When Stuart Wagner of Port Charlotte sailed out of New York Harbor in a convoy headed for parts unknown during World War II all he knew was he was a member of the Merchant Marine serving as one of three radio operators aboard the tanker “Esso Charleston” taking 10,000 tons of bunker-C oil to the war zone thousands of miles away.
“We left New York Harbor with eight or 10 other ships and a couple of destroyer escorts,” the 91-year-old recalled. “When we got down to the end of Long Island we joined up with 100 other ships and headed for Europe. Everything went well until we reached Gibraltar.
“The general alarm aboard our ship sounded. Way up ahead I could see two or three columns of smoke rising. It appeared there might have been tankers on fire,” Wagner said. “At that point our ship started moving as quick as it could, which was probably about 15 knots.
“That afternoon later we reached Oran, Algeria where we were suppose to have gone into. But Oran Harbor was already filled with ships. There was no room for us in the harbor. We made a dash for another harbor three or four mies away.
“Our tanker and a troop transport made it into the harbor at Mers el Kedbir about the same time,” he recalled. “All these young G.I.s were standing along the railing of the troop ship watching us make it into port. They were oblivious to the fact our tanker was about to collide with their transport.
“We used our ships whistle to blow directions. One blast on our whistle meant we were going to port. Two blasts meant we were going to starboard. Three blasts meant we were going into reverse and four blasts signified it was all up for grabs.
“The kids at the railing on the other ship thought all the whistle blasts signified our two ships had made it into port and they were safe. With 10,000 tons of fuel oil coming toward them in our ship the G.I.s on the troop ship weren’t too safe, but they didn’t know it.
“I was up on the bridge just getting ready to go to the radio room when all this was going on,” Wagner said. “Just before the bow of our ship struck the troop ship the young soldiers aboard the other ship realized they were in harm’s way.
“I’ll always remember there were about six of them running like crazy to reach a passageway that cut through to the other side of the ship. They started running about the same time the bow of our ship plowed into the side of their ship. A pudgy guy was the last one to reach the passageway and escape the collision.
“Our tanker crumpled a 50 to 60-foot section of the troop ship. But there was no explosion and no one was hurt,” Wagner said. “The bow of our ship was wrecked, but the damage didn’t reach the oil aboard our ship. We spent the next three weeks in port getting our ship repaired.
“After we left Oran Harbor we headed east, but we had no idea where we were going. We stopped at Haifa, Palestine and took a load of oil from there over to the boot of Italy. Then we left there and rode empty through the Suez Canal back through the Red Sea and on into the Persian Gulf.
“The Persian Gulf was no fun place. It was hot and you had to cope with the dust coming off the desert. Rudyard Kipling wrote in his poem: ‘Somewhere east of Suez the dust is like the worst. There ain’t no Ten Commandments and a man can raise a thirst.’ That’s the Persian Gulf.
“We went up the coast about 100 miles to Tripoli, Lebanon. We got crude oil from a pipeline that came over from the Persian Gulf. We took this crude back to the refinery at Haifa. We spent the next five or six months bringing oil to the Haifa refinery.
“While we were there the British High Commissioner arrived in Haifa on an inspection tour. Anti-British Jews assassinated him with a car bomb. Both Jews and Arabs wanted the British to leave the area and were agitating against the British.
“We were hauling crude oil and every time we unloaded it from our ship our tanks had to be cleaned to protect the ship from an explosion.The process took several days. During this time we were given liberty.
“On my time off I took a tour of Jerusalem even though I’m not a religious person. The tour was led by a Catholic seminary student who was an American. He phrased his comments to us about what we saw on the tour the right way. He would begin by saying, ‘Legend has it….’
“This young seminarian took us up the path Jesus took on his way to being crucified. It was quite an experience. It got to you.
My second day in Jerusalem I looked around the town on my own. Then I went back to the ship. Palestine was a very nice country. It was green with many citrus and olive groves. From there we left Haifa and sailed back to the States. My first cruise had lasted just over 12 months. I got back to the USA in April 1945, just before the Germans unconditionally surrendered.
“My second cruise was aboard the John D. Archibald, an old liberty ship. I made two trips to England aboard her. I returned to Miami just in time for ‘V-J Day’ (Victory Over Japan). The whole town was partying. It was wonderful. Everyone was celebrating the end of World War II.
“I got my pay from being at sea in the Merchant Marines all those months during the war. I put $8,000 in my pocket and went home. I took the money and went in the pinball and jukebox business in the Miami area. A year later I was broke and had to go back to sea.
“After a little over four years I got out of the Merchant Marines for the last time in the early 1950s. I went back to see some of my old high school buddies in upper New York State where I had grown up. Just by chance, the Air Force had a research and development center at Griffiss Air Force Base near Rome, New York. I went to work as a civilian for them at the base and 25 years later I retired from the Air Force.
“While there I met Dottie. She was an old high school friend. We started dating and eventually got married in 1954. After 55 years of marriage she passed away on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 2008. We had a good life. We have one son, Steven.
“Before my wife died we vacationed down here. After she passed away I moved to the Port Charlotte area four years ago.”
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, October 16, 2017 and is republished with permission.
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