William A. Jackson, a pioneering African American merchant seaman who served in two wars, died Oct. 28 of kidney failure in an Oakland hospital. He was 94.
A memorial service for Mr. Jackson will be held at 1:30 p.m. Saturday in Richmond on the museum ship, Red Oak Victory, where he was a volunteer chief engineer at the end of his life.
Mr. Jackson fought two enemies in World War II - German U-boats and American racism. At the time the only positions available to African Americans on U.S. flag ships were in the steward's department, where Mr. Jackson worked as a mess boy, serving meals and cleaning up the ship's galley.
He was born in San Francisco and raised in Berkeley, but as a merchant mariner sailed out of New York because the National Maritime Union had integrated its hiring halls and West Coast maritime unions had not. He was in San Francisco in 1941 when Pearl Harbor was attacked. He tried to join the U.S. Army but the recruiting officer turned him away because of his race.
"I felt like my heart had stopped," Mr. Jackson recalled years later. "To think that our teachers had taught us that we were supposed to be equal citizens, to vote, to be loyal and to defend our country in time of war."
Mr. Jackson decided to go to sea in the wartime merchant marine. "I saw more action in the North Atlantic and the Pacific than lots of men in the Army and Navy did," he said.
He was aboard two merchant ships that were torpedoed and sunk. In one case, the crew spent five days adrift in a lifeboat.
By 1943, Mr. Jackson was an experienced mariner and he got his merchant marine document endorsed as a wiper - the lowest rank in the engine room - instead of a billet in the steward department. "He told them, 'If I'm going to die in this war, I'm not going to die as a mess boy,' " his sister, Anita Black, said.
At first, the ship's officers refused to let Mr. Jackson work in the engine room in any capacity. But the government shipping commissioner insisted.
"From that day on," Mr. Jackson remembered, "I got the dirtiest, coldest, miserablest jobs in the engine room."
Mr. Jackson once told a congressional committee during hearings about veteran status for merchant mariners, "The merchant marine was the first of all services to integrate, but it did integrate and make my dreams come true."He was befriended by other engineering officers who admired his spirit and helped him sit for examinations for higher rank. He eventually worked his way up to third assistant engineer, then second then first. He sailed throughout the war.
After the war ended, he continued to go to sea, and in 1963 sailed aboard the S.S. Hope, a former hospital ship that went to undeveloped countries and helped with medical issues.
He eventually became chief engineer on the Hope. "The hardest job I ever loved," he said.
Mr. Jackson retired in 1985, but because of his knowledge of steam engines, went back to sea as a chief engineer during the Persian Gulf War. After he retired for a second time, he signed on as chief engineer on the Red Oak Victory, a 1944 merchant ship built at the Kaiser shipyard in Richmond.
"He never really retired," said his sister. "He finally stepped down as chief engineer of the Red Oak when he could no longer go down the ladder to the engine room."
Mr. Jackson is survived by his sister, Anita Black of San Leandro; a son, William Jackson, Jr. of Seattle; two daughters, Zizi Jones of Richmond and Cynthia Childress of Honolulu; three grandchildren; 11 great-grandchildren; and two great-great-grandchildren.