Close Calls: The Life of Paul Whitman Raney
By Patrick Raney
After World War II, Paul served on the merchant ships Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Marshall owned by Alcoa, transporting bauxite (aluminum ore) from Venezuela to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The trip was short and port time in Maracaibo gave Paul the opportunity to wander around and make friends. He returned home with many souvenirs, including a stuffed Cayman, canoe paddles and other colorful items. While he didn’t have a life-threatening incident, he did have an interesting one.
He purchased a spider monkey from a street vendor in Maracaibo. The monkey’s name is forgotten. What is remembered is that the animal wasn’t too bright. Paul kept it in a cage in his quarters, taking it around the ship on a leash when he wasn’t on duty in the engine room. In a moment of inattention when he brought it on deck, the monkey bolted. The ship was at sea and escape was impossible, but the rascal scampered up into overhead cables attached to the mast and crouched near the top. No amount of coaxing could get it down and soon it became a source of entertainment for off-duty crew members trying to lure it down.
One of the galley crew came on deck with a bunch of bananas and set them on a hatch cover below the monkey. After eyeing the bananas for some time, it climbed about to begin its descent. It would grasp a cable and shake it, checking its firmness before grasping it with both hands. It grabbed the leash attached to its collar with one hand and pulled. Finding it firm, it unfortunately grabbed it in both hands to swing itself down, falling and crashing onto the hatch, dying on impact. Crestfallen but sanguine, Paul dropped him into Neptune’s closet sans burial rite.
Returning to Spokane in an attempt to live away from the sea, Paul found employment selling bearings, drill bits, and other industrial materials. The job took him throughout eastern Washington, north Idaho and western Montana, wherever mining and logging used heavy equipment. Travel was trying on rough roads and hotels were flea-bitten. Sales were low because the economy had yet to enter the post-war boom.
He tried selling a new idea in store front advertising. A fellow in Oswego, Oregon, decided the future would not be with the much-vaunted neon sign, but in framing a piece of plexiglass and painting the advertiser’s name and details on its plastic front and back. An idea before its time, it had to wait until the 21st century.
Too much salt still ran in Paul’s veins and he returned to his rightful profession as a marine engineer, finding employment with the Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS). He was on the manning roster of several ships honoring erstwhile generals with names like Gaffey, Meigs, Patrick, O'Hara and Funston.
|One of Paul's ships, USNS General James O'Hara, named for a Revolutionary War hero born in Northern Ireland|
The USNS Gen. Hugh J. Gaffey transported many G.I.s home from the Korean conflict, making trips between Japan and Seattle, carrying men and often, their families of Korean- and Japanese-born dependents. Built in 1944, it originally was named the Admiral W. L. Capps, but after the war was re-christened for Gaffey who, from 1943 to 1944 was the Commanding General of the 2nd Armored Division. In April 1944, he was designated Chief of Staff for General Patton's 3d Army fighting in Europe. He died in June 1946 when the B-25 on which he was a passenger crashed in Kentucky.
|Another of Paul's ships, USNS General Hugh J. Gaffey|
|USNS General Hugh J. Gaffey with G.I.s sunning on the deck|
It was often lonely with Dad away. On my high school graduation night in 1954, he'd made it back to Seattle from the Japan run, but wasn't relieved of duty in time to debark to see me graduate.
A break in transport routine came in December 1954 when he began serving on the USNS Marine Serpent (until 14 June 1955) during an American act of mercy few know about. After the French were defeated in Indo-China by the communists in 1954, the country was partitioned, forming North and South Vietnam. A 300-day truce was established during which time people could relocate. Those in the north, especially French citizens and Catholics, were encouraged by the government in Saigon to flee south. The French government asked for U.S. assistance and the American government saw the evacuation as an opportunity to weaken the communists by providing for the refugees, thereby winning their loyalty to the anti-communist cause. Besides, the American government had a big heart in those days. The Marine Serpent’s mission was to transport Vietnamese citizens from Haiphong in the north to Saigon in the south on a three-day voyage as part of Operation Passage to Freedom, which lasted from August 1954 through May 1955. Over 310,000 civilians, 88,000 tons of cargo, and 8100 vehicles (mostly French army and navy) were transported by 109 ships and craft.
Catholicism had a strong following in North Vietnam. Catholic clergy led flocks of entire villages in fleeing the north, crowding aboard and setting up living spaces throughout the ship for the three-day voyage. The ship’s personnel provided food, usually a combination of fish and rice. At mealtimes one family member, usually the eldest able-bodied male, brought a container to receive food for his entire family. As they queued up, squabbles and arguments broke out, with pushing and shoving. To American ears among the ship’s personnel the din and seeming cacophony of foreign tongues became too much.
The first mate found a solution. Each family would be issued one ticket per meal. The person in line must place the ticket between his lips so the servers could see it. The silence at the next meal was welcomed by those ladling out the food, including Paul, who occasionally lent a hand.
|Paul Raney wearing glasses ladling out food for Vietnamese refugees onboard Marine Serpent, spring of 1955|
When Paul’s service with MSTS concluded, he was employed by the Alaska Steamship Company, which voyaged to numerous ports in Asia and Alaska. Voyages to India were long and wearisome, but Paul enjoyed its cuisine when he arrived. More harrowing were voyages to the outermost ports along the Aleutian Island chain. Winter storms were frequent and terrifying. Paul was most happy to return to his Seattle home on placid Puget Sound. By now, besides children Patrick and Sandra, he had Larry, Paula and Michele.
Here's my "it's a small world" story. Since writing this chapter, I've thought about Dad's Vietnam tour. Recently I mentioned it to a former pastor at Sacred Heart of Jesus parish here in Seatlle. His name is Bin Tah and when I told him about Dad’s exploits, he told me that his grandparents and parents moved from the north to South Vietnam during Operation Passage to Freedom. He was later born in a refugee camp in Thailand.
More to come.