I first met George early in my research in April of 2006 when I was a newbie on the uboat.net user forum. George had mentioned the Massachusetts Nautical School (MNS) in a response to an inquiry by someone else, and I jumped in to see if he could possibly help me.
George was arguably one of the most famous graduates of the school (something I’m sure he would deny). This was largely due to the loss of his vessel, the MS American Leader, to the German raider Michel in the South Atlantic on the evening of September 10th, 1942 and the subsequent events that set in motion. George managed to escape his burning, sinking ship and became the temporary guest of the German's aboard the Michel. In a horrible twist of fate, the Michel later moved into the Indian Ocean and after transferring the survivors to a German supply ship, that vessel handed George and the rest of the survivors over to their Japanese friends in Batavia, Java (present day Jakarta, Indonesia). George would spend the remainder of the war, nearly three years as a Japanese POW. The last year of this was spent as a slave laborer working on a Japanese railway line in the jungles of Sumatra, known as the Pakan Baroe Death Railway. George not only had to endure the inhumane treatment from his Japanese antagonists, but discrimination from his own military comrades due to his "civilian" status. His experience showed merchant mariners were treated with the same brutality by our enemies as our military, and deserved the same respect. After the war, George became a tireless advocate for getting the forgotten merchant seamen their veteran’s status.
The school was our connection, and once I mentioned that I was researching my inspiration for this website, Bernard Conners, who graduated in 1931, that is all it took. From then on, I was unofficially adopted.
George provided several contacts; one of which helped me get my copy of Captain Arthur R. Moore’s ‘A careless word…A NEEDLESS SINKING’, and another from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy (MMA, formerly Massachusetts Nautical School) helped with Bernard’s records and that of Captain Jones.
He also put me in contact with Rodman Dickie who sailed on the Arkansan with Bernard, and provided several pictures of the school ship Nantucket from his personal collection that I used on this website.
The forum discussion led to an exchange of e-mails and the realization that we lived within 15 minutes of each other. This fortunate proximity led to several face to face visits.
I went to George’s home in Exeter, NH with my shiny new copy of Moore’s book (today dog-eared and stuffed with notes) and we discussed Bernard, the Arkansan attack, the ship’s plans, and he educated me on ‘tween decks’ and other aspects of the ship. His wife Margaret returned home part-way through my visit. She seemed unfazed that a stranger was in her house and I got the impression I was not the first lost stray that George had let in.
In what seemed like only 10 minutes, two hours had passed. He sent me on my way with a gift of his well-worn copy of Jurgen Rohwer’s ‘AXIS SUBMARINE SUCCESSES 1939-1945’ with highlights and notes from his research. I was honored by his gift, but he brushed it off by telling me he needed to down-size his collection.
I literally did not know my port from my starboard when I began this journey, and George was immensely patient with me. He always treated me as an equal. We were just George and Eric, two men that shared a mutual interest in the Massachusetts Nautical School and the American Merchant Mariners of World War Two. I didn’t make a big deal of his experience (to his face). There was a line a mile long of people who could do that.
the summer of 2009, soon after I had launched the website, I inquired about buying a copy of his new book ‘Ambushed under the Southern Cross’. He came to my home and
met my wife and daughter, whom he totally charmed. I bought a hardcopy version for
me, and a paperback for by brother. He signed my copy “To Eric” and his
customary “Cordially! George” and dated it “July 2009”.
A week later, my Wife and I attended one of George’s MNS/MMA Alumni luncheons at the Old Salt restaurant in Hampton, NH where George had arranged for us to meet Rodman Dickie and his wife Barbara. As noted above, Rodman sailed on the Arkansan, and provided a wealth of information on the vessel and her crew. My research in-turn was able to help Rodman with his book ‘Saved By A SERIES OF MIRACLES’, which he eventually published in 2012.
I attended a handful of other luncheon’s over the years, but not as many as I would have liked. Sometimes he would call to invite me, and if I were non-committal, he would say not to worry, “we’ll add some more water to the soup”. How could I say no?
I could not have asked for a bigger fan than George. He would often make me blush as he told the other attendees about me and my site. Often, he would get me out of my comfort zone and have me stand-up and tell the group about my latest research.
Over the years I’ve had several people contact me out of the blue, starting the conversation with “George Duffy told me in no uncertain terms I must visit your website immediately”! No one dared refuse a direct order from the Captain.
The luncheon’s helped keep George active and his mind occupied. When I could go, I would often stay behind to see if I could give him a hand, but of course, he wouldn’t have it. He’d say “One hand for the sailor, one hand for the ship” as he walked down the stairs carrying his cash box and books. I’d tail him anyway to make sure he got everything (including himself) to his car in one piece. I can only hope I have his energy and the ability to eat a fried whole clam lunch with fries at that age.
I was thrilled to pay him back in one small way by giving him the on-line links to the annual reports of the Massachusetts Nautical School 1912-1940. While they did not cover all his time at the school, he really enjoyed reading them and passing the information along to other Alumni.
As Margaret’s health deteriorated and it became necessary for her to move into a nursing home, George moved into the assisted living section of the same facility so he could be close to her and see her every day. Quite a love story, those two had...
I recall visiting him there and all his stuff was crammed into a living area the size of modest bedroom. The facility was built into the side of a hill. His floor was the ground floor at the front of the building, but his room on the backside was the second floor. The window in his room overlooked the woods in the distance, but immediately outside his window was the flat roof of a one story addition. George had spotted a ladder that led from the roof down to the parking lot where he kept his car (he drove up to two months before he passed). He told me he had a Plan B in case of fire or other emergency; he would climb out his window onto the roof, cross over to the ladder and drop down to the parking lot. The facility’s policy was that the residents stayed in their rooms until they were retrieved by a staff member. They had no idea who they were dealing with. I, for one, don’t believe for a second that George would have waited to be saved, and that his Plan B, was in reality, his Plan A!
I suppose when you’ve been through what George has been through you’ve always got your escape plan worked out in advance. Luckily, George never had to execute that particular plan.
We later adjourned to a nice common area sun room where we discussed my research, and Margaret came down for a visit. Besides some additional education, I came away from that visit with a copy of Arnold Berwick’s ‘THE ABRAHAM LINCOLN of the SEA – A Biography of Andrew Furuseth’ signed by the author. I can neither confirm nor deny I may have accidentally left a bottle of Dewar’s Whiskey behind.
In the spring of 2012 my wife and I attended a 90th Birthday party for George and Margaret. Even there George could not wait to introduce me to people. He had a way of making you feel like the guest of honor at his party.
His beloved Margaret passed away in April of 2016.
George has always seemed immortal to me. I guess because of all he’s been through, I prefer to think of George as not “Crossing the bar”, but simply making good his escape once again.
Rest in peace, George, as you certainly deserve it, but I’m sure you’re already hard at work making connections and helping lost souls. Give my best to Margaret for me.
'Crossing The Bar'
Sunset and evening star
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For though from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.