The second President Hoover was built in 1939 as the Panama for the Panama Lines service from New York, via Haiti, carrying 216 first class passengers and cargo. She was sold to American President Lines in 1957, renamed the President Hoover, and put into service on a Pacific circuit to the Far East from San Francisco. In 1962 the larger President Roosevelt replaced her. For more information on APL please visit their American President Lines website. Our thanks to APL.
The first class lounge on the President Hoover, 1932. Click image for larger version.
Of the many ships belonging to APL and its forebears — from graceful 19th-century steamers to ultramodern containerships — perhaps the most memorable are the art deco masterpieces operated by Dollar Line in the 1930s and the sleek luxury liners launched by APL after World War II.
With a history of traveling extensively on his own ships on business, it’s no wonder that Robert Dollar commissioned the construction of two of the largest ocean liners ever built in the United States. They were the Presidents Hoover and Coolidge. Old Captain Dollar was awestruck when he boarded the former on August 6, 1931. Of the Hoover he wrote, “The ship is a wonder.”
Indeed, the ships were stunning. Each carried 988 passengers and a crew of 324. The plush accommodations and art deco furnishings rivaled the best hotels of the era. And each also boasted outdoor pools, gymnasiums, and phones in every room. The luxury and elegance of these two ships were in stark contrast to the hard times of the Great Depression, which lasted until World War II.
The Presidents Cleveland and Wilson.
After World War II, a new generation of Americans was eager to travel in style. In 1947, APL launched the Presidents Cleveland and Wilson, continuing in a tradition begun when the Pacific Mail Steamship Company started carrying passengers in 1867. Designed to carry 550 passengers and a crew of 352, the ships were advertised as “your American hotel abroad.”
“Air-conditioned throughout, with swimming pools for every Class, smart shops, theaters, cafe-grill and many other innovations,” the vessels set the standard for seagoing travel. And they took passengers to remarkably unspoiled ports like Alexandria, Colombo, Antigua, Suva, and Penang. Not surprisingly, demand was so high that tourist-class cabins were soon converted in order to accommodate more first-class passengers.
Click image for larger version.
For those who couldn’t afford $2,470 for a 100-day, round-the-world voyage, there was the long-running television hit “The Gale Storm Show.” The first of the “Love Boat” genre, the show featured Gale Storm as the social director aboard the SS Ocean Queen from 1956 to 1960. The fictitious ship was, in fact, the President Cleveland.
Unfortunately, APL’s passenger traffic declined sharply after the U.S. recession of 1958. Plans to build new passenger ships were abandoned because the industry was losing ground to intercontinental jet travel. In 1973, the last voyage of the President Wilson marked the end of APL’s luxury liner service. Yet it was still possible to sail aboard APL ships if you were seeking a restful voyage on a working vessel.
Celebrated American author Alex Haley
A Slow Boat To…
For celebrated American author Alex Haley, APL ships offered solace and an environment very conducive to writing. Haley, like many of the passengers who sailed on APL vessels from 1973 to 1987, welcomed the chance to escape from a busy life. In contrast to the Cleveland and Wilson, APL’s cargo vessels provided passage to only 12 stalwart individuals.
According to a crew member from this era, “ships weren’t as connected to the rest of the world as they are today. No one used fax machines the way they do now, and many of the passengers who sailed on these ships enjoyed being beyond the reach of their day-to-day lives back home.”
The President Adams, built in 1968.
Because of this, Haley and his assistant traveled often on APL ships. Described as a night owl, the author was very much at home on freighters because he had sailed on Coast Guard vessels for many years before turning his attention to writing. Even years after the success of his best-known work, Roots, Haley continued to seek the solitude afforded by life at sea.
Although APL no longer offers passenger service, the company’s rich history of luxuriously slow voyages gives us pause. It gives us the opportunity to wonder how it must have been to see the world from a deckchair on a steamer, book in hand, pleasantly out of reach.
To enjoy freighter travel today, please visit Freighter Cruise Lines’ Web site at http://www.freighterworld.com for information about cargo passenger services.
Merchant Marine Certificate of Service. Click on image to see a larger version.
Sea travel has changed dramatically during the 20th century. Advances in technology permit the operation of large seagoing vessels with crews as low as 6 people. The flip side is that in the midst of all this, we only sometimes catch sight of a part of our heritage that is fast slipping away. Computers have replaced many ship’s personnel – men who worked long hours for little pay in their quest to explore the world and discover their place in it. This section takes a brief look at some of these men, members of the Sea List Association, an organization officially formed in 1966.
In reality, the Sea List dates to the years between 1924 and World War II, when the men who began their ocean-going careers in the Purser’s Department on a Dollar Line or American President Lines vessel spent a year or more shoreside in a training program conceived of by Stanley Dollar. At the completion of the program, each man’s name joined those already on the company’s seagoing list and one by one, they went to sea.
Most of the information in this section came from interviews with the following Sea Listers: Craig Galt, Eugene Lukes, Archer Moze, James Weinberger, James Whitman, and Robert Turner. Their stories and recollections, delivered with wit and patience, cast light on an era that is gone forever.
So You Want To Go To Sea Young Man
Stanley Dollar began his training program at Dollar Line as the acquisition of new ships, including the first seven “President” ships, led to an increase in staff from 25 to 85 between 1920 and 1924. He needed experienced employees. By the 1930s the program initiated trainees into all aspects of the industry. As Gene Lukes explains it, “in those days you learned the business from the bottom up.”
It wasn’t easy to get into the program. Lukes said, “This was the Depression, there was 25 percent unemployment and that didn’t include housewives or children or teenagers or anybody else. That included skilled family men only that were considered heads of households. So it was tough to get a job and usually you had to get a job by knowing somebody who could get you to the right people.”
Passengers dancing, President Hoover
Some trainees, like Jim Weinberger, grew up wanting to go to sea. Weinberger applied to be a deck cadet and when he was rejected, spent the better part of a year trying to convince the personnel manager to hire him. “So every Monday morning I’d take the nickel ferry from Oakland down through the estuary to San Francisco and go up to the tenth floor of the Dollar Building at the corner of California and Battery. I’d sit there till Mr. Cokely came in. And I’d say, ‘I’m here, I want to talk to you some more.'” Persistence paid off, but it was through a contact made by his mother that Weinberger was given his first job as a purser’s clerk, “to play the phonograph for the dances and pipe the music into the dining room during meal hours.” Weinberger gained the support of the chief purser, who taught him to type, and after a few voyages made it into the training program.
Working Your Way To The Top
Pursers staff in office. Click on image to see a larger version.
Trainees were paid $60 per month. According to Gene Lukes, “once we went to sea and got smart alecky enough, we called it a cheap labor system. We had to take a typing test and if you were a good typist you were assigned to the freight department where your hours were longer and the work was harder. The other fellas went into the passenger department, which was sort of the glamour section, or in the mailroom. We worked eight hours a day and on Saturday mornings till one I think.” When the workload got heavy, “I worked every night except Saturday night and Sunday night, all day Saturday and half a day Sunday, and sometimes we worked all night before ships sailed.”
After about eight months in the office, Lukes transferred to Pier 42. “The company could use the docks as part of their training program and assign up to six fellas down there to do cargo receiving and delivery or other dock clerical work. It was a much better job than uptown. For one thing, the union didn’t allow us to work overtime, so we had regular hours. We didn’t have to stay up to midnight the night before the ship sailed, got paid more money, and we had outdoor work.”
“You moved up in seniority, as they pared the top man off the dock and put him on a ship, you moved closer to being number one. So usually with six fellas on the docks you could figure that in four months you would probably be at sea.”
Five or six men worked in the purser’s department on board Dollar Line and APL ships. Trainees started as baggage clerks. Arch Moze says, “That was a misnomer actually. They were in charge of the baggage of course, but that was a minor thing. They had to type, put out the newspaper aboard ship. The radio operators would receive news over the air and they would type it up roughly. It was up to the purser’s department to edit it and put it together in a little paper so the passengers would have it first thing in the morning.” The baggage clerk was also the passenger liaison, as Craig Galt describes. “Like a hotel reservation desk, you assign them their room and make sure they’re comfortable. You help arrange entertainment for the nighttime parties and arriving in port you cleared them through immigration.”
The baggage clerk was the lowest trainee position, second only to the purser’s clerk, who Moze called “the yo-ho boy.” Along with playing the music, the purser’s clerk had to run off mimeographs of all the paperwork. “We had a gelatin roller. You had to keep them in the refrigerator; otherwise they’d melt. You had to crank it out, it would come out in purple ink and you had to change the rolls maybe every day or so depending on the usage.”
Cashew loading in India
From baggage clerk, you advanced to assistant freight clerk and freight clerk. Jim Weinberger explained the routine. “We did the freight manifest which is now done all by computer. We used to sit there and type pages and pages. Coming into the United States from the Far East there was a big manifest about two feet wide and our typewriters all had a big carriage that high. Well, imagine the ship rolling, how do you keep the carriage steady? You get a big rubber band and tie it up, put a nail on the wall so it stays in one position. We worked hard coming home. And sometimes we worked until two o’clock in the morning, typing, typing, typing.” In addition to preparing all paperwork, freight clerks supervised the loading and unloading of all freight and mail.
The highest ranking people in the department were the senior assistant and chief purser. Jim Whitman describes the duties of the chief. “He is in complete charge of the hotel portion of the steamer, freight, and those in his department including the steward’s department. This entails entering, clearing, freight, passengers, payrolls and the returning of foreign agency earnings.” Arch Moze adds, “The senior assistant and chief purser would have their tables at dinner with passengers sitting at their tables. The senior would handle payroll and run the staff because the chief purser wasn’t there all the time, he’d be off somewhere with the passengers afternoons, and he’d play cards with them at night, or bridge. He was the host.”
Dining with the Captain, President Cleveland. Click on image to see a larger version.
Close Encounters With The Specie Tank
The freight clerk was responsible for valuable cargo, kept in the specie tank, which got its name from the large amounts of gold and silver bullion stored there. According to Gene Lukes, “It was a big safe with a big steel door and a combination lock and big locking bars across it with big padlocks on it. The Chief Mate had keys to the padlocks and the Purser had the combination to the safe. What did we carry in the specie tank? Well, we carried registered mail. You never knew what was in registered mail, transferable documents, negotiable instruments, stocks, boxes of paper currency, gold and silver bars and coins, that’s the way they were moved in those days. Banks settled their differences and balances lots of times with movements of gold or silver.”
Craig Galt recounts one incident. “When I was a freight clerk going around the world, we got to Bombay and I got word that they were going to load several million dollars worth of gold in bars. The gold came down with one distinguished tall, Indian man carrying an umbrella, the coolies lugging the bars by hand, and one armed guard with a shotgun. I checked it, signed the paper, closed the doors and spun the knob to lock it. Then, this was the last port so they loaded rubber in the hatch and filled all around the tank. We sailed around the Cape for New York. The passengers are discharged, the freight is discharged, and the guys from New York come for the gold. Instead of just a few people, they come down with an armored car and about 20 machine gun carrying guards, well, because New York’s a different story. So we go down in the hatch and I start to spin the knob and the combination lock falls off. I guess the rubber cargo had shifted or something. My heart was in my throat, was the gold there? And fortunately it was, nobody had taken any of the gold. But that was your job.”
This Ain’t No Pleasure Cruise
Sailing Schedule, 1924, Click on image for larger version.
Early in this century, passenger travel aboard ship was rarely for recreation. Gene Lukes recalls. “There was first the business people – Goodyear, Firestone, the big rubber companies, big banks and insurance companies.
“Then we had government people – consuls, ambassadors and government officials traveling to foreign places – and we had the military, which were very big because we had an Asiatic fleet in the Far East in which they were changing officers and personnel constantly. So there was substantial military movement.
“And then the missionaries. I don’t believe the average American today has any idea of the amount of money and effort that American church groups put into missionary work, particularly in the Far East, since the turn of the century. The Catholics, the Presbyterians, the Methodists, and particularly the Seventh Day Adventists. They were avid missionaries and they only sent out highly qualified people. They would be doctors and a wife-nurse, and set up small hospitals. Or they would be expert carpenters or farmers or plumbers. So they offered more than just conversion. In fact, the best surgeon in Shanghai was a Seventh Day Adventist I think, and mandarins and high potentates and rajas would come thousands of miles to be operated on by this skilled surgeon. So missionaries were a big group, and then occasionally we’d have a tourist. And a tourist was somebody who was old enough and wealthy enough to go out looking to see what the other part of the world looked like.”
Passengers enjoying a race.
Games People Play
On board, the Purser’s Department planned all entertainment, including games for the enjoyment of the passengers. One of the most fun was horse racing. Jim Weinberger describes how it was played. “They have a set of horses, six of them. And you get a long strip of cloth, with a lane marked on it for each one and you line them up. Then you roll six dice. So number two comes up two times, Horse Number Two gets to move forward twice. And then number six comes up once and moves forward once. And then you bet on them. You sell tickets, you figure the odds. And halfway through, the steward or assistant purser calls out, ‘Hold’em up, hold’em up! Number Two will pay $2.40, Number Six will pay $4.00,’ and so on. And everybody will say, ‘Come on Six!’ They yell like hell. Now you can have Two to jump, so you get up to that point and you’re Number Two, you don’t jump until number two comes up twice, see? It makes it exciting.”
The Grounding of the President Hoover
By the late 1930s World War II began to disrupt trade routes and Dollar Line’s financial difficulties began to take a toll. There were delays and ships were laid up. On December 12, 1937, the President Hoover was enroute from Kobe to Manila. On board were both Gene Lukes and Arch Moze, who happened to be roommates.
The President Hoover. Click on image to see a larger version.
Lukes begins the story. “It was wintertime and a strong monsoon was blowing. The Captain was getting these messages, ‘You must be in Manila, absolutely urgent that you arrive not later than 6 a.m. such-and-such a date, make all possible speed.’ Maybe an afterthought with due regard to safety. We were zooming along southward to the eastward side of the island of Formosa, Taiwan now of course, controlled by the Japanese, who had turned out all the navigation lights. So we were sailing on what was called dead reckoning. Well, winds and seas are not always that predictable, and about midnight we came close to shore and hit a peninsula. Arch and I were in bed, and I felt this bump and said, ‘Arch, we’ve run aground.'” Moze says, “I’ll tell you what, the deck crew was out washing the deck and they were dropping things, making noise and keeping me awake, and then all of a sudden we heard, boom, boom, boom, like that. Then all of a sudden it stopped, quiet. We didn’t have radar on the ship in those days and it was very misty, you couldn’t see anything. If we’d gone a little further out, we’d have hit this big rock head on and sunk entirely, so we were lucky.”
Covered in fuel oil, December 13, 1937. Click on image to see a larger version.
After the grounding, Lukes continues, “sure enough the general alarms went off, and we were getting all the passengers out, getting everybody up on deck. It was blowing, the seas were starting to smack against the side of the ship, it was pitch black. And pretty soon we could see little bobbing lights along the shoreline, little oil lanterns so we obviously stirred up the natives. As it got lighter we could see that we had ripped out the bottom almost clear back to the engine room. There was a lot of oil, and it oiled the sea and the beach. There was no backing off, so we had to get the passengers ashore. We lowered the lifeboats with people in them.
“We had the natives with their boats helping us. We put a line ashore and then with a winch we could bring the line so it didn’t sag down into the water. With crew members holding each end of the boat onto the wire with heavy gloves, you could keep the boat pointed in the right direction.” Moze says, “I was the first person ashore. Believe it or not. Mr. Holzer, the Chief Purser, told me to go ashore and handle the passengers. So I grabbed an oar and those damn lifeboat oars were so big I could barely get my hands around them. Anyway, it took about fifteen minutes to get ashore, it was so rough. Some of the women passengers were reluctant to go into the oil, so the crew would just pick them up and put them ashore. The passengers were there two nights and they were taken off by the President McKinley and taken to Manila. And myself and most of the crew spent two more nights and were taken off by the President Pierce.”
The President Hoover. Click on image for vessel information.
Lukes’ task aboard the grounded Hoover was a little unusual. “Mr. Holzer sent me to the first class smoking room where the slot machines were. There were nickel, dime and quarter slot machines, quite a revenue for us during those days, though they were locked up in the United States. I emptied the slot machines and had all the money in two canvas money bags about the size of a two or three pound salt sack. So I strapped that around my waist so they wouldn’t hamper me and then Jeff Holzer gave me his pistol. These were the days of piracy and you never knew whether you would have an uprising among your 400 steerage passengers. Anyway, when I jumped out I jumped right into a hole in the coral and I went right down. Fortunately the wave receded and I surfaced again, and they pulled me ashore. I was pretty well oiled, but I kept that money, guarding it with my life with Jeff’s pistol.”
The Wooden Gun
Wooden gun, President Madison
When the United States entered World War II, the President Madison was just out of Manila and somehow failed to get the news. Both Craig Galt and Bob Turner were aboard, and told me the story of the wooden gun. “We arrived in Surabaya [Indonesia] and the city was black and we couldn’t understand why. We had a big American flag as we passed all kinds of Japanese fishing boats.
We were all lit up and a fella comes out and says, ‘Turn off those lights. They’ve bombed Pearl Harbor and Manila, and you’re at war with Japan.’ So we all went ashore, we had a few passengers left on board, and we filled gunny sacks with sand. We stacked those around the bridge and the radio shack. And painted the ship grey, everybody, the crew and the passengers, and the carpenter built this wooden gun.”
Turner says, “The ship’s carpenter made it. I don’t know where he got the picture or whether he just had an idea of what a gun would look like, but it’s true. This is all wood. But the barrel, I don’t remember what that was. It looks like some metal piping.” Galt adds, “It looked just like a three-incher. It was lacquered so it looked like shiny metal and the purpose of that is, we could only make 13 knots in the ship we had and a submarine on the surface could probably make 20. But underneath they could only go maybe 8. So if we had a gun they were not going to surface because they’d be afraid of getting shot. And the wooden gun worked, it took us safely around.”
President Coolidge Pursers Staff, circa 1939. Click on image to see more of the staff.
The Sea List Association
In 1937 Dollar Line agreed to sign over the pursers, surgeons and other staff to the Steward’s Union without the Purser’s knowledge and against the American Pursers Association’s wishes. After intensive lobbying in Washington, in 1939 the Merchant Marine Staff Officers Act was passed by Congress and signed by President Roosevelt. This act created a separate department on board ship responsible only to the Master and officially bestowed Officer status to the staff. Today most of the original Sea Listers credit this act as the impetus for the creation of the Sea List Association in 1966. Moze explains. “If another union had prevailed in absorbing the staff, the camaraderie among the members would have been lost. The charter initially included only those who were in the trainee program prior to the start of World War II, but it became apparent as the years passed that membership would decline unless the organization was broadened. It now includes shipmates, interested shoreside personnel of present and past connection with Dollar and APL and those who sailed after World War II on APL ships.”
The passing of the years has not dimmed the enthusiasm in their voices or the sparkle that appears in their eyes as they remember a favorite exploit. Weinberger sums it up, “I look back at it and think, oh, if that never happened, getting that job because I kept hounding and hounding, I would have never got to be a deck cadet. But I’m so glad I didn’t now. Because once it happened and I got on the purser’s staff I said, ‘This is it, I’m going to stay here the rest of my life.'”
Sea List Association, circa 1960s. Click on image to see more of the staff.
APL would like to thank the following individuals and institutions for their time and expertise, as well as for images provided for this section: Jerry Carbiener, Craig Galt, Gene Lukes, Scott Mann, Arch Moze, Jim Weinberger, Jim Whitman, The San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, and The Sea List Association