War creates demand for ailing merchant marine

January 30, 1991|By Rafael Alvarez

It's the kind of sign that hasn't been seen on the Baltimore waterfront since the World War II: Seamen Wanted.

But there it is in the window of a Fells Point store, complete with phone numbers for anyone holding seamen's papers.

It's just a piece of cardboard, but to those who have watched the U.S. merchant fleet decline to the point where a one-time port of legend such as Baltimore was only providing jobs for a handful of sailors each month, the notice is extraordinary.

War, for the moment, has refloated the sinking U.S. merchant marine.

"When you don't have a situation like this, shipping is a ghost town," said one maritime official.

Before August, about eight to 10 unlicensed seamen were shipping out of Baltimore each month. In December, the Seafarers International Union shipped 85 men out of its hiring hall at 1216 E. Baltimore St.

Since the U.S. military buildup in Saudi Arabia began in August, about 70 U.S. "ready reserve" ships -- many of them antiquated, most of them laid up for years at "boneyard" docks around the country -- have been chartered by the Pentagon to bring supplies to almost a half-million troops.

In a scramble to crew the vessels, a nationwide call has been on for captains, mates, deckhands, stewards and engineers.

Among them is an 82-year-old second mate turned real estate agent from New Jersey and a retired radio operator dumbfounded by satellite communications.

Union officials at the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association headquarters in Little Italy have been working the phones for weeks to find crews for ships. So far, about 500 East Coast MEBA engineers have been put on ships aiding the war effort.

"We've met our obligation, but it was not without a tremendous effort," said John Schuiling, a representative of the union, which is under contract with the U.S. government and owners of ships that the government charters.

Out of the SIU hall have come a number of old salts like 65-year-old Bernard Miciek, a retired East Baltimore deckhand who lives on South Regester Street.

Mr. Miciek, his bags packed as he stood in the dusty SIU hiring hall, came out of retirement to help.

"The United States needs men now. It might as well be me," said Mr. Miciek, who began going to sea during World War II and had been collecting a pension for two years when war broke out with Iraq, and who considers himself and all other merchant seamen soldiers in time of war.

It's fortunate there are still men like him around, said Salvatore Aquia, an SIU official.

The vessel Mr. Miciek is shipping on, an old bulk cargo carrier that has sat at anchor in the James River for years, is equipped with on-deck booms, dangerous contraptions largely alien to a new generation of sailors.

"It takes a guy with background and knowledge for these old ships," said Mr. Aquia. "A man like [Mr. Miciek] is perfect because he can do the job and pass the knowledge on to the younger kids."

With Mr. Miciek in the Seafarers' union hall waiting to board ships this weekend were three other retirees called by work and duty -- deckhand Joe Mercier, 64; assistant steward Frank Ridrigs, 65; and chief steward Eddie Johnson, 55.

"I didn't think I'd ever sail again," said Mr. Johnson, who lives in Walbrook Junction. "I don't have any fears. I sailed through Korea and Vietnam."

As the war extends the careers of old-timers beyond their pensions, it has launched one for 24-year-old Essex resident Joe Lackey. A 1990 graduate of the SIU seamen's school near Leonardtown, Mr. Lackey was picking up work as a free-lance carpenter until the Persian Gulf crisis.

He has since sailed on two ships and was waiting for his third Friday.

"I want to go over. I want to help," he said.

Without the war, it wouldn't matter what reason Mr. Lackey had for shipping out, he'd remain ashore.

"Forget it," said Mr. Aquia. "Jobs are so few, he'd be lost."

But overnight, the nation's overlooked merchant industry became a crucial national asset for the first time since the Vietnam War.

Without it, the scope of Desert Storm -- the largest air and sealift operation in history, according to defense and maritime experts -- would not be possible.

But the number of merchant ships sailing under the U.S. flag is so depleted that more than half of the merchant vessels chartered by the government for the war effort belong to foreign countries.

And at least one crew, on a ship from India, has refused to sail into the Persian Gulf.

"The whole industry is decimated. This war shows how short we are of American ships and American crews," said Representative Helen Delich Bentley, R-Md.-2nd, who sits on the House Subcommittee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries. "When Desert Shield broke out, we were hurting for ships and had to go to other countries to get them. This time we were lucky that other countries went along with us."

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