Jack V. Johnson, Alaska Legend and Hero to Israel
Captain Bill Hopkins, AMHS retired
A memorable chief mate, Jack V. “Square-rigger” Johnson (1927 – 2014), is an Alaskan original from Kodiak. As a man who had sailed the world’s oceans at a young age, he signed onboard the S/S Exodus as a crewmember at the foundation of the nation state of Israel. Jack V. Johnson was our hero, a tall, husky man, with handlebar moustache, stiffly waxed to sharp tips, eating a hearty breakfast every morning in the officer’s mess room telling wonderful sea stories, the kind of seaman we can never forget. Our chief mate was a salty figure, easy-going, friendly, helpful, and talkative with a calm voice, a cheerful aspect and a warm smile that swept through the crew.
Jack had sailed on many different kinds of ships to many different parts of the world from Wellington to Shanghai, Haifa, Nikiski, Kodiak and Dutch Harbor—proving the old saying that “a gangway leads to any port in the world.” Jack had sailed on one of the last of the great sailing ships, the New Zealand-flagged, four-mast bark Pamir, between January and March 1946, on a voyage from Vancouver to Wellington, New Zealand. “Standing watch with Jack was awesome,” remembers former Tustumena shipmate, Jon Stetson of Juneau. “He knew a lot about everything. I asked him about his square-rigger days and he told yarns about life before the wind. I never doubted his stories.” Crewmembers of the Tustumena called him “Square-rigger Johnson.”
In his long maritime career, Jack had worked as a pile driver, a hardhat diver in Cook Inlet, and as a mail boat skipper of the M/V Expansion serving the Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian Islands from Seward in the 1960s. Additionally, he had served as a marine consultant, sailed on the oil-platform supply vessel Alaska Husky in Cook Inlet, served as a chief mate on the Tustumena, and completed his lengthy career as a legendary ship pilot with the Southwest Alaska Pilot’s Association specializing in Alaska Peninsula, Aleutian Island, and Bering Sea ports.
As a marine pilot, “Jack did not like jobs on Japanese ships because they were built for 5-foot tall mariners and he’d bump his head a lot,” recalls Jon Stetson. “So he decided to con the next one from the man-walk just forward of the bridge, where there was no overhead, hollering commands through an open window. As the deck crew began setting up to unload, a cargo picking cable with a 50 lb steel ball on its end came at him out of nowhere and nailed Jack at center mass, breaking about every bone in his body. Certain those crewmembers had tried to kill him, he often ended a good tale with, ‘And that would have killed any mere mortal; they’re just lucky it was me!’”
As a chief mate, Jack would order, “Paint her from the truck (top of the mast) to the waterline lads, as weather and time dictate.” Each year the Tustumena came away from its annual shipyard maintenance period in Seattle with a fresh coat of paint looking like a new ship on Jack’s watch. “We pulled into Seward on the 4th of July weekend, the dock was packed with people and Jack was the mate on the stern,” remembers former Tustumena shipmate, Jack Butler. “Bob Crowley and I had thrown our heaving lines ashore and once the longshoremen had secured the [mooring line] eyes on the bollards, Jack booms out, ‘Take her to steam, lads.’
“I saw my chance and boomed out in reply, ‘Aye, aye, Matie, she’s to steam and coming up hard and fast!’
“Then Bob and I boomed together, ‘She’s all fast aft, Matie!’ Jack just shook his head and later said, ‘I knew I shouldn’t have said that with you two back there.’ We had many a laugh over that.”
As a great storyteller, Jack told tales of his adventure-filled life, and that he had known unusual Alaskans such as Sea Otter Jones, the man who understood sea otters better than anyone and discovered a small colony of Aleutian Canada geese, long thought to be extinct, surviving on volcanic Buildir Island. There were stories of Billy Nikiferov, “… a strange type. Those who went out with him hunting and trapping on the Alaska Peninsula never came back.”
Once I was invited as a guest to a wonderful dinner with Jack and his wife Iris (the magistrate of Seward) at their First Avenue home with a large anchor in the front yard. Jack read Kipling’s poem, Gunga Din to its dramatic ending before we ate, pronouncing each word flawlessly in a rhythmic cadence while wearing a Scottish kilt and beret. As the meal started, Jack began barking military commands, all for the sake of live entertainment. It was a grand time and a wonderful evening with Jack and Iris.
His greatest and most enduring story was that of being a crewmember on the S/S Exodus, ex President Warfield, taking 4,415 European Jews to British Mandatory Palestine on July 11, 1947. We Tustumena crewmembers at first thought it was “just another tale” until an article came out in the Anchorage Daily News in April 2007 (see accompanying articles below) confirming the story. In 2007, Jack was recognized for his long-ago service as a national hero of Israel by Benjamin Netanyahu and in 2008 was bestowed Israeli citizenship.
Jack was equally legendary in Alaska. According to Jon Stetson, formerly of Seward, “Jack’s daily ritual was to don his survival suit at the water’s edge and go for a good long swim with his Newfies. Suited up he looked even bigger than the giant man he was, especially flanked by two massive dogs and the sight of the three of them making way in perfect formation into three-foot seas sometimes drew a crowd.”
Underway, a young third mate brought an AM/FM radio to the wheelhouse of the Tustumena to listen to music while on watch. Jack said in shocked dismay, “I’ve never been shipmates with music on the bridge of a ship before.” Music in the wheelhouse came to a quick end. Undocking at Homer, Jack cocked his hat and barked rudder commands into the wheelhouse. Passengers lined the rail watching Jack. In sequence he barked to the helmsman, “Midship, hard left rudder, shift the helm.” Coming away from the dock smoothly, Jack strolled into the wheelhouse with a satisfied smile saying, “I love this stuff. Those passengers think I am the captain.”
As the Tustumena expanded her service along the Alaska Peninsula to King Cove in 1979, we younger officers wondered where the information came about the old mail boat routes used by Captain Richard Hofstad. Charts in some areas were incomplete with large areas of water remaining blank and un-surveyed. One of our charts was titled as a “Preliminary Chart” yet we navigated through these empty areas without incident using the old track lines employed by the predecessor mail boats.
We now know that knowledge of the old mail boat routes came primarily from Jack Johnson. “I laid out the old courses on the Tustumena’s charts to Cold Bay. I had made several trips with my uncle, Heinie Berger, on the old mail boat Garland between Seattle and the Aleutians,” said Jack. “We used to pull into Port Wrangell and drop a king crab pot. We ate well.”
Familiar with the “Land of Smokey Seas,” at an early age, Jack was later sailing as the master of the mail boat, M/V Expansion, 148 feet long, built in Bellingham, Washington, in 1944. She had previously been serving as a Pribilof Island tender for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the name Dennis Winn. During Jack’s tenure, the Expansion, ex Dennis Winn, operated as a mail boat out of Seward hauling mail, freight, food supplies with an onboard store that included ice cream, and a few vehicles stowed on deck along the Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian Islands beginning in 1961 until about 1966. The Expansion then became a fish tender and was renamed again as the Temehani. She sank near Bora Bora in 1982.
Jack additionally credits Captain Andy D. Santos with having some knowledge of the mail boat routes as well. Captain Santos was a former oil tanker mate and had sailed many years on the well-known coastal tanker, the Alaska Standard, between Prince William Sound to the Aleutians. Santos joined the Tustumena in the late 1970s serving as our captain opposite to Captain Hofstad until the mid 1980s. According to Jack Johnson, Captain Santos helped establish the Westward Run with Captain Hofstad for the Alaska Marine Highway System, both men “pushing hard” on the idea with the State of Alaska. Following the wake of the old mail boats, the Westward Run was established in 1979 to Chignik, Sand Point, and King Cove, though sometimes we went to Cold Bay without stopping to record a pilotage trip. The Alaska Marine Highway expanded further west in 1983 to include Cold Bay and Dutch Harbor as scheduled ports of call.
Captain Bob Crowley, a retired master of the Tustumena, remembers these exhilarating days. “The first time into Cold Bay is etched in my brain. Captain [Hofstad] docking, Black Jack [Jack Johnson] on the stern [to position] the [loading] ramp, and the wind blowing a gale on the starboard quarter and the dark of night. Everyone [was] shouting and the wind sucked your voice out. I was being told to take up on the quarter spring [line] which was tight as a piano wire. Got tied up with a ramp over the bull rail and something like a Dodge Valiant that had to be pushed up the ramp. I can still picture it and the tension. I know we kept adding ports and going further west.”
Ten years later in 1993, the villages of Akutan and False Pass were included in the schedule. The Westward Run became the most exotic route of the Alaska Marine Highway System. Johnson, Santos, and Hofstad were the creative thinkers behind the idea.
I last saw Jack V. Johnson as he was piloting the large U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy out of St. Paul Harbor, Kodiak, past St. Paul Reef to the pilot drop-off location, in September 2006. Arriving to Kodiak on the Kennicott, we slowed down and then followed the pilot boat, Kodiak King, back to St. Paul Harbor with the Healy’s pilot Jack Johnson safely onboard. The pilot boat arrived to the dock first, and we watched with admiration as Captain Jack Johnson, then eighty-years old, scramble up the dock ladder to his pickup truck and giving us an enthusiastic wave of the hand. Jack retired after the age of eighty in 2007.
It was a profound honor to have sailed with these remarkable maritime pioneers and visionaries. They were kind men, serious men at sea, and taught their skills and knowledge to us younger mates moving up through the ranks. Indeed, these great men were all unforgettable. “[ Jack V. Johnson ] is truly one of the greatest men I ever knew, I looked up to him like a real-life Super Hero, even when he took it upon himself to straighten me out,” remembers Jon Stetson with respectful fondness.
Written by Captain Bill Hopkins, AMHS Retired. Visit the following link to see Captain Bill Hopkins book, “Alaska Sea Stories” on Amazon.
If you enjoyed “Jack V. Johnson, Alaska Legend, Hero to Israel,” check out “Precipice of the Deep – Part 1.”