Cliff Collins – WW2 Merchant Marine (Part 2)

photo-collinscliffordIt’s been over two years since I blogged about my grandfather’s merchant marine history and the stories as his sons knew it. Mostly I’ve been waiting until I was able to make it to San Francisco to be able to view some records for the ships that he was stationed on.  Today I made that trip!  Today begins the “rest of the story” as Paul Harvey used to say.

Now the stories heard and retold will have some basis of truth proven or disproven.  And some of the stories remembered are grandpa stretching the truth – he was known to be a good story teller!

Before I get to that… where is this information coming from?  The short answer – the National Archives and Records Administration – specifically records found at the National Archives at San Francisco, CA which has the original log books for the ships we know my grandfather to be stationed aboard and the training records from the Merchant Marine training center.  A couple years ago the researchers at the National Archives sent me grandpa’s training service record. Today I made the trip to view the original log books of his three known ships:

It is suspected that he was on another ship; but, without knowing the name, to find proof about this would require reading every ship’s log books. To say the least, that’d be difficult.

So, what have I found?

Training Records

Starting with his training records… It appears that he started enrolling in the Merchant Marines on March 18, 1944 which took a couple weeks to complete.  Apparently, this required his current employer to release him from their employment which they did.

Clifford Collins Released for Maritime Service
Clifford Collins Released for Maritime Service

One thing family researchers need to be aware of is that we might find information that could be embarrassing or surprising. Other than grandpa being good at telling tall tales, I didn’t find anything negative in my research.  I did, however, find some interesting facts that were unknown to me:

  • He didn’t graduate from high school; he completed two years.
  • He had a “color vision defect.”
  • Smoked about 15 cigarettes a day.

He was assigned to the U.S. Maritime Service Training School for Apprentice Seaman training in Avalon, CA about April 5, 1944. Then, on May 11, 1944 he was transferred to the US Maritime Graduate Station in San Francisco, CA as a Stewards Mate 2nd Class. (This is interesting since his background was in construction he was made a steward!) He was then transferred to his first duty on May 15, 1944 to the MV White Shoals (a sea-going tug).

Each ship was required to keep a log book.

Official Logbooks (which should not be confused with narrative-account logs) were required for all foreign voyages mandated by legislation enacted in 1872, and were occasionally filed for coastal voyages when a birth or death occurred during the voyage. These logbooks were submitted to the newly-created Office of Shipping Commissioners.

Much of the rest of the following information comes from these log books or war diaries that I’ve found on www.fold3.com.

MV White Shoals

MV White Shoals Log Book
MV White Shoals Log Book

It didn’t take long; but grandpa went to sea pretty quickly. He was stationed aboard the sea going tug MV White Shoals as a messman (cook) on the voyage from San Francisco between May 18 and August 8, 1944.

The White Shoals was part of a three-ship convoy that left the area on 18 May 1944 as noted in Northern California Western Sea Frontier war diary. The other two ships were another tug and the USS Vega (AK-17).

This was also recorded in Vega’s war diary of May 18, 1944 which indicates that the White Shoals was towing the USS Flint.  There is no indication of what the USS Flint actually is. I expect it was the name of a barge or floating drydock. [EDIT: After further research, I found the USS Alkes’ war diary indicates the Flint was a concrete barge.] It makes no sense for them to be towing a ship that could make its own way. The convoy arrived in Eniwetok Atoll, Marshall Islands on June 16, 1944.

While at Eniwetok, the tug went through at least one general alarm due to enemy aircraft in the area. This occurred July 4. At some point, they travelled to Kwajalein.

Commander Service Squadron Ten’s war diary has the Shoals towing a barge YF-786 departing Kwajalein on July 10 and headed for Eniwetok Atoll with an ETA of July 13. They actually arrived July 15th.

From there the Shoals headed to Honolulu and arrived there on July 30th. Based upon the ship’s log book – they returned to San Francisco on August 8, 1944.

The White Shoals took part in a larger convoy starting August 21st pulling parts of the floating drydock.  This corresponds to our family’s understanding of what grandpa did.  However… based upon the CINCPAC’s war diary, the White Shoals was still enroute to the Manus Islands on August 31 and, according to the Manus Island Admiralty’s war diary, they didn’t arrive until October 4th.  Another fact is that a letter written to him in August 1944 from my grandmother was returned due to him not being aboard.

SS Guatemala Victory

SS Guatemala Victory Log Book
SS Guatemala Victory Log Book

At this point I seriously doubt grandpa was on the White Shoals while it was towing the dry dock. His name is on the roster of the SS Guatemala Victory starting on September 6th. On October 8, grandpa’s ship was part of a convoy designated as Task Unit 16.8.12 with three escorts (the escort commander was on the USS Sederstrom DE-31) and eleven ships being escorted. They arrived at Eniwetok Islands on October 17.

On October 19 they started out as Task Unit 16.14.2. This time they were headed to Ulithi Island. They were escorted by three destroyer escorts. The convoy commander was on grandpa’s ship.

This ship, it seems, decided to put grandpa’s skills to work.  Instead of keeping him on as a steward, they made him the ship’s carpenter! This means that he likely had something to do with the necessary repairs of his ship when the LCT-999 put a small hole into the side of the Guatemala Victory when they were coming alongside sometime in November.

Another close call in November of 1944 occurred when a Japanese midget submarine sunk the USS Mississinewa (an oiler) while in the Ulithi harbor – the SAME harbor that the Guatemala Victory was in.

There are a lot of holes in the dates that I have for this ship. There isn’t much available, that I’ve found, on the specifics of where this ship went or what it carried while in the western Pacific Ocean.

This voyage ended on December 11, 1944. Unfortunately, I have no indication what grandpa might have been doing or where he may have gone for several months.  My next piece of official paperwork trail starts May 4, 1945 on the SS. Bernardo Higgins. However, I also have a letter written from grandpa to grandma in January 1945 that indicates he was still on the Guatemala Victory.  Guess I need to contact the people at the NARA again.

SS Bernardo O’Higgins

SS Bernardo O'Higgins Log Book
SS Bernardo O’Higgins Log Book

This ship’s master was a bit more verbose (or had a lot more things happening) so he had two volumes of logs: Volume 1 and Volume 2. Unfortunately, I have a difficult time finding anything concerning the Bernardo O’Higgins in the war diaries.

This voyage started on May 4, 1945 and Cliff Collins was placed as a carpenter on this ship as well.

This next story is interesting in that it is the basis of one of grandpa’s stories which isn’t quite the truth! Three weeks after departing San Francisco (on June 15, 1945 at 1330) grandpa “got a steel splinter in his eye while drilling a hole in a steel deck with an electric drill.”  It didn’t get better by the next day but nothing could be seen in his eye.  On June 18th he was sent ashore at Tacloban, Leyte, Philippine Islands where a splinter was removed and the eye treated. He was seen again in Manila on June 24, June 30, and July 5 at the 80th General Hospital. His vision had become impaired by a scar encroaching on his pupil. A medical report, however, stated his vision was improving satisfactorily. What we all thought was that his ship hit a mine and that’s how the metal got into his eye.  That’s not how I read the log however 😊.

Another story we heard was that he was on a ship who was hit by another ship which sliced off the bow of this ship that he was on!  Here’s the story in the log [items in bracket are my comments]…

9/5/45 – 1134 While vessel was at anchor off San Francisco due to intense fog she was rammed by the S.S. Burbank Victory. The ship’s bell of the S.S. Bernardo O’Higgins was being rung continually due to the condition of the weather. The ramming vessel hit this vessel along the starboard side causing #1 life raft to be torn from rack, #1 lifeboat torn off, #2 life boat severely punctured, bulwark & hull plating completely torn from after end of #1 hatch extending forward to carpenter’s shop [this was grandpa’s shop] and from main deck to tween[?] deck level. The colliding vessel with Captain Lauraas[?] as master was traveling at an excessive speed under the prevailing conditions of the weather giving her no chance to stop to avoid an accident within the limited range of visibility. Immediately after the collision bilges were sounded and found to be dry, whereupon the master of this vessel deemed the vessel to be safe but not seaworthy.

Although scary I’m sure – not the doom and gloom from my grandfather’s story!

So what’s next?  Maybe I’ll put all of this together and send it in to get grandpa a DD-214 which means he’d be eligible to receive a military marker for his service in the merchant marines!  Heh – dealing with the Department of Defense, Coast Guard and the Veteran’s Administration – won’t that be fun!

 

 

 

 

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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.