Father's love of sea helped safeguard freedoms daughter enjoys

Wartime gifts cherished

Posted: Sunday, November 11, 2001

If there is a common thread running through my father's life, binding the separate chapters together, it is his relationship with the sea. In his blue eyes I see the tide-pushed waters of Cook Inlet. The rolling swells of the Gulf of Alaska. The inland waters of Southeast.

Perhaps that ease with the ocean was born in Dad.

Perhaps it grew during his childhood spent on the water.

Whatever the source, it was the guiding hand that led him to serve as an able-bodied seaman in the American Merchant Marine during World War II. Created by the Merchant Marine Act of 1936, this fleet of ships carries imports and exports during peacetime, but during wartime it serves as a naval auxiliary, delivering troops and war material.

Early one morning in 1944, Dad was standing with the chief mate in the bow of the SS Henry L. Abbott, a liberty ship. Tugboats were slowly and carefully guiding the 400-foot Abbott into Manila Bay. Having crossed the Pacific from San Francisco, the ship and its 26-member crew were about to deliver 10,000 tons of medical supplies.

One minute, the deck beneath Dad's feet was firm and solid. The next, it was violently rocked by an explosion as the ship struck a mine.

"It felt like it rose out of the water," he told me. All these years later, he is still awed at the force that tossed the ship, its supplies and its crew as though they were insignificant annoyances. "It shook like anything."

Damage caused by the mine disabled the Abbott and trapped the submerged bodies of two of the crew and an officer in the engine room.

In the days that followed, the captain suffered what Dad described as a nervous breakdown. After being removed from the ship, the captain was replaced by the chief mate.

The search began for a Philippine harbor with a dry dock where repairs could be made. However, the line of war-damaged ships was so long, that it was several months before the Abbott received the attention it needed.

With their floating home anchored off shore, the crew was pared down to 12 and the wait began.

During that time, groceries were brought out to the ship as needed. Not one to sit still, Dad transformed some lumber into a skiff with the help of the ship's carpenter. Powered by a homemade sail, the small boat allowed the crew to make brief visits to nearby islands, giving their sea legs a chance to become reacquainted with solid ground.

When a space finally opened to accommodate repairs to the Abbott, Dad and his shipmates helped in the process. With metal stripped away, they were finally able to enter the engine room. Using their bare hands, they scooped the liquefied remains of the three casualties into bags and honored them with a funeral.

During World War II, approximately 215,000 people served in the Merchant Marine. Of those, 8,780 or 3.9 percent, were killed. According to the War Shipping Administration, the Merchant Marine suffered the highest rate of casualties of any service in World War II. A total of 1,554 ships were sunk, with hundreds of others damaged, including 96 in the Philippines.

A press release issued by the War Shipping Administration on May 18, 1945, quoted Gen. George C. Marshall, the U.S. Army Chief of Staff, as saying, "America's Merchant Marine has carried out its war mission with great distinction and has demonstrated its ability to meet the challenge of redeploying our full power to the Pacific."

U.S. Army General Douglas MacArthur praised these seamen for their valor in "participating with us in the liberation of the Philippines. With us they have shared the heaviest enemy fire.They have contributed tremendously to our success. I hold no branch in higher esteem than the Merchant Marine."

Nearly 20 years after Dad was discharged, the years spent in the Merchant Marine helped secure him a spot on the crew of Alaska's first ferry, the M/V Malaspina. Over the course of several years and many long hours of study, he left behind the duties of an able-bodied seaman and finally claimed the title of captain. During more than 30 years of service, he was decorated twice by the U.S. Coast Guard for his participation in rescue efforts.

My daughters and I occasionally carried our backpacks and sleeping bags onto whatever ferry Dad was captaining and proudly sailed with him through the islands of Southeast Alaska.

If tallied, his days spent on water probably outnumber those he has spent on land.

His familiarity with water has fascinated me all my life. His ability to read the weather and the tides. The way he can steer a ship. While I was a child, I made several trips on Dad's commercial fishing boat. When the inlet

would swell and the boat would rock, when fog surrounded us and land disappeared, the sight of my father at the wheel calmed my queasy stomach and assured me that a safe harbor was within our reach.

To a small extent, I've inherited his love for the water. I am at home where I can see sunlight sparkling on the waves and inhale its salty perfume. Where I can hear seagulls cry and feel water-born breezes caress my skin.

It is a gift I cherish.

But even more so, I've inherited the freedoms his love of the sea helped to safeguard. The same freedoms that thousands of others swore to guard and others are guarding today.

That, too, is a gift I cherish.

Its immensity is deeper than any ocean.

It reaches, in the words of a familiar song, from sea to shining sea.

And I see it reflected in Dad's blue eyes.

McKibben Jackinsky is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.

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