Publisher's note: My paternal family came from the Great Lakes — Ontario, Michigan and The Region in Indiana: Michigan City, Gary and Hobart. I found this column by my father, who passed away last week at age 93, written on Nov. 15, 1977, following the sinking of the legendary SS Edmund Fitzgerald. He had graduated from Hobart HS, class of 1943, when he took his turn as a Merchant Marine and helped fuel the arsenal of democracy before he entered the Army Air Corps in 1945. I run this as a grateful son’s tribute to him on the day of his funeral. - Brian A. Howey

By JACK E. HOWEY
Peru Daily Tribune

When the ore freighter Edmund Fitzgerald went down with all hands this week in Lake Superior’s Whitefish Bay in a raging storm, it brought back memories stored away for many years.

During World War II, many of the sailors who normally manned Great Lakes shipping went on to salt water ships where the pay — and the danger — was greater for delivering war material to Europe and the Pacific. Thus, the long, low freighters, which had the task of delivering cargoes of iron ore, coal and limestone to the steel mills that line the Great Lakes often were short of experienced crews.

This prompted a friend and me, both of us out of high school and not yet drafted, to decide to ship out on the freighters. The pay, as I recall, was something like $90 a month plus room and board for an ordinary seaman with no experience.

So the last week of March, my friend and I went to the Great Lakes Shipping Association shipping hall in south Chicago to see if we could get berths on a freighter. We decided before we went that we would ship together, or not at all.

The procedure was for freighters approaching the port in the Chicago area to radio crew needs to the shipping office dispatcher, who kept a list of the names of those waiting for berths. When your name reached the top of the list, and if your qualifications matched those sought by the ship captain, you were offered the job. Not many freighters had empty berths for two ordinary seamen, so my friend and I waited four days – sleeping on benches at the shipping hall at night, eating at a nearby White Castle hamburger shop during the day – before we finally had a chance at jobs.

The only problem was, while there were two berths open, one was for a deckhand and one was for a coal passer, whose job it was to haul coal down out of the ship’s bunkers and shovel it into the boilers. But it was that or a longer wait, so we flipped to see who would get the deck job and headed for the Republic Steel plant where we would board the Arcturus. It was almost midnight on my birthday, March 29, when we stumbled across the gangplank onto the Arcturus, an ancient freighter built in 1904, and were shown our bunks – mine below decks in the engine room section, my friend’s in the forecastle with the deck crew - and we were put to work immediately.

My recollection of coal passing was that it was not great fun, but it wasn’t the hardest work I’d ever done, either. What I didn’t like was working below decks way down in the bowels of the ship, so when a member of the deck crew left the ship a few weeks later, I asked for and got his berth.

At sea, the deck crews mostly did maintenance work washing the decks and other surfaces that were stained with ore or coal dust, chipping paint, painting, the usual exciting shipboard work. We worked a normal eight-hour day with Sunday off.

In port, the crew worked four-on, eight-off shifts and when you were not on watch you could go into town, if there was a town. At places like Port Inland, Mich., which was little more than a limestone quarry, and Detour, Mich., which was an Indian village near a coaling station, there was no place to go.

The unloading was done mechanically with huge cranes. The ships were loaded through big spouts that directed the cargo from storage elevators into the hold. Our ship had four holds and 32 hatches and the ship had to be moved periodically during loading to keep the load even in the holds.

For the most part, deck crews moved docking lines from one stanchion on shore to another so the ship could be moved, and handled a deck winch to open and close hatches. The only time there was hard physical work was when a freighter had unloaded ore, coal or stone was to go to Canada for a load of grain. Then the holds had to be washed out and the residue from the previous cargo shoveled into crane buckets so it could be removed.

The foundering of the Edmund Fitzgerald this week reminded me of one trip through Lake Superior that summer. On our way through the locks at the Soo headed toward Superior, Wis., the ship caught a sudden, heavy gust of wind from the stern and hit a pier with a glancing blow, but one with enough force to put a dent in the bow. The dent was above the waterline, because the ship was empty at the time and rode maybe 10 feet higher in the water than when it was loaded.

It didn’t seem to be a problem, though, and we picked up our cargo of ore at Superior as the weather turned drastically for the worse. We left Superior on June 1 in the midst of a howling blizzard, with heavy winds from the east and very poor visibility. A line had been rigged from the superstructure at the stern of the ship to the mast above the pilothouse. These were lifelines attached to it that crewmen tied around themselves when it was necessary to go from one end of the ship to the other. With the freighter fully loaded, the deck was only about six feet above the water level and huge waves broke as high as the lifeline as they tore across the deck.

All that was scary enough to a teenager, but something even scarier happened. I had been promoted to deck watch by that time, and one of my tasks during the watch was to sound the ballast tanks to make sure they were dry when they were supposed to be and that there was the proper amount of water in them when they were being used.

Up in the very bow of the ship was what was called the dark hold, which was one of the ballast tanks and which was supposed to be dry when the ship was loaded. I went on watch a couple hours after we left Superior and starting making my rounds sounding the tanks. The first one I sounded was the dark hold, and, to my horror, it had 36 inches of water in it!

I made it up to the bridge in record time, getting knocked down once by a wave as I reached the top of the ladder to the Texas deck. A few moments later I found myself with the captain and the chief engineer wading around in waist deep water in the dark hold helping them replace a rusty pipe to a pump.

It took more than an hour to get the job done and the water level had risen about six inches before the pump was made effective. The leak was around one of the plates that had been dented when we came through the Soo, and the experience was even more frightening because the ship’s anchor, which had no device to secure it, banged against the bow plates with every wave that crashed into the ship. And, in case you don’t know, Lake Superior’s water never gets very warm and on June 1 it was still very cold.

It took us three days to complete what was normally an 18-hour trip from Superior to the Soo and the storm raged during most of that period.

There is a theory that the Fitzgerald broke in two when its bow and stern were raised simultaneously by waves and the midsection of the ship was out of the water. It’s possible, and an ore freighter would go down like a rock if its loaded holds were opened to water.

Many persons don’t realize that storms on the Great Lakes are often more vicious than those on the ocean because the lakes are shallower than the ocean and the waves tend to come much more rapidly than those in deep water.

But believe me, a Lake Superior storm can be a frightening thing, even in a big ship.