I grew up hearing George Murphy’s speeches during family events in New York, where Mr. Murphy often gave speeches and toasts. I knew that he was a friend of my grandfather and that they worked together at U.S. Lines. I knew that both he and my grandfather were engineers who worked on ships, but beyond that, I had no idea what they did. I remember once saying something to my grandfather about “working for the captain,” and my grandfather said, “I didn’t work for the captain. We have the same number of stripes.” (George Murphy might even correct me further–they’re not “captains;” they’re called “masters.”) It was through this book that I got a glimpse of what my grandfather did when he was working.
It Didn’t Happen On My Watch is a collection of stories at sea written by Mr. Murphy, who worked for U.S. Lines for 43 years, working his way up to Chief Engineer and then Port Engineer. After my grandfather’s passing, I read a few books on the Merchant Marine, but this book was by far the best book on the actual details of what engineers do. A team of ship engineers–from the Chief Engineer and his three assistants (first, second, and third assistant engineer), along with the electricians, carpenters, oilers, and others who work with them–are responsible for the engine that propels the ship, along with maintenance of the ship parts, everything from the steel on the hull to the refrigeration units. The engineer’s most important job (aside from maintaining safety) is to maintain the boiler, which produces the steam that rotates the propeller that moves the ship. They don’t just maintain the boiler either; they have to calculate the amount of fuel to bring and manage the guys who keep it hot and running.
Murphy writes about life in the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, where he graduated during the early 1940’s. He writes about shipping ordnance into the line of battle during World War II, the experience of being part of a war convoy, how he snuck into Normandy in order to see what was across the water. He writes about the different kinds of cargo and interactions with longshoremen and the like. He writes about the many different personalities on the ship, the humorous competitions between engine and deck, and the many places he visited during his career. He writes about the different countries he was able to visit as part of his job. He writes about his issues with the U.S. Coast Guard and recounts the story of how U.S. Lines eventually fell into bankruptcy. My grandfather makes three appearances in the book.
The Merchant Marine is much smaller these days, as most ship manufacturing and shipping jobs have moved overseas to countries like Korea. Murphy (and my grandfather) served during what was probably the heyday of the Merchant Marine, as the economy expanded and America was shipping and trading many goods. I don’t know if others are interested in this part of history, but it was eye-opening for me. Check it out. (This book is currently out of print but available used on Amazon. Mr. Murphy’s other book, Scuttlebutt, is still in print.)