Thomas N. Lewis


During my early research into Bernard’s loss on the SS Arkansan I had discovered that Bernard had left the SS Hawaiian for the Arkansan, but it wasn’t quite clear when or why.

Bernard had served on the Hawaiian since 1936 and had progressed from 3rd, to 2nd to Chief Mate. It was very common in the Merchant Marine that officers worked one or more ratings below which they were qualified. When Bernard joined the Hawaiian in 1936 as a Third Mate he was already a licensed Chief Mate. By the time he became Hawaiian’s 2nd Mate he had actually already attained his Masters license. Sometimes officers would change vessels if there was a position they were rated for that opened up. In other cases they would even sacrifice the seniority they had and switch shipping companies. Since Bernard was already a Chief Mate on Hawaiian, there must have been another reason for Bernard switching over to the Arkansan as Chief Mate.

As noted on my Bernard Bio page, at one point I thought Bernard must have joined Arkansan in New York. Then I found a newspaper article that stated Arkansan left New York on July 19th, 1941 (one week before Hawaiian arrived), reached Port Sudan on September 5th and left there for Port Suez on September 8th. Strike two.

Then I thought perhaps he went over to the Near-East on the Hawaiian, or one of the other company's ships, and transferred mid-voyage. It wasn’t until November of 2010 that I found definitive proof; Hawaiian’s crew list from that voyage. Bernard's name was crossed out, and in the last two columns there was a note about Bernard which stated: "Transferred to S.S. Arkansan in Calcutta 10/20/41". O.K., so now I knew the ‘when’, but I was still puzzled by the ‘why’.

Around this same period, my friend and mentor George Duffy had introduced me to one of Arkansan’s junior officers from that time, Rodman L. Dickie. Rodman was in the process of writing his memoir titled ‘Saved By A SERIES OF MIRACLES’ (2012, Infinity Publishing, ISBN 978-0-7414-7850-4). He recalled that Arkansan’s Chief Mate had been a seasoned mariner that he referred to as “Mr. Thomas”. He was someone who Rodman, who was 20 years old and fresh out of the Massachusetts Nautical School (Fall Class, 1940), really looked up to and considered a father figure. Rodman also recalled that this man had been seriously injured while the Arkansan was in Calcutta. Finally I found the crew list of the Arkansan during this period (see below), which shows Chief Mate Thomas Lewis’ name crossed out with a note next to it stating: “Discharged due to injury”.

Arkansan crew list showing Lewis had been discharged due to injury. Courtesy of

Combined with Rodman’s recollection of Lewis’ accident, everything finally tied off. Below is the story of this man and how his and Bernard’s paths crossed.

Early Life

Thomas Naman Lewis was born September 18th, 1885 in St. John, New Brunswick, Canada. Little is known of his early life, including who his parents were or if he had any siblings.

He immigrated to the United States (apparently by himself) in October of 1905 at the age of twenty on a vessel named the SS H.R. Silver. Early indications are that he first worked as a driver. Lewis petitioned for citizenship on September 14th, 1917 and was eventually naturalized on June 30th, 1919.

Between the time he petitioned for and received his citizenship, he appears to have been heading for a new career in the Merchant Marine. He earned his Able Seaman certification on February 15th, 1918 in Boston, MA at the age of 32. The First World War was already raging in Europe and apparently before he could begin his new career he was either called up or volunteered for the US Navy. He served from March 4th, 1918 to September 30th, 1921, and was a Seaman 2nd Class at the time of discharge.

Also during this time Thomas married Arvilla Mabel Honeywell (1893-1985) from Lynn, MA on January 19th, 1919 while the couple lived in Cambridge, MA.

In the 1920 census, enumerated on January 29th of that year, he was 34-years-old, living in Weymouth, MA as a ship’s rigger, and Arvilla worked as a stenographer.

It’s possible he went to sea as an A.B. at some point during the 1920’s, although so far have found no hard evidence of that. I believe it was more likely that he continued as a ship’s rigger and perhaps moved on to other maritime industry jobs around the Boston vicinity.

American-Hawaiian Career

Thomas N. Lewis circa 1937

He appears to have started his Merchant Seaman career in earnest quite late in life, around the age of 45 in 1930, perhaps due to the Great Depression. The U.S. Merchant Marine was one of the few professions that remained viable during the depression.

On July 31st, 1930 Lewis earned his Certificate of Efficiency to Lifeboat Man in Boston, MA. The officer who signed it was Lawrence W. Croteau, who hailed from Manchester, MA. Croteau was a 1924 graduate of the Massachusetts Nautical School (MNS) and at this time was serving as Second Officer on the Boston based U.S. Lighthouse Tender (USLHT) Lotus. It’s possible, therefore, Lewis served under Croteau on the Lotus. At this time, Bernard was in his second year at MNS and was on the summer cruise to northern Europe.

The first crew list I found for Lewis on was soon thereafter as a Quartermaster on the SS Columbian under Master James McAvoy. He had signed on August 31st, 1930 in San Francisco. Lewis was noted as being 6 foot tall, 185 lbs. with a birthmark on his right cheek.

In the mid-1930’s he served as 3rd Mate on the Oceanic and Oriental Navigation Co.’s SS Golden Horn under Master John B. Knowles. Matson took over the vessel after the partnership with American-Hawaiian ended, and renamed her Kaimoku. She was sunk by U-379 on August 8th, 1942 while part of Convoy SC-94.

By January 20th, 1937 when Lewis was issued his first Continuous Discharge Book as required by the 1936 Merchant Marine Act, he and Arvilla were living in San Francisco at 970 Geary Street. He had attained his Chief Mate, Any Tonnage, Any Ocean license and updated his A.B. and Lifeboat Man certification at this time as well.

In June of 1938 in San Francisco, Lewis earned his Master, Ocean Steam, any Gross Tonnage License.

Below is a compilation of sailings I was able to put together for this decade from his records at the National Maritime Center and crew lists I found through

In March of 1940 Lewis transferred over to the Arkansan as 2nd Mate, first under Master Lawrence T. Hassell, and then of course later under Paul R. Jones. Arkansan’s Chief Mate at the time was David L. Bennett who would later survive the horrible Oregonian sinking from Convoy PQ-18. Geoffrey Blackett was 3rd Mate and Harold B. Adams was 4th Mate.

At the time, Lewis and his wife Arvilla were still living in San Francisco. He was 55-years-old and his weight had crept up to 230 lbs, which matches Rodman Dickie’s impression of him as a large, imposing figure.

By March of 1941 Lewis had advanced to Chief Mate on Arkansan, Blackett advanced to 2nd, Adams to 3rd, and our friend Rodman Dickie joined as 4th Mate.

Below is another compilation of National Maritime Center and records, this time of his service aboard the Arkansan:

In his book ‘Saved By A SERIES OF MIRACLES’ (2012, Infinity Publishing, ISBN 978-0-7414-7850-4) Rodman L. Dickie described Lewis as:

a veteran tobacco chewing sailor, rough and gruff. He delighted in slapping his big ham hand palm down on the chart covering hundreds of square miles, and saying, “here we are, right here.” Then he laughed and pointed his finger, an inch in diameter, to a guesstimated position.

I suspected Captain Jones liked Mr. Thomas’ management of the main deck maintenance, but did not appreciate his bridge presence.

This was the voyage that Arkansan was bombed in Suez, and Lewis was injured in Calcutta. As described in Bernard’s Bio, Bernard transferred from the SS Hawaiian to the Arkansan in Calcutta on October 20th, 1941 to replace Lewis who had his foot injured by the anchor chain.

In his book, Rodman describes the incident as follows:

The hard working 11 man crew struggled to move the 90 foot length of anchor chain from the stern to the bow just in time before docking. After docking, we needed to attach one end of the chain to the anchor, and then the other end to the rest of the anchor chain in the chain locker. The accident happened while moving the chain. Two of the links were dragged over the Chief Mate’s foot. The Chief Mate, who was in charge of the procedure, was in extreme pain and needed immediate hospital treatment.

The chain, each link weighing nearly 50 pounds, had previously been moved because there was no berth available in Calcutta and they had to secure the Arkansan to a large mooring buoy in the Hooghly River.

Rodman continued;

Captain Jones had gone ashore on ship’s business and then to a dinner invitation. Somehow I was included in the dinner invitation. My arrival at dinner was delayed by the accident. I felt it was necessary to explain my late arrival by saying there was an accident on the ship. The Captain insisted on knowing the details. I was forced to relate the unpleasant facts while the others were eating, which made me quite uncomfortable. After I told my story, Captain Jones realized he had to see the ship’s agent about Chief Mate Lewis’ hospitalization and a possible replacement.

After a few months in hospital in India, Lewis joined the Columbian on January 31st, 1942 as a work-away under Master Edwin E. Johnson, finally arriving back in New York on April 2nd, 1942.

Lewis had lost all the toes on his left foot. After a brief period of recuperation, during which time the Arkansan was lost, he returned to service in September of 1942 and became Chief Mate of the liberty ship William Ellery Channing under Master Coleman Raphael. Raphael, as regular visitors might recall, had survived the Washingtonian’s sinking in the Indian Ocean just that previous April.

After a couple voyages on the Channing, Lewis finally became the Master of his own vessel, the brand new Liberty ship George K. Fitch for her maiden voyage to Australia.

The final compilation is of his post Arkansan service through the end of his career:

As you may notice from the list, in an amazing twist of fate, at the age of 59, Lewis became Master of the SS Hawaiian in March of 1945. The very vessel Bernard had transferred from to replace Lewis in Calcutta.

With the exception of his return on the Columbian, all the other trips appear to be foreign voyages made to the Pacific theater.

Post War

Not much is known from the time of his last known sailing on the Philip Kearney in 1947 to when he passed other than he and Arvilla had settled in the Portland, OR area. The National Maritime Center did have a document, a Seaman’s Certificate Application filled out by Lewis on December 7th, 1953 which included the picture to the right.

Lewis passed away seven months later on July 31st, 1954 in Multnomah, OR at the age of 68. He and Arvilla do not appear to have had any children. He is buried in the Willamette National Cemetery in Portland, OR. Of course Merchant Mariners did not receive veteran status until 1985, and so Lewis was eligible for burial there due to his service in WWI.

Arvilla never re-married and when she passed thirty years later in 1985 she was buried next to Thomas.

To date I have only found distant relatives of Arvilla that did not know Thomas, but have not located any living relatives of Thomas himself. Hopefully one day someone with more direct knowledge of Thomas will find my website.

I was at least privileged to share this information with Rodman Dickie, who never knew what became of his former mentor after the accident in Calcutta.

Thomas N. Lewis circa 1953

Sources for information on Thomas N. Lewis and crew lists for various vessels mentioned in this article.

Dickie, Captain Rodman L. for information about his time on the Arkansan with Thomas N. Lewis, specifically the incident in Calcutta and his permission to use a summary of that event on my site from his book ‘Saved By A SERIES OF MIRACLES’ (2012, Infinity Publishing, ISBN 978-0-7414-7850-4).

Duffy, Captain George W. for introducing me to Rodman Dickie.

U.S. Coast Guard National Maritime Center, 100 Forbes Drive, Martinsburg, WV 25404 for Merchant Marine career information on Thomas N. Lewis.