It was Christmas in the early 70’s. I’m thinking about 1972. I was a proud owner of a Polaroid Instant Camera; I seem to recall a bit of family drama, which resulted in this gift from my dad. For my birthday I received some film for the camera, and since this was a rare occurrence (I am sure it was pricey) I rationed it accordingly. When I was 9, my parents separated, my mom, and I moved frequently. My limited picture collection saw a lot of miles, and today very few remain. The pictures weren’t very good, but one has made it into my scrapbooks, it was the subject that warranted the placement.
There was knock at the back door, and in walked a fellow that I didn’t recognize. He was old; probably ancient would have been a better description, at least to my young eyes. I tried to make my escape but I received a non-verbal cue from my mom that it would be rude to scamper off, with a firm grip on my shoulder I was plunked down at the kitchen table. I can’t recall the tales, but I do remember the man was utterly fascinating, and had a lot of stories I could not resist. My camera was in the next room, and I wanted a picture. Being a bit shy I wouldn’t dare ask for him to pose, so I took one on the “sly” from the floor. I doubt it went unnoticed, if the noise of the camera didn’t clue him in, the smell of the chemicals would hardly be missed. To his credit, he didn’t call me out on it, and I have my fond memory of him and his visit.
All I know about my subject was that he was a brother of one of my Great Grandfathers. My mom told me he was Uncle Bill Fennimore, a merchant marine and that he would pop by the house from time to time. Since Willie Fennimore of that family did not see his 4th year, it had to be another brother, either Clarence, or Raymond. My father told me the picture was of Uncle Ray, which would make sense, as Clarence was married and had children. His visits would most likely include more than a solitary fellow, so my picture is most likely of Raymond Jaques Fennimore, bachelor, and merchant marine.
Although Raymond wasn’t my direct ancestor, many years later I am still interested in the kind old man I met as a child. Although he was not the youngest, it seems he was the last one home with his mother. His father William was incapacitated by a head injury and the financial front must have been a bit dire. In the 1910 Federal Census we find Raymond 17, living along with his mother Matilda, his younger sister aged 14 appears to have moved out to make her way in the world. Perhaps Ray was already out in the ocean, at this point, and simply found his way home between voyages. A common theme seems to be late filings of paperwork due to being at sea. One of the first documents I ever received for Raymond was his application for a social security number (SS5 form). On this form it is indicated that his employer was the S.S. American Farmer, Pier 62, NYC and that he had an urgent filing because he was a seaman and never received his previous number. In May 1943, Raymond’s WWII draft registration indicated he was late filing because he had been out to sea as a Fireman aboard a ship. Although he registered for the WWI, And WWII drafts he doesn’t appear to have served directly in the armed forces in either of these wars, but is working on ships during both time periods.
Thanks to Ancestry.com I have been able to find some additional information on Uncle Ray. Passenger lists are not restricted to immigrants to America and the multiple comings and goings of our ancestors can be found on Ancestry.com and EllisIsland.org. Many of his trips are documented in various passenger and crew lists on a few online repositories. He went to many different places, but the one that seemed to catch my eye was a return in April 1943 to Boston Mass, from Iceland. My first observation was this would have been during WWII, and it probably an assignment on behalf of the war effort. I dug a little deeper into the document and noticed that my Uncle’s name with many other’s was crossed out with an indication that one should refer to “sheet number 4, Citizen’s Manifest”, so all that remained were 13 “foreign sailors” with, certain columns completed, as this was really a list of “Alien” arrivals. When I scrolled down to the bottom of the page I couldn’t help but notice “13* includes (8) survivors”. I know very little about maritime terminology, but if this possibly means that only 61% of the foreign born occupants survived the trip; I have to think “Deadliest Catch” crews have nothing on these guys. I decide to do a little research on the role of the merchant marine in WWII, and the vessel.
According to Wikipedia, The S.S. Chateau Thierry served as a troop transport and that after my Uncle left its deck, it was transformed into a hospital ship. It was originally built in Hog Island for WWI but arrived a little late, only to see active duty in WWII. If the ship’s main purpose was to transport troops from Europe, then the mortality rate could definitely be high. The ship is also mentioned in a book called, “Unsung sailors: the Naval Armed Guard in World War II” by Justin F. Gleichauf. Mr Gleichauf paints a picture of ships so old that Germans didn’t bother to bomb them figuring they would sink soon enough. He also indicates they were indeed ships used in the war effort and at risk of attack. In pages 76 and 77, he discusses the trips from Iceland to Boston and mentioning a near collision between The Cheateau Thierry and another ship. Wikepedia’s entry for Merchant Marines in WWII indicates a high degree of danger “3.1 million tons of merchant ships were lost in World War II. Mariners died at a rate of 1 in 24, which was the highest rate of casualties of any service. All told, 733 American cargo ships were lost and 8,651 of the 215,000 who served perished on troubled waters and off enemy shores.” The life of a merchant marine did not sound like an easy one. Raymond Fennimore was 50 years old during this time, demanding work for a man of that age, considering many years of such wear and tear. I can’t imagine the people he met or the things he witnessed, but it must have been worth quite a few interesting stories.
In looking at his picture with grown up eyes, I see my dad by the sink in a t-shirt, scotch tape on the table, and a coffee cup. Is it late afternoon? Early evening? Uncle Ray looks tired, cigarette in one hand, and I doubt it is water in that glass he is holding. Did he enjoy the visit that day? Did my parents take the time to make him feel welcome, or were they busy preparing for Christmas and a bit distracted? I hope his visit was pleasant, and wish I had known him better, or recalled one if his stories. He passed away in 1976, hopefully surrounded by family. If you are out there Uncle Ray, I wish you a Merry Christmas.
Ancestry.com. Boston Passenger and Crew Lists, 1820-1943 [database on-line]. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington, D.C.; Crew Lists of Vessels Arriving at Boston, Massachusetts, 1917-1943; Microfilm Serial: T938; Microfilm Roll: 454. Viewed 15 December 2011.
Ancestry.com. 1910 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2006. Year: 1910; Census Place: Passaic, Morris, New Jersey; Roll: T624_903; Page: 5A; Enumeration District: 0036; Image: 90; FHL Number: 1374916. . Viewed 15 December 2011.
Ancestry.com. U.S. World War II Draft Registration Cards, 1942 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010. Viewed 15 December 2011.
United States, Selective Service System. Selective Service Registration Cards, World War II: Fourth Registration. National Archives and Records Administration Branch locations: National Archives and Records Administration Region Branches.
Gleichauf, Justin. Unsung sailors: the Naval Armed Guard in World War II. Annapolis: MD, 1990. Web. <http://books.google.com/books?id=TgFx3m0ySd8C&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0
SS Form Raymond Fennimore, “Freedom of Information Act” Washington, DC. Image in possession of Elizabeth Pellicane, Private residence.
“S.S. Chateau Thierry .” Wikipedia The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia.org, 2011. Web. <Wikipedia.org>. Viewed 15 December 2011.
“United States Merchant Marine.” Wikipedia The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia.org, 2011. Web. <Wikipedia.org>. Viewed 15 December 2011.