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Junior Marine Engineer on Frederik VIII, 1923-25

Apr. 2008 - John Elmgreen
This is part of William Elmgreen's (1902-1990) autobiography. He was born in Denmark, grew up in Lemvig in Jutland, and became a marine engineer. In 1923 he became a Junior Marine Engineer on the Scandinavian America Line steamship "Frederick VIII", and sailed on her till 1925. He later went to work in Shanghai from about 1927 to 1940 for the Great Northern Telepgraph Company (including on the C/S Store Nordiske) after which he worked for the US Army on transport ships, including the Nebraskan, and the Greylag, and ended up in Australia. Following WWII, he settled in Sydney where he lived the rest of his life. This otherwise unpublished autobiography was submitted by John Elmgreen, Sydney, Australia, 2008

1923: Junior Marine Engineer on Frederik VIII

W. ElmgreenAfter several months, I left Burmeister’s diesel works, and went home for a holiday, but after two days, November 1923, the Steamship Company rang me and I became one of twelve Junior Marine Engineers onboard the liner Frederik VIII, named after a Danish King and the biggest of the company’s four passenger liners on the Copenhagen — New York run, calling at Oslo and Halifax on the way.

What a life! I thought, after a couple of Atlantic crossings, to New York and return. From Copenhagen to Oslo, we were all on the Chinaman’s watch, 24 hours, so we could rectify any engine trouble before we entered the Atlantic. When I thought it was a bit tough, a colleague tried to cheer me up, he told me: "Our watches are limited to 24 hours a day, by international law, unless the clock is put back — which it is daily on our way back from New York!"

In the Atlantic, we were on four hour watches in the engine room. We oiled all bearings by hand and checked their temperatures every few minutes, climbing up and down ladders — and in rough weather, hanging on to the railings for dear life. The toughest experience for a new Junior was the roar of the giant engines racing under diminished load, when the big propellers were air—borne and enormous waves lifted the stern of the big liner out of the water. In the worst situations, when the automatic regulator did not shut the throttle fast enough, the best remedy was a seasick Junior operating it. I was never sea-sick, but suitably scared to cut the steam off as fast as lightning. Later, as Able—Bodied Junior Engineers, we always pretended to ignore the vibration and deafening noise.

Before I became an Able—Bodied Junior Engineer, I thought some engine part could break off one day during the violent vibrations, hit and rupture a steam pipe and boil us all alive. After thirty trips across the Atlantic — two years later — I forgot about it. Only one man, in all my experience on ships, a Junior Engineer, had to leave for good, after his first trip at sea — a doctor insisted he had to stay ashore the rest of his life.

Picture of the Engine Room of the Frederik VIII:
Engine room of the Frederik VIII At sea, we worked two hours on deck, overhauling steam winches. Our accommodation was definitely not suited for officers - two large cabins accommodating six men each. If two men were dressing, the rest had to stay outside. Our large shower room was quite O.K., we always walked about naked at sea, nobody allowed down in our quarters.

One day when we had arrived home an hour early from New York and were moored alongside the wharf, I was walking slowly along the corridor from the shower, stark naked as usual. All of a sudden I found myself face to face — and the rest — with our Chief Engineer’s pretty young daughter — she nearly died laughing and didn’t seem the slightest embarrassed. I thought her sense of humour very charming, it proved one thing: young Danish girls are not hypocrites. It gave me a good story to tell at dinner that night in our mess room. I would not like to repeat any of the comments from our 11 Juniors, all aged between 20 and 25.

The Danish migrant boats carried Europeans to the U.S.A. and brought others back, often for a holiday. On one trip, we carried 1,100 passengers, most from mid—European countries, but also Italians and Greeks, as well as Scandinavians. The majority were travelling Steerage Class, where they were well fed, but lived in overcrowded accommodation. They did not care, they wanted to go to U.S.A. and become millionaires. I am sure some succeeded. We met many people on Second Class (the millionaire’s class) and danced with the girls there at night, when the weather was fine — our orchestra was super. Dancing on deck, when the ship was rolling from side to side, was great fun — and we had a lot of practice. No passengers were allowed on deck in bad weather! This rule was strictly observed.

Picture showing the S/S Frederik VIII departing Copenhagen, Oct. 1925:
The S.S. Frederik VIII departing Copenhagen, Oct 1925 We heard stories about some passengers drinking water out of the finger bowls and having other minor troubles — so what? — there is no law against it. We thought they were all decent people. Homeward—bound, most passengers travelled Second Class. Steerage was usually empty, but we often had a millionaire on Second Class.

All First Class passengers were either diplomats or business executives, with all expenses paid. One evening, some came down to Second to join the crowd there and take part in the fun, but they were not received with open arms. Some passengers told them in no uncertain terms to go back to their own quarters. The Captain was called and managed to calm both classes and persuaded the people on Second to let their visitors stay as spectators. When one of them asked a lady if they were allowed to dance, she shouted: “Dance with your own, we don’t want you here!”

We always docked on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River in New York Harbour, at a town called Hoboken, where the main street was Washington Street. It was about a mile long, with a Woolworth Store, lots of other shops and a picture theatre at the end. Hire cars travelled up and down the street continuously and you could get a ride for ten cents to the end or get off on the way. To get to New York, on the other side of the Hudson, you could either go by ferry to downtown New York or go by train through one of the tubes under the river and continue on the other side to Times Square in the centre of the City. New York Harbour is the greatest in the world. Measured around the piers and shore lines, its total length is 755 miles — 460 miles on the New York side and 295 miles on the New Jersey side. A. Junior’s salary was very low, and a U.S.Dollar was worth 5 Danish Kroner, so we were all very hard up. America was in the middle of Prohibition, 1920 to 1933. Roosevelt terminated it when he was elected President. In 1923—25, we arrived at New York every six weeks. Whisky and snaps fetched very high prices onboard, I was not engaged in smuggling, a Fin drank my wares onboard.

Only Officers had access to drinks onboard. I must admit, it was the only benefit bestowed on the Black Gang, giving us a feeling of high rank.

We soon found our way around New York and attended all the great shows on Broadway and elsewhere, not forgetting the Metropolitan Opera House, where I enjoyed the unforgetable Swan Lake — yes, you have guessed it, with the great Anna Pavlova in the main role, and dying! It was in 1925 I went there with one of my colleagues. His sister was a nurse at the Willard Parker Hospital and managed to get four tickets, three together and one alone, the seat I offered to occupy. One of our ladies offered me her binoculars for my sacrifice, so I really had a perfect look at Anna performing. Naturally I have never before or after seen a more beautiful ballet. We escorted their ladyships home by tram to the Hospital in 20ºC below zero. We were the only passengers on the tram. Our conductor—driver uttered only one word on the trip there and back: COLD!

We were usually quite a crowd when we went out on trips all over New York and suburbs. I remember Coney Island well, with its Mile Sky Chaser, which to us looked as high as the Woolworth Building, the highest in the world, 54 stories. We were not too keen on the Sky Mile Chaser until one of our crowd offered any of us a Dollar, plus expenses, if he would take a trip. A colleague and I risked our lives and went up, on the way there we met quite a few girls and a couple of old women who went up and came down in one piece. We felt like sissies on Coney Island.

In Copenhagen, after one of our last trips to the U.S., I received a letter from my father in which he strongly suggested that my brother and I resign from our positions, come home and study for the highest degree in Marine Engineering: the Chief Engineers Extra First Class Examinations, 24 subjects. The normal time allotted for this was a year and a half, but my father thought we would be able to do it in one year, if we worked six days a week — from 8am to 10pm. This was also the opinion of the Polytechnical Engineer in my hometown, who was the Engineer-In-Chief at the local power station. He had promised my father he would get us through, if we worked hard enough. My brother had told me he would not resign under any circumstances, so I wrote to my father and told him we would both come home and sent my brother a copy of my letter. He was cranky, but he came.

1925: Race across the Atlantic

Picture of the S/S Frederik VIII:

S/S Frederik VIIIOur last trip to New York, in 1925, began six weeks before Christmas and was quite normal in all respects. Only a few passengers for the U.S.A., but back to Copenhagen was a different story, the most exciting I have ever experienced. When we had docked in Hoboken we were told by a couple of Swedes that the new luxury liner, Gripsholm was in New York on her maiden voyage. She had challenged us to a 3,000 mile race across the Atlantic, from New York Harbour to Pentland Firth Lighthouse north of Scotland, the last point of the course we would both be following (as we would then head for Oslo and the Gripsholm for Stockholm). One of the Swedes was an engineer, and he invited us all over to see the luxury liner, from stem to stern. We went over and agreed she was a beautiful boat. In the engine room we met a crowd of Danish diesel engineers from Burmeister & Wain, where the diesel engines were built. They told us the speed of their new engines would be limited, but would give us no chance of winning the race and said: "Don’t bet on it!". It was a race of Danish firemen against Danish engineering skill.

The Christmas trip to Denmark was always booked out to the last cabin, about 1,100 passengers. Many people wanted to celebrate Christmas in their homeland. The day of our departure arrived, our engines were turned over for an hour, warming up, ready to go flat out at a moment’s notice, and all eight boilers were kept on maximum pressure — the safety valves could blow at any moment. Our eyes were glued to the New York side of the Hudson River and, sure enough, there was the glorious Gripsholm backing out of her dock and then coming down towards us — slowly — you do not race in New York Harbour.

All Juniors, including me, were down below. I was on duty in the after boiler room, in charge of four boilers, making sure the steam was on top and the automatically regulated water levels were correct in all glasses — interfering manually, if any irregularity became apparent. The furnaces in water—tube boilers are enormous — about the size of your smallest bedroom. The radiant heat from the fire is too high to be tolerated more than a few seconds. Large blowers supply enough air to burn over a hundred tons of coal daily. Our firemen were big and strong, some were giants, with the "upringer" in charge of the men, the biggest of them all. He was good-natured, as long as everything was O.K. and he worked harder than any of his men, using a large American shovel to feed his enormous furnace continuously. I respected him and I never had any trouble with him or any of the other 51 firemen and trimmers.

Picture of the S/S Gripsholm:
S/S GripsholmAfter about an hour, when we were well clear of the American East Coast, I had a chance to get up on the upper deck and have a look for myself of how "Old Frederik" was doing against the other "Racehorse". She was so far to starboard that it was impossible to judge if she was ahead or astern of us. The following three days, there was nothing to be excited about, we were neck and neck and no one could say for sure who was ahead. The Chief Engineer ordered a case of 50 bottles of Carlsberg beer down in the boiler room every four hour watch. Our firemen were singing, sweating and looking like happy pigs — they were simply fantastic – every one with a big grin on his face. We watched the Gripsholm in the morning and throughout the night, but we soon had to admit: she was beating us.

In the boiler room, the men got the message, the grin disappeared from their black faces, no singing was heard — they looked angry and determined! It was great to watch this crowd of supermen at their best, but a large liner does not run wild in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean because we open the steam throttles and adjust the slide valves to let in more steam. Increase of engine speed meant an enormous effort by our hard-working firemen — the disappointment was overwhelming. It was also very sad to watch the faces of our passengers and 300 man crew.

After another 24 hours hard struggle, we began to keep our position in relation to the Gripsholm — about 500 meters astern of her. We all thought we were gaining on her, but Captain Mechlenburg said "No!" "Keep up the good work", said the Chief Engineer. Yet another full day passed, before the Captain came down below again, this time with a big smile on his face. The Chief lost no time, but rushed down into the boiler room and shouted: "We are gaining on her!". The firemen roared their approval. Later, the clatter of their shovels and tools gave a true indication of the effect of the good news on the weary men. They were given extra beer to celebrate — it made them even more keen. From that day on, you couldn’t stop them, they went wild, and so did Old Frederik!

The following day, Gripsholm was left far behind and out of sight, long before we saw Pentland Firth Lighthouse ahead. We passed the "post" and had to wait nearly two hours before our radio operator came down with a grin on his face and announced: "One hour and forty—three minutes!" I was on deck and heard the roar from the boiler rooms that could have sunk the Gripsholm about 30 miles away. We were cheered by people in Oslo when we went alongside, and we were all proud of our success. Two days later, in lovely sunshine, we parked in Copenhagen Freeport and were welcomed home by thousands on the wharf, shouting congratulations. My father was among them and came onboard. "Back to the drawing board, Bill" he said. I nodded and arranged to meet him the following day. We travelled together to the old hometown, Lemvig in Jutland, where I was going back to the grindstone for another year, studying for my final exams, due in Copenhagen in January 1927. I knew it would be an invaluable asset to have in my briefcase, if I wanted to get to the top — almost anywhere. My brother insisted I had kidnapped him - he was angry and not at all keen. In later life, his qualifications came in handy. In 1972 I had lunch with his bosses at Aarhus Yacht Club: they told me: "Your brother is the best Chief Engineer in our Company". I was happy to hear he was doing so well.

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