We got away with murder, says Sonny of time at whaling
With isles whalers gearing up for possibly their final reunion this weekend, JIM TAIT went to meet one of the few remaining Shetland men who was at the South Atlantic before the industry was halted during World War Two.
Ollaberry man Sonny Williamson, 90, was born and grew up at Lubba, not far from the house he lives in now, and did various “bits and pieces”, as he puts it, before signing on with Salvesen in the autumn of 1939.
He left Leith on 15th October, a month after Britain entered the war, and was to spend the next three seasons working on the factory ships Salvestria, Svend Foyn and Saluta.
It was a hard life with many arduous tasks, including hauling winch wires and pulling bones across the deck. The worst, he says, was having to clean the tanks which had been filled up with crude oil in the West Indies on the way south. They had to be in pristine condition in order to be filled with valuable whale oil for the return trip.
“We had a chemist onboard who used to go down in the tanks with his white gloves on,” Sonny says. “They had to be absolutely clean. I mind one year old Harold Salvesen himself, the big white chief, was down looking in the tanks to see what like they were, making sure they were alright.”
The gases used in the tank-cleaning process left their mark on his lungs, however, with his breathing being affected years later.
“There’s no doubt about it,” he says. “There was no proper protection. They were cleaned with caustic soda and then we had to go in with a roasting hot hose. It was very dangerous but I’m still living today. It didn’t do the old lungs any good but we’re still pegging along.”
The pre-war factory ships with over 400 men onboard were rough and ready with “everything shaking 24 hours a day”, while the food was “something else”, Sonny recalls.
“We worked a 12-hour shift, from six to six. Breakfast was at eight and dinner was at 12. I mind Bertie Henderson saying: ‘Boy this does not half give your belly a gluff at midnight’. We got a lot of salt beef and salt pork and we got some tattie flour with a bit of cocoa which was supposed to be pudding.
“But you were hungry, working out in the open all day, so you were able to eat it. A bit of bully beef was a real treat and you got a bit of fresh pork at Christmas as they kept a few pigs onboard.”
Different kinds of whales were hunted, from the massive blue whale to the smaller humpback and sperm whales. Oil was the most valuable commodity, used for lighting, lubricating and in the manufacture of some cosmetics, and a 90-foot blue whale could yield up to 120 barrels.
“You could get them up to 110 or 112 feet long,” Sonny says, “but 98 feet was the biggest I saw. The biggest amount of oil in a week that I knew about was 28,000 barrels, all from humpbacks, on the Southern Venturer.
“I mind us doing 48 humpbacks in a 12-hour shift. Charlie Duncan from Ollaberry was flensing along with me and a Norwegian.
“Some of the whales had been torn through eating giant octupus. The octopus were fighting not to be eaten.
“A sperm whale will eat any damn thing. A pal of mine found bones in the stomach and he took them to the London Museum. It was identified as a turtle.”
It was a dirty, smelly job, one which he doubts many youngsters would like to face nowadays.
“You got in a braw bit of a mess sometimes. You could easy go to your erse in meat and blubber.
“We dumped the guts over the side. It was always the port side as the starboard side was used to fuel the catchers. So you had to watch the ert. I mind the Norwegians would shout: ‘See out for sproet!’ That meant look out for guts.”
In late 1941 the whaling industry was suspended due to World War II and the catchers were all removed from South Georgia, Sonny heading to Durban on one which the South African Navy had taken over.
The next four years he spent in the Merchant Navy, mainly bringing newly-built ships over from North America with massive deck cargoes to help the war effort.
“If it had not been for the Yankee Liberty Ships they would have been in a poor state,” he says. “They used to say they were made by the mile and cut off by the yard. I think the record for building one of them was 16 days. They certainly saved the situation.”
He spent many weeks in New York waiting for a ship to be completed, and during that time worked in restaurants, washing dishes mostly.
“The British Consul would not let us get a right job for fear that we jumped ship and stayed. There were plenty of jobs going but they wouldn’t let us take them. It was okay I suppose. You got as much grub as you could eat. I worked for a while in a place on Broadway called Childs Restaurant. They were all over.”
On 13th September 1943, while one of a scratch crew on a ship which had earlier been damaged by enemy aircraft and was being towed from Gibraltar to Belfast, Sonny had probably his closest call during the war.
The Fort Babine was over 250 miles west of Cape Finisterre in the north of Spain, eight days into the tow, when she was again attacked by German aircraft, this time bombed and sunk. Seven of the eight gunners onboard were lost but Sonny and the other 14 members of the skeleton crew took the lifeboats and were picked up by one of the Dutch tugs.
The survivors were transferred to a sloop named the Woodcock, eventually made it safely back to the UK, and following a month’s leave Sonny was off back to the US to pick up another new ship.
After the war he went back to the whaling on the Saluta for one season, then spent time on cargo ships before going back to the South Atlantic in 1949. He had six more seasons on the Southern Venturer – a far better ship than those he first experienced – and in 1951/52 he stayed for a whole year.
During his one and only ex-perience of the Antarctic winter he mainly cleaned and painted whale-catchers, getting them ready for another summer season.
“We painted inside in bad weather and outside when the weather was better. You had to scrape the floors, which were covered by heavy lino. There were some dirty buggers on the catchers. I mind one fellow had put every cigarette stub he had smoked over four months behind his bunk!
“The gunners on the catchers were a bunch of drunken old men but they were thought of more in Norway than King Haakon himself.”
For the spell lasting over a year Sonny earned more than £900, compared with just over £300 during his previous two summer seasons, and he still has the documents to prove it. He was promoted to cutter and then to second flensher, but after missing a few years was back to cutter again for his final season in 1959/60.
“I mind a Highland man saying to me: ‘Goodness gracious, you must be rich’. But we were not that well paid for what we had to suffer. You got a bit of a bonus when you got back to Leith, and the whaling brought money into Shetland after the war. But Salvesen made a fortune. They made millions.”
Sonny has always been known as a bit of a character, and he has stories galore from his seafaring and whaling days.
He tells of the time Willie Sutherland and Charlie Duncan caught the measles off a US navy man on a train between New York and Baltimore. Sonny, who had had the illness already, volunteered to look after them in a remote cabin aft on their ship. If they had been hospitalised they would have lost their jobs.
There was the incident when the same unfortunate Willie succumbed to an outbreak of ringworm in the Mediterranean. He decided to apply a dash of “Yankee after-shave called Aqua Velvet” with disastrous results. He was actually jumping around “blowing on the bottle”, Sonny remembers.
One night Sonny was sleeping on deck in Port Said, where the locals had the rather annoying habit of coming aboard and “pinching your flip-flops from under your feet”, and he decided to take precautions.
“I took a piece of four-by-four and I woke up to see this Arab under the bench. I fetched him a fair old dunt right in the kidneys. He ran off but I reckon he would have had a bit of trouble pishing after that for a bit!”
There was the time in March 1947 – he remembers the exact month and year – when a pigeon came onboard as they were leaving the English Channel.
“He stayed with us all the way to the River Plate. There were millions of pigeons there but he obviously didn’t fancy any of them. He stayed with us all the way back home. An old Estonian carpenter onboard always fed him. When he saw the land again at the Channel he made off.”
Another little bit of history hangs in the barn not far from Sonny’s house – in the form of a six-foot mahogany dinghy.
The boat was apparently “acquired” by a shipmate called Charlie Peters in Buenos Aires, and Sonny bought it off him for £2 10 shillings the following year.
“Some rich shipping owner lost his peerie dinghy,” he says. “I sewed her up in canvas and took her back home. I was at the railway station in Liverpool with her on my shoulder and this policeman said to me: ‘I’ve seen a few things but I’ve never seen a boat before!’ “I told him I carried the dinghy with me all the time because I couldn’t swim. He said: ‘Do you really?’ and I nodded.”
After Sonny finished at the whaling in 1960 he was three years on coasters running back and fore to Norway. Then he gave up the sea for good and got a job with NATO at Collafirth Hill, where he spent 20 years.
Now long retired and sitting in his home at Ollaberry, still sporting the impressive beard he grew around 60 years ago, he has many fond memories and few regrets.
“I would do the same all over again. The more whales the more money. But we were all young fellows then.”
Sonny’s discharge book is exemplary, with his ability and character both described as “very good” throughout. And a letter in 1964 from Hugh MacKay, the master of his final ship the Glitra, carries a high recommendation.
“We got away with murder,” he says with a wink.