Commentaries, Reminiscences and Sea Stories
Ramon Jackson

Bondeson and His Breed
Posted on 3/14/2007

The stories behind some of those old timers really should have been captured. I never knew Bondeson, but he reminds me of several of those old Norwegian salts MSTS had at the time.

When Norway was invaded quite a few were at sea on large ships and sailed those North Atlantic and other convoys. I just finished reading a book about one, At All Costs: How a Crippled Ship and Two American Merchant Marines Turned the Tide of World War II, that tells the story of a man born in the U.S. who lost his family in the epidemic of 1918, lived with relatives in Norway, married there and was at sea when the invasion came. Then his ship ended up in Operation Pedestal in August 1942 and the rest is the core of the book. Lots of Norwegians were involved in SOE and OSS-like operations using both escaped vessels and some still home ported in Norway.

Anyway, what I remember most about those men was that they really knew ships and the sea. I too remember a few that were on the bottle at least a bit more than was best for them, but even then most knew that ship and seemed able to smell sea trouble--even when the weather reports did not.

On my first trip I ran into one. I was not a breakfast person, but sometimes passed on my morning Coke and went up. I'll always remember the Captain in his robe and slippers with a big plate of his special fish breakfast, usually pickled herring and kipper like things. He never said much and what he did was with a heavy accent, but on one or two times I actually got him started about some marine phenomenon and that was an experience. We were in an area with lots of bioluminescent thingies and he overheard me (my background was biology, but the office stuck me in bathymetry and I stuck) and told about some spectacular displays he'd seen that still have me jealous.

Going to sea got a whole lot less "salty" when these really historic old figures began retiring, and I missed them in later years. I later sailed with lots of good ones, a few with real problems and at least one idiotic bastard, but once these people left it no longer seemed to have quite the touch with all that maritime history and people that had really first gone to sea in great sailing ships as boys. It seems to me that at least one of those Norwegians had actually gone round the Horn on one of those great sailing ships just after WW I.

Masters, Captains, "Captains" and Transport Commanders!
Posted on 3/14/2007

The history on this is really sort of interesting. Being a real fan of the British books on the French/Napoleonic wars at sea from my first "Hornblower" book as a kid I've dug into the thing quite a bit. It also ties in slightly to the whole charting thing.

Those sailing masters were skilled civilian mariners who filled an odd and interesting niche in the RN. The RN Captain (applied to command of the ship, regardless of rank) and officers were also expected to sail the ship and know how to handle the ship. Remember, each might be responsible for getting a lifeboat or prize to shore or port all alone--so seamanship and basic navigation was a survival necessity. Their primary function was to fight the ship as Carl mentioned. Now, in all those Hornblower and other tales of daring RN officers that commanded a ship as Captain we see them making that unexpected, nail-on landfall after transiting an ocean. Literary license for the most part. I am sure a few were great sailors and navigators, but most relied on that sailing master for such feats.

Those sailing masters had an interesting thing about charts. Each had his own set gathered and improved over the years. They had the soundings, but also notes about winds and anything else giving the man an edge. They pretty much kept that stuff secret because it was an edge in employment and reputation for that magic of "uncanny" landfalls and slipping through rocks and shoals other ships avoided. If I recall correctly the Royal Navy's hydrographic effort began with a realization that information needed to be community property and not the secrets of the sailing masters. By the late Napoleonic wars it was evolving that way and shortly thereafter the old practice of individulal ships surveying a bit changed into employing every vessel in surveys with the results going back to be incuded into charts that were published. I believe they also began obtaining those old master's records and including them. Thus was born the published chart and sailing directions--and naval survey organizations.

I'm a bit rusty on the details, but that is a rough sketch of the origins of the hydrographic offices in the English speaking world. It was different in places such as Portugal, that had Prince Henry as an early driver of a state interest in exploration and surveys.

Now, in case you are wondering how "Transport Commander" crept in, it is because that is another area that confused many. I've had many e-mails from people talking about how their relative, LTC this or Major that or COL so and so was the Captain of some P2 transport or Liberty and asking if I could guide them to find the proof. Well, there isn't any proof except that they would not have been. The confusion comes when someone hears or finds papers designating the person as "Transport Commander" of an Army vessel. I've attached a scan of FM 55-105 from the war years that explain the exact relationships.

The Transport Commander of a large P2 troop transports would likely be an overage Colonel in reasonably good health and capable of doing good administrative work. I've run across accounts of some in their seventies who begged to be given some war duty finding themselves doing their bit on these ships long after retirement. He would have a fairly large military staff to handle the administrative needs of the thousands of military aboard. When embarked, even a division commander would be "under" the Transport Commander and of course the ship's "Master."

What is interesting to me here is that is the Army's model for all this that became the MSTS/MSC structure. You can probably see some echoes of the Transport Commander in the OCUNIT C/O's position.

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