A Sailor’s Odyssey: At Peace and at War 1935-1945
By Alvin P. Chester
Hardcover in dustjacket, 288 pages, photographs
Published by Odysseus Books, January 1991
Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.0 x 9.0 inches
Prior to World War Two the way things moved between the continents was by ship. Crossing the Atlantic between the United States and Europe were several competing shipping lines offering regular service to various ports of call. The majority of ships carried both cargo and passengers, who often counted diplomats and celebrities among their ranks. Dining with the Captain was a mark of social status, and the Captain and his officers were held in some esteem by society.
Al Chester entered this world as a cadet in the New York State Merchant Marine Academy in 1933. Upon graduation in 1935, he began serving on a variety of merchant vessels as a nineteen-year-old Officer Cadet. He was able to advance by taking on more responsible positions with different ships, often serving alongside former classmates from the NYSMMA. By 1938 it was becoming apparent that war was coming and that the United States would eventually become involved. When the war came to Europe, Chester’s Naval Reserve commission was made active and he was assigned to the oiler USS Kanawha (AO-1) as her gunnery officer, and as officer in charge of the U.S. Navy Armed Guard aboard the merchant transport S.S. Matsonia as the war came to the U.S. and the Pacific.
With German U-boats ravaging shipping in the Atlantic the U.S. built hundreds of small, expedient escorts, Chester was given command of the USS SC-981, and later advanced to command the USS Cofer (DE-208), a Destroyer Escort. After some convoy work in the Atlantic, Coffer was converted to an Assault Transport, which gave her the capability to carry landing craft for amphibious assaults at the expense of her torpedo tubes, among other modifications. As APD-62 she participated in the invasion of the Philippines and faced Japanese Kamikaze attack at Ormoc Bay.
A Sailor’s Odyssey is a very personal story, Chester details the day-to-day life and incidents from a decade at sea. I found the descriptions of life in the Merchant Marine to be particularly fascinating as there is not much written about that. His wartime progression and commands were not unique but his previous experience in the commercial shipping trade certainly left him better prepared than most of his contemporaries and even many of his superiors. He does not gloss over anything he experienced or observed, calling out the good and the bad in equal measure. This includes his own physical decline when the unceasing demands of command and constant strain impacted his health. I can highly recommend this book, both for its descriptions of Navy life and insights into the Merchant Marine at the end of an era.