Barco Americano Misterioso

The Mystery Ship: USNS Michelson at the Port of Palm Beach in 1964
After Michelson's first summer 1964 arrival at the Port of Palm Beach the local newspaper's headline proclaimed "Mystery Ship in Port".

So, now
once again we were the Michelson Mystery, as in Norway back in 1962. The TAGS ships association with the Fleet Ballistic Missle program made Michelson as well as sister ships Bowditch and Dutton unwelcome in Norwegian ports.

Perhaps the Palm Beach residents would run us off as they did in Bergen!

Similarly, Robert Guttman, then third mate on USNS Bowditch in 1975-76 reports that while docked in the Canary Islands the front page of the local newspaper featured an article including a photograph of the Bowditch, accompanied by the headline, "El Barco Americano Misterioso".

During our Palm Beach visits we tied up along the north side of the port, located in Riviera Beach. The main industry looked to be a big electric power station and a large cement plant. Much of the shipping carried fuel and cement as well as sugar produced near Belle Glade in Palm Beach county.

Other ships carried goods and people to the Bahamas. MS Grand Bahama, which looked like a large motor yacht, carried passengers to a Jack Tar resort on its namesake island, just 55 miles away. I enjoyed watching the vessel entering and leaving port, imagining that someday I might actually get to go to the Bahamas instead of seeing the islands from aboard ship while testing new sonar equipment but never going ashore.

To date I have never set foot in the Bahamas. Oh well.

MS Grand Bahama transported guests of the Jack Tar Resort from the Port of Palm Beach.

The nearest watering hole was a beer only bar with pool table, located very close to the pier. More bars as well as liquor stores and a Chinese restaurant could be found along nearby route 1, a/k/a Federal Highway in Riviera Beach. The navy guys and crew members found themselves in a variety of bars in West Palm and even in fashionable but off season Palm Beach. One WPB bar the sailors favored boasted that they mixed the world's most vicious zombies.

Layton's Cottage, Trailer, and Fishing Park was immediately to the north of the port. This depression era business furnished ice, bait, fuel and provisions to boaters on the intracoastal waterway. It was also a parking area for travel trailers housing a population of retirees and blue collar transients. Layton's Park and the nearby Colonnades Hotel were owned by insurance company magnate John D. MacArthur, then second richest person in the US, later the "genius grant" benefactor.

While at the Port of Palm Beach the ship's self service laundromat was closed for repairs. The chief steward allowed us to use the ship's laundry back at the stern. This was new. I had never used big commercial washers before. Michelson had two of them and two dryers as well. One had to carefully follow the printed instructions, including turning the steam on and off. We had plenty of steam. Normally the ship carried two laundrymen who lived back in the stern house next to their laundry but they were nowhere to be seen. Perhaps they quit and went back to San Francisco. We could have been awaiting replacements from MSTS in Brooklyn.

On one occasion I had to put on a navy dress uniform and pack a .45, while accompanying one of the detachment's officers to the Miami airport. We were to meet a navy plane and pick up some stuff coming in from DC. For whatever reason the plane didn't show up and we went back up to the Port of Palm Beach empty handed. No stuff. Rarely did any of us wear a uniform off the ship. 

Booze was cheap in Florida. Gordon's gin was about $3.75 per bottle so I filled my clandestine shipboard liquor locker in anticipation of a long trip to California and across the Pacific. It lasted until we got to Oakland. Somebody must have been tapping into my gin supply.

Some coast guardsmen were sitting across the bar from me while in a watering hole on US route 1 close by the port. One of them was the CO (commanding officer) of the Peanut Island coast guard station, located at the port entrance on the intracoastal waterway. I mentioned to him that ten years before, when I was a 12 year old kid, I had visited the coast guard station with Jim Beaumont, my aunt Virginia's husband, who was stationed there. 

Peanut Island Coast Guard Station c. 1955-60.
"Oh yeah, he was the CO. I've seen his name in the log" said the CO. I knew that uncIe Jim was an officer, but didn't know he had been the CO. 

Why is it that I keep running into people in bars? 

In 1954 the Port of Palm Beach was the main US terminal for freight traffic with Cuba. Railroad car ferries carried boxcars full of manufactured goods to Havana and brought sugar back. Train tracks crossed route 1, connecting the port to the Florida East Coast railroad. 

Railroad car ferry loads boxcars destined for Havana in 1954.

Railroad car ferry SS New Grand Haven in 1954.

Ad for the railroad car ferry service c. 1953.

The Port of Palm Beach in the 1960s.

After Castro came to power in Cuba the port's business declined until exports to the Bahamas became a bigger part of its activities. A few visits from USNS Mystery Ship in 1964 probably didn't help the port much but was good for the bars and liquor stores.

The Port of Palm Beach in more recent years. Click on image for larger size.