Risk, Jim ’42
When it was time for me to start 9th grade dad enrolled me at Bolles Military Academy in Jacksonville Florida, a respected school with high academic standards. I wanted to go to the Naval Academy at Annapolis and I needed a good school to prepare me. I joined Company “B” which was the naval unit. I was placed in charge of it due to my extensive sailing background and I stayed in charge of it for the whole four years I was there. I would graduate in 1940 as the Captain of the Naval Unit.
Meanwhile when I turned 16 in 1937 I managed to get my seaman’s papers with the help of my dad and that summer I went to sea on the tanker S. S. MUSKOGEE. We sailed from Marcus Hook Pennsylvania to Corpus Christi Texas and back every 8 days.
The S. S. MUSKOGEE would be sunk on March 22, 1942 by torpedoes form the German U-boat U-123(Reinhard Hardegen). There were no survivors. Seven men did get away on a raft and Hardegen provided them with cigarettes, water and provisions. He also gave them navigational assistance, informing them of their position and the direction and distance to the coast but they were never seen again.
The next summer I signed on the sailing ship the SEVEN SEAS as the mess boy. Her Master was Captain Norman Baldwin and he had offered me a position on his ship when he found me sitting on a dock looking at the ships in the harbor one day. She had a crew of 13 and was a fine ship. We sailed from New York to Halifax Nova Scotia via Bermuda and back on that voyage. I signed on June 15, 1938 and was paid off when we returned August 29, 1938. Captain Baldwin wrote me a nice letter of recommendation which I still have.
I didn’t stay a mess boy for long. I was quickly made an ordinary seaman and given responsibility for the mizzen mast. Before the trip was over I would be promoted to able seaman.
After graduating from Bolles Military Academy I applied for and received a congressional appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. After passing the physical I sat for the written exams at the courthouse there in Jacksonville and I passed them too. Then after some anxious waiting I finally received a letter from the Academy saying that I had been accepted and was to report for induction on September 23, 1940. Needless to say I was elated.
After a long train ride I arrived at Annapolis on the 23rd though without any sleep. When I got there it turned out that I was one of 320 that had been accepted. Then we got some bad news, they could only take 120 of us. We had to take another physical exam and unfortunately I failed the eye test. I had passed it the first time back home but after the long train ride with no sleep my left eye which was a bit week just wasn’t up to it. They gave me $23.95 for the train ride and sent me home. Of course I was devastated.
I attended the University of Florida for a while but that wasn’t for me. I came across a brochure at the post office about the U.S. Maritime Commission program to become an officer in the U.S. Merchant Marine and it looked good to me.
The program required that I serve three years at sea as a cadet interspersed with classes followed by a year ashore to learn about the shipping business. After satisfactory completion of the program I could take the exam for my Third Mate’s license and if I passed that exam I would be an officer in the U.S. Merchant Marine. Of course the war would change things a bit but that comes later.
I again, with dad’s help, applied for and received the necessary congressional appointment. I sat for the exams this time at the post office and I passed them. After more anxious waiting, a letter of acceptance finally arrived. I later found out that I was one of 1,800 that passed the exams out of 25,000 that took them.
I entered the Cadet Corps of the United States Maritime Commission, Algiers Navy Base, New Orleans, Louisiana in January 1941.
As a Cadet, my first ship was a “Hog Islander” the S.S. DEL BRASIL, Mississippi Shipping Company. I sailed on her from May 29, 1941 to September 5, 1941.
Next I sailed on the S.S. DEL NORTE from September 16 to November 12, 1941, and then the S.S. DEL RIO from January 14 to July 7, 1942.All of these voyages were between New Orleans and the East Coast of South America.
The war caught up to us on the DEL RIO. The first trip was with gun platforms, but all were empty except for four 30-caliber machine guns amidships. I was the gunnery officer due to my military school experience.
The captain and crew rigged together a cargo boom and draped it over the stern on the platform in the back, painted it black, and then put a tarpaulin over it to simulate a 4-inch broadside gun. And away we went.
The captain had a ring-tailed monkey that weighed about 125 pounds, a very vicious beast, as his pet. Nobody could get near that darn monkey except for the captain. He used to take it up in the mornings and chain it to the platform support for the .30-caliber machine guns. There were no Armed Guards aboard then so those four guns were my responsibility as was trying to teach the rest of the crew how to shoot them.
One morning at General Quarters, we all rushed up to our assigned stations. Some of the crew went to the lifeboats and we went to our guns but there was the monkey and he wouldn’t let us aboard the gun platforms. There we were, struggling, trying to get to the guns and couldn’t do it.
The Captain was a bit of a nut. In addition to having that monkey he had orchids festooned all around the blackout equipment and armor hardware on the bridge.
We continued on this first trip without any guns. We went down to South America and made our trip back, went into Trinidad and refueled, and then on into New Orleans.
There we finally got guns. They installed a 4-inch broadside on the stern and a 3-inch 50 on the bow and replaced the .30-caliber machine guns with .50-caliber machine guns. At the same time, we were assigned an Armed Guard gun crew.
It was on that trip that we had a merchant seaman with severe DTs locked in the lazaret (storeroom) under guard and in chains, to keep him from harming himself or anybody else. Because of his condition, the Captain decided to put him ashore in the north of Pernambuco,Brazil. Now the port city was a twin city. The lower part on the bay level was at the base of a four-hundred-foot cliff and contained all the banks, commerce, and docks and was all German (German was spoken on the streets), while the upper city which was much poorer, was all native. When we arrived there was chaos because Brazil had just declared war on Germany (Saturday August 22, 1942). The natives were in full riot, pouring over the cliffs into the lower city, destroying all in their path. There were high-quality cigars, which were selling for twenty-five cents apiece and German money ankle deep in the streets!
The captain asked the Armed Guard commander to form a detail to take the kid with the DTs to the local hospital. Normally that would be the American ambassador’s job, but the ambassador was very busy as a result of war just being declared. The Armed Guard officer refused to do it because it was a civilian matter so the job fell to me. I in full uniform with a .45 caliber pistol (courtesy of the Armed Guard) strapped on my hip was to escort the sick sailor in handcuffs through both cities to a native hospital on the outskirts of the upper city. I brought three cartons of cigarettes with me to give to the kid when I left him.
I marched this kid through all of the mess down in the lower city, got to the elevators, which was the way you got to the upper city, and finally got on the elevator and up to the top. Then I escorted him across the city to the so-called hospital on its outskirts. When I walked into the hospital I found it was not a hospital. It was an insane asylum. The inmates had no clothes on whatsoever and they were milling around in a big high-fenced yard with armed guards around it. The barrack rooms were just like a jail. There were bars on the doors and windows. Of course, I’m just a kid, I had my orders, and so I left him there. But that was a real tough situation. I know I brought him some care with my cigarettes, but that’s all I could do.
Back to sea we went. The second day out, we’re heading toward Trinidad to refuel, per our standard instructions, and we spotted a lifeboat in the water. It contained about fifteen English survivors from a tanker that had been sunk almost a month before in the South Atlantic. They were in bad shape.
The Chief Engineer, I remember particularly, was an older man, and somehow he got to be my responsibility. I had to go over the side and put a breeches buoy on him and gently push him aboard the ship. He was actually stark staring naked. He had been sleeping in his bunk when the ship went up. Nobody else had any clothes on to speak of either. He was coated with fuel oil. That’s the only thing that kept them all from getting fried by the hot sun down there. They were dehydrated, of course and in very, very poor condition. As near as we could figure out, they had been out in the open for twenty-three days. We got them cleaned up. None of them died. We got them back to Trinidad, and turned them over to the English and away they went.
In Trinidad, we were told to go to New York. This was an interesting little diversion because the ship had been traveling only between New Orleans and South America for thirty years. None of the officers aboard the ship had ever been much further north than New Orleans in their lives but were long aboard ship. They had no charts. Nobody in Trinidad could give us any charts. But we did have a tide table, and we did have a weather chart, which was about eighteen by twenty-six inches. It had the outlines of the country, prevailing weather, and was brought up to date periodically by radio messages. I was just a cadet but I was born and raised in Florida, and I’ve sailed on sailboats, worked aboard a full-rigged ship one summer and had worked aboard a tanker one summer, all on the east coast, so I did know the east coast and had been up there before. Our instructions were to get into Hatteras at either dawn or sunset. So we went. We elected to go outside of Bermuda and come back into Hatteras in a straight line.
A couple of hundred miles outside of Bermuda at dawn one morning we saw the outline of a ship on the horizon. We had the Navy (ship) silhouette books. We looked it up, and it was thought to be a German surface raider. It was not a German surface raider as it turned out; it was a supply ship for submarines. But there it was. We were on the inboard side, and this ship was on the east side of us, and behind us was a very big storm with lots of rain and very dark clouds. Our ship was quickly enveloped in darkness. We could see him, but I don’t think they ever saw us. The captain panicked, and broke radio silence, which he was not supposed to do, and got hold of the Navy and told them that we had spotted this surface raider, as he was calling it, and we were running west as fast as we could go, 8.5 knots, heading for Hatteras.
The Navy somehow got that all confused, and they thought that we had been sunk. So we arrived the following morning at Hatteras, at sunrise per our instructions and the Navy didn’t believe we were who we said we were. They were convinced that we were sunk, so they thought we might be a disguised German ship. They had three DEs (destroyer escorts) and they went around us and around us, checking the names.
They even went up to the forward part of the ship and checked the Plimsoll marks because German Plimsoll marks are very distinctive. The other thing that was fouling up the Navy was that we were the first merchant ship in thirty-four days to get by Hatteras without being sunk.
We lay overnight, after we convinced them who we were. They still were hesitant about it, but they finally sent an armed unit aboard, and we answered the proper questions about who’s in the ball game and convinced them. But the next morning we were supposed to sail under escort, and we went out and a DE right in front of us was destroyed by a German torpedo. We finally got out though arriving in New York City on July 7, 1942, where I was assigned to the Kings Point Academy.
Our first few nights were spent in the Walter P. Chrysler mansion. Next we were billeted at the just-acquired Schenck House. Those few months at Kings Point were devoted to Naval Science, for reserve requirements — abandon ship, communications, navigation etc.
The weekends were wonderful, with the hospitality of our Great Neck neighbors and great New York City escapades.
About November, 1942 I was told to go sit for my Third Mate’s license and I got it. I was now a proud officer in the United States Merchant Marine