Moose Lake Star Gazette - Serving Carlton and Pine Counties Since 1895

By Wick Fisher
Moose Lake Star-Gazette 

S. S. Badger State

Wick's World

 


Hop on a cruise ship on the west coast of the United States and take it up to Alaska before heading to Hawaii. Sounds like fun, yes? Then head back to where it all started, to Amtrak, and look for the Empire Builder. It has the dining car with the top chef. He will present your meal on the same china used by all the trains when they were the kings of the transportation business in the United States. The timing of your meal may be great but don’t expect the same from the timing of the train. You see, Amtrak doesn’t own the rails the Empire Builder uses. They don’t own any of the privately-owned rails in this country. Thus, a shipment of coal takes priority over a carload of passengers. Our trip on the Empire Builder arrived a mere nineteen hours late when it pulled into St. Paul, Minnesota.

Let’s go back for an analysis of our theoretical trip from the 48 states on the mainland to our 49th and 50th states and return. I would like you to stop for a moment and reflect on what is located in the middle of that triangular trip. Sitting in the bottom of the cold Pacific Ocean, many fathoms deeper than one can fathom, lies the S.S. Badger State.

In 1969, the S.S. Badger State was commissioned by the U.S. Navy for shipping cargo from the west coast of the United States to Danang, Vietnam. If this sounds very convenient for transporting bombs to a war we knew we couldn’t win, it was. This statement by no means is meant to dishonor the brave men and women who gallantly fought that war. Meanwhile, when the S.S. Badger State sailed for Danang Harbor, I was safely spending my last Christmas in Panama after successfully installing a military dictator right where we wanted him. (Panama would remain under dictatorship until toppling General Manuel Noriega in the 1980s.)

The S.S. Badger State, like many civilian cargo ships of that era, should never have set sail for Vietnam. It was a worn-out rust bucket similar to many built as civilian supply ships during WWII. They were built to haul everything from tanks to coal. The men that filled these supply ships were called longshoreman. During WWII my father was one of those men. Drafted in 1942, he was sent back to Chamberlain, South Dakota from Omaha, Nebraska, having been told he had black lung and would never live past thirty. He died at age eighty-five.

How did he get black lung living out on the Plains? As an enterprising young man, he had bought an old truck. Down the hill from where we lived on the end of Clemmar (or Clemmer?) St. sat the railroad yard. He filled that truck with one railroad car of coal a day. That’s shoveling a whole lot of coal.

One day he decided to give his lungs a rest so he headed to California with one of Chamberlain’s several Douville Brothers. I know it wasn’t Bobby who eventually bought a liquor store; and I don’t think it was Vern. He became one of the town’s prominent bankers. I believe it was Mark Douville who took the train with my Dad from their hometown of Chamberlain out to Oakland, California to work as civilians in the Naval Shipyards. They easily could have loaded the S.S. Badger State on one of its many trips across the Pacific.

They did not load the S.S. Badger State in December of 1969. Rather, this ship was very poorly loaded by other longshoremen. My Dad would have never loaded a ship like that. He always knew how to “shore up” a heavy load. But rushed by greedy shipowners, this weeklong job was completed by these longshoremen in five days. The S.S. Badger State may have gotten by with a different load but this one carried nine thousand bombs and rockets that equaled a half-million pounds of TNT.

Encountering severe weather, the S.S. Badger State had a load of unsecurely fastened bombs rolling around in its belly. On the fateful day after Christmas in 1969, the S.S. Badger State had to abandon ship. Rescue was a roll of the dice. Fourteen crewmen were rescued. Although they made it to a lifeboat, twenty-six souls perished when they were swamped by a 500-pound bomb that rolled off the ship.

When you roll the dice, you never know if they will come up box-cars or snake-eyes. One will put you on a train to safety, the other staring out of a deep, dark hole.

 

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