Master Mariner Missing !

Wilhelm F. Bondeson (1907-1995) was the captain of survey ship USNS Michelson Wilhelm F. Bondeson (1907-1995) was the captain (or master) of survey ship USNS Michelson during the time up until the ship's 1963 return to its (then) home port of New York.

He had a long career at sea, starting out as a deck steward on Swedish passenger ships. As able seaman, then licensed deck officer, he advanced his career on civilian freighters, then with the Army Transport Service, which later became MSTS (Military Sea Transport Service), now called MSC (Military Sealift Command).

Bondeson, as Michelson's captain was in charge of the sixty or so members of the civilian merchant marine operating crew. The Navy detachment of 20+ was led by a lieutentant commander, tasked to support the survey mission.  A senior scientist, or party chief,  directed the survey work. So, there were three guys, each of whom thought he was the boss. Added to that were a few tech reps from the companies supplying the electronic stuff. I don't know who was in charge of them.

Master Mariner Missing !

In 1961-63 Michelson’s captain (a/k/a master) was Wilhelm Bondeson, a Swede, referred to as “captain yah-yah” from his response to any verbal statement or question. Generally, a single “yah” would do on most occasions and a double “yah” reserved for important matters.

Bondeson customarily wore MSTS approved officer’s khakis when (and if) he appeared during daylight hours, or in pajamas and purple bathrobe if called to the bridge at night. Michelson had a little couch in the chart room for captain’s naps (cap naps?) but I never saw him use it.

In the spring of 1963 the ship was to leave Belfast to begin surveys in the Mediterranean. Michelson was ready to cast off. Two tugboats had arrived and the harbor pilot was aboard. Not aboard, however, were the radio officer and the captain. We waited. The tugs waited. And the harbor pilot waited too.

Somebody grabbed a taxi and went into town, searched the customary watering holes, then returned, hauling the inebriated twosome aboard. A ship can sail without the captain, but not without a radio operator.
In 1968,as captain of USNS Bowditch in Barcelona, Bondeson again missed sailing time while the ship steamed off without him. The crew later found out that he had been mugged and wound up in the hospital ! Read some amusing stories about Captain Bondeson here.

Captain Bondeson: Deck Chairs, Blankets and Books

At the time of my arrival in November 1962 Captain Wilhelm F. Bondeson was the ship's Master. While members of the Navy detachment did not report to the Captain (or anyone in the merchant marine crew) he was responsible for the ship's safety and obviously ours as well. He continued on as Captain through the ship's return to the Brooklyn Army Terminal in the fall of 1963. 

Working in the ship's survey control center, adjacent to the chart room, I usually saw him either on on the bridge (pilot house) or looking over charts with the mate on watch. When he emerged from his cabin he was a short stairway (a/k/a ladder) up one deck to the bridge.

Carl Friberg, who had sailed with Bondeson as a deck officer, reported here that Bondeson had sailed in the Swedish Merchant Marine, was an academy grad, served aboard passenger vessels as a ship's officer where he once played deck tennis with Greta Garbo. Along with some comments about the Captain's drinking habits Friberg stated that Bondeson had worked for the OSS during WW II. 

Clearly, our Captain Bondeson was an interesting character. 

At various times during 1961 and 62 Friberg was fourth, third and finally second mate aboard Michelson under Bondeson. Friberg left the ship on November 26, 1962, the same day I reported aboard. 

Friberg again served under Captain Bondeson as chief mate aboard USNS Pvt. John R. Towle on a trip to the Antarctic during 1963-64. Friberg must have known him pretty well. Carl Friberg's marvelously informative maritime memories can be found here.

I spent some time researching Bondeson's history. It is amazing what you can find if you keep on digging, the internet being a vast trove of disorganized and sometimes unreliable information despite all the efforts of Google. Having been brought up in a world where the primary information source was an encyclopedia (remember them?) and the search engine was a bunch of 3x5 cards in file drawers I can appreciate the ease and convenience of  being able to find stuff on the internet.

And there is the added dimension of paywalls separating the researcher from the data, eg., NY Times and their ilk. It is hard not to understand why they are entitled to charge for searches for what is essentially public information since they slice it, dice it and serve it as requested. Being old, retired and frugal I try to avoid paying them.

Census records show that Bondeson was born on August 16, 1907 somewhere in Sweden. He first went to sea in 1929, presumably after graduation from a Swedish maritime academy, although another reference indicted that he had completed just two years of high school.

A website covering the history of the Swedish American Line was very useful. New York port arrival records show that during most of the the 1930s our Captain had been the "deck steward" aboard two liners, initially aboard MS Gripsholm and later on MS Kungsholm.

What did a deck steward do? Other than entertain the passengers, the line's guidebook states:

"DECK CHAIRS, STEAMER RUGS, and CHAIR CUSHIONS may be rented from the Deck Steward at a charge of Kr. 5:50, Kr. 5:50 and Kr. 2:75, respectively, for the voyage. Blankets and pillows must not be taken from the staterooms for use on deck."

"LIBRARY. Against a deposit of Kr. 10: and receipt given to the Deck Steward, books may be borrowed, but must be returned not later than the day before arrival in port. Deposits will be refunded at the end of the voyage, or when books are returned."

So, he rented deck chairs and acted as librarian. Crew lists showed that while he was the deck steward there was also an assistant deck steward aboard. Perhaps he should have been called the Chief Deck Steward.

At left a postcard photo of MS Gripsholm at Gothenburg in its original paint scheme. The first transatlantic motorship, Gripsholm was built in Newcastle, UK, going into servive in 1925.  
MS Kungsholm (right) was built in Hamburg, Germany in 1928. Another Swedish American Line vessel of that name went into service in 1953. Swedish American Line ships were repainted white in 1931. The company went out of business in 1975.

Swedish American line referred to the ships as TMS, meaning twin screw motor ship, rather than using the more conventional prefix of MS, motorship, powered by internal combustion engines rather than steam. Gripsholm was the first transatlantic liner to be powered by diesel engines.

Both Gripsholm and Kungsholm were built for Gothenburg-NewYork transatlantic service, initially with the emigrant market in mind. As that business slowed and the depression deepened they were used more as cruise vessels, mostly during the winter, operating out of New York. During summer they hauled vacationing Swedish Americans back to the "old country".

Captain Bondeson: High and Dry as The War Begins

With the war starting in Europe the Swedish American Line vessels spent more time cruising out of New York than on the transatlantic run to Gothenburg. MS Kungsholm cruised to the south seas in 1940, along with trips to to Pamama, the Carribbean and Bahamas in 1940 and 1941 punctuated by occasional crossings to neutral Sweden. The last arrival from Gothenburg was in October 1941, according to New York port arrival data, contrary to Wikipedia's claim that Kungsholm's last transatlantic voyage was in 1939.

By 1940 both Gripsholm and Kungsholm were repainted to identify them as neutral Swedish vessels.

MS Kungsholm in 1940-41 left little doubt about belonging to neutral Sweden

Above is an unusual color video from 1940 or 1941 of a Kungsholm cruise to Havana. Crew members (in white) help entertain the passengers with skeet shooting and deck games. The officer on the right at time 2:26 and the one wearing a hat at 5:42 look to be Bondeson.  Toward the end (7:26) a surfaced submarine is seen passing in the opposite direction!

On December 1, 1941 Kungsholm, along with then deck steward Bondeson, arrived in New York on a cruise from Panama. This was the ship's last voyage for Swedish American Lines.

On December 7 Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. The US declared war against the axis powers on December 8. Kungsholm was seized by the US government on December 12. 

The crew, including Bondeson, was high and dry and out of a job.

Rather than see the valuable Swedish vessels possibly fall into German hands, the impounded Kungsholm was very quickly turned it into a troopship right at its New York pier. All the fancy interiors were gutted and dumped on the dock. Renamed John Ericsson, the ship was operated for the US government until 1945 by United States Lines.

Meanwhile, Gripsholm sailed up the Hudson north of the city, where it languished until mid 1942 while its future was negotiated. Most of Gripsholm's crew also dispersed, taking jobs where they could.

Later, under US government charter, Gripsholm sailed as a Swedish flagged and crewed repatriation ship, calling at neutral ports such as Lisbon and Portuguese India to exchange and evacuate diplomats, prisoners and other people from warring nations. This is a fascinating story, which can be found on the Swedish American Line tribute website.

Ashore and out of work, former deck steward/future captain Wilhelm Bondeson had found a job in New Haven, Connecticut working as a lathe operator in a defense plant. On November 13, 1942 he was drafted into the US Army at Hartford, where now Private Bondeson was recorded as being 68 inches tall, 139 pounds, not a US citizen and single without dependents. His enlistment was to be "for duration of war plus six months".

Bondeson spent the next 14 months attached to a Military Intelligence Training Battalion at Camp Ritchie in Western Maryland.

A 2008 article in the Hagerstown Herald-Mail  described Camp Ritchie's mission as having been "the training of interrogator, interpreter, translator, order of battle, photo interpreter and counter-intelligence teams. An estimated 20,000 intelligence troops were housed and trained at the campsite over a four-year period during World War II. Among the structures built to help in the training effort was a mock German village."

In February 1944 the US War Shipping Administration announced that 600 US Army inductees who once had been merchant seamen had been released to return to sea. One of these was Private Bondeson.

At that time there was a severe shortage of merchant seamen. The government was trying to recruit 42,000 men to be trained as as officers and seamen to man new cargo ships then being built. It looks like Bondeson then went back to sea aboard commercially operated vessels, later joining the Army Transport Service, forerunner of MSTS, the Military Sea Transportation Service.

Captain Bondeson: At Sea After the War

Released from service in the US Army in February 1944 after 14 months in military intelligence, Bondeson immediately resumed his career as a merchant mariner, but for the US rather than Sweden. Thousands were being trained to man the hundreds of ships being built in American shipyards to support the war effort.
  • In April 1944 he was listed as an AB (able seaman) aboard SS George H. Williams, a commercially operated liberty ship used in transatlantic convoys. This is the infamous vessel that earlier (in November 1943) fired on a US Navy hospital ship in the Pacific, fortunately without casualties or damage.
  • He was second mate aboard MV Star Reefer (hull type C1-M-AV1), another commercial ship, in April 1945.
  • Aboard SS Ethelbert Nevin, another liberty ship, operated by Moore-McCormack Lines, Bondeson was first mate in 1947.
  • In 1948 Bondeson was first mate on coastal tanker USAT Y-66. This must have been about the time he joined the Army Transport Service as a merchant mariner.
  • During 1949 he served as Captain (Master) of USAT Y-88, another coastal tanker, as well as two coastal cargo ships, USAT FS-230 and USAT New Bedford (FS-289).

  • In 1950 he was aboard the redesignated USNS New Bedford (TAKL-17) as Captain. Around this time Army Transport Service ships were transitioning to MSTS, Military Sea Transportation Service, part of the Navy. This is now called Military Sealift Command (MSC).
  • By 1952 Bondeson listed a row house at 727 47th Street in the Sunset Park area of Brooklyn as his home address. The Brooklyn Army Terminal, home of MSTS Atlantic, was about a mile away.

USNS Sagitta (TAK-87)

  • Bondeson was Captain of USNS Sagitta (TAK-87) during 1952-56. Another coastal cargo ship, Sagitta was used to service the "texas tower" early warning radar platforms located out on the Atlantic coast continental shelf. In 1956 he was reported as being something of a hero, saving his ship in heavy seas.  Here is a UP (United Press) report of the USNS Sagitta incident:

"Cargo Ship Back in Port
Vessel Which Hit Texas Tower Goes Into Drydock
Boston. Jan. 21, 1956 (UP)

The skipper of a cargo ship which rammed the Texas Tower radar island docked his crippled and ice-coated ship today after what he called a 'lucky voyage.'

Capt. Wilhelm Bondeson. 48. of Brooklyn, N.Y reported 14 feet of water in one hold of the USNS Sagitta as the military cargo ship with a 42 man crew docked at the Bethlehem Steel Co.'s East Boston shipyard.

The skipper said waves rammed the ship against the tower yesterday morning, cracking the hull on the starboard side and letting water pour into the hold. The ship limped here and was to be put into drydock at 2 p.m.
'After the accident happened, I alone made the decision to make for Boston. We listed seriously at first, but got the ship under control and thanks to a good crew from top to bottom we made it. They're all very well trained in damage control and I appreciate everything they've done,' he said.

The chief engineer of the ship, Frank Dixon of Avon Park, Fla. described how water poured ini after the crash. 'But even the messboy knew what to do. All night long the engineering crew manned the pumps on the ice-coated deck,' he said. 'After the crash, the skipper backed the ship away from the I tower to prevent any damage to it.'

The actual crash did little or no damage to the tower on stilts, a key air defense center.

On the way to Boston we were I very lucky to have smooth seas 5 with winds of only 15 to 20 miles an hour." Capt. Bondeson said.

The 110 mile voyage to safety in Boston harbor from the triangular radar island off Cape Cod took 18 hours. The Sagitta, which had been trying to unload water at the tower when the crash oc-curred. was escorted in by a Navy destroyer and two destroyer and two Coast Guard cutters."

  • According to Carl Friberg's log, Bondeson was Michelson's master in June 1961. MSTS's Sealift Magazine of 2/62 reported he was Michelson's captain when all three survey ships returned to the USA in December 1961. Perhaps he was the original ship's master. He was captain when Michelson made its celebratory return to Brooklyn on September 13, 1963.
  • Bondeson was Captain aboard survey ships USNS Dutton in 1965 and USNS Bowditch during 1968, as reported in crew rosters on the TAGS tribute web site.
  • According to Sealift Magazine Bondeson took USNS Towle took on a "grand tour", leaving New York on November 16, 1963, went through the Panama Canal , “ down under” to NewZealand, on to Deep Freeze in the Antarctic,  back to San Francisco via New Zealand, to the Far East, then back to San Francisco, through the canal once again, down to South Africa, sailed the Red Sea, through the Suez Canal and into the Mediterranean, visited ports in Europe, and finally made it back to New York on June 17, 1964.
  • Captain Bondeson was scheduled to return the following year but was replaced aboard USNS Towle by another officer. The ship continued Antarctic supply support until the 1970s.

USNS Towle in the ice c. 1963-64.
This old Victory ship had its bow specially reinforced for its annual Antarctic supply missions.

  •  I was able to find only two other photos of Captain Bondeson. The one on the left below shows him on the Michelson's bridge wing to the left of an unidentified person. In the second photo, taken in Antarctica, he is the guy on the right wearing sunglasses. Both images are by Carl Friberg.


  •  Somewhere along after 1968 he retired, reportedly in St. Petersburg, Florida. He finally crossed the bar for the last time at the age 87 on January 23, 1995, back in his native Sweden.