SS Independence

In Uncategorized on October 4, 2013 at 12:12 pm

Indepedence gilsenan's island hockenberry

By Antonio Graceffo

A friend today was asking about my time as a US Merchant Marine. I served as a wheel watch on the SS Independence, at that time, the oldest ship still in the US fleet. On the bridge, we had a photo of a very young movie star, named Ronald Reagan, taking the wheel while he was on vacation. The ship was so old that we still had brass funnels hanging from the ceiling, so you could yell down to the engine room. The mate would always tell visitors, “We use these to order up our Mai Tais at cocktail hour.” The funnels didn’t work anymore, so we used a telephone to call the engine room and order changes in the speed of the screws. The thing I am proudest of on that bridge was that we had one of those huge brass wheels, and that was how I learned to steer. I may have been the last or one of the last US sailors ever to get certified on a brass wheel.

While I was serving on that ship, they installed a modern, jet-fighter style control panel, with autopilot and GPS. But, it could only make corrections of up to 15 degrees. So, when we were in a storm, I still flipped it over to manual and steered the way sailors had for centuries.

Merchant Marines was a brief period of my life, but one I remember very fondly. It was a time when I felt very connected to the proud and ancient maritime history that came at the time of the Renaissance and lead to the discovery of America.

And I still couldn’t drive a car.

Here is a picture of my ship. Notice how clean those smoke stacks are? Guess whose job it was to climb up the outside, several hundred feet, with a huge scrub brush and a bucket of water. I would hang in a swing and scrub those stacks clean about every other day.

I just looked it up. Apparently, the ship was decommissioned in 2001. The note read “Fate: Grounded and subsequently broken up off Alang, India”

Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the author of the books, “Warrior Odyssey’ and “The Monk from Brooklyn.” He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.

Warrior Odyssey, the book chronicling Antonio Graceffo’s first six years in Asia is available at The book contains stories about the war in Burma and the Shan State Army. The book is available at

See Antonio’s Destinations video series and find out about his column on




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