In November 1950, eager to leave England’s shores and escape the notoriety of child star actorhood, I joined the Merchant Navy as a cadet, anonymous and unrecognizable to all, then being the day of the faceless radio actor. I talked my way past the Personnel obstruction, and then the reason I got in so easily, after my father signed the indentures, became clear. I could expect to not see my home for the next 4 years!
But the line’s ships were home-based in Los Angeles and never put in to an English port. There would be the ports of call from Los Angeles to San Francisco, Portland, Vancouver, Panama, Halifax, Boston, New York, Charleston, Galveston, New Orleans, Trinidad, Capetown, Durban, Karachi, Bombay, Colombo, Calcutta, Bangkok, Manila, Cebu, Jakarta, Surabaya, Port Swettenham, Belawan Deli, Penang, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Manila, Legaspo, Jeddah, Bahrain, Muscat, Port Said, Genoa. I was thrilled.
They placed me on the good ship “Silverwalnut”, a sleek twin screw diesel freighter of 7,900 gross tons, docked in San Pedro, and I spent the next 3 years compensating for my missing childhood. We tramped very slowly around the world, and my pay was $35 a month, which suited me just fine at that time of my life. Here she is:
Adventures abounded. Life in such a small universe as a ship, with one’s mates made up of several different races and religions and cultures, and visits lasting a few days in most of the seaports of the world, is a growing-up choice not now available to our youngsters. And for career sea-goers in the Merchant Marine, well, these days you will be in and out of ports inside 24 hours, or stuck at the end of a very long pipe-line with the knowledge that you are getting very well paid for not seeing much of your family.
Sadly, photos of my travels have now gone missing, and the ship has long since been broken up. But amazingly I found her again – in a glass case at San Pedro’s Maritime Museum! Actually, to be truthful, this is the Walnut’s sister ship, the TSMV Silverpalm. She’s identical in every detail. Sadly, the Silverpalm was lost with all hands during the war, torpedoed and sunk, as were several of the line’s ships.
That would be my old cabin, on the boat deck. 4 of us apprentices were stuffed into that little space!
Silver Line is mostly overlooked in any records of Red Duster archives that I can find. S & J Thompson’s company that ran Silver Line played a role in the design of the first Liberty ships that played so large a part in World War II, and I served on perhaps their last during my third year. This came about because I’d gotten myself repatriated back to England on compassionate leave, because my parents were talking divorce, and I wanted to talk them out of it. In the event, I later found out that they weren’t even married in the first place, my father’s first wife having refused to divorce him.
So it was that I was put on the “Silver Tarn”, an ugly and rusting example of the Liberty ship genre. I went aboard in Hull for a long voyage to San Francisco, and then on to Vancouver. In San Francisco, exhausted and invigorated at the thought of getting ashore at last, we upset the American immigration team who came aboard to ask us if we were Communists. We cheerfully replied that we certainly were, couldn’t get enough of it. And so we remained locked up on the ship until we sailed for Vancouver, marveling at the Americans’ apparent lack of a sense of humor! Here she is:
In Vancouver, unaware that my father’s first wife and his 2 daughters lived there (I tracked them down some 50 years later), we picked up a cargo of wheat bound for Peking. We would be the first to run the American blockade and had a brief chance to see for ourselves what life looked like under Communism. It seemed that there they lacked humor altogether, and we were glad to get out of there.
Then we sailed on to Japan, where I fell in love for the first time, I mean r-e-a-l-l-y in love, with a perfectly respectable and legal prostitute in Nagoya. We had two blissful days together, but it quickly came to an end, and then we dodged bullets sailing off Formosa, now Taiwan, towards Singapore. I still shudder when I think of our captain ordering me to climb up on the roof of the charthouse and lie spread-eagled with a Union Jack, and with orders to spread it out to its full size. I fought the wind while desperately pointing to it to convince the pilot of a MIG so near I could see his eyes squinting down his gun sights, that we were not the Stars and Stripes.
We arrived safely in Singapore where the electric generators were replaced, then the fresh water system broke down, then there was a mutiny aboard in Colombo harbor. We fled like rats when she finally put into Hull again, for repairs. And I fled on to Canada to dodge the draft, which was waiting. I felt I’d done my bit in uniform.
I’d love to hear from old Silver Line survivors. Any still around?