Cliff Collins – WW2 Merchant Marine

Some times our family history is tied to oral traditions (which sometimes become legends) and this makes it interesting to find the facts through research.  For example, one of our surnames is Johnson (my mother’s mother’s mother was a Johnson). Therefore, mom used to say that we were related to President Andrew Johnson.  Well, I haven’t come across that connection yet – and don’t really expect to.

Another example of finding the facts from verbal knowledge concerns my grandpa Cliff Collins. His two sons and my dad know much of his merchant marine story – except they all remember it just a bit differently from each other.

So this is what I’ve found…

Information that looks like this is what I found while doing the research.


Merchant Marine Academy Photo of Clifford Collins
Merchant Marine Academy Photo of Clifford Collins

As recollected by his sons…

He started the war as a carpenter working at several military bases through-out the southwest, including Fort Huachuca, AZ, Tooele, UT (Dugway proving grounds), Pacific Grove, CA (Fort Ord) plus others. He worked as part of a construction crew that included Herb Flaugh, Bill Johnson, Brady Johnson, Chick Johnson, ?Marvin Johnson, ??Sallee and others. They apparently were living as gypsies out of their cars and in trailers when they could find them.
Dad, apparently got into a disagreement with an Army sergeant at one of the construction sites (Fort Ord, I think) his work exemption was lifted and he was placed into the draft pool at age 33. To keep from being an infantry grunt he went to the nearest seaport and signed on in the merchant marine as a ship’s carpenter.

Or it was a major or colonel that he got into a disagreement with depending on which son you talk to about this story. His academy paperwork shows that he was a Stewards Mate not a carpenter. 

He first went to training at U. S. Maritime Service Training Station, Avalon, Catalina Island, California. He used to tell of having to run up a hill for physical training.

Service records indicate this was April-May 1944.

His first ship was the White Shoals – a seagoing tug; he was a plank owner.

He was assigned to this ship in May 1944 as a Stewards Mate several months after commissioning so I don’t believe he was a plank owner. The basic mission of seagoing tugs was to salvage and tow other ships of the fleet that have been damaged in battle or by weather. They can serve as the flagship of a salvage unit assigned to a specific task, and are frequently called on to tow floating dry docks and other non-self-propelled craft long distances.

They took it out of New Orleans, LA. Somewhere, I think San Francisco, they picked up a Floating Dry-Dock and towed it to Kwajalein, Truk, Guam, or Ulithi Marshall Islands. They used a long hawser attached to the dry dock, and they pulled the hawser it formed a long U with the dry dock about a 300-400 yards behind them.

Information found on Fold3.com shows that the White Shoals became disabled in Sep 1943 in the Panama Canal and had to be towed to Cristobal. The timing doesn't seem like he'd have been on the boat as it went through the Canal before he finished at the academy.Later it towed the Dry-Dock to Manus, Admiralty Islands, Papua New Guinea.

He got into trouble with his crewmates the first night out… He was to make coffee; well they only put chicory coffee in the galley. That is what he fixed at 4am. They threatened to keel-haul him until they found out that was all there was, so everybody learned to drink chicory; but dad was taken off the coffee making chores. He never did make good coffee.

At some point after they got the dry dock into the Pacific, he changed ships again. The SS Bernardo O’Higgins was a riveted Liberty ship (some were riveted, some welded.) He picked it up at Port Chicago, near San Francisco loaded with ammo.

A letter written to him in Aug 1944 by his wife was stamped “NOT ABOARD. RETURN TO SENDER; so we can assume he was transferred to a different ship before then.

Twenty four hours after they left Port Chicago the ship next to which they were moored blew up taking a big chunk of Port Chicago with it

The SS E. A. Bryan was the ship and this occurred 17 Jul 1944 which makes this recollection “iffy” since the floating dry dock that White Shoals was transporting didn’t get to its destination until 12 Oct 1944. Another option is that he left the White Shoals before the drydock made it to its destination; although this means he would have been on the White Shoals for only a couple of months.

The Bernardo O’Higgins was also involved in a typhoon off the Marianas. They rode it out at sea. The winds were so bad it put a 2-stack DE 14′ up on an island.

All I could find is three destroyers were sunk (not grounded) in a typhoon off Ulithi in December 1944. Another typhoon hit about June of 1945 damaging 21 ships and another typhoon hit the Pacific in August 1945.

He told of standing the early morning watch. One night they were the only ship on the ocean. As the sun came up, he saw ships in front, behind and on either side as far as the eye could see; and later watching the shore bombardment with the night lit up with tracers going overhead and knowing that there was 1 tracer/5 rounds.  This ship(?) later struck a mine

The timing for this battle would fit the Leyte Gulf Armada which occurred October-December 1944. The Bernardo O’Higgins is not listed as a ship that was damaged at http://www.usmm.org/shipsunkdamaged.html.

Two other significant events happened while he was on this vessel. First he sat before King Neptune’s Court. He told about swallowing a raw oyster with a piece of thread tied around it, every time it hit bottom they would retrieve it, and make him swallow it again. The other torment, they tied a piece of twine around his penis, attached it to a brick(?) blind folded him and made him hold the brick overboard and drop it. At the instant the twine would have given out they ran a piece of ice across his penis (the twine had already been cut.) He told that tale with glee.

The ceremony of being judged by King Neptune, still in practice today, occurs when a ship crosses the equator. 

Second, He had a piece of steel get into his left eye which happened when his ship hit a mine. I can remember vividly his describing the doctor having Dad’s eye resting on his cheek while they took the steel out the back of it.

I think he was ashore in Tacloban until his eye was healed and lost his bunk on the ship he was then on. He spent 7 or 8 weeks waiting for another berth.

The timing of this would have put it after the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

The next was a Victory ship Guatemala Victory I don’t know anything about it other than the name.

This ship was launched in July 1944. I have two letters from Clifford Collins to wife Maggie both written while he was on the Guatemala Victory one dated November 2, 1944 and the other January 10, 1945.

At some point he spent some time in Honolulu. Spoke about how the Tower at the harbor and the Royal Hawaiian were the tallest buildings in Honolulu. He learned to surf while waiting for a ship in Honolulu and promised to teach me.

The last vessel Dad was on was an ATS. He was standing watch when a Victory ship ran over them slicing off the bow of the vessel. Several of his crewmates were in the fo’c’sle, forecastle ie. front of the ship, and were lost. This occurred in San Francisco Bay. I remember him telling me that there was a party going on the victory ship, and that their vessel was running without lights.

ATS = Army Transport Service ie. the Army’s version of navy ship. In records these are also indicated by the abbreviation USAT.

I couldn't find anything of newsworthiness in the right time frame for grandpa to have been involved. But there’s a story from 1946: Victory ship Oneida Victory collided with tanker W. L. R. Emmet off Santa Barbara on 31 Mar 1946 and was severely damaged and towed to Los Angeles. It was towed to San Francisco on 16 May 1946 and laid up unrepaired at Suisun Bay. It was then scrapped in 1949 at Terminal Island. And in the 50s there was a hospital ship that was run over in San Francisco Bay by a merchant vessel; but grandpa was already back in Aztec, New Mexico by then.


To find all the facts, I scoured Fold3.com for the ship names that grandpa was serving aboard.  I found MANY references to the ships through the logs of other US Navy ships (remember the merchant marines were not part of the US Navy and their records are lacking and harder to find). So I was able to piece together a timeline of where the various ships were and what they were doing at the time.  Some of it matches up with the remembrances of the family – some don’t.

So, what’s next?  A trip to San Francisco to look up the ship’s logs for each vessel grandpa served on.  Unfortunately, these are not available via the Internet.

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