JIM BOYD: My memory of Great Lakes ships and crewmen lost

From 1952 to 1954, Jim Boyd served in the U.S. Navy aboard a submarine. During the Korean War, he was stationed in Pearl Harbor. Boyd, now 79, is a Canadian Lakes resident who will share his story over 13 weeks on this page. Today, we present the 13th and final installation in that series.

BOYD: Jim Boyd served in the U.S. Navy, stationed in Pearl Harbor from 1952 to 1954 during the Korean War. (Courtesy photo)

By Jim Boyd
Special to the Pioneer

As I come to the end of my story telling, my memory turns to a list of ships and those crew men who were lost in the Great Lakes. Even as I remember them, I am surprised by how much detail I recall about the time of their deaths. I can remember just exactly where I was and what I was doing and who I was with when I first heard about each of the following Great Lakes ship losses.

The incidents are burned into my memory. It’s as if I had witnessed the losses … almost as if I had been there as I sat listening to the incidents unfold on news casts, radio, or whatever else was available. I have previously mentioned that being part of a submarine crew brings you into a unique fraternity of military service men, who I can describe only as being a one-of-a-kind group. Being a Great Lakes Mariner is not as intense, but it can be a lot like that … especially when you hear about fellow mariners who are in trouble out on the water.

The Sinking of The Carl D. Bradley

On the evening of Nov. 15, 1958, I was home with my wife-to-be after just having finished winterizing the Great Lakes freighter that I had worked on all that season. The ship, the B. F. Alkeck, was docked for the winter. It was that time of year and ships all along the Great Lakes were being settled in for the winter. Even the mother of my bride-to-be was involved, as she traveled down to Toledo, Ohio, to pick up her husband, a captain of a freighter that had just finished its work and been winterized. Our family of Great Lakes Mariners … and my extended family of fellow Mariners were settling in … one by one. My bride-to-be and I talked of our January wedding plans.

Then, the evening TV news that had been running in the background suddenly caught my attention as it announced that the Carl D. Bradley had sunk in Lake Michigan on its last voyage of the year. We continued to watch the news in the hope that we would hear of survivors. We sat there feeling the anxiety of the family members of the crew. It was almost as if I could feel what was going on. The evening unfolded as TV news casters relayed each piece of news as it came to them. Each piece added to the picture being painted in my mind. A storm on Lake Michigan … 65 mph winds with gusting up to 90 mph … waves 25 to 30 feet high … water temperature 36 degrees. I can remember all the details 35 years later, just as if I had been there. Only two survivors from a crew of 35. The two survivors, first mate — Elmer Fleming, and Frank Mays, a deck watchman — never sailed again.

Sinking of the Cedarville of Michigan Limestone Fleet

I was on the MS Benson Ford as an engine room assistant engineer with a load of taconite (concentrated iron ore) pellets from Escanaba, on its way to the Ford Motor Company Rouge Steel plant in Dearborn. About 9 a.m. on May 7, 1965, the MS Benson Ford passed the Cedarville 12 miles east of the Mackinaw Bridge in a gathering fog that had reduced visibility from zero to 250 yards … about the length of a Great Lakes Freighter. The Cedarville had left Calute Harbor earlier that same morning loaded with limestone for the Steel Mills at Gary, Ind.

As the heavily-loaded Cedarville entered the Straits of Mackinaw from the east, the empty Norwegian Motor Ship Topdalsfjord entered that same passage from the west headed for Soo River, Lake Superior and Port Arthur Canada to load grain. Both were cloaked in heavy fog with a visibility of 50 to 150 feet. They first saw each other at a distance of 100 feet, too close to stop or change course to avoid a collision. The Cedarville swung toward shore in an effort to beach itself in preparation for the pending collision. The Norwegian ship hit the Cedarville mid-ship and punctured the hull from the deck level to the bottom of the hull. Water poured into the damaged ship and before it could beach itself, it rolled over with its heavy load of limestone and sank. Water temperature 37 degrees. Twenty-five survivors and 10 fatalities. The chief engineer drowned in the engine room with his life jacket on … along with all of the engine and boiler room crew who had stayed at their posts to the very end in an effort to get the ship to the safety of the shore.

I knew the chief engineer, Donald Lamp. We had both attended the winter school in Cleveland together before taking licensing exams. Even today, I can feel the anxiety and almost hear the crushing steel … as if I had been on one of those ships that day.

The sinking of the Daniel J. Morrell

On Nov. 29, 1966, I was an engineer on the Henry Ford anchored in the Detroit River, waiting for a storm to pass with winds of 65 mph and waves cresting at 25 feet. The Daniel Morrell was out on the open water in the storm and broke in two and sank, as did another ship, the Bradley, in a similar storm in 1958. The coincidence of two similar ships breaking in two was enough to cause an investigation and thorough inspection of a sister ship, the E. Y. Townsend. The E.Y. Townsend was inspected in the Soo Locks and found to have a crack starting in its deck. It was immediately taken out of service and towed with no crew aboard to a repair yard, where additional steel was riveted to the deck. The ship was returned to service and continued to serve without incident. The sinking of the Daniel J. Morrell caused 25 fatalities, with one survivor, Dennis Hale, a deck watchman. He never sailed the Great Lakes again.

The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald

The night that the Fitzgerald sank on Nov. 10 1975, I was an engineer on the MS Benson Ford anchored off Harbor Beach in Lake Huron. Our captain had made the judgment call that the storm that was coming across Lake Superior, with winds at 60 to 70 mph with gusts up to 95 mph, was too vicious to risk the chance of it hitting us as we crossed Thunder Bay. We were on our way north to Rogers City for a load of limestone for the Ford Steel Mills in Dearborn.

We were safely anchored, but little did I know that the next morning my wife and children would be traumatized by what had happened. My wife was making breakfast for our three children, when my older daughter came rushing into the kitchen screaming that “dad’s boat sank last night … it’s on the TV!” You can just imagine my wife’s trauma. She dropped everything and went running to the TV to watch the news flashes come in, and was soon able to tell the children that dad’s ship was in Lake Huron, while the ship that sank was in Lake Superior. Even our friends who heard the same TV broadcast thought that my ship had been the one that sank, and they were unsure of how to approach my wife with the terrible news when they would call to find her to be OK, just as if she had not yet heard the bad news.

Our family and friends were spared that night, but there were 29 other families that were not as fortunate. The Fitzgerald took all 29 crew members down with her that night. I had met Chief Engineer George Holl of the Fitzgerald at different occasions during our winter layups. He was a good man. I later learned that Captain Don Erickson and Chief Engineer Al Botrell took the Wm. Clay Ford from being safely anchored in White Fish Bay and went out in the storm to look for survivors. That’s the way it is between seamen … a one-of-a-kind group.

At the 121-year-old Mariner’s Church in downtown Detroit, Rev. Engles tolled the church bell 29 times that same night as soon as he knew of the sinking — once for each lost crew member. Even today, on the Sunday nearest Nov. 10, that same church holds a memorial service that is attended by seamen and their families. Gordon Lightfoot, composer of the song “Ode to the Edmund Fitzgerald,” attends whenever he can to sing for the congregation. When he is unable to attend, they use his recording.

The Mariner’s church memorial service is much like the one I attend in Muskegon on the Sunday before Memorial Day to remember the crews that are entombed in the hulls of the 54 lost submarines they served on.

So that’s my story of submarine duty, that it was an experience that changed my life and led me to a maritime career on the Great Lakes. I appreciate the opportunity to put my memories on paper, and to have had them published in the Pioneer. At first I felt a reluctance, an uneasiness about sharing things, memories and thoughts that, in some cases, I had never shared before. It occurs to me now that telling some of these stories may have been good for me … a release of some kind … as I found my eyes collecting moisture from somewhere now and then. As my writing time went on, the layers of memory led from one to another, and I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and look forward to passing this part of my family history on to my next generations.

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