Norm Meissner served as engineer aboard U.S. flagged ships for 38 years

This is Norm Meissner’s yearbook picture in 1961 as a Midshipman when he attended the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, NY. Photo provided by Norm Meissner

Norm Meissner attended the United States Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, N.Y. in the 1960s.

The “Cuban Missile Crisis” was erupting about the time he left the academy. The U. S. was on the verge of going to war with Russia over missiles the Soviets snuck into the island nation that were aimed our way.

President John F. Kennedy threw a naval blockade around Cuba that helped defuse the confrontation. The Russians withdrew their offensive missiles and World War Three was averted.

Meissner began his 38 year career in the Merchant Marines about the same time. He started as an engine room officer aboard the “Independent,” an American Export Line cruse ship that sailed the Mediterranean and on into North African waters.

After shipping out aboard the ocean-liner he spent the next several years serving on small freighters that plied the Atlantic bringing goods into the U.S. and taking more things to foreign shores.

“Looking back on my earlier career, I was serving aboard one of those small freighters–about 450-feet in length—in the North Atlantic in the winter time during a tremendous storm. We had a main condenser leak which forced us to shut down the engine. We drained the salt water side of the condenser, plugged the leaks and restarted the engine.

A 450-foot vessel without power during a major storm in the North Atlantic posed a serious threat to those aboard the crippled ship.

“We were working in conditions that were awful dark. All the while our ship was wallowing around in the troth of the waves without power,” Meissner recalled. “It took us 23 or 24 hours to rectify the problem and get underway once more.”

Meissner served aboard the 803 foot-long, 75,000 ton oil tanker Exxon San Francisco as chief engineer during the 1970s and ’80s. Photo provided

He was a 22-year-old second engineer at the time. The ship was on its way from Alexandria, Egypt to Boston with a load of good when it broke down on the high seas.

The year after that incident. Meissner was selected to attend a class on nuclear power technology taught at the Merchant Marine Academy. He finished the course the day President Kennedy was assassinated, Nov. 22, 1963. His class went to Galveston, Texas to work on the nuclear ship “Savannah” home-ported at Galveston. She was the world’s only nuclear powered merchant vessel authorized under President Dwight Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” program.

“By this time I was married and I decided I would rather work on shore, so I went to worked for Electric Boat in New London, Conn. that builds nuclear submarines,” he said. “I was a civilian testing submarine systems after they were installed in the subs and went out on sea trials.

“After three years in New London I went to work for the American Bureau of Shipping in its Philadelphia office. I was involved in building the first gas turbine powered container ship.

“I went from there to a shipyard in El Ferrol, Spain owned by the Spanish government. I supervised the building of light cargo ships, ” Meissner said. “It was my job to see that the ships were built to plans and specifications for the American Bureau of Shipping.

“The shipyard was out in the boonies. It took us two days to drive to Madrid from there,” he said. “Spain wasn’t like it is today. In those days it was under the dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco. It reminded me of a scene from Hemingway’s ‘For Whom the Bells Tolls.’

“In 1970 I opened the office for A.B.S. in Vigo, Spain. The shipyard was building 300-foot-long column stabilized semi-submersible drilling rigs. Three years later I was offered a job in the company’s Charleston, S.C. office.

The crew of the Exxon Galveston stands under the 15-foot propeller blades of the giant oil tanker while in dry dock being repaired. Photo provided by Norm Meissner

“I was the inspector at the shipyard that was building 120-foot in diameter aluminum piers,” Meissner explained. “The assembly building rivaled the assembly building for the U.S. rocket program at Cape Canaveral. The inside of the building looked like something out of science fiction.”

Working for A.B.S. as an inspector, it was his job to oversee the building of these huge piers, for General Dynamics. They were to be used to carry liquified natural gas.

It was at this point in his career Meissner went back to sea. He took a positions in 1978 as the chief engineering officer aboard the giant oil tanker “Exxon San Francisco.” Meissner stayed with Exxon until he retired in 1998 after serving as chief engineer aboard her sister ship, “Exxon Baton Rouge.”

He spent a lot of time aboard the “San Francisco,” a 803-foot-long, 75,000 ton sea-going monster that hauled crude oil from the Alaskan oil fields up and down both coasts of the United States. It’s 30,000 hp. steam turbine engine propelled the ship at a top speed of 16 knots.

“In my first years at sea, during the height of the ‘Cold War,’ I was always very proud to carry our flag to the countries bordering the Soviet/Chinese blocks. Many times there were flags from those countries in the ports we called on as we were arriving and offloading humanitarian aid or military assistance,” Meissner said.

After 18 years with Exxon, Meissner and his wife, Yvonne, retired to Bradenton. They moved to the Port Charlotte area in 1997. They have three children: Carl, Curt and Melinda.

A couple of years after retiring from the Merchant Marines, he volunteered to be 1st Engineer aboard the “Caribbean Mercy,” a hospital ship that operates in “Third World” countries. On the voyage Meissner made, the ship visited El Salvador.


Meissner’s File

Name: Norman A. Meissner
D.O.B: 17 Jan. 1941
Hometown: New York, Ny.
Currently: Punta Gorda, Fla.
Service: Commissioned as an Ensign in the Navy 1961
Retired: 1997
Rank: Chief Engineer
Unit: The “Independent”, Exxon San Francisco, Exxon Galveston
Campaigns/Speical duties/highlights: Seagoing Test/Trial engineer on Ballistic Nuclear Submarine


This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Nov. 19, 2012 and is republished with permission.

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