The Amazing Radio London Adventure
Mutiny on the Galaxy
Not only was the radio station transmitter out of order, but the ship-to-shore radio was also inoperable. I asked Don about this serious problem and his answer was that if we had any problems at sea, Art could get the station transmitter fired up and we could send an SOS. I more-or-less bought this, for at the time I had no idea how much work had to be done to get the transmitter on the air. We later learned that the radio station transmitter was far from being ready for use.
The three radio station personnel who were chosen to make this potentially ill-fated voyage across the Atlantic were myself, Art Nobo, the station engineer and Bob Ables, who was supposed to act as a ship's manager. In other words, Bob was a 'gopher' – anything you needed, Bob would go for it. Bob was Don's good friend and hailed from their mutual home-town of Eastland, Texas. In my wildest dream I couldn't imagine why Don had selected Bob for this job, as Bob knew no more about London than I did and I knew nothing! It seemed to me that Bob was just a 'good old boy' that Don wanted to get on the payroll.
On the final week we were in port, Don had set several departure times and then at the last minute, some problem would crop up and cause a delay. The crew, as well as the radio staff and Captain Walters knew that the ship still was not seaworthy. Don had very heated arguments with the captain about the state of affairs. He told him that if the ship didn't arrive at the island of Madeira on a given date, he would send out a search party for us. Don further punctuated his intention to put the ship to sea by threatening Captain Walters with the loss of his command and the possible loss of his reputation as a captain. Finally, he reluctantly agreed to Don's demands.
The last day in port was a riot. Most of the crew had previously worked on small ships and they knew instinctively that there was something wrong with the Galaxy. The chief engineer, who was Jamaican, had a big row with the captain about the condition of the engines; two of the crew refused to go and went over the side. Most of the rest of us were ready to abandon ship as well, but the captain and Don reassured us that everything would be okay. I'm not sure that Don could have convinced anyone of the safety of this voyage on his own, but Captain Walters was highly respected by us all and it was his word that we accepted. However, it was in a high state of anxiety that captain, crew et al departed Miami on October 22nd 1964.
It took about two-and-a-half or three days for the ship to travel from Miami to San Juan, Puerto Rico. The anger among the captain and his crew did not subside and much of the dissatisfaction was taken out on the two Haitian cooks. Both the cooks were about nineteen or twenty years of age and had not had much experience at their job and every meal was served with Haitian red sauce poured over the meat. Some of the crew became violent over the sweet, fruity taste of the sauce. It wasn't that the sauce tasted bad; it was just a small incident that served as a flash-point for the pervasive anger that prevailed on the ship. Not only were the men living with a short fuse and about to explode, but many of them were married with families and were saddened at the thought of being gone from home for a long period. Most of them thought they might be away for six-to-eight months.
No one was more upset about being away from home than Art Nobo. He had left his young wife in Miami and had no idea when he would see her again. Very often, Art would go off by himself and weep over his unhappy circumstances. The Cubans of that day and time were very emotional. One night while Don Pierson and I were in Miami, we had gone to a Cuban night club. At the end of the evening all the Cuban guests lined up on stage arm-in-arm. They sang what we took to be their national anthem, then with emotional outbursts, told horror stories about their losses under the Castro regime. Art Nobo had not only lost his possessions and his country, but he was now being separated from his wife.
Right: The Galaxy commences her long and dangerous sea journey across the Atlantic
After two or three days, the MV Galaxy arrived in San Juan, but Captain Walters didn't let the crew go ashore. He sent a couple of men to a local bar to get some beer for his men. He was not about to let anyone go ashore, as he was certain that he would never see them again if he did. The captain did not have the same control over the radio staff as he did his crew. Art, Bob, and I told him we were going ashore to search for some radio parts. He warned us that the ship would be leaving port after taking on fuel, water and stores. She would be pulling out around sundown and if we were not on board then, he would leave without us.
The three of us went to a bar and had a few drinks then started on our way up to have a look at the Morro Castle. We were about half way between the bar and the castle when we were stopped by two very attractive young women. They informed us that they were reporters for the San Juan Star and they wanted to know if we were from the ship with the very tall antenna. We told them that we were. They then wanted to know what the antenna was going to be used for. Don Pierson had cautioned us all that we were not to talk to anyone about any aspect of our project, so we ended up telling the reporters that we were on a secret mission for the U.S. Government. This seemed to satisfy their curiosity, so they went on their way.
After our visit to the castle, Bob decided to go back to the ship; however, Art and I hopped in a taxi and went out to the suburbs to visit one of Art's cousins. This gave Art a chance to see some of his family and to give his wife a call. Most of the time we were there, Art and his cousin were speaking in Spanish, so I couldn't make out what their conversation was about. But, occasionally, they would break into English and finally I gathered that the cousin was dying to persuade Art to leave the ship. If I had known what the future held for us during the ensuing seventeen-or-so days, I would have encouraged Art to desert and I would have been right along beside him. Despite his cousin's persuasive arguments, Art and I did make it back to the Galaxy on time. As we came on board, we noticed the captain was still in the process of replenishing the ship. Most of the crew was lying about in various places in a drunken state. As I look back on this scenario, my best logic tells me that the captain had purposely boozed the crew up to avoid dealing with their mutinous mood. He pulled out of the harbour around midnight, when most of the men were asleep. The next morning they awoke to find themselves in the throes of the open seas.
I had previously been a navigation quartermaster in the U.S. Navy and was very familiar with navigation charts. Every once in a while, I would go up on the bridge and have a look at the captain's dead-reckoning course and I could see that we were going far south of the usual shipping lanes. I could also see that if we had any trouble, we could be stranded at sea ad infinitum. Of course, the captain was doing what he had to do to avoid any heavy seas that were likely to cause the antenna to whip about and ultimately capsize the Galaxy. Captain Walters was not the cool, friendly person I had first known. This whole episode had changed him into a bundle of nerves, and rightfully so. He was on the bridge only to stand his watch and when he was up there, he wanted to be left alone. The rest of the time, he remained in his cabin and didn't welcome any visitors. He totally isolated himself from the crew and the radio personnel.
Art Nobo spent much of his time in his quarters. He would come out for his meals and then go back into 'hibernation'. I would occasionally go and check on him and he told me that he did not trust the West Indian crew. Art said he knew that most of these men were from the dregs of society and that they had been pulled together by the captain and Don Pierson because they were easy to enlist. He was convinced that no decent seaman would have signed on for a voyage on a ship so ill-prepared for the sea. Art revealed to me that he was ready for any eventuality. He had smuggled a .22 calibre pistol on board, and he told me that he had would have no trouble using it if necessary. I cautioned him with the fact that if he killed someone, the captain would have to turn him in at the next port of call. I also reminded him that if he were convicted of murder, he might have to spend many years in prison away from his wife and family. From then on, I never heard anything more of the pistol.
As the ship ventured out into the waters of the Atlantic, the swells became more apparent and the motion of the antenna accelerated. Passing over a swell, the ship would lean heavily to port or starboard thus creating a vibration and a creaking noise which could be interpreted as a potential disaster on its way to happening. Bob Ables and I were always prepared for going over the side. We kept our lifejackets nearby, and we never wandered very far from the lifeboats. In the evenings, Bob and I would sit up on the 01 level with our backs against the superstructure, looking up at the antenna. We talked about anything that would take our minds off the nagging possibility of disaster – our families, our homes, our past jobs – anything to entertain ourselves and to make the journey a bit more pleasant.
Bob liked to chew tobacco. As we sat on the deck, Bob would spit his tobacco juice hoping that it would go over the side of the ship. Very often a puff of wind would blow around the superstructure and spray us with the juice. At first, I was disgusted at getting doused with this brownish spittle, but as time went on, I didn't mind it so much. The tobacco juice and the Haitian red sauce were two of the most exciting things that happened to me for days.
There was one other thing that lent a bit of excitement on this trip to Hell. Five or six times during our voyage, the engines had to be shut down to prevent them from overheating. Each one of these shutdowns would last for several hours, which meant that there were no lights on board, and no power for the cook stove. If the shutdown occurred at night, there was no power for the ship's running lights either. To add to the problem, there was a great amount of apprehension among the crew as to whether the engines were going to restart whenever they were shut down.
After seventeen days of perilous travel across the Atlantic, the captain, the crew, and the radio personnel were all at a stage of high anxiety. However, the anxiety subsided around the 8th or 9th of November when a crew member sighted land on the horizon. It was the Portuguese island of Madeira projecting a mile above the sea. The news of the sighting spread like wildfire throughout the ship and all hands laid topside for the event of the century. This must have been the same reaction experienced by Columbus's men centuries before, upon sighting the Bahamian island of San Salvador. Madeira was still an hour or so away at the time of the sighting, but all hands remained topside as the city of Funchal appeared before us. It indeed was a sight to behold. Small, whitewashed houses adorned the landscape halfway up the mile-high mountain and each house had a red tile roof. Off to the left of the city was a grand, frame-structured building, the Reid's Hotel, which looked totally out of place in this island wonderland. The hotel had probably been built in the colonial days when Britain controlled Madeira. During World War II, Winston Churchill used to vacation at the Reid‘s while relaxing from his wartime duties.
Upon docking, the first to leave the ship was the radio gang. We headed directly to the nearest bar for a few drinks and ran into Tom Danaher and Bill Carr. Tom said they were headed out to the Galaxy and told us not to wander too far, as the ship might be pulling out. He explained that there were no repair facilities on the island and that she would have to go to Lisbon for repairs. Of course, the thought of going back to sea on the Galaxy in her present condition sent chills running up the spines of all of us. I asked Tom what had happened to Don Pierson and he said that Don had been tied up with some kind of business deal and couldn't make it, but he would be there to meet me in London. It was just as well that Don stayed away. There were a number of people from the ship who were 'gunning' for him and there was a very strong possibility that he would not have made it out of Madeira alive.
At this juncture, it should be pointed out that Don Pierson and Tom Danaher had made a sea trial of the Galaxy in the calm waters off the coast of Miami. They probably thought that since the ship had passed this test, she would be fit to make the trip across the Atlantic. However, the heavy seas of the mid-Atlantic proved this assessment to be wrong. By the time the ship had made her way to Madeira, the whole crew was in a state of hostility, and their hostility was mainly directed towards Don. Most of the crew believed that Don had deliberately sent the ship out ill-prepared for the voyage and his actions had put their lives in peril.
When Art and I left the bar, we went to the Reid's Hotel. We were not badly dressed, but we soon found out that we were not the calibre of clientele that the Reid's welcomed gladly, so we proceeded back to the bar near the docks. What Art and I didn't know was that in our absence, Tom and Bill, along with Bob Ables, had gone to the ship and found a mutiny taking place on board. The ship's chandler had not received money from Miami to pay the seamen, and they had all packed their bags for a trip back home. Tom only had about $85 on his person, but he laid it out on a table. He told the men that was all he had, but they could take it to go down to the bar and have a few drinks until he could get the money sent from Miami. Tom was not a high-roller and was one of the most trustworthy people I have ever known. I think the crew recognised this quality in Tom, so they backed off and headed for the bar, leaving Tom with only $3 to his name.
Later that afternoon Tom received a telegram from Don Pierson saying that I should get on a plane the next morning and meet him in London as soon as possible. Needless to say, I was overjoyed by the news. I found out that I would have to stay overnight in Lisbon and catch a flight out to London the following day. Bill Carr had previously been in Lisbon and he suggested that I get a room at the Ritz Hotel. The following morning I took a taxi to the far side of the island where the Portuguese had built an airport on the only level ground in Madeira. I caught the daily flight to Lisbon which was aboard a four-engine, prop-driven plane that vibrated and pitched all the way to the Portuguese capital. Arriving in Lisbon on November 10th 1964, I made my way through customs and took a taxi to the Ritz Hotel. It was a far cry from the bedlam I had left in Madeira.
I could tell in the twinkling of an eye that Bill Carr had good taste. The Ritz was perfect. The hotel fronted on a large park which took in acres of land and contained one of the most beautiful botanical gardens I had ever seen. The rooms were very large with king-size beds and the bathrooms were outstanding, with oversize towels positioned over towel-warmers. To add to all this, there was a little unit I had never seen before. They called it a 'bidet'. It was only after I arrived in London that I found out what this contraption was used for!