A good place to start is with those still around to tell us their stories, and so a week ago I sat down with my father, set my iPhone in front of him on the Voice Memos app, and asked him to talk about anything he liked. He was uncertain at first, even said I shouldn’t have told him I was recording so that he’d be more natural, but it didn’t take long before he forgot all about the recording device and just talked, and talked, and talked.
Mostly he talked about his time at sea, as those are the stories he remembers best and most likes to tell, and of course I had heard some of them before. In times past he would suddenly launch into a detailed rendition about some naval engagement in World War II, and I would always regret that I didn’t have a tape recorder handy. This time, with a little prompting, he went into much more detail, and the larger story of his early life began to emerge. Before we were done that evening, I had recorded over an hour of our conversation, which I am still transcribing. We covered the period of his life in some detail from the age of 17 until his late 20s, which covers the war years through obtaining his Master’s Certificate as a merchant mariner. We touched on later events in a little less detail up until the time of his emigration to the United States at the age of 48, not much older than I am now. I expect to follow up with him when he’s ready to go back into this period (1945-1969) in more detail, and also to press on to the later years, when of course I was more present in the picture and have a few memories of my own to complement.
Our discussion naturally raised more questions and left me with some leads for further investigation. He mentioned attending “Clifton College” or the “University of Clifton” in Bristol, England, in 1938, studying in their Department of Navigation. So, I contacted the Assistant Keeper of the Archives for Clifton College, which is a well-regarded public school (private school to Americans), knowing that it didn’t seem the sort of institution which would be training merchant mariners. It is really more of a university-prep high school, and indeed the Archivist confirmed that my father was not on their rolls. He suggested, however, that I try the City College of Bristol, which does have a marine studies program today. I am waiting to hear back from them.
My father served on ships belonging to the J & C Harrison company out of England, but J & C Harrison is now out of business after having run steamships around the world for nearly 100 years. He then served aboard ships for the Union Steamship Company of New Zealand; they too are now defunct.
However, I have contacted Maritime New Zealand, which in the 40s and 50s was known as the Marine Department, and from them obtained a scan of handwritten entries in their register showing the dates my father’s 1st Mate‘s and then Master‘s Certificates were issued. His received his 2nd Mate‘s Certificate in England, so they don’t have a direct record of that. Unfortunately the actual Certificates, along with his papers detailing the ships he served aboard, have been mislaid during a house move in recent years, which is something of a tragedy. I do hope that perhaps we will still find them among papers held in storage, but my confidence in this is not high.
I do have, however, a crew manifest from the Hartlepool upon her arrival in Astoria, Oregon, from Nagoya, Japan, in April 1939, in which my father’s name appears as a Cadet. I also have a document from the British National Archives detailing one or more of the medals he was awarded for service aboard merchant ships during the war. The actual medals still hang upon his wall in a frame.
Together we also applied for a copy of his service record from the New Zealand Defence Force Archives, as he was an active member and officer of the Royal New Zealand Naval Reserve. I am still waiting to hear back, but as this is happening by regular postal mail, it may take a while. It appears similar records may exist with the British Royal Naval Reserve and merchant service, but most of these do not appear to be available online; they will eventually require a personal visit to their offices. Fortunately, I may be able to call upon family in England to help with that.
Slowly, piece by piece, his life is coming together as a coherent narrative. For these early years, at least, it is a narrative of adventure, a boy running off to sea to find his future, a war shaping the boy into a man, and a man coming home only to sail over the horizon once more, commanding ships as they ply all the waters of the world. There are torpedoes and dive bombers, cold Russian ports and warmer Pacific ones, romance across the Atlantic, and love found while far from home.