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  Remembering Chief Bill Jackson
November 8, 2012

Chief Bill Jackson was a remarkable individual. He served his country in three wars and for over 50 years in the Merchant Marine before retiring and volunteering to help restore the USS Red Oak Victory, where he became a legend. Despite the challenge of discrimination, Jackson rose from mess boy to chief engineer during his career that included having two ships torpedoed out from under him in WWII.

A service for Chief Bill Jackson, who died recently at age 94, will be held on board the USS Red Oak Victory on Saturday, November 10 at 1330 hrs.


Bill Jackson was a Merchant Marine veteran who grew up in the Bay Area, was educated here, and went to sea in 1935 at the age of 16-1/2. He started as a mess boy in the Stewards Department. In time, and during World War II, he began to rise through the engine room ranks. He reached the position of Chief Engineer of the hospital ship S. S. Hope, serving on this ship from 1963 to 1974. It was the “hardest job I ever loved,” said Jackson. “I was so proud to be part of ‘Project Hope.’”

Jackson recalled in an article in the 2101 Mirror, the newsletter of the Richmond Museum of History, “My most rewarding job, though, has been over the past ten years as Chief Engineer of the S. S. Red Oak Victory, as we have worked our way through this restoration project. During this process, we have shared comradeship and skills. I am truly honored at having had you all as my shipmates.”

For a video, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KLcmvC9eTGA.

For an oral history, see http://digitalassets.lib.berkeley.edu/roho/ucb/text/jackson_william.pdf.

Following is an article on Jackson fromm the 2003 San Francisco Chronicle:

Profile / Bill Jackson / Surviving rough seas / A merchant mariner who endured racism along with enemy torpedoes is helping to restore the Red Oak Victory ship in Richmond

Dave Weinstein, Special to The Chronicle
Published 4:00 a.m., Friday, February 21, 2003

Chief Engineer Jackson, looks out over the ship from the bridge. When the Victory Ship Red Oak finally sails across the Bay someday it will be partly do to the doing of Chief Engineer William Jackson, 84. The Red Oak Victory Ship, a floating museum owned by the Richmond Museum of History. Through volunteers the ship is slowly being restored to sail once again. by Michael Macor/The Chronicle Photo: MICHAEL MACOR / SF

Chief Engineer Jackson, looks out over the ship from the bridge. When the Victory Ship Red Oak finally sails across the Bay someday it will be partly do to the doing of Chief Engineer William Jackson, 84. The Red Oak Victory Ship, a floating museum owned by the Richmond Museum of History. Through volunteers the ship is slowly being restored to sail once again. by Michael Got questions? Go to the Chief.

"Anytime they come to me with a question," Chief Engineer Bill Jackson says of his engine crew, "I'm always able to give them a good answer - and even show them!"

Jackson, who is leading the way through the three-story engine room of the Red Oak Victory, has a lot to show.

Jackson, 84, speaks in capital letters, italics and exclamation points. For real emphasis, he'll tap his listener on the arm. He's got a firm voice, expressive eyes, and the enthusiasm of a teenager. He looks 20 years younger than he is, especially when he's scrambling down ladders - despite a second bout with prostate cancer.

The Red Oak, one of 747 merchant ships built in Richmond's Kaiser Shipyards during World War II, is 435 feet long, has five decks above water and three below, enough cargo space for 1.2 miles of railroad cars, and carried a crew of 52 merchant mariners.

Powered by steam, the 6,000-horsepower ship did a lively 16 knots. But the ship hasn't moved under its own power in 35 years and, as Jackson says, "It looks like a rust bucket outside." But you won't find a man on board who doubts it will sail it again.

The Red Oak, owned by the Richmond Museum of History, is being restored by 35 volunteers, some of whom have sailed on similar ships.

The ship is part of the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Park along Richmond's southern shoreline. Lois Boyle, president of the museum associates board, hopes to have the ship running in two years.
In the meantime, Jackson's crew needs to repack hundreds of valves, clean bilge tanks and make sure the tail shaft still turns the propeller. Other crews are working on the deck, cargo holds and crew's quarters. Then there's the hull to worry about.

However, the ship is open for tours. Visitors can meet historic mariners, all of whom double as docents when they're not repairing a stack or welding a hatch.

Saving the Red Oak Victory, after all, is not about steam engines and steel.

It's about the people who built it, and who sailed and died on merchant ships during World War II. Little attention has focused on these civilian men.

Merchant mariners, the men say, have never gotten the credit given to members of the Armed Forces - even though they died in disproportionate numbers. One in 26 mariners who served during World War II died in action. (By contrast, 1 in 114 sailors died in the Navy, 1 in 34 Marines died and 1 in 421 who served in the Coast Guard were killed in action.) The enemy never made a distinction between civilian merchant mariners and military, Jackson notes: "If you got captured, they could shoot your a-."

Convoys with dozens of merchants ships and destroyer escorts sailed around the top of Scandinavia, facing almost constant submarine excursions, dive- bombing German planes, and the possibility of colliding with each other while sailing close at night in radio silence and with running lights blacked out.

And if they made it home, mariners often were rudely turned away from servicemen's social clubs - and sometimes accused of dodging the draft.

Not only did Jackson have to face the dangers and strenuous work of all merchant men, he had to do it under the strain of racial discrimination.

Jackson, who is black, joined the maritime union during San Francisco's General Strike of 1934 (his first job was walking a picket line), was torpedoed during World War II, served during the Korean War and spent a decade on the charitable hospital ship Hope in ports throughout the developing world.

He came out of retirement in 1991 to serve on a tanker during the Gulf War.

In the 1930s, like military ships, merchant ships relegated African Americans to the kitchen. Jackson had to fight for years to work in the engine room.

Jackson, who grew up in Berkeley, decided as a boy that he wanted to go to sea as an officer. He finagled a transfer to Oakland High because it had an ROTC program.

Throughout high school, Jackson periodically took to sea. Teachers provided course work to-go and gave him a break on his papers because he's never been good with spelling, or paperwork in general.

He attributes his success to his mother - a member of the local Democratic Central Committee and later a welder at the Kaiser Shipyard.

"See, my mother was a demon, boy! We had to cook. She'd say, 'You'll never go hungry if you can cook.' We had to clean house. I had to take care of the yard, be able to cook and serve at dinner."

Throughout his career, Jackson says, he learned on the job from more experienced men and at the Calhoun Engineering Academy in Baltimore.

"When other guys, they got their four months off, they'd be off balling and traveling," he says, "but I had to spend it down in Baltimore. Like I told you, SACRIFICE!"

He was 23 and still in the kitchen when the United States went to war.

The U.S. Maritime Service Veterans Web site tells a benign tale of racial tolerance during the war: "African Americans served in every capacity aboard the ships, at a time when the Army and Navy employed policies of racial restriction and segregation."

But that's not how Jackson or his shipmates remember it. The African Americans they remember were stewards. Other historical accounts have the same recollection, including William Swift's 1978 study for the Maritime Administration, "The Negro in the Offshore Maritime Industry."

Yes, a black man named Hugh Mulzac captained the S.S. Booker T. Washington - but that was after a fight, and after he had served 20 years in the kitchen despite having a master's license. Several Liberty ships sailed with all-black crews, and as the war went on, more blacks got a variety of jobs on integrated merchant ships.

The need for seamen made it easier for blacks to go to sea, Swift's study says, but they had to fight for advancement and often lost. Many ships refused black seamen and officers, despite the best efforts of the National Maritime Union and federal authorities. Throughout the war, many shipping lines refused to integrate their crews.

And, the book says, the West Coast Sailors Union of the Pacific, actively discriminated against blacks.

Although from the Bay Area, Jackson chose to ship out of New York because the East Coast union - the National Maritime Union - fought vigorously for integration. The first Liberty Ship he sailed on was the Jefferson Davis.

Jackson sailed the North Atlantic on the dangerous Murmansk Run, taking supplies to Russia's Arctic port. He volunteered for gun duty, to spell the Navy gunners or to take over if one was killed.

On one voyage, out of a convoy of 73 merchant ships and escorts that left the Unites States, 23 returned. "The ones they (the enemy) didn't get going up," Jackson says, "they got coming back."

It was July when Jackson's ship was torpedoed north of Scotland. "The submarine commander was kind of a halfway decent guy," Jackson says. "The ship was slowly going down, and he allowed us to get off. Then he sunk it."

When the men had first arrived on board, the captain told them to contribute cigarettes and liquor to the lifeboat stash.
"We spent five days in the lifeboat, and BOY that whiskey and brandy that we had, and the cigarettes - of course I didn't smoke - came in handy for the guys. We'd ROLL, and we'd SING, we'd try to sleep a little. But the factor that helped us survive was, it was day 23 hours. Those night convoys, boy," Jackson says, of ships that sailed during the winter, "they had a lot of PROBLEMS!"

Back in New York, Jackson told the Coast Guard, which provided merchants' certification, that he wanted to transfer from the kitchen to engine room.

"I told them, 'If I'm going to die in this war, I'm not going to die serving food.' "

The Coast Guard agreed to the transfer and so did the union, providing papers allowing him to serve as a wiper - the entry-level job. But when Jackson brought his papers to the ship, he was barred.

The union backed him, and the Coast Guard commissioner came to the ship and said, "Nobody is to sign on until the wiper signs on."

"The commissioner said, 'Lookit, I have a son who was on the battleship Arizona in Pearl Harbor and he DIED in the arms of a black seaman. They'd both shot down two or three planes before he died.' He said, 'If this man is good enough to FIGHT for his country and DIE for his country, he's good enough to sail this ship as a wiper.' Boy! That was it.

"From that day on I got the dirtiest, coldest, miserablist jobs in that engine room.

"Guess where he had me working? Under the floor plates, where all the muck and oil and the boiler water and the chemicals are! He had me down there scraping and mucking the tank tops and the bilges.

"And every time a destroyer would pick up the sound of a submarine, they'd fall out those depth charges and boy the ship would TREMBLE, and the floor plates would TREMBLE and I was SCARED! I don't know how I made it, but I did.
"They weren't going to break me. I was going to do it."

Jackson became an officer while sailing the Pacific. He worked in the engine room with a Scottish chief engineer who was impressed with Jackson's work as water tender.

"I'd go over and help him, hand him the tools that he needed. I'd try to let him know I was there. When I got off watch, I'd stay with him.

"He said, 'I'll tell you what I'm gonna do. Anytime I come to the engine room to work, you will come down and work with me.' So I stayed on that ship a whole year, and I worked with him and I did my duties. He's the one who got me my first maritime service commission."

By the end of the war, pressure by the federal Maritime Commission had broken down most of the barriers blacks faced.
"Blacks got to be officers and everything - on the EAST COAST, not on the WEST COAST though," Jackson says. "They got around it some kind of way."

Jackson is quick to credit the white people who helped him, from the Scottish engineers to the seamen who worked harder for him than for white officers.

"It's because they knew I had a hard time before, and they were trying to come out of the shell and be normal."

And he remembers his boss at the Bull Line, where he worked many years after the war. The line had 17 ships, and Jackson, the only black engineer, thought they'd never give him the job of first assistant engineer or chief - until the boss called him into the office.

"He said, 'Son, why haven't you got a first's license?' I said, 'Sir, I didn't think I could get a job as first.'

"He says, 'No, I don't want no EXCUSES.' He says, 'Put a FIRST'S LICENSE on that table and you got a FIRST'S JOB!' He says, 'You've been second engineer for 10 years with this company, and they oughta give you a CHIEF'S LICENSE!' He said, 'If you put a CHIEF'S LICENSE on there, I'll give you a CHIEF'S JOB!'

"Boy, I felt 10-foot-tall after that!"
Jackson started volunteering at the Red Oak in 1997 after hearing about the ship from his accountant, who noticed Jackson's merchant marine cap. Within months Jackson was chief engineer.

After World War II, the Red Oak served in the Korean War and Vietnam, and carried grain to India during the 1957 famine. The last time it sailed under its own steam was 1968, when it entered the reserve fleet in Benicia. It was towed to Richmond in 1998.

Volunteers have overhauled pumps; fixed valve manifolds; reinstalled the booms and winches that allow them to haul cargo (and generators and port-a- potties) on-board; turned one of the cargo holds into an area that can be used for conferences, dinners or a museum; and scraped and painted.

Restoration manager Rolly Hauck got Chevron and Manson Construction to donate crews and equipment to handle many of the heavy jobs, like erecting a scaffold around the stack and hauling the winches from the holds.

The state Transportation Commission gave a $1 million grant last year. Boyle, the board president, says $2 million more is needed to get the Red Oak sailing.

Volunteers credit the Maritime Administration for keeping the ship in great shape during its years in storage. Dehumidifiers prevented mildew.

Still to come: electrical work and dry-docking the ship to inspect and repair the hull.

"We think the hull's in good shape, but we want to prove it," Jackson says, "because we're going to do like the Lane Victory down in San Pedro. She takes 700 people out for cruises six times a year. And we're going to do the same thing."

Jackson works full time as a security guard on the midnight shift at a plant in Fremont. Other than his time on ship, what he has enjoyed most recently is talking to school kids in Vacaville about his experiences at sea. For him, saving the Red Oak has to do with family. Young people need to know their history, he says.

Jackson has four daughters -- two in New Jersey, two in the Netherlands -- and one son, Billy, 22, with whom he lives. He also has three ex-wives, with whom he remains friendly. They all live where he met them -- New Jersey, the Netherlands, Costa Rica.

His sister, Anita Jackson Black, a nurse, also volunteers on the Red Oak, as chief medical officer.
Jackson loves the ship.

"It represents the best of America, the best of the American people who built those ships," he says. "It's a (kind of) ship I had a lot of time on. I feel real close to it. I feel I know everything about it that needs to be known. I feel so much at home -- it feels like back in the good old days. And the crew! That's the main thing. We are all there because we want to leave something to our posterity."

Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Profile-Bill-Jackson-Surviving-rough-seas-A-2633139.php#ixzz2BgX8p24p

Witness Testimony of Mr. William Jackson, Chief Engineer, S.S. Red Oak Victory Ship, Oakland, CA, (U.S. Merchant Marine Combat Veteran)

Hearing on 04/18/2007: H.R. 23, the "Belated Thank You to the Merchant Mariners of World War II Act of 2007".
My name is William Jackson.  I am 88 years old and have been working as a Merchant Mariner since 1935. I still volunteer as Chief  Engineer on the S. S. Red Oak Victory, a 1944 Victory ship that is being restored in Richmond, California. I am here to ask you to pass HR23 “A Belated Thank You to the Merchant Mariners of World War II Act of 2007”.

I had shipped for several years as a busboy on passenger and freight ships. But during the summer of 1937, I received the new U. S. Coast Guard identification Z Card and started shipping out of the National Maritime Union hall in New York as a messman.  Although my home was on the West Coast, I shipped out of New York because the National Maritime Union had integrated their shipping hall. None of the West Coast unions had and didn’t until the Fair Practice Employment Act in the 1960s.  Before the United States officially entered World War II on December 7th, 1941, I voluntarily sailed on ships into the war zones of Africa, Egypt and the Suez Canal zone. In July, 1941, we witnessed two air raids while our ship was docked next to a drydock where the target of the attack, a British cruiser, was being repaired.  Before the official beginning of the War, there were ______U. S. ships sunk or damaged.

On December 7, 1941, I was in San Francisco when Pearl Harbor was bombed.  At first, I decided I would contact my classmate from Oakland High School.  We had been in R.O.T.C. together, where I had been the only African American person. Together, we went right down to the U. S. Army recruiting station. There were a mixture of other races from Mexico, China and Native Americans.  I noticed that they called all the other guys and assigned them and sent them home.  I asked them “How about me?”  This lady said “Sorry, but we have no place for African American soldiers.”  I felt like my heart had stopped.  To think that our teachers taught us that we were supposed to be equal citizens, to vote, to be loyal and to defend our Country in time of war.  I became very angry and told them “Don’t ever try to draft me.  I just returned from a war zone with the Merchant Marine.  I’ll go back and get a ship.”   I was never called up by the Draft Board but I saw more action at sea in the North Atlantic and Pacific than lots of men in the Army and Navy did. On December 9th, I signed on the S. S. Panaman and continued to sail.  In August of 1942, the ship I was on was sunk by enemy action.  I was hospitalized in Trinidad for 4 ½ months without pay as was Union policy.

In February, 1943, I refused to sign on as a Steward Department. crew.  I had been granted  endorsement as “Wiper”, the entry level rating in the engine room, by the U. S. Coast Guard.  The National Maritime Union supported my cause.  I was assigned to position as wiper on the S. S Exceller.  I was refused the berth twice by the 1st Assistant Engineer but was finally accepted at the insistence of the U. S. Coast Guard and the N.M.U.  Late in June, 1943, after 4 months of abuse by the 1st Engineer, I had earned the time to sit for the next rating – Fireman/Watertender.  I did and passed. I continued sailing throughout the war, and after that, earning ratings of Oiler, Junior, 3rd, and then 2nd  Engineer. 

In November, 1963, I took an assignment on the S.S Hope Hospital Ship as a 2nd
Engineer.  This ship would go to 8 different underdeveloped countries, stay for 10 – 11 months and serve as a 125-bed hospital training ship, teaching local medical personnel modern medicine practices.  It had a medical staff of 300 people plus 50 doctors who rotated every 2 months. The ship’s crew totaled 76 men with the Engine Room having 26.  Our mission was to keep the ship supplied with power as there were three Operating Rooms, I.C. U., 2 Pediatric wards, 2 women’s ward and 2 men’s wards, plus labs, a dental clinic and more.   During that time, I earned promotions to First Engineer and then Chief Engineer. It was the hardest job I ever loved. I officially retired in 1985 but returned to serve in Operation Desert Storm for 2 7-month tours.
The U. S. Merchant Marine was formed by the War Shipping Administration to supply manpower to man the vast number of merchant ships to carry all the war materials, troops, planes, food, etc. to Allies around the world on all fighting fronts.  To do this, they needed as many as 230,000 seamen to man over 5,000 new ships that were to be built. Ships would need all ratings of seamen – deck, engine room and stewards.

The Merchant Marine was the first of all services to integrate. It may have taken the union and the U. S. Coast Guard to make the steamship company give me the right to sail in the Engine room but it did integrate the ships of the Merchant Marine.  And the Merchant Marine service schools were integrated between 1942 and 1943. The Merchant Marine was the first to integrate and make my dreams come true.

Today, April 18th, 2007, I appear before you to request passage of HR23 “A Belated Thank You to the Merchant Mariners of World War II Act of 2007”.  I had a tough time of it in the U. S. Merchant Marine but did win equality on a racial level.  Now I am asking for equality with all other United States Veterans for benefits denied the Merchant Mariners by the G. I. Bill of Rights of 1944.

Mr. Chairman and the entire Veterans Affairs Committee, I thank you.