ship. They were an exceptional bunch of men and were prodigious readers. After one month a sea all the books in the ships library were read. While I wouldn't swear to it, I knew that over ninety percent of the ships crew had read at least half of the books in the ships library. As the 'Sparks' on the ship the library was my responsibility and it was my job to exchange the library when possible, for the libraries on other American ships. Trading libraries was a chore. I usually contacted other ships at the anchorage and inquired if they were interested in exchanging libraries?  If they agreed then we would place all the books in their library crates, seal them, lower them into the dory and usually row over to the other ship.  We would exchange library crates, hoping the books were ones we had not already read, and then return to our ship. During the first few months I exchanged our libraries with six other ships. The libraries were signed out in New York harbor from the Seaman's Library and usually returned or the exchange returned at the end of the trip. In those days even a ships radio was not permitted to be turned on at sea. The secondary radiation transmitted its signal far enough so that submarines with excellent reception equipment could track and find our ships through the signals being transmitted by normal radio receivers. 

Several well known writers were onboard. Sailing as an A/B (able-bodied seaman), Otis Ferguson was chosen by the Atlantic Monthly as a contestant for the magazine's choice as their 'Writer of the Year' award. [Ed. note: Otis Ferguson was one of the foremost movie reviewers of his day, writing for the New Republic. He died on the Liberty Ship Bushrod Washington when it was bombed off Salerno in 1943.]

Raoul 'Frenchy' Graumont, aka 'Heavy', who sailed as an oiler in the Black-Gang (engine room crew) had finished and published the "Encyclopedia of Knots" which at that time was accepted by most Navies as a standard for knots, rope and wire splices. [Ed. note: the fourth edition of the work is still available.] There were others on board who had made their mark in many different fields. I would often question them as to why they continued to sail on the ships. Their answers would always be the same, it gave them time to think and ponder the ways of man. Sounded pretty esoteric and sophisticated to me but I believed it to be true. Sailing was the ultimate relaxation, whether hard at work or guzzling a cold beer.

I spent most of my time in the Radio Shack listening to short wave from different parts of the world and becoming familiar with the ships equipment. At night I would join the crew for drinks and 'bad news,' at the Green Lantern.

We finally got our sailing orders and joined a Convoy for Cardiff, Wales. We spend ten days in Cardiff, where I took gunnery practice, qualifying for 20 and 40 mm anti-aircraft guns. Ten days later we were instructed to join a Convoy for Iceland.

Our ship was loaded with 5,000 tons of ammunition and some tanks for delivery to Russia. I was beginning to think that we were never going to get there with all this up and back stuff between Europe and North America. However my fears were unjustified because in Iceland we went to our last conference and in June, six months after I got on the Exford, we were instructed to prepare for our main journey, which was Convoy PQ-17, over the North Atlantic route to Murmansk, Russia.

The mood of the men on the ship was surly. They had all heard bad things about the Russian trips. Rumors floated around about ships being sunk and all hands being lost in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic. On our ship, as we got closer and closer to the departing date the rumors got worse about freezing waters and amputees in Russia and Iceland from PQ-15 and PQ-16. I was beginning to wonder if I will ever ride on the IRT in New York again.


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