Prelude to Adventure

The examination for admittance to the U.S. Maritime Commission Cadet Corps was given in Manhattan’s Christopher Street post office on Saturday, 6 December 1941. For some years afterwards I thought that I had received a high enough grade to be selected. I eventually learned that the examination results were not graded. Due to the attack on Pearl Harbor the next day, every physically qualified candidate was accepted.

My call up was in the form of a telephoned message on Monday 19 January 1942 that contained instructions for me to report on the following day to Fort Schuyler. I had not yet taken the final exams needed for graduation from Brooklyn Technical High School. Early on the twentieth, the school’s Vice Principal advised, “You would most certainly pass the final exams. Go ahead and if you can, get back here for our graduation ceremonies on the twenty ninth.”

Thus on 20 January 1942, as happy as I had ever been, with a sea bag in hand, I went to Fort Schuyler. There I was sworn into the U.S. Maritime Commission Cadet Corps. That first day was memorable.

Eddie Duchin arrived that evening and played a piano in the small area of the Fort that was temporarily allocated to us Maritime Commission cadets. He was known then for his big band that regularly played in the Waldorf Astoria, and that could also be heard via radio. All of the remainder of the Fort was the permanent home of the much larger New York State Merchant Marine Academy.

There were about 180 cadets in the State Academy. In each of their two cadet years, they attended ten months of instruction at the Fort and a two month cruise in the training ship SS EMPIRE STATE. They enjoyed organized sports and regularly hosted formal dances. As neophyte seafarers, they led a blissful existence.


In contrast, most of the less than forty Maritime Commission cadets then ashore were older and rougher. The latter being a consequence of having survived near-bestial conditions when assigned in ones and twos in prewar merchant ships. They had endured the antagonistic atmosphere that existed between licensed and non-licensed personnel after the bloody strikes of the mid thirties. Since they were not of either group, they were not graciously accepted by anyone during their on-the-job training at sea.

Eddie Duchin apparently knew that some of us were about to ship out in a few weeks and would be exposed to the wrath of the Nazi U-boats that were then already creating havoc along the U.S. eastern seaboard. We all stood around the piano mesmerized by his playing.

After lights out I lay in the dark telling myself, “At last I am on the last leg of my journey to sea. What a fantastic start! It can’t get better than this.”

Then from a bunk nearby, I heard uncontrolled sobbing. Someone my age was depressed because of being away from home.



I was born and brought up in an 1884-vintage wood-frame house in Brooklyn. I lived there in a cold-water flat until I joined the U.S. Maritime Commission Cadet Corps at Fort Schuyler on 20 January 1942. One week later I moved across Long Island Sound to the Chrysler estate in Kings Point. Thus, the Chrysler Mansion is the second house that I ever lived in, albeit just for about 10 days.

During my 20 or so additional days as a prelim, I preferred being in the servants’ quarters that were located over the estate’s garage. That location was better because it was relatively out of sight and out of mind of the officers.

Also, since legal title to the property was not transferred to the Government until later, I was, in effect, a guest of the Chryslers until I was assigned to a ship on 26 February 1942, twenty-eight days after high-school graduation.



The ashore contingent of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Cadet Corps, recently ensconced in the Chrysler Estate at Kings Point, is freezing in khaki-chino uniforms.



I’m the rifleman in the color guard on the right side in the photo. Joe DiCicco is the other rifleman. He lost his life on 10 September 1942 when MV AMERICAN LEADER was sunk in the South Atlantic by the German raider MICHEL, a merchantman with hidden armament and a German Navy (Kriegsmarine) crew.


In the photograph of the color guard Joe Toscano appears on the extreme right standing close to me. He was first assigned to SS GEORGE WASHINGTON, a coal-burning former passenger liner. After one voyage to Panama that proved the futility of trying to operate a coal burner of that size during wartime, Joe was transferred to SS TOPA TOPA that was torpedoed on 29 August 1942 in the Carribean Sea while carrying thousands of drums of aviation gasoline. Joe was trapped in his cabin until the ship lost headway and was turned enough by the sea for the flames to blow in another direction.


Overdue Presumed Lost

“It may come as a surprise to some readers to learn that during a two-year period of World War II, not one, but 21 American merchant ships disappeared without a trace. These 21 ships sailed from various ports without publicity and vanished into the unknown, taking with them 1,184 seamen, including 315 U.S. Navy Armed Guard personnel.”

Fourteen listed for just 1942 are:

SS Norvana – Havana bound for Philadelphia – 14 January
SS Frances Salman – Newfoundland for N.Y. – 17 January
SS Major Wheeler – Puerto Rico for Philadelphia – 3 February
SS Azalea City – Trinidad for Philadelphia – 12 February
SS Mariana – Puerto Rico for Boston – 3 March
SS Muskogee – Trinidad for Philadelphia – 13 March
SS Margaret – Puerto Rico for New York – 8 April
SS L.J. Drake – Aruba for Puerto Rico – 4 June
SS Tillie Lykes – Galveston for Puerto Rico – 14 June
MS Wichita – Gold Coast for New York – 1 September
SS John Winthrop – Glasgow for New York – 19 September
SS La Salle – Panama for New York – 26 September
SS Coamo – Gibraltar for Liverpool – 1 December
SS C.J. Barkdull – New York for Gibraltar – 30 December

Naval Institute Proceedings, 1961, LCDR Edward F. Oliver, USCG, pp. 98 – 105.


Copyright © 2005 (text only) by Louis D. Chirillo

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