After WWII, Niels Nielsen sails the world's oceans
- Barbara Sherman
- Regal Courier - Features
Summerfield man spends last part of war in Pacific
"Steady as You Go" is the name of an autobiography written by Summerfield resident Niels Nielson about his career on the high seas.
He compares the many turns his career took to a ship navigating a crooked channel: Once through it, the ship's pilot tells the helmsman, "Steady as you go."
In his autobiography, Niels talks about growing up, his service in World War II and his years at sea as he rose through the ranks to captain:
'Mrs. Nielsen had made up her mind. No son of hers was going to waste his life going to sea. He should get a good education that would lead to a job in business or industry and stay at home with his family…
'Her father, Capt. Peter Knudsen, sailed in Pacific Coast steam schooners for years… The sea delivered its first blow to my mother in January 1916, when her father was lost outside the Golden Gate. He was captain of the Aberdeen, a steam schooner that had been refitted to dispose of the garbage for the city of Oakland…
'Sailing despite an estimated 50-mph wind, the vessel rolled over, with all hands lost and no bodies found.'
Niels graduated from Sonoma High School in 1938: 'I remembered my father asking me if I wanted to enter the California Maritime Academy. With my mother feeling the way she did about going to sea, that took a lot of courage.'
Niels ended up at Santa Rose Junior College, where he decided he would become a sports writer. He wrote for the school newspaper as well as the local community newspaper and later transferred to San Jose State College to major in journalism.
On campus, students followed news of World War II (the football team was in Hawaii to play a game when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and was stuck there for a while) and saw American citizens of Japanese ancestry 'rounded up, forced to leave their homes and businesses, and shipped off to hurriedly built camps hundred of miles away.'
'I realized that I would soon have to make a commitment to one service or the other or be drafted… All of the services were recruiting very hard, and after some careful thought, I made up my mind to enlist in the Navy.'
Niels became a Merchant Marine cadet, starting training in September 1942 and graduating in March 1944.
Niels' first assignment was as a deck cadet on the Paul Revere, a Liberty ship, where he cleaned decks, painted and stood watch on the bridge while learning more about all aspects of sailing for six months, making two trips to Australia.
'I thoroughly enjoyed my seagoing experience as deck cadet. Whenever we experienced rough weather, I positioned myself in the most exposed location I could find, usually on the wing of the bridge or the flying bridge, faced directly into the weather.
'The harder the wind blew, the higher the sea and swells rose, and the more the ship rolled and pitched, the closer I was to sheer ecstasy. It was such a thrill to see the top of a breaking roller at eye level and feel the sting of salt spray battering my countenance. It was just like riding a roller-coaster at an amusement park, only far more fun.
'I never was seasick because this was too exciting to let anything spoil it. It's hard to understand why I enjoyed rough weather so much then and hated it with an equal passion
Niels completed his time at sea and was in a group of 10 cadets sent from San Francisco to the Merchant Marine Academy in Great Neck, N.Y., in the summer of 1943.
He was in a class of 20 cadets and volunteered to be on the staff of "Polaris," the monthly magazine produced by cadets. In February 1944, the cadets completed 24 weeks of instruction and started studying to earn various required certificates.
Niels learned on March 31 that he qualified to sail as a third mate and was ready to take the license examination, which he passed. At the Office of Naval Officer Procurement in New York, the new graduates were given a choice between active duty in the Navy or inactive status in the Merchant Marine, and Niels walked out with an appointment as an ensign in the U.S.N.R. and headed back to San Francisco.
The McCormick Steamship Co., acting as an agent, hired Niels as third mate on the Golden Gate, a C2-S-B1 vessel operated for the War Shipping Administration by International Freighting Corp.
The ship, loaded by the military, crossed the Pacific and dropped anchor at Eniwetok Atoll.
'I was ashore the day after Bob Hope and his group of entertainers had put on their show for the service men. An amusing announcement came over the loudspeaker system that served the entire area.
'While I can't quote it exactly, it went something like, 'Commander So and So of Perry Island challenges Commander So and So of Eniwetok Island to a pistol match. The winner shall receive sole possession of the one-holer dug for and used exclusively by Frances Langford and the other female members of the Bob Hope Show.''
The Golden Gate returned to San Francisco in late September, and Niels joined the Nampa Victory as third mate, making another trip to Guam.
By then Niels had served enough time as a third mate and was eligible to take an examination for second mate. He started license upgrading school in January 1945 but to attend, he had to go on active duty in the U.S. Maritime Service and receive the rank of lieutenant jg.
In March 1945, Niels completed school, was released from active duty and passed the examination for the second mate's license.
He joined the Duke Victory as a navigation officer, traveled across the Pacific again and ended up in Portland on May 29, 1945, where the ship was idle while taking on supplies and waiting for a crew to be assembled.
'I took full advantage of the situation as my father had several times mentioned the good-looking blonde who was the secretary for the Portland manager of McCormick Steamship Co.
'He made it very clear that if I ever got to Portland, I should look this gal up as I would enjoy her company, and she could show me the town.
'Since her office was conveniently located right where we were tied up, I figured I had nothing to lose, and I might even end up with a good date. Climbing those stairs and introducing myself to her was the smartest and probably luckiest thing I have ever done. I met Helen Hicks and realized that my dad's description hadn't done her justice.'
They dated for a couple of weeks until Niels once again went to sea, sailing for Prince Rupert, B.C., to pick up a load of bombs before heading to Saipan.
'The bombing of Hiroshima resulted in a two- or three-day pause in our loading while the Army was deciding whether to complete the loading or discharge the bombs and send us back to the States empty. It should not be unexpected that the military made the wrong decision and proceeded to complete the loading.'
The Duke Victory was replenished with supplies in Seattle and then left for Saipan, Tinian and Guam; the final stop was Guadalcanal to pick up more cargo before heading to Wilmington, Calif., where the crew learned that Pope and Talbot Inc. was now the operating agent.
Once at Norfolk, Va., the captain suggested that Niels had time to take the examination for a chief mate's license, which he passed. Niels immediately got a job as chief mate on the ship due to an unexpected opening.
'So there I was, ready to assume all the problems of a chief mate without the slightest idea of what I was doing.'
The ship was on a voyage charter to Grace Line, and Niels next signed on a second mate on the Lawrence Victory, but bad news struck while the ship was in the Atlantic.
'(The captain) made some remark about being sorry to have such bad news and handed me a telegram that said my father had died in Cape Town, South Africa, while his ship, the Oran M. Roberts, was there taking on fuel. I have never thought about one of my parents dying, and it hit me pretty hard. There was nothing I could do for my mother or sister, so I felt empty and helpless.'
While discharging in Wilmington, Calif., Niels phoned home and learned his mother in short order after his dad's death had sold the family chicken farm and moved to Oakland.
Niels' next job was as second mate on the P and T Trader on a trip around the United States that included a stop at New Orleans.
'It was there that I saw Sally Rand doing her famous fan dance. She had made a name for herself 14 years earlier at the Chicago Fair, and for an "old broad," she still had a good body, I guess. She was pretty handy with the fan, so you imagined more than you saw.'
The ship traveled all over Central America, South America and the Caribbean.
'Unfortunately, fluent profanity didn't translate into immediate understanding and compliance by longshoremen. There were times when frustration led to the threat of physical violence… (In Buenos Aires) I had both hands around the throat of the stevedore foreman, his body bend back over an open hatch, and threatening to throw him into the hold.
'I got my point across, and he did as I said, but as I grew older and got more sense, I found better methods to get my way.'
(Niels said that later when he was chief mate or captain, he would join the longshoremen for lunch, sometimes buying wine or bread for them and in return, they paid a little more attention when I requested something be done my way.)
'Some cargos smelled badly, and others were unpleasant, such as blood meal.
'It was shipped in sacks and had an unpleasant odor, but trouble really started if it got wet. Then it would ooze a red liquid resembling blood and give off a sickening stench. It would easily contaminate most cargoes it came into contact with…
'Loading bananas provided us with a certain amount of entertainment or concern. I'm not sure which, possibly some of each. Occasionally a snake or tarantula would find its way aboard via a bunch of bananas…'
In the summer of 1950 Niels was told that he would never sail as chief mate for Pope and Talbot unless he upgraded his license to master, which he did fairly easily and also earned his bachelor of science degree.
The next summer, Niels was relief chief mate on a West Coast voyage followed by a trip as second mate to South America. Then he became chief mate on the P and T Explorer for more than a year before switching to the P and T Seafarer that was sailing to Brazil.
More trips followed until Niels took a really bad fall right off the Oregon coast in rough seas between Portland and Newport.
'As I was leaving the bridge, right at the top of the ladder down, the vessel took an extremely heavy roll, and I plunged headfirst to the bottom. I was unconscious, but someone found me and I was taken to one of the passenger rooms and placed on top of one of the beds…
'I must have been out for several hours because a Coast Guard cutter had enough time to bring out a doctor from Newport. He must have done something because I awakened as he was bending over me, and he was so seasick that I swear his face was green. He managed to patch me up, and I remained in bed until we arrived in Newport in the morning.
'I was transported to the hospital in an ambulance, where the doctor sewed up a couple of gashes and then kept me there for observation. Apparently they were short of rooms, because my bed was in a hall just outside the maternity ward, so I couldn't wait to get out of there. The hospital should have paid me instead of the other was around.'
Niels was promoted to captain in San Francisco and took a voyage to Brazil before sailing as second mate on another trip to the Far East.
In 1956, when Niels was involved with loading the P and T Adventurer on the Columbia River, 'I made an important decision and proposed to Helen. I had known for a long tine that I wanted to marry her, but I didn't get the answer I wanted. Helen told me that she would think about it. We completed the entire trip to the East Coast before we got back to Portland, and Helen said yes.'
A trip on the P and T Seafarer to South America that departed in September 1956 included loading more than 200 head of cattle in Callao, Peru, along with two cowboys to wrangle them and 500 bales of hay.
'After a stop at Los Vilos, as the ship was departing Dec. 8, the ship rolled to port, and almost immediately fuel oil bubbled out of the tank vents from the starboard double bottom tanks. We had a hell of a mess with the fuel oil getting into some of the cattle stalls and mixing with cow manure and hay. It was evident we had struck bottom and that we were going down by the head.'
After taking in more than 30 feet or water, the captain ran the ship into the beach and through a series of intricate operations, it was stabilized.
'The next day, Dec. 9, 1945, the S.S. Pyuehue came alongside to receive the cattle we had stowed on deck and other cargo that could be transferred easily... At midnight, Dec. 10th, the Pyuehue completed loading the cattle and some coffee for Callao. She loaded 227 head of cattle, 4,383 sacks of coffee (263 tons) and 404 bales of hay.'
At the same time, the Chilean tug Colo Colo came alongside to start the operation needed to save the ship.
After multiple repairs and maneuvering, the ship received a seaworthy certificate Jan. 16, and after a stop in Callao, Peru, it headed for Los Angeles, arriving Feb. 8, 1957.
'We traveled the entire distance (3,991 miles) with an air compressor rigged to No. 2 forward starboard tank with enough pressure to keep the deep tank from flooding. Every two hours we inspected the compressor and took bilge soundings twice a day.'
After repairs in the Bay Area, the Seafarer headed north, stopping at Swan Island for further repairs and inspection.
'That made it possible for Helen and me to make plans for our wedding, which really amounted to not much more than setting a date… We came to the conclusion that the middle of May would work just fine. However, that required a little fine-tuning because the 12th of May was Mother's Day, and Helen didn't want to get married on that day.
'I certainly didn't want to get married the next day because it was the 13th. I'm not superstitious, but I didn't want to take a chance, so we settled on the 14th.
'There was one other important step as we had time to stop at a jewelry store and order the setting of the diamond I had purchased in Brazil for her engagement ring and a matching wedding ring.
'Our wedding would take place in Portland, but we also had to determine where we should live. It made sense for us to live in Portland as Helen owned part of a triplex she shared with her parents.'
Niels was finally relieved of duty on the P and T Seafarer, and Niels and Helen were married on May 14, 1957, at Mount Tabor Presbyterian Church.
'I don't know how the subject came up, but Helen had an infected wisdom tooth extracted the morning of our wedding. I always claimed that she did that so she could explain that she was still under anesthetic and didn't know what she was doing.'
For their honeymoon, the couple traveled down the Oregon coast, which Niels had only seen by ship, to Oakland.
Back at work, Niels took two inter-coastal voyages, and in November 1957 he embarked on a trip charted to the Central Gulf Steamship Company to the Middle East, with the first port at Havana, Cuba.
'About the only thing I can remember was my introduction to the fine art of rolling the dice…'
After returning to the East Coast, where Helen met Niels, he left again for another voyage to the Middle East.
After two more inter-coastal voyages, Niels arrived back in Portland in January 1959 and soon after was offered the job of Pope and Talbot's Marine Division operations manager in Baltimore. After one more inter-coastal trip, Niels left the Navigator in Los Angeles in March 1959, and the Nielsens moved to Baltimore.
'And so ended my career at sea.'
During all Niels' years at sea, he said he made 51 or 52 transits through the Panama Canal, noting, "It was miserable and hot when you sat in the locks."
Niels worked in Baltimore for four months, saying, "I was then transferred back to Portland as the Pacific Northwest operations manager. I worked hard and ran up about 35,000 miles on my car.'
Pope and Talbot sold its Steamship Division, so "I had to find another job," Niels said.
He went to work for the State Steamship Company in Portland for 15 or 16 years as cargo superintendent. "We worked a lot with military cargo, and I made a lot of trips to Puget Sound," he said.
The late 1970s was a hard time for shipping companies, according to Niels, but he stayed employed, going to work for the Portland Stevedore Company, a subsidiary of State Steamship.
"The job didn't change much but the shifts did," Niels said. "We did nighttime loading. Still, I enjoyed every job I had."
Portland Stevedore was sold to Brady-Hamilton Stevedore Company, "but the job description didn't change," Niels said. "It was really a fun career."
After one more ownership transfer to Stevedore Services of America, Niels retired in 1988; the couple moved to Summerfield in Tigard, Ore., that year and thanks to their daughter Diane now have a grandson and a granddaughter.
Niels has provided his expertise and experience to various organizations, including the Astoria Maritime Museum and the Oregon Maritime Museum, which is located aboard the steam sternwheeler Portland, moored on the Willamette River at downtown Portland's Waterfront Park.
Niels and Helen recently moved a short distance from their home of 23 years into Summerfield Estates, where, Helen noted, "Half my bridge club is here."
And while Niels spent a good part of his career on the high seas, Helen hasn't traveled on the oceans of the world.
"After he retired, he wasn't interested in cruises," she said. "He liked to drive, so we drove all over the U.S."