Ralph Weir graduated from Kings Point, the Merchant Marine Academy, on Long Island, N.Y., during the middle of World War II. He went to sea as a cadet-midshipman aboard a liberty ship full of war supplies, the John Carroll, sailing out of San Francisco, Calif., for Australia on June 3, 1943.
Before the war was over he would make three complete trips around the globe by sea, logging more than 75,000 miles on the water. Sometimes the mariners sailed by themselves; other times, they sailed in a convoy.
“It took the eight officers and 30-plus seamen a month to reach Brisbane, Australia, making 9 knots an hour aboard the merchant ship,” the 87-year-old former cadet explained. “We sailed by ourselves into the Pacific and had no problem reaching our destination.
“After Brisbane we went to Melbourne and discharged the rest of our cargo. Then we headed to Port Moresby on New Guinea. The Battle of the Coral Sea was just over and the Japanese had started to pull back,” Weir said. “When we tied up at Port Moresby, there was a sunken Japanese transport and a couple of wrecked landing crafts.
“For the next six months or more we made a half-dozen trips across the Coral Sea, transporting men and equipment where needed,” he said. “One time we took 1,000 Marines out of Guadalcanal and another time we carried more Marines into battle.”
It was March 1944 before they returned to San Francisco. From there, Weir went back to the Merchant Marine Academy for additional study and to wrap up his classes and graduate. When he went to sea the second time, he served as 3rd mate aboard a converted tanker called the Lafcadio Hearn.
“At the academy, all of our training had to do with cargo ships. I knew nothing about tankers,” Weir said. “When I showed up, the skipper wasn’t aboard. I was the only officer on the ship.”
The tanker was being loaded with high-test aviation gasoline, and Weir knew nothing about the procedure. For the next two days he worked around the ship trying to figure out when it would be full of gas and how to turn it off. A malfunction caused gas to flow from the ship into the harbor. A nearby ship’s crew came to his rescue, called the pumping station and got the valves shut off to stop the flow of fuel into the bay.
“When the chief mate came aboard, I turned the problem over to him and went to sleep in the wheelhouse. When I woke up, the captain had returned and we were out to sea four hours behind the convoy. It probably took us 12 hours to catch up,” Weir said.
Midway across the Atlantic, Weir was at the wheel when the signal was given to change course immediately. He had no idea what was happening.
“I later learned it was President Roosevelt on his way back from the Yalta Conference (where he met with Churchill and Stalin to decide the fate of Europe after the Allies won the war),” he said. “The president intersected the convoy with the heavy cruiser he was sailing on and had the right of way.”
Running alone in the Atlantic in a tanker filled with gasoline, without a convoy and the protection of escort ships, was risky business. German U-bloats were lurking. They caught up and made it across into the Mediterranean without incident on their way to France.
“Up ’til now, I had had little experience with war itself until we sailed into Marseille, France. As we approached the harbor, it was a graveyard of ships. The Germans sunk everything that floated inside and outside the harbor (before they retreated),” Weir said. “We tied up at the end of a pier so our captain could go ashore looking for instructions. He returned and we headed for Algiers, North Africa, a few hours across the Mediterranean.”
After off-loading their cargo of aviation gasoline in Algeria, they sailed for Venezuela on the northern edge of South America to pick up a load of oil and head for New York Harbor with their cargo of black gold.
“We started having fog problems off the coast of Cuba. As we approached the coast of the U.S., the fog got thicker,” he said. “We picked up one of the marker buoys off the entrance to New York Harbor, but the fog was so thick we were lost. Right about then a ship sounded its foghorn. We weren’t sure what was going on, but when the fog lifted a little we could see we were in-between two columns of an outgoing convoy and didn’t even know it.”
Weir’s last ship with a T-2 class tanker called the Cottonwood Creek. He sailed out of Houston, Texas, as 2nd mate aboard the much newer ship, headed for the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific with fuel oil for the U.S. fleet.
It was Sept. 9, 1945. The Second World War had been over for a week. He returned to Galveston, Texas, on Feb. 19, 1946, according to his log book. It was an uneventful voyage.
Weir returned home to Chicago, joined his father’s printing business as a graphic artist and went on with his life. Eventually, he got into advertising, and finally into securities, where he sold oil stock.
He and his companion retired to Florida in 1992 and eventually moved to Englewood.
This story first appeared in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Thursday, October 15, 2009. Republished with permission.