Saturday, June 20, 2009

The 'Haunting' of the S.S. Watertown


At sea, no one dies from old age.

Imagine struggling to keep your head above the relentless swells of white-caps until exhaustion gives way to resignation. You are helpless as you sink, your lungs screaming for air, muscles lacking the strength to match the will to live.

I've heard stories of shipwrights who have gone missing while constructing battleships, their gaunt corpses discovered years later during retrofitting, lodged between the bilge and bulkhead. Many of these men died from the fall into the depths of the hull. Others were not so lucky, surrendering to dehydration and starvation after their escapes were welded shut.

One night, on liberty along the Bay of Naples, a friend of mine told me over a couple of beers how he never wanted to serve aboard an aircraft carrier. Imagine, he said, working the flight deck and one of the steel 'trap' lines gives way. The line's there to snag a landing plane so it doesn't splash overboard, but let's suppose it breaks and whips out, slicing me in half. There I'd be, lying on my back watching my dumb-ass legs ten feet away, struggling like a butchered chicken. I remember how the image made my skin crawl.

Fueled by such horrible possibilities, the sea is home to a thousand tales of haunting. Let's face it, popular theory does not support spectres materializing after a happy ending. Appearances tend to follow agonizing deaths, the purposeful returns described as vengeful, tortured, or even prophetic. If this is the case, how do we interpret the events surrounding the S.S. Watertown?

During the early part of the 20th century, the S.S. Watertown was a small-sized tanker under contract with the Cities Services Company of New York, transporting crude oil between California and New Orleans, via the Panama Canal. On December 4th, 1924, the ship was steaming southward along the coast of Mexico, its tanks only half-filled with petroleum. At morning quarters, Seaman's James Courtney and Michael Meehan were given their assignment for the day: to scrub out an empty cargo tank in the ship's aft hull. It was 'black work,' a task commonly assigned as punishment for causing shipboard unrest. Maybe the two men cursed silently at their predicament, or perhaps they accepted it willingly, an opportunity to amend their un-recorded transgression. Whatever their reaction, neither man could have known what would happen next.


S.S. Watertown dry docked for repairs, date unknown

Though this voyage was the first for both men aboard the Watertown, neither could be described as a 'greenhorn.' Courtney, a hulking Irishman, had spent seven years in the Indian Ocean on cargo ships hauling copra and rubber. Meehan, suspected of having gypsy blood by many of the crew, claimed twelve years among the Pacific trade routes. Other than these crumbs of information, little was known of the two men, and it seemed that both Courtney and Meehan wanted it this way. While off-duty, both tended to keep to themselves.

Soon after beginning their work in the storage tank, both men were over-come by a combination of engine exhaust and oil fumes. It is believed that Meehan succumbed first, for when the mid-ship watch discovered the two seamen, Courtney lay across his shipmate's body, as if he had been dragging Meehan to the access ladder leading to the upper-decks. The two unconscious men were brought to the ship's young surgeon, Dr. Hereward Carrington, who coincidentally, was also on his first voyage with the Watertown. Originally from New York City, Carrington had recently graduated from medical school in California, and joined the ship's company on the insistence of his grandfather. He had no idea how much I would see, Carrington later recalled in an interview. If he had any inclination, I think he would have had me stay on dry land.

When the doctor examined the men, he could detect no signs of respiration or pulse. At 13:07, Courtney and Meehan were pronounced dead from asphyxiation. Carrington and his orderly wiped away the oil and grime that caked both bodies, then stitched the sailors into canvas hammocks used for sailors' berths. After laying in rest until the watch change, the bodies were carried topside for burial at sea.

As the setting sun painted the horizon with a red glow, Captain Keith Tracy had the Boson call the ship's company aft for the internment service. Tracy had skippered the Watertown since the ship's commissioning in 1921, and was known for having a level and well-tempered hand in the wheelhouse. When his men had settled into ranks, the Captain cleared his throat, and read with a somber tone from the ship's dog-eared bible. Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea grew more and more tempestuous. He said to them, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.” (Jonah 1:9)

When he finished reading, Tracy asked his crew if any wished to say a few words in memoriam of their two shipmates. Not a single sailor stepped forward. The Captain, not one to prolong the inevitable, nodded his head and the two corpses slid side-by-side into the sea with a muffled splash. The crew returned to their bunks and duty stations, presuming this was the last they would see of Courtney and Meehan. How wrong they were.

On December 5th, the first mate reported to the deck watch that he had seen the faces of two men in the waves off the port side of the ship. They remained in the water for about 10 seconds, and then faded, he later recalled in an interview. According to Dr. Carrington, the faces continued to appear in the ship's wake for several days, keeping pace with the Watertown until the tanker steamed into the Port of New Orleans. During these days, the apparitions were witnessed by every member of the crew, and all aboard agreed. The faces were of James Courtney and Michael Meehan.

As the ship was being unloaded, Captain Tracy headed to the local offices of the Cities Services Company, reporting the events of the tenacious images. After ridiculing the skipper for a time, the agents dismissed him, suggesting he attempt to photograph the faces during their next appearance, as proof. A no-nonsense man with little tolerance for ridicule, Captain Tracy purchased a Kodak Model F Brownie box camera in preparation.

When the tanker returned to the shipping lanes of the deep Atlantic, the apparitions appeared once more on the port-side, almost on cue and in defiance of the skeptics in New Orleans. Tracy unpacked his camera, and took six photographs. Satisfied with his foresight, he then locked the camera and film in the ship's safe. In the following days,the crew would report seeing the faces of the deceased men several more times, but slowly the appearances would dwindle, until no more sightings were reported.

When the Watertown docked again, Tracy sent the camera and film to the shipping company's office in New York City. The film was processed, and five of the exposures showed nothing but sea foam. The sixth, however, would support the crew's accounts, clearly showing the likenesses of Courtney and Meehan in the ship's wake. Investigated for possible tampering by a private detective agency, the negative showed no indication of fraud.

Image captured by Captain Keith Tracy, S.S. Watertown

It would take ten years for the tale of the S.S. Watertown to move beyond the whispers within the Cities Services Company. After rumors of ghostly faces began to spread up and down the Pacific coast, the account was investigated and the findings published in the East Coast Journal, a magazine that reported trends within the shipping industry. The article was soon followed with a published interview with Dr. Carrington, at that time Director of the American Physical Institute.

The negative of Captain Tracy's photograph has been lost to the abyss of antiquity, leaving behind only questions: If it is a fake, masterfully created with 1920's photographic burn-and-dodge processing techniques, what purpose did the deception serve? If it is real, what does this glimpse into post-mortem provide? Were Courtney and Meehan trying to pass along a message to their crewmates? If so, what could it have been? Perhaps when more information surfaces, we will have the answers.