The USAT Barbara C in a Storm
Originally published in The Desert Sun
Merchant mariner Jack Beritzhoff (author of Sail Away: Journeys of a Merchant Seaman) was assigned duty aboard an ancient lumber schooner, hauling eucalyptus logs around the South Pacific during World War II.
“As a member of the crew of a USAT (U.S. Army Transport) vessel we were merchant sailors but under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army,” he said. “My rank was ‘ordinary sailor,' the lowest ranking member of the deck crew.”
“I tried to get into the Marines, but they turned me down because I was too skinny,” he said. “The sergeant said I was just too underweight to carry a heavy knapsack.”
The Merchant Marine is a civilian auxiliary of the U.S. Navy, but not a uniformed service, except in times of war, when mariners are considered military personnel.
In 1988, President Ronald Reagan granted the mariners veteran status.
After training on Catalina Island with the U.S. Navy, the “green sailors” were sent to San Francisco to await their ship assignments.
“I was finally assigned duty on an old lumber schooner — the Barbara C — a vessel that appeared to have its best days behind it,” he said, laughing. “I think it was built in 1890. There was no hot water on it. We washed with salt water soap.”
In April 1943, the ship set sail from Fort Mason in San Francisco, bound for the South Pacific.
“We started out with a convoy of 25 ships,” he said. “When dawn broke the next morning, we were all alone. We couldn't keep up with any of the ships.”
The Barbara C sailed on to Pago Pago in American Samoa so loaded down with lumber that water washed over the deck. Ships entering the harbor had to maneuver through a small inlet into a secluded bay protected from the outside sea.
“It was completely surrounded by the most gorgeous green mountains,” Beritzhoff said. “It just took my breath away.”
On Nouméa, New Caledonia, in the Coral Sea, he witnessed another breathtaking sight.
“I climbed to the top of a hill and saw far down below probably one of the largest armada of ships ever assembled, readying for a big Pacific push,” he said. “It included ships of British, French, Australian and American origin. A small church stood at the top of the hill. I remember it was named St. Joan of Arc and I recall making a visit there to say a brief prayer for all those involved in the sight below.”
The country's efficiency in turning out great numbers of new type merchant vessels during war time, such as “Victory” and “Liberty” ships, was well-known at the time, he said. Lesser-known was the fact that old ships were being pressed back into service under the control of the Army.
“Many of them were literally rescued from marine graveyards they included tugs, barges, lakers and schooners, such as the Barbara C,” he said.
“I got the oldest ship in the whole Merchant Marine,” Beritzhoff said, laughing.
The mariners weren't provided official uniforms, instead, they wore blue shirts and blue jeans aboard ship, he said.
Beritzhoff's duties aboard the Barbara C were mostly menial.
“Painting, a lot of crappy work,” he said. “It was far from what I imagined.”
As the Barbara C arrived in Sydney, slowly making its way across the harbor, the ship passed a local ferry with many young schoolgirls lining the railings.
“They had spotted our American Flag being flown by this old and bedraggled ship and evidently could not believe their eyes,” he said. “One girl could plainly be heard shouting at us, ‘What war are you guys in?'”
Some of the lumber was delivered to a remote island not far from New Guinea to be used to build a dock after the Marines secured that part of the island. In late winter of 1943, the crew found itself in the small town of Newcastle, Australia.
“We were loading eucalyptus logs to haul to New Guinea,” which gave the men extra time to spend ashore, he said.
At the local Red Cross Club, Beritzhoff got a tip that a USAT ship in Brisbane was in need of a ship's clerk or purser.
In January 1944, growing tired of his low-level deck job, making do without hot water and other creature comforts, he made his move.
“I jumped ship,” he said.
Beritzhoff said he asked permission to change vessels, but his skipper turned him down, exclaiming, “If anyone gets off this ship, it will be me.”
As night fell, Beritzhoff left the old schooner and hopped a train for the trip to Brisbane.
“The next morning I reached the USAT Colorado and was gratefully accepted by the captain thus began a new saga of shipboard life for me from ordinary seaman to ship's officer,” he said.
Beritzhoff's new adventure was cut short after he suffered a freak accident on a journey to New Guinea in March 1944.
His lower left leg, near the ankle, was crushed as he attempted to climb down a Jacob's (rope) ladder from a ship into a tug boat. The rough sea threw up large swells that caused the tug to smash his leg between the two vessels.
He spent nine months in a U.S. Army hospital in Townsville, Australia. In December 1944, he boarded the hospital ship, SS Monterey, a converted luxury liner of the Matson Lines, and sailed for San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge.
“When at last we finally sailed beneath the great span, a raucous and gigantic roar erupted from all the returning casualties we were all finally and gratefully home.”