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The Merchant Marine, Sheepshead Bay, and Richard Avedon

Apr 26, 2013 12:08 PM | 0 comments

Just a year after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Brooklyn saw the opening of the largest United States Maritime Service training station at Sheepshead Bay. Built for $8,500,000 on old beach, bath, and amusement grounds once owned by John P. Day,  the station was equipped to pump out 30,000 trained merchant seamen a year. At the opening ceremonies on December 12, 1942 more than 10,000 men, officers, and guests assembled to hear Telfair Knight, director of the Division of Training of the War Shipping Administration, read a laudatory message on behalf of President Roosevelt. These remarks were followed up with more marvelling and extolling by Governor Charles Poletti. All in all it was a big bright day for Brooklyn, but one that would be short-lived. As war gave way to peace the need for tens of thousands of knot-tying, deck swabbing, cargo transporting seamen diminished to the point that the station was deactivated on February 28th, 1954.

But during its short life the station buzzed with activity, most of which we have learned about through a pair of magazines recently acquired by the Collection. 


Published for personnel living and working at the training station, The Helm and The Mast covered every facet of life on the base.

 From learning to make soup in the mess...

 to studying the structure of the hand in Instructor Cunningham's Osteology class with a skeleton named Davy Jones...

 to getting your chest measured. No activity was too strange or small!

But aside from covering the ins and outs of sailor life on the base, The Helm and The Mast also ran articles about Merchant Marine life around the world, including helpful articles about:

What to do if the enemy gets you,

 how to survive on a raft or desert island,

and advice from Denver Ed Smith on getting tattoos: "Don't come in here, or to any other tattoo studio for that matter, when you're three sheets in the wind and ask me to tattoo your sweetheart's name across yer chest. Once something's tattooed on, brother, it's darn near permanent. And the next day you wake up and find you're wearing some gal's name across your chest, and it ain't your wife's name. If that happens to you mister, you better ship out, pronto."

But what caught my eye as I looked through these issues was the name of one particular Assistant Editor.

Richard Avedon. Yup, that Richard Avedon. From 1942 to 1944 Avedon served as a Photographers Mate 2/c in the United States Maritime Service stationed at Sheepshead Bay. It's funny to think of him cutting his glamour photog teeth in the Sheepshead Bay canteen, but these magazines are proof. And though he appears as an assistant editor or "staff" in all but 2 of the 7 issues we have of both The Helm and The Mast, it's only in The Helm that his work gets credited. And here are a few of those shots with accompanying captions.

The twenty foot, four sided rope climb is the only one of its kind. Developed specially to train large groups at the same time, it has plain ropes, cargo nets, knotted ropes and jacobs ladders. By the time the men have completed their three months training they cannot only tie ropes but climb them also.

Judo training and its finer points. Chief Joe Lederer throws one of the instructors. Learning how to fall is a trick in itself.

And from the inside back cover page, here's a rain battered young salt accompanied by an Avedon poem.

As a student he was, after all, poet laureate of New York City high schools.

We have many more photos of the Sheepshead Bay Maritime Training Station here in the Collection -- but whether or not they were done by Richard Avedon is anyone's guess. Maybe you art historians and historians of photography need to weigh anchor and pay a visit?