The Beauty of an Ocean Liner


The American President Lines USS Wilson, depicted at Shanghai Harbor


In the mid 1950’s through the 1960’s most American civilians and non-military government officials moving to Southeast Asia traveled with their families and belongings by ship. My family traveled between San Francisco and Yokohama, Japan, five times between 1959 and 1969. Each voyage took 14 days, with a morning to evening stop in Honolulu each way. As a result, I spent ten weeks on the ocean on either the USS President Wilson or the USS President Cleveland, sister ships that alternately plied that route. A most vivid memory is of passing under the Golden Gate Bridge, looking up from the deck.

In addition, my parents were engaged as faculty on a university study-voyage on the South China Sea for about a month in the spring of 1969, on an old chartered Russian ship that formerly was a WWII era German liner. My brothers and I got to go along. We stopped at Cambodia’s first port (Kom Pong Song / at the time just one short and lonely pier), and then at Bangkok, Singapore, and Hong Kong.  ‘Complicated politics’ at that time kept us from docking in South Vietnam, as originally intended.

My younger brothers and me, with our parents, about to depart in 1966

This could have been me and my brother, arriving by ship in Japan, in 1959

Before the era of single class and entertainment-oriented ‘cruise ships,’ ocean liners primarily served the needs of individuals and families relocating to multi-year assignments overseas. Like numerous government officials and their families, and unlike business travelers, my missionary parents were booked in the lowest price range cabins in the first class category of the ships. This was in markedly different circumstances from those who traveled in the aft, more crowded and yet rather limited economy section. Though we had smaller and more sparse cabins compared with those in the top tier, we had meals in the same dining room and enjoyed the same public areas and entertainment options as all others in first class, as well as by the Captain and his senior staff. And in the course of a two-week long voyage, people from very different backgrounds and circumstances became unanticipated acquaintances and in some cases lifelong friends – an unexpected and beautiful thing.

An upper-deck photo of the Wilson en route

Each voyage departure in that era was a real event. The docks were crowded with well-wishers, and folks onboard were given multiple reels of colored paper streamers. We were then encouraged to hang on to one end, and throw the streamer reel toward those on the pier below. Soon, the links between the ship and those on shore were heavily laden with these colorful streamers. And slowly they were broken, one by one, as the ship moved away from the dock area toward the open sea beyond, all the while blasting one of the loudest sounds I have ever heard. Our connection with one world symbolically was broken as we were pulled back, and towards another. This once again brought people from remarkably different backgrounds together.

I remain most grateful for our ocean voyages, which allowed a graceful transition between progressively differing time zones, in addition to all the fun we had on the way. At that time, traveling by jet between the continents seemed like the luxury way to transit the oceans. Now, in retrospect, though the two ships were comparatively modest in relation to modern cruise ships, voyaging on the Wilson and Cleveland was clearly the preferred way to go! For we were all pampered by the ship’s crew, from the uniformed waiters in the dining room and lounges, to the attendants who brought refreshments like ice cream to the inside and poolside teak deck chairs.

Children were especially cared for, in the day-long Marco Polo room, where activities and snacks were provided without interruption. Amazing to me and my brothers were the plastic model car kits simply given to us to help occupy our time, when we were not swimming.

An American President Lines magazine ad from that era

Among my childhood recollections, some of my most significant memories of beauty, in so many forms, are attached to those voyages on what seemed to be the most remarkable ships.

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