Thomas R. Gibson dies at age 86

Restored radio room on Liberty ship John W. Brown

August 09, 2010|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

Thomas R. Gibson, a retired rapid-transit project manager and World War II maritime radio operator who returned to sea as a radioman during the Persian Gulf War, died July 30 of cancer at the Charlestown retirement community.

The former Joppa resident was 86.

Mr. Gibson, the son of a Northern Pacific railroader and a homemaker, was born and raised in Minneapolis, where he graduated from high school.

Mr. Gibson's interest in ham radio began during his high school days and continued when he worked at a radio station in Green Bay, Wis. By 1941, he had earned his radio license from the Federal Communications Commission.

While attending the University of Minnesota in the fall of 1942, Mr. Gibson knew that a draft notice would soon be arriving.

"I read an article in the ham magazine, 'QST,' about the Gallops Island Radio Training School seven miles into Boston Harbor. They trained merchant marine radio operators. Sounded wonderful," he told Ernest F. Imhoff, a former Baltimore Sun editor, whose book "Good Shipmates" chronicled the volunteer restoration of the Liberty ship John W. Brown, which had been built in Baltimore in 1942.

Because Mr. Gibson held a radio license, he didn't have to attend a seaman's school and was accepted into the nine-month school at the U.S. Maritime Service Radio Training Station at Gallops.

Mr. Gibson graduated in six weeks and was assigned as a radioman aboard the Liberty ship SS Irving M. Scott, which sailed in 1943 from San Francisco with a cargo of war materiel for Australia and several other ports.

"I was an only child. My parents were terrified. Anyone who sends an 18-year-old out as the only radio operator on a ship is out of his mind. You're too young," he related to Mr. Imhoff. "But at that age, you're invincible, impervious to danger. I had a lot of confidence. I thought I was as good as any other radioman, better then some, after Gallops and a year as a ham."

Mr. Gibson saw wartime service aboard ships in the Atlantic and Pacific, and told Mr. Imhoff that after a particularly powerful storm that pounded his ship, loaded with 38 fighter planes on deck, for a week, he was "too stupid to be scared."

When the war ended, rather than ship out as a radio operator on the passenger liner SS Argentina, Mr. Gibson returned to the University of Minnesota, where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1949 in electrical engineering.

From 1950 to 1955, Mr. Gibson worked in Seattle as a communications engineer for the Northern Pacific Railway. He then moved to Decatur, Ill., when he took a similar job with the Wabash Railroad.

From 1960 to 1968, he lived in Peekskill, N.Y., where he was chief signal engineer for the New York Central Railroad's Harlem division.

In 1968, he joined Westinghouse Electric Corp. in Pittsburgh, where he was named project manager of the Bay Area Rapid Transit System in San Francisco. He came to Baltimore in 1971 when he went to work as a project manager for Kaiser Engineers, which was involved in building the Baltimore Metro subway line.

He retired in 1986.

In 1988, Mr. Gibson attended the first meeting of Project Liberty Ship, whose intention was to bring to Baltimore and preserve and reactivate the John W. Brown, which was then languishing in the James River Reserve Fleet.

Mr. Gibson was elected treasurer, a position he held for the next two decades.

"Tom was our first treasurer, and I always enjoyed working with him. He was a quiet person but had a great sense of humor," said Michael J. Schneider, who is chairman of Project Liberty Ship, which owns and operates the John W. Brown.

"He always knew what had to be done and did it. He was a good shipmate and a key component of Project Liberty Ship for a lot of years," said Mr. Schneider.

In addition to overseeing the Brown's finances, Mr. Gibson and several other volunteers faithfully restored and made operational the Brown's radio room as it was built in 1942.

After being away from the sea for half a century, Mr. Gibson began sailing again in 1990 during the first Persian Gulf War, when he answered a call from the American Radio Association, a union, and signed on as a radioman aboard the Overseas Joyce, a car carrier that had been leased by Toyota.

"They were able to use me in place of others going to war," Mr. Gibson told Mr. Imhoff. "Strange, I was working on a ship carrying cars made by the Japanese, the people who used to shoot at my ships."

Mr. Gibson signed on again for another voyage in 1991.

"These voyages were rather uneventful. I was happy to do it. I did what I always wanted to do again, and I was now satisfied," he said.

"Tom gladly went back and served his country," said Mr. Schneider.

About two years ago, Mr. Gibson relinquished his treasurer's job after being diagnosed with cancer.

Mr. Gibson and his wife of nearly 60 years, the former Virginia Louise Tuttle, moved to the Charlestown retirement community about five years ago. She died in 2008.

Mr. Gibson, whose call letters were W3DJ, continued to enjoy being a ham radio operator.

Following Mr. Gibson's wishes, his remains will be buried at sea in late September during the John W. Brown's voyage to Providence, R.I., according to his son, retired Coast Guard Capt. Roger Gibson of York, Pa.

Also surviving are three other sons, Thomas R. Gibson of Rescue, Calif., Douglas Gibson of Mechanicsburg, Pa., and John Gibson of Margate, Fla.; a daughter, Laura Sonberg of Greensboro, Caroline County; and eight grandchildren.

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