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Sailors reflect as freighter American Victory nears its end

A one-time chief engineer aboard the Middletown, Willie Keyes stands in front of the retired vessel last week prior to its journey to a Turkish scrapyard. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com1 / 4
Former chief engineer Willie Keyes and Bryan Rydberg reminisce over a painting of the American Victory on Tuesday. Keyes had the painting made in 1989 from a photo he took. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com2 / 4
Willie Keyes holds an oil painting he had made of the American Victory in 1989, when she was still known as the Middletown. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com3 / 4
The American Victory received a host of military ribbons, including a Purple Heart, during her days as the naval tanker Neshanic in WWII. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com4 / 4

As a result of late-in-life transactions and maritime law, the American Victory will fly a Canadian flag and leave the Twin Ports early Sunday to journey to her resting place in a Turkish scrapyard under the crude sobriquet “Victo.”

It is an end which belies a lifetime of both distinction and despair.

“She’s got a lot of bad history,” said Willie Keyes, who experienced some of the ship’s darkest hours.

Keyes is the fleet engineer for the Keystone Shipping Co., the Duluth-based operator of Canadian National Railway’s Great Lakes Fleet of ships. But half a lifetime ago, he was a young engineer working his way up the ranks aboard the American Victory, which was then known as the Middletown. Long owned by Oglebay Norton, the same company that operated the Edmund Fitzgerald, the Middletown was the sort of ship which left a lasting impression on her crewmembers.

“I was in love with it,” Keyes said. “Unfortunately with engineers that’s what we do with our ships.”

Keyes and Bryan Rydberg, a logistics expert and former Great Lakes captain, met with the News Tribune twice in recent weeks to discuss the history and importance of the ship. They reflected on her in depth at the Anchor Bar and Grill in Superior and later across the slip from Fraser Shipyards, where Rydberg was overseeing the salvaging of the vessel down to her bones.

“There come the belts,” Rydberg said earlier this week as a crane hoisted a roll of heavy conveyor material from out of the belly of the ship.

Sailors from the shipping hotbed of Northwestern Wisconsin used to pour their lives into the ship. Some even gave their lives as 24 died across her various iterations — from wartime fuel tanker to Great Lakes workhorse.

Four men were killed in WWII, when the naval tanker Neshanic skipped from atoll to atoll in the South Pacific to refuel other vessels. Following the war, after she’d begun her commercial career, several more perished during a fiery crash with another tanker outside Newport, R.I. From there, the ship was given a new midbody and lengthened for work on the Great Lakes, which is where Keyes came to know her. He was on board for the four final deaths — two in a methane explosion, another to a suspected heart attack in a cargo hold and Gene Leskela in a boiler room fire as the crew prepared for winter layup in Toledo.

“He was my best friend,” Keyes said of the man buried in an Oulu, Wis., cemetery in 1992.

Keyes remembered the time he and Leskela once salvaged the degaussing cable that ran below deck around the inside perimeter of the ship. The cable had once been used to reduce the ship’s magnetic signature to help her avoid floating mines during WWII. Once the copper was recycled, the men purchased portable air conditioners for every room on the ship.

“I was head of mining and Gene was head of production,” Keyes said of their impromptu salvage operation. “Gene put a saw blade backward on a circular saw and he’d take 10- to 12-foot pieces of that cable and run it all the way down to take all the armor and insulation off the cable.”

As the wartime tanker Neshanic, she featured anti-aircraft guns, and all of the deadlights over the portholes and skylights above deck were welded shut for blackout, so not a sliver of light could alert warplanes overhead to her presence.

“That had to be a hot son of a gun,” Rydberg said.

“After V-J Day that’s the first thing they did was cut all them welds,” Keyes replied.

Before he left the ship for good after the death of his friend and seven years of sailing aboard her, Keyes, having risen to chief engineer, locked himself for 10 days in his quarters on the aft end of the ship and painstakingly wrote down everything he knew about her.

“It’s page after page of details,” said Rydberg, who found the manual with its meticulous handwriting during the salvage operation which began at the Loon’s Foot Marine dock in Superior before moving to Fraser for the heavier lifting.

“We bled everything we knew into that manual,” Keyes said. “Every idiosyncrasy of the power plant, how you lay it up, how you fit it out (to start the season).”

There were reasons she was popular as a lake freighter. Converted to a self-unloader in the 1980s, she could load and unload taconite iron ore in under four hours, coal in under five, washed stone in about five. She could make Conneaut, Ohio on the eastern edge of Lake Erie from Port Washington, Wis., on the western edge of Lake Michigan in five-and-a-half days.

“This thing was fast and I’m saying fast-fast,” Rydberg said. “She’d pass everything on the Great Lakes.”

“Full speed was 82 turns,” Keyes added, referring to the propeller. “She had a big, solid saltwater wheel on her and in those 82 turns she grabbed (the water) and ran.”

Keyes remembered the Middletown once blowing right past the Roger Blough out on the open water only to succumb to a nagging steering issue that momentarily turned the vessel back around. Upon seeing the Middletown returning, the crew of the Blough called the Middletown pilot house to say, “We don’t mind getting passed, but we’re not going to tolerate victory laps.”

The two men laughed at the retelling of that story and proceeded to discuss the ship’s labyrinthian engine room which required its crew members to go down to get up and up to get down.

“You have to be a mountain goat to get around in there,” Rydberg said.

On Sunday, the American Victory will begin her final voyage at 6 a.m., when she’ll be tugged out through the Superior entry. She’ll feature a local pilot, likely Shawn McKenzie, guiding her through the Great Lakes to Montreal and from there be taken by oceangoing tugs to Turkey.

“Steamers are very expensive to run,” McKenzie said, “and the personnel you can find to run them anymore are fewer and fewer in number.”

Built for the U.S. government in 1942, the ship now reduced to Victo figures to pull in almost $3 million to recycle her steel husk, Rydberg said.

“That’s a floating memorial,” Rydberg said, admiring her from across the slip.

Her forward-end ribs packed tightly together inside the hull once made her capable of plowing through up to 20 inches of blue ice, said Keyes, whose own heart melted along the way.

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