They built a `bridge of ships'

SUN JOURNAL

Aide: William A. Weber is 91 now, but his memories of working with the man who oversaw a vital World War II program remain vivid.

April 14, 2000|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PITTSBURGH -- The old man is 91 and nearly blind. But there is nothing clouded about his recollection of Adm. Howard L. Vickery, the man who directed the creation of a "bridge of ships" linking Europe and the United States in World War II.

At the helm of a four-year industrial spurt hard to imagine today, Vickery coordinated the shipyards that built more than 2,700 Liberty ships, 531 Victory ships and other vessels to carry cargo and troops overseas to defeat Germany and Japan.

"He worked the hell out of us," says William A. Weber, Vickery's aide at the U.S. Maritime Commission, "but it was fun, too."

He worked the hell out of himself, too. Vickery died 10 months after the end of the war at 53.

Here and there, remnants of Vickery's armada are still afloat -- including the Liberty ship John W. Brown, berthed in Baltimore.

Weber's son, William A. Weber Jr. of Denver, found the Brown's Web site, and a meeting was arranged in Pittsburgh between three John Brown volunteers and the man who helped Vickery get those ships built.

"I'm surprised to be here; I don't buy green bananas," Weber says of his longevity. He retired a quarter-century ago from Alcoa, where he was vice president for transportation. His wife died in 1975. His sight has been taken by macular degeneration.

But he lives on his own, getting around his home near the University of Pittsburgh, where he takes night courses in literature with a daughter, Kathleen Montgomery, an artist and art professor. He can't fly-fish, play golf, carve wood or run model trains anymore, but he "reads" five hours a day with books on tape -- lately, Conrad, Tolstoy, E. M. Forster.

And his memory of his wartime boss, Vickery, is undimmed. In four hours of easy recall, he pours out scores of names, shipyard snippets and memories. And, at the end, he has more to say. "Can you stay another day or two?" he asks.

Weber was an admiralty lawyer who was commissioned a naval lieutenant while working for Vickery, who was vice chairman of the Maritime Commission.

The admiral was a driven and driving man, who believed that a day saved in the ship construction schedule saved lives. Nazi U-boats were sinking Allied ships, many off the East Coast, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt was calling for more and more vessels to outpace the number lost in the deep.

ka-5 Vickery was hard on key construction personnel, Weber says. "If they didn't meet expectations, he didn't argue with them, he just blithely replaced them." When shipbuilders were late with a new vessel, Vickery wired broadsides. When one yard reported the "birth" of a new ship, he replied: "I hope the next period of gestation will not be that of an elephant."

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A measure of his humor was the glass display case outside his office. As recorded by Frederic C. Lane in "Ships for Victory" (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1951), the case contained medicine bottles on black velvet, labeled "Insidious comparison," "Sarcasm," "Heckling," "Jeering," "Belittling," "Sneering," "Irony," "Fury," "Nagging" and "Profanity." The largest bottle contained "Mickey Finn for Visiting Firemen." The smallest was "Compliments."

A poem rounded off the display, with the ending: "So here's to our Admiral Vickery, Who's never been known to Wheedle, But prescribes the Victory Vitamins: `Quick, Weber, the needle.'"

From 1941 to 1945, Vickery monitored the status of every ship being built under him in 18 shipyards, including the Bethlehem Fairfield yard in Baltimore run by John M. Willis. The busiest of all U.S. shipyards, Bethlehem built 385 Liberties, 94 Victories and 30 tank-carrying landing ships.

Updates came every 48 hours on each ship, and Vickery, taking Weber along, frequently visited yards to inspect ships, hector laggards, dine with his hosts and fly off again. Before landing, Vickery often had his Lockheed Lodestar circle the shipyard so he could match the ships in the ways with what he had been told in reports.

"He loved to play gin rummy," Weber says. "As soon as the plane took off, he'd say `Get out the tools.' We had a board, still around here someplace, fit between two seats. To the horror of other naval or military personnel: They looked askance on an admiral playing gin rummy with his aide."

Their plane crashed on Mount Hood during a flight to Oregon.

"We ran into a terrible storm," says Weber. "We got slapped around. It threw everything out of the overhead rack. A case of Coca Cola came down, all the bottles broke. We had to crash-land on the back of Mount Hood, high up on a snowbank. The engineer and I were nominated to get help ... in pretty deep snow. Having grown up in Montana, I knew if we kept going downhill we'd find somebody sometime, and we did."

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