Remembering a Mid-Century Merchant Mariner

September 2010

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Victor Rodriguez DelgadoEditor’s note: This article and the accompanying photos were submitted to the LOG by Saida Rodriguez Pagán, daughter of the late NMU member Victor Rodriguez Delgado.

 

It was May 29, 1945 when my father, Victor Rodriguez Delgado, set sail from New York on his first voyage with the United States Merchant Marine. My dad must surely have had mixed emotions on that day and for good reason. Since arriving in the United States from Puerto Rico a few years before, he had found life in the big city to be challenging at best. So, this new career as a merchant mariner had to have seemed promising to a 26-year-old with few friends or family on the mainland.

 

Still, the joy of finding work was probably tempered by a sense of anxiety as well. Although the Axis powers had surrendered to the Allies just weeks earlier, fighting in the Pacific was still going on. The possibility that Victor he would never return to his fiancée, Sylvia, was in fact very real.

 

But in addition to his desire for work, it was patriotism and duty that also guided Victor as he made his career decision. “God Bless America,” my dad was fond of saying. And while his unabashed love for the United States may have appeared curious to some, those who knew his story could understand why. And it was a story not unlike those of countless other mid-century merchant mariners. By 1945, Victor had lost both parents and five of his six siblings in Puerto Rico. Left to find his own way in life, he had already completed service in the United States Army, had worked on the railroads in Pennsylvania and also at the Brooklyn Shipyard. Despite his struggles in the States, this was still a land of opportunity. For Victor, signing on with the United States Merchant Marine during wartime, to serve his country once again, was simply the right thing to do. And that same year, my father also began a longtime membership in the National Maritime Union, which later merged into the Seafarers International Union.

 

Over the next 24-and-a-half years, Victor Rodriguez Delgado would have the chance to serve his beloved country time and time again in war as well as in peace. His jobs were humble but essential to the operation of the ships. He worked in the mess area and in the engine room – wherever there was opportunity. In the 1950s, my dad sailed on vessels such as the SS Seven Seas, the Santa Rosa and the SS America. He made trips to Korea, carrying cargo to our soldiers during the conflict there. In the 1960s, he served aboard the SS Mormactrade, the American Guide, and the Britain Victory, among others.

 

Victor Rodriguez DelgadoOn many of his voyages, he helped bring supplies to our service people in Vietnam. The dangerous aspects of his service were never far from his family’s mind. “Pray for Papa,” my mother, Sylvia, would often say nervously during the Vietnam War when my dad made trips to the war-ravaged region. Growing up in the sixties, I lived in constant fear that my father wouldn’t make it back home to New York. I will be forever grateful that he did not meet his demise in the line of duty.

 

For those of us with parents who were merchant mariners during that era, I think there was always a sense of that you were not part of a “traditional” family. My dad was away for months at a time and was rarely home for birthday parties, parent-teacher conferences, or family outings. Budgeting was left to my mother and out of necessity, so was most of everything else. Such was the case in 1959 when my eight-year-old sister died after a brief illness. My dad had just shipped out to Brazil when she got sick. After 10 days in a coma, Rachida died on November 1 of that year. In the pre-cell phone or Internet age, the most common way to notify someone of events such as this was by telegram. When he received the message, my dad read it in disbelief.

 

“At first I said, ‘This can’t be for me,’” my father later confided. “I thought the telegram was for some other Victor Delgado.” With international travel far too limited in the 1950s, my father could not return to New York in time for the funeral. My mother had to bury her first-born child surrounded by many but feeling very alone. It wasn’t until weeks later, just before Christmas, that Victor got back to the U.S. Although I was quite young, I still remember the sadness in my parents’ eyes as they embraced and were finally able to grieve their loss as a couple.

 

Between the wars and family tragedies, though, there were many pleasant times for Victor Rodriguez Delgado. With the United States Merchant Marine, my dad saw nearly the entire globe, landing in places like India, Argentina, the Netherlands, Japan, France and many more. His favorite destinations? “Seattle, Washington, and Oslo, Norway,” he told us once. I’ll never forget how excited we children would get when our father called long distance to say that he was back in the States and would be coming home soon. After much anticipation, Papa would appear at the door of our Manhattan apartment, looking every bit the quintessential seaman: rosy cheeks, dressed in a leather jacket, and black seaman’s cap, loaded with luggage and souvenirs. “Papa, Papa,” we shouted with delight as our father entered. A generous man, Victor always brought back exotic gifts from countries I have yet to visit. Kimonos and sets of dishes from Japan, jewelry and handbags from Latin America, porcelain from the Netherlands, perfume from France. The happiness and feeling of belonging would last for days. But, just as we were getting accustomed to having a father at home, and being part of a “regular family,” the sense of normalcy would end abruptly. “Papa got a ship today,” my mother would explain when we arrived home from school looking for him, only to find that our father had gone someplace far away without a chance to say goodbye.

 

Despite the sacrifices my dad’s profession presented for all of us, we knew it was a lifestyle that had its advantages. By being a merchant mariner my father was able to support us, send his children to good schools and maintain the family’s dignity as tax-paying, productive citizens. An integral part of all of this was the National Maritime Union (NMU). As a hard-working, humble but wise man, my father had a great deal of respect for the union that represented him during his nearly quarter-century of service. The union hall in downtown Manhattan was where he went to socialize between voyages and to apply for work. In our home, the union was gold. Membership provided our family with numerous benefits as well as a sense of security. Those positive experiences with the NMU helped shape my opinion of unions throughout my life.

 

Although my father loved his work, in November 1969, Victor, at the urging of his family, decided that after more than 24 years of service it was time to retire and spend more time with us. He was just 50 years old; he could receive his pension and then take another job, which is precisely what he did. This early retirement plan worked fine for a few years, but unfortunately the high-blood pressure that my dad had developed a decade earlier coupled with a new diagnosis of heart disease forced Victor to be declared disabled at the age of 54. One major source of pleasure during this time was receiving the NMU publications and keeping up with news about his former industry. But then, 11 years after his last ship came his final voyage.

 

In the summer of 1980, a severe heat wave hit New York City. My dad, who’d had open heart surgery a few years earlier, succumbed to the record-breaking temperatures and had to be hospitalized. A few days later he died in Manhattan, surrounded by family and friends. Victor Rodriguez Delgado: United States Army Veteran, United States Merchant Mariner, husband and father received a military funeral at Long Island National Cemetery on July 30, 1980.

Before Victor passed away, the United States government had awarded him a medal for his service during the Korean War. I am now in the process of determining which other commendations my father may be entitled to receive posthumously. In addition, on this, the 30th anniversary of his death, I am exploring additional ways to recognize my dad’s contributions at U.S. Merchant Marine memorials and maritime museums in Southern California where the family now resides.

 

Victor Rodriguez Delgado is among those who are often referred to as members of “The Greatest Generation.” He was like so many other young Americans who entered the armed forces or the merchant marine in the mid-twentieth century. They were men and women of bravery, determination and honor. They did their jobs each and every day with little fanfare or fame. They risked their lives and made personal sacrifices so that America could remain strong and free. Whether their roles were large or small, they all contributed to a noble cause and are worthy of recognition. So let us remember their names, tell their stories, and record their deeds.

 

If you knew Victor Manuel Rodriguez Delgado and have stories or pictures of him please contact Saida Rodriguez Pagán at: saidapagan@att.net


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