Merchant Marine recounts career

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From left, Janet and Ross Pollock, a retired Merchant Marine, are enjoying life along the shores of the Mississippi River in Guttenberg. (Press photo by Caroline Rosacker)

By Caroline Rosacker

Ross and Janet Pollock relocated to Guttenberg  from Mineral Point, Wis., in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Ross, a retired career merchant mariner, and his wife, Janet, a retired registered nurse, have found peace and comfort along the shores of the Mississippi River in their home on River Park Drive.

"We are both getting older with increasing health issues. My daughter, who lives in Monona, encouraged us to move closer – but not too close so she could help out when needed," commented Janet.

Joining the Merchant Marine

Ross joined the Sea-Scouts while in high school which stoked his interest in going to sea for a living. He furthered his education and training at the Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, Maine, graduating in 1962. "I joined the Master Mates & Pilots labor union, and initially shipped out of Savannah Ga.," Ross explained. "I moved up quite rapidly – you need a license for each level. I graduated with a third mate and sailed for a year and a day."

United States Lines, the company Ross worked for, had 55 freight ships and two large passenger ships that were split up in to "runs" where they stayed for many years at a time. "I was on the South Atlantic run, which covered the southeastern ports from Norfolk down to Jacksonville Fla.," commented Ross. "We alternated trips to Liverpool England, London, England and Antwerp Belgium, and then from those same U.S. ports to Rotterdam, Bremerhaven, Bremen, Hamburg and Antwerp the next trip. Each round trip took about 55 days – weather permitting. The North Atlantic Ocean is a place of almost continuous storms. Our trip could easily stretch into 60 days or more!"

Ross met his first wife during one of his trips.  "When we married she had two boys. We eventually had four more boys – the youngest died in infancy, and I later adopted her children," he said. "We made our home in Bremen for the next eight years."

The merchant mariner would sail a year-and-a-half before he sat for his chief mate exam. The Viet Nam war began, and with it a major expansion in the size of the U.S. Merchant Marine. "The ship I was on was grabbed by the government and sent to Viet Nam with a full load of high explosives," he told The Press. "When we returned I sat for my Master’s license. My former chief mate was promoted to captain on another ship and invited me to join him as chief mate." 

The government was reactivating ships out of lay-up in the national reserve fleet to help supply the war. "We joined our new ship in Jacksonville, Fla. She was the only 'Liberty Ship' sent to Viet Nam. I sailed in her twice – first when she came out of the Reserve Fleet, and then as chief mate on her last trip before she was decommissioned and scrapped," he sadly shared. "In the interim I was given a job as chief mate on a ship in the New York to England run. At the end of the Viet Nam War, the industry imploded, and I lost my job."

Ross stepped back to third mate and worked for a number of steam ship companies. He landed a permanent job as third mate of a U.S. Navy owned, civilian manned and operated tanker carrying jet fuel from the U.S. Gulf coast and Caribbean tanker ports to U.S. bases around the world. "We would run coastwise from the U.S. Gulf of Mexico ports to Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard bases along the U.S. east coast. Then we would sail to the Caribbean and load for European ports in the winter or Pacific Ocean ports in the summer. Our destinations included such places as Subic Bay in the Phillipines, Guam, Rota, Spain, even Easter Island, an Air Force weather station. When we returned we would run coastwise again before sailing to Arctic ports in Greenland and Labrador in the summer and McMurdo Station in the Antarctic in the winter," he listed. 

The trips involved navigation through areas not normally visited by ships. Nautical charts of the areas included little or no information about water depth or currents. "Some of charts showed vast white areas with no information at all, or a line of soundings (depth of the water) at intervals of several hundred miles or so!" he exclaimed. "There were notations on the line of shoal reported by HMS Bouncer in 1876, but the position might be off by a hundred miles or more. It was a unique experience. I sailed in the USNS Maumee for four years."

The system for assigning jobs changed, keeping Ross away from home for a full year. His wife was not able to deal with his long absences and the couple divorced. He moved back to the United States and settled in a small town off the coast of Maine. He would eventually meet and marry his second wife, a union that would last until her death 29 years later. 

Moore McCormack Lines  chief mate

The Marine Superintendent at Moore McCormack Lines offered Ross a job as a relief chief mate. "'MorMac' was an excellent company to work for. In addition to generally good weather runs they offered better food, quarters and allowed officer's wives to travel on overseas trips for free once a year," he reported.          

The seaman's wife experienced health problems, changing the trajectory of his career. "My wife developed some major health problems  while I was on a ship that had just sailed from Florida for Cape Town, South Africa," he recalled. "I was stuck on the ship. I could have gotten off during our stop at Ascension Island in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean, but they only had one flight a week, and if the weather wasn't perfect they flew right over, so I waited until we got to Cape Town. By the time we were in port her health had stabilized, but the experience was a wake-up call." 

Six months later Ross was asked to be a Port Captain/Safety Director. “I accepted the offer because I would be able to be home most every night. I worked in that capacity for several years, and sailed from time to time as a ship’s captain,” he remembered. 

Ross’ original company, United States Lines, purchased Moore McCormack Lines. “Most of the MorMac shore-side employees lost their jobs. I was fortunate enough to be hired as a combination Assistant Marine Superintendent and Safety Director for United State Lines. After three years with USL the company went bankrupt. I was kept on, but after six months I lost my job too,” he shared. 

To be continued next week - Vietnam experience.

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