Gilbert L. Johnson, 81, owned marine supply store

March 16, 2002|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Gilbert L. "Bunky" Johnson, who owned a marine salvage and supply business, died Thursday of complications from Alzheimer's disease at St. Elizabeth Rehabilitation and Nursing Center. He was 81 and was a lifelong resident of South Baltimore.

The owner of Gilbert Marine Supply Co., he developed a business that thrived in the 1970s and 1980s by selling salvaged wood hatch covers from vintage World War II Liberty ships, old marine heavy-link chain, anchors and buoys. His customers included commercial fishermen and ship owners, who used the salvaged materials for maritime purposes, and restaurateurs and decorators, who sought authentic marine items for decor.

"He sold the hatch covers for $8 to $10 if he liked you. And if he didn't like you, it was a different price," said Horace Hall, a friend who worked with him. "He was a self-made man. He had spine and backbone. He liked to run his 20-ton forklift in cold weather. He was always working."

Raised on Riverside Avenue, he spent time as a young man at a similar business owned by his father, George "Sandy" Johnson. The elder Johnson had bought a ship propeller yard on Grindall Street adjacent to Bethlehem Steel's Key Highway ship repair yard.

After attending nearby Southern High School, the younger Mr. Johnson joined the Army and was an infantryman during World War II. He landed at Normandy Beach after the invasion on June 6, 1944. He was awarded a Bronze Star.

After a falling-out with his father, Mr. Johnson opened his own business and later moved it several blocks away. He acquired a 2-acre yard alongside the CSX Railroad tracks in the 1800 block of Worcester St. in Southwest Baltimore (near the Ravens stadium), which he used for his inventory of marine salvage acquired from ship breakers and other sources.

In the 1960s, when a government-owned fleet of mass-produced Liberty ships built for World War II was decommissioned and being broken up, he bought thousands of wooden hatch boards, airtight doors, brass hardware and anchors. He bought and sold hemp ropes, watertight doors and heavy lashings that held ship containers in place. He also kept anchors used by Canadian commercial fisherman.

"He really became an expert in how to source the material and how to sell it," said his daughter, Gilda Johnson, who also lives in South Baltimore and operates his business. "Within the industry he was known as `the Godfather,' because he knew so much and was so well connected. He loved the chase for finding good salvage and then making a deal.

"He'd fly down to the Florida Keys and buy chains. He'd go to Korea to buy cable and marine hardware," she said.

He stopped working after he fell off a forklift in 1998.

Services will be held at 1 p.m. Monday at the Gary L. Kaufman Funeral Home at Meadowridge Memorial Park, 7250 Washington Blvd., Elkridge.

In addition to his daughter, Mr. Johnson is survived by his wife of 51 years, the former Carlyn Bowers, and a granddaughter.

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