AT SEA: THE S.S. STEEL WORKER
The Steel Worker displaced thirty-eight hundred tons.
It was built in 1920
Kearny, New Jersey by the Federal Shipbuilding Co.
It was a Steel Screw vessel fueled by oil.
The voyage started well with the Pacific ocean living up to it’s name, the weather clear, "the ocean like a
millpond." It was only after Louis got to know the ship and it’s crew that he realized why he had gotten the job
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The Steel Worker was known as a ”hell ship.” Two entire crews had deserted between New York and the Panama
Canal. Conditions were bad and morale terrible. According to Louis, “The Scotch steward on the Steel Worker kept
all the money he could save on the food, so we had curry, rice and fried potatoes 3 times a day for 3 weeks; once
in a while they'd get some tapioca pudding.” The crew objected and got the menu changed a little but the mate got
down on Louis because he was the one who spoke up.
The Chief Mate of the Steel Worker was Leonard Duks. Duks "was a naturalized citizen . . . a Russian actually
. . . ." Nobody on the ship liked him, including the officers.
"They were very hesitant, they wouldn't speak about
it of course but you could tell by their attitude they didn't … He was a tall slim fellow and I believe he was
essentially a coward. … He was a petty man and kept digging at the crew in petty ways.”
Louis said that if he’d had an argument with the Engineer on
Steel Worker “you could ask him to come off on
and he would have gone with you. Not [Duks], he wouldn't
have done it in this world."
One wonders how much of this isn’t just Louis chafing under someone else’s authority and bad Conditions. Certainly,
it’s bad leadership for any officer to go mixing it up with his men; a lose-lose situation no matter the
circumstances. Louis was just coming off of a stretch as a professional boxer, a fact that was not lost on the
ship’s company and he may have wanted to respond to what he thought of as bullying with some of his own …
regardless of his troubles with Duks, or who was at fault, the situation lead to the story, “Thicker Than Blood”
which documents Louis’ amusing reactions to the situation and his final reconciliation with the man.
Their first stop was due to be Yokohama, Japan, 21 days out from San Pedro then Nagoya and Kobe.
In Kobe Louis and one of his shipmates caused some trouble at The Union Bar, and narrowly avoided even more …
"Several of us had come ashore, and it being too late for me to seek out more interesting places I was having a
beer with my shipmates in the bar. The manager or perhaps the owner was present, friendly, and seated with us.
One of the seamen who had come ashore with us was a mean, disagreeable drunk, and for some time he was muttering to
himself about one of the waiters. In a moment he stood up and shoved him so the man fell, and the owner objected.
The seaman hit him with what is often described as a bolo punch, a looping right hand to the groin, and the owner,
a much smaller, slighter man, fell to the floor. We all objected to what had happened and I expressed my feelings
in no uncertain terms, so he attacked me. The man was no fighter and what followed could not be described as a
fight. The seaman in question was foolish enough to throw a punch at me, but a wild one any child could have
avoided. I did so and kicked his feet from under him and when he tried to get up I pushed him down again and told
him to stay until he could behave himself. He did so, but about that time several very husky young Japanese men
came in and the owner later told me that had I not coped with the man myself those young Japanese were prepared to
do so. Finally, I let him get up and he went away, stopping at the door to say, 'Some day aboard ship, I'll get
There was all too much of this kind of thing on the Steel Worker, it was not a happy ship but the men took their
pleasure wherever they could.