Oral History Transcript — Captain Henry Conrad Kohler
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Interview with Captain Henry Conrad Kohler
Henry Kohler; May 27, 1996
ABSTRACT: Discusses childhood and upbringing in Lunenberg, Nova Scotia, as part of a seagoing family of German immigrants; his education to become a master seaman; recollections of experiences onboard Verma; his relationship with Lamont-Doherty and Maurice Ewing.
TranscriptSession I | Session II
Doel:Let me note that this is Ron Doel and this is an interview with Henry Conrad Kohler. Weíre recording this in Lunenberg, Nova Scotia, Canada and todayís date is May 27, 1996. And I know that you were born on February 10, 1921 in Lunenberg. But I donít know much about your family — your parents and your early life. Who were your parents?
Kohler:I will do that. Iíll start with my father. And I have a lot of it in writing and documentation. My father was born German. His father was a German captain in the big German square rigger sailing to the Antipodes and Europe — back and forth. And he — my father was born at sea, in the German boat Karl of which his father was captain. And they were on passage from Australia to Hamburg, and he was born south of Cape Horn. In his early years he of course grew up and attended school. At fourteen he went to sea in the big German square rigs ships as a cadet or apprentice and served his four years which was required before they could go into formal education — served as an apprentice which basically was an unpaid seaman in those days.
Kohler:So, when he was fourteen — So when he was about eighteen — I guess eighteen — he was in Argentina on his ship and on return to Germany. He was supposed to go into the military academies — the Prussian academies — which I guess he didnít want to do, and he deserted. He deserted to join a Lunenberg square rig ship which was in the same port.
Doel:What year roughly was that?
Kohler:That was 1908. He was born in 1889.
Doel:I meant to ask you earlier when you said about his being born on ship. How common was that at that time?
Kohler:Very uncommon. Grandmother Kohler was actually an Australian who sailed with her husband for years on world voyages that he sailed on. And thatís the way it happened. It was more common in that era then in Iíll say from nineteen hundred onward. But out of Lunenberg it also was quite a tradition on the foreign voyages that the wife and children would travel with the father — I will get into that.
Doel:Thatís interesting. So in certain regions it simply was much more the tradition for the wives to sail with Ė
Kohler:Yes. And he joined this Lunenberg vessel which was there and company with my wifeís uncle who was a young sailor. He came to Lunenberg in 1908 and became a resident, continued his seagoing career in the foreign trades. By nineteen — I have his naturalization certificate here I think — by nineteen — I canít remember — fifteen he became a Canadian citizen or earlier — because he was qualified before that. He became a foreign going shipmaster, Canadian shipmaster, in any type of ship: fore and aft rig, square rig, steamer, it didnít matter. He sailed in all of the trades — in the foreign trades. He became a very young ship owner here in Lunenberg and sailed his own ships in the foreign trade.
Doel:When you say he was young and became a ship owner — how young was he when he first acquired his own vessel?
Kohler:Let me think now. Actually, he was sailing as master and was captured by a German sea raider in the World War I — Count von Luckner. However, after that, after World War I, he purchased with the support of a Canadian senator a large sailing vessel, in — I have to think a little bit — in 1923.
Doel:Two years after your birth.
Kohler:It would have been 1923. And he paid for it on credit. But he did a very fast run to Germany with a cargo of lumber — came back with a cargo of liquor from Belgium — rum running on the U.S. coast. A huge quantity of booze. He landed it all in the U.S., came home, and was in sailing vessel senate till 1929; with the depression he gave it up — sold out. He went back into steam which heíd been in before. He was master of steamships right up until almost the time he died in 1953. A point which weíre very proud of — and I can show you the documentation — as a German born he served in World War I, and was recognized as a Canadian British captain — we were British then. In World War II, even though German- born, he was eventually decorated as an officer of the Order of the British Empire — which he earned at the evacuation of France. He had his ship in France and escaped out of France and did enough work that he was eventually named an officer of the Order of the British Empire. Weíre proud of that.
Kohler:Particularly because of the German background.
Doel:I was curious how strong the sentiments the anti-German sentiments were in Canada in World War II — World War I rather.
Kohler:They were very strong, in some respects. My father suffered a little bit from that in World War I because heíd been captured by Count von Luckner, the German sea raider. These were people who tried to give him some problems here — and so he did it intentionally. My mother was with him at that time. They were on a voyage from Canada to Brazil. In World War II? Not bad. But initially, and I can remember it well, there was some stirrings of the old sentiments which were passed on from World War I when people were more narrow-minded. My father came — I forget when the RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] came to visit him. He then went to his friend again, the senator, the same senator I guess, who referred him to the Minister of Naval Affairs — the Minister of Defense, Norman Rogers — who gave him a document which cleared him completely, so he didnít have any problems after that.
Doel:Now, I had meant World War I in the first question. I was curious particularly given that Lunenberg has a very strong German heritage.
Kohler:Itís a German community. In this era — very, very proud of it. In World War II — after the war — I was a very young captain working. We were carrying cargo from U.S. into Europe — Germany mostly — under the Marshall Plan. My own relations — my fatherís first cousins — they were submarine officers and some were submarine captains. I used to visit with them and we had good times together.
Doel:You mean those that were still in Germany?
Kohler:Yes, oh yes. I still go back to Germany occasionally. The relationship between Lunenberg and Germany is very, very strong, and has been for many, many years.
Kohler:Itís an interesting thing — itís a strange thing. The Germans came here and they couldnít speak English. But they were very, very successful because of their hard work ethic, and I think their hardheadedness too. They were relegated to this area from Halifax — because Halifax was a British city, established in 1749. But the Germans didnít work well with the British — thatís not the term I want to use. But then the governor relegated them to this area to form their own community. They were brought here because they were German religious Protestants. A large delegation of Germans — some Swiss and a very few French from Mount Billiard — and set up this community. Which now is a world heritage site.
Doel:I meant to ask you — did your father speak English when he first came —?
Kohler:No. Well — broken, that he had left over from his school days. But he spoke very good English with a strong German accent. He never lost the accent. Now my motherís people were Conradís. They came in 1753. My wifeís family, the Himmelmans, and the [inaudible] was the same thing. They all spoke what was known as low-German. But the people of this county left their language slip away from them. A hundred years ago it was very common. Even in my time — there were people in the country who were very young, who could still communicate — it wasnít their main language — in low-German. A lot of the old church documents are done in German. Preachers preached in German at the turn of the century yet.
Doel:Do you remember that when you were growing up? Were they still preaching in German?
Kohler:No, no. My mother and father could communicate. Laneyís mother and father could communicate. But that was the low-German. They came as peasants or seamen, and that sort of thing. To know something about the community. Well, I forget where I was now. An interesting — when my father came here, he came with Laneyís uncle and went to the old homestead right across the bay here.
Doel:Youíre pointing out the window, across the bay.
Kohler:Yes, right across the bay. He lived there with them for quite some time. So as far as background goes — in my motherís case — her father was a foreign-going ship master. She sailed with him. I have her log book saved from when she started in 1901.
Kohler:Very interesting. Sheís only thirteen years old. She only had her father at that time. Her log book, when she started on sailing day in 1901 was the writing of a little girl. In six months it was a firm script. Itís amazing how it evolved there. She served many years at sea with her father, and eventually finished her schooling in Boston with her aunts. She met my father because he was mate — first mate — with my grandfather Conrad. And up here I have the Grandfather Conrad certificate.
Doel:Yes, youíre pointing to the wall behind us.
Kohler:Yes, that wall. And my fatherís certificate and my own certificate and a certificate of Grandfather Kohler.
Doel:Thatís very interesting. Those are quite ornate too. [Microphone noise]
Kohler:So for atmosphere [unclear].
Doel:I was curious; did you speak German at home? Did you understand it?
Kohler:As a little boy, at my fatherís knee, I could converse with him. I cannot now. And Iíll say we Canadians, but generally itís we North Americans, are not the best linguists in the world, as you well know. I lost it completely. And itís always embarrassing when I go back and meet some relatives which are now getting to be sort of distant relatives and I canít talk German with them. Theyíre always a little disappointed, but we find ways of getting around it. So in my case — Iím the fifth generation of ship captain in the Kohler family.
Doel:And do you know what happened to earlier generations — or is that as far back as the family is traced?
Kohler:No. I guess I traced in Germany the last time I was there and I had some record of it. I guess my interests are rather narrow, but back five generations these people were coastal sailors and sailors on barges of the Elba [?], but they were also farmers. Then as the years went on, they became broader horizons. And then eventually before the turn of the century — after the turn of the century — they became foreign-going seamen and then captains. And there were five. Some sailed as captains of the biggest German liners. I have here a cigarette case given by Baron Rothschild to one of my fatherís uncles who was master of a big north German passenger vessel running to the Far East — and another one to the U.S. coast. So, in my own case, my father never did — They took me to sea at six months old. My sister had been at sea for quite a while. They sent her to Germany with her grandparents and took me to sea until it was time enough — more or less — for me to go to school.
Doel:Thatís very interesting. So your childhood was spent largely at sea.
Kohler:Yes. My father, at that time, had a fine, big sailing vessel owned by Vegetable Oil Corporation of New York. They traded between Tahiti, San Francisco, of course Panama and Marseilles. Eventually she caught fire. She was an auxiliary — an auxiliary diesel engine which was unusual in that day. But she was really a high-class operation. She caught fire and burned in the Mediterranean. We were rescued by a British ship and taken into Valencia. So my early years, then as I grew older, Iíd be with my father maybe in the summer if it was possible — my mother as well — on voyages to West Indies or U.S. coast or something like that.
Doel:Roughly how old were you when the ship burned?
Kohler:Two. I can tell you one little incident related to me by my mother. At that time, my father had mostly a Tahitian crew because he was sailing to Tahiti from France. He had a Tahitian chief steward who always looked after me. While we were in Valencia awaiting passage home by passenger ship, this Tahitian steward would take me out every day. There came a day when he wasnít back when heís supposed to be back. It was quite late in the evening when he finally arrived back, and I guess my father was very upset about this. Because the steward was drunk and so was Henry. And I guess my father raised merry hell. He didnít understand that because, ďIf wine was good for him, it should be good for Henry too.Ē Thatís a true one. So I didnít do well in school, Ron. Itís my fault. I can remember my father coming home in the mid-í30s, on vacation, and talking with me. He strongly recommended I not go to sea for him because he didnít see any future in it in Canada. He was right.
Doel:This is the mid-1930s? So still in the depression period that weíre talking about?
Kohler:Yes, although he did have a ship — he had a steamship out of Halifax in the foreign trade. It wasnít too lucrative, but it was a living and he kept that big home going.
Doel:Yes, I want to make sure we cover some of those things. I didnít mean to interrupt you right now.
Kohler:No, you interrupt me whenever you want to.
Doel:Iím curious about what kind of home — actually you told me off-tape that you were in a few different homes when you were growing up. What were those homes like?
Kohler:The one in which I was born I donít remember. Thatís just down the street. A fine old property, which Iíll find time to point out to you — and the Bluenose Lodge.
Doel:Right. And I should say that by good fortune I am staying — in the moment — in what was your family house which is now called the Bluenose Lodge. What was it like? How long did you live in that house?
Kohler:Well, my father bought it about the time I was born — 1921 I believe it was. He sold it in 1948 because then my mother was living there alone because he was away at sea most of the time. They built a new home in a new section of the town.
Doel:How many were in your family?
Kohler:Just my sister and I. My sisterís older than me. She, she was born in 1918, so sheíd be about seventy-eight. So, my father laid it right on the line. He strongly recommended I go to the university and be an engineer. I was then, I think, in grade nine in school and I didnít want to do that. But he let me know that if I wasnít going to go to school and do well, I had to start doing something. I was just under sixteen. I decided right then I was going to sea. So he did get me a berth on an old tramp ship out of Halifax as an ordinary seaman. He went down on the waterfront and got canvas — came home and sewed up a big seamanís bag for me. He stocked it with everything youíd need for years. Dungarees, theyíre known as jeans today. Thatís another little story Iíll tell you. Dungarees, oil clothes, rubber boots — what a real sailor needed to go to sea. He found this berth for me, and said, ďNow you come home again when you have your second mateís foreign-going certificate.Ē A tough direction — but nothing wrong with it. Unfortunately, about two years after that, I had a slight accident on board the ship which developed into a very serious blood poisoning known as septicemia. Itís a very general blood poisoning, I believe, of the whole system. It settled in the bone of my hip and left me with this stiff hip. I spent three hundred and sixty-five days in the marine hospital in Halifax.
Doel:Exactly a full year.
Kohler:Yes. Eventually then I was out and I think in 1938 I was home about a year. I really wasnít supposed to be going to be sea. The war started — I took a course as a wireless operator — being sure that I could get to sea. But I never served as a wireless operator.
Doel:Okay. I want to get back to this point, but before we do I want to hear a little bit more about what it was like for you growing up here in Lunenberg. You mentioned the house which is now, as you say, the Bluenose Lodge. That was a fairly large house for a family of four. Was it common for families to have -Ė?
Kohler:Very. Well, common to Lunenberg normally. You were making it then. They said they always had a big belly and a big house. In the very early years, the second story was an apartment which my mother rented to the local, railway manager. Then later there was no one there and we used the whole house.
Doel:Where were your bedrooms located, up on the top floor?
Kohler:I had one on the top floor early. Related to that lounge on the bottom floor, you go to the top floor, that was my sisterís room. Immediately above that was the lounge. The back was my room. And then in later years, when we used the whole house, I came one room down. Since then I believe they serviced all those rooms with showers and so on. We certainly didnít have that then.
Kohler:There was one large bathroom, I think, on the landing going up from the main floor.
Doel:Did you have a library in the house when you were growing up?
Kohler:Not as such, but a great assortment of reading material. My mother was a great reader — my father was as well. There were always books around us. Not as such, but they were in shelves in different places in different rooms. I certainly always have been a good reader and still do a lot when I get time. I thoroughly enjoy it. Both of my daughters are remarkably good readers. My wife sometimes complained about it, but she realized now it was all right. When I would be going away and on vacation and Iíd leave a stack of books for her. They were to go through those. For an hour a day my wife would relegate them to our living room downstairs and they read. Theyíre good readers.
Kohler:In the days of television — which we werenít in on the early part of it — they didnít have too much time at that. But they had their hour of reading down first.
Doel:What do you remember reading particularly when you were growing up?
Kohler:What do I remember reading? In my very early years — magazines like ďPopular Mechanics,Ē and there was a ďPopular Science,Ē I believe. Lighter than that — pulp paper western magazines. Have you ever seen them?
Kohler:I thought they were wonderful. Iím talking of being a boy then of eight, ten, eleven years old. I would say for a time when I was twelve on — very general reading. Anything related to marine life or biographies of people at sea. That sort of thing has always been a top priority with me in reading and still is. I think that just about covers it. I like a broad spectrum. In my years at sea, not only on Vema, I always kept two books going. One heavy one and one light one. Maybe tonight Iíd lay down before I went to sleep and read a chapter of a light book. Tomorrow night Iíd go back into the heavy one. I donít know if thatís a real good program, but anyway.
Doel:It worked for you it seems.
Kohler:It was a pleasure.
Doel:Interesting. When you recall reading say ďPopular MechanicsĒ — was that a subscription that came into home or did you go to a library to read them?
Kohler:No. Normally we would buy them month by month. I canít remember having a subscription to any of them. But among the boys I grew up with — weíd circulate these things around — exchange and so on.
Doel:Sure. Sure. Do you remember going to the library often when you were Ė-
Kohler:We didnít have a local library.
Doel:You didnít have one in those years?
Kohler:No. There was a very limited library in the school. But basically that was only open I think to the high school as I remember.
Kohler:Yes. It was very limited. Itís only in recent years that thereís a reasonable library in town.
Doel:Yes. So, whatever you read then was largely what you had in the family or shared amongst yourselves?
Kohler:Oh yes. There was a lot there. There was a lot there. I was always very interested in that sort of thing.
Doel:As I recall, you attended the Lunenberg Academy —?
Doel:The academy. What was that like? I should note that -Ė
Kohler:Itís a hundred-year-old institution.
Doel:It is. And it still is here in —
Kohler:In the early years — where youíre staying now — youíre just on the other side of the railroad tracks. In fact, the railroad tracks took a slice off of the property of the Bluenose Lodge.
Doel:And, of course, the Bluenose Lodge is your parentsí old house. And indeed the railroad station is not located very far away — the old railroad station.
Kohler:No. Thatís right. Thatís right. The railroad tracks just went right there where the cars are parked. On that side of the tracks was known as New Town. The old original surveyed town is where — not quite where you are now either, in the center — you drove through it. This end of the town was not very well populated in early years. So I went to a New Town school. A little old schoolhouse over — not far from where you are. They would send us there until we got to grade three. The first two grades we would go to the New Town School. I can remember it very, very well. It was right by the water — and not far from where you are. Moving up to grade three, then we went to this academy.
Doel:Which is located on a hill that overlooks this -Ė
Kohler:Yes. It almost looks like a convent.
Doel:What was it like to go to school in the academy?
Kohler:Well, in retrospect — I canít say I was ever a good student. In retrospect, I think it was great. It was an old fashioned school with the people drove the three RVs into people better than they do today. There wasnít the extracurricular programs which are so prevalent today in the schooling systems. And I may not be the person to criticize properly, but I can see a trend from what we have today — a trend pointing back to the old system, where people get a sounder education. You would be a good judge of that. But thatís my viewpoint. And I think the same problem exists in the U.S. in schooling — in public schools anyway.
Doel:Were any teachers particularly memorable for you?
Doel:Were any teachers particularly memorable?
Kohler:Yes. Through the years the principal of this academy — We didnít have anything, I donít think, anything known as junior high school. We had grades up to eight. Eight in those days were known as preparatory grades. They prepared people for high school. Then they had nine, ten, eleven and later they brought in a twelve, which is supposedly to give credits for the first year of the university. But the old — I guess the principal, he had a lot of trouble with me. And I had a lot of trouble with him. But he was right. He was a rigid disciplinarian. I think a wonderful teacher. I didnít have him teach me much, because I only had him grade 9. But in the earlier years, I can remember — oh I think two lady teachers who were real disciplinarians. But I can remember them well too. When you came out of their classes, you knew something. They were tough. But they were good.
Doel:How big were the classes — roughly?
Kohler:Iíd say thirty, as a maximum. Then there was one teacher whom I knew all my life. She just died recently. She was a neighbor of ours. Two doors from where you live. She was such a lovely person — but she wasnít a good teacher. She was just nice to children. That sort of thing. You see differently in retrospect. The grade nine class was — the room was right on the top floor where you could look right over the harbor. We spent a lot of time looking out there because then we had a lot of sailing vessels. Weíd watch them going to sea and coming in under sail and so on.
Doel:This was a daily almost?
Doel:Where literally one could see activity in the harbor.
Doel:It sounds as if that was a siren call for you.
Kohler:Oh, no question. No question. Iíll tell you. You see that big three-masted vessel?
Doel:Yes. I should say youíre pointing behind you at a photograph. Framed Ė-
Kohler:That was my fatherís one — the last one he owned. I sailed her as a boy — just as a child. Then, later, it was the first one I sailed as a very, very young seaman — or served as one. I wasnít one of the crew, but I served as one. I was unpaid, of course. [Laughter]
Doel:And where was that photograph taken?
Doel:Right here in Lunenberg.
Kohler:Sheís delivering a load of American hard coal.
Kohler:That would be about 1928. I could take you to a place where you could see some real fine pictures of Lunenberg. In the early thirties, in the wintertime you might see, thirty, forty vessels anchored here in the harbor.
Doel:Is that right?
Kohler:Yes. Maybe more. Theyíd be large fishing vessels and the three- and four-masted vessels that were in. Theyíd lay here until they got themselves a charter to make a trip somewhere. So it was a very interesting waterfront. Now we have a very nice waterfront for tourists to visit. I donít condemn it whatsoever, but it doesnít have the interest and romance that we knew as boys. Thereís quite a group with whom I grew up and we spent a lot of time on that waterfront.
Doel:I was going to ask you about that. Did your friends also go into -Ė?
Kohler:Not all, but a lot. And a lot were very successful. Like Laneyís first cousin and her brother and people like that. We spent a lot of time on the waterfront. Weíd be aboard the vessels and maybe sometimes hearing things we shouldnít hear and so on. But it was a very romantic atmosphere, particularly with the fishing vessels — but particularly with the foreign-going ones. I can remember one incident when two of my companions — I guess maybe both were killed in World War II — we were just very young. But this one vessel was loading a cargo of lumber headed for Madera. Weíd be there every day after school. I think the captain — and I knew him very well at that time, and I knew him when he was a very elderly man. He lived to ninety-nine I think. He had his ship well searched because he didnít know if we were aboard or not as stowaways.
Doel:Were you? [Laughter]
Kohler:He told me that. An interesting side note on that — I went to visit him when he was ninety-nine. He had one failing — his hearing was very bad. But we went to see him over at the LeHave River where he lived. He was doing the cemetery records of the church. Thatís ninety-nine. He was a wonderful old man.
Doel:Were you tempted to stow away at any point?
Kohler:Of course. Of course. [Laughter] He was a friend of my fatherís. I donít know what the hell he would have done with us if — because in those days maybe with a fair wind the vessel was well off-shore in even twenty-four hours. I donít know what he would have done with us. There were no communications, of course — no radio communication on those ships.
Doel:What sort of things did you learn when you would visit the ships after school?
Kohler:Well, thatís a good question. I can remember being young and Iíd be visiting the ships with my father — sometimes on a Saturday. And thatís when the captains and crews all would be the waterfront — meeting their friends, sitting down, talking, and sometimes being aboard the vessels and having a drink before they went home. Dinner was twelve oíclock in those days. I learned a great deal. A lot of my friends who became captains learned a great deal at our fathersí knees sitting in the cabin of some of these vessels while they were having a drink, or just having a talk, or yarn as the sailors will say. I can remember one occasion with Vema. Iím sure some of the things I learned on — very, very practical seamanship and navigation. These men, in many cases, were not very well educated — but they had an innate intelligence. The sense of direction that God gave a seaman — Iíve always believed in that. I feel Iíve had it, and I think I still do. Except when I get to downtown Los Angeles. Then Iím in trouble. [Laughter]
Doel:Thatís coming to mind since you were very recently in Los Angeles — last week.
Kohler:Yes, yes. But in Vema I can remember, we were in the Antarctic — in the Bransfield Strait — too late in the season. Pressing things as scientists do. The weather was turning very, very bad. We started for the Schweire just inside of Cape Horn and our electrical system failed. We had very little or nothing to work with except the old, traditional navigational instruments such as a magnetic compass. I donít know if we had a sounding machine that would work — or we sounded by hand when we got off of the coast. We made a terrible — a horrid crossing of the Drake Passage to get to the Deagle Channel. And under heavy snow — terrible conditions — and I know I made the safe passage because I learned the things about safe navigation and making the landfall, and dead reckoning navigation that I learned at my fatherís knee — right here in Lunenberg. Aboard the vessels or in the boat building shops where I could hear these old practical seamen. My father was a very well educated seaman. But he was a seaman at heart. So — but these men were good. I can remember that incident and I canít remember exactly what trip — I probably can find it.
Doel:We can refer to that later.
Kohler:Yes. Certain things I learned — weíll say rope work and so on, and that sort of thing. My father was very good with his hands, in that respect. We learned those things there.
Doel:It almost sounds as if you were hearing the voices or memories of —
Kohler:No question about it.
Doel:When you, in the Drake Passage, for instance —
Doel:In those —
Kohler:Yes. And I can remember doing exactly some of the things they told me theyíd done in the past. Even as a very young boy, I can remember vessels coming home here in the winter — in the heavy, thick snow and making the harbor. They had nothing but a hand sounding lead and a magnetic compass. And the sense of direction that God gave the seaman and an innate intelligence. But I feel very strong on those points as you can see.
Doel:Yes. But it sounds too that you also grew up with the confidence in knowing that these systems would work.
Kohler:Yes. Oh yes, no question. Because we saw them work. Sometimes we were there and sometimes we were looking in the harbor when it worked.
Doel:Yes. How often would you get to sail locally? For say a few days to learn some of these — this kind of tacit knowledge of —
Kohler:The boys that grew up in the fishing industry — they would make shorter trips quite often as they grew old enough to be aboard those vessels with their fathers. In my case, not so often. But when I made a trip, it was a longer trip. A West Indies trip or U.S. coast, or something like that.
Doel:How old were you roughly when you did this?
Kohler:Anywhere between seven and twelve? Anywhere between that.
Doel:Would it be particularly in the summer period?
Kohler:Yes, yes. Because of schooling.
Doel:Yes. I was just going to ask if you had ever been out of school for any particular period of time.
Doel:When you were at the Academy, were any of the subjects particularly interesting to you — more interesting than others?
Kohler:I was always very good at history — geography. I could handle mathematics. But English was my downfall.
Kohler:So boring. Now I wish I had absorbed more.
Doel:The sort of things we recognize in hindsight.
Kohler:I have a friend here in Lunenberg thatís almost as old as I am. He has a marvelous command of the English language. Heís unique to have such a command of it and such a memory — which I envy him for, of course. But thatís not true with all university people. After I left Vema, I came home and immediately went to work for a large company as a fleet captain — National Sea Products — which all the top executive were men that I grew up with. We had fifty-two large ships. And I guess at one time the company had seven or eight thousand employees. However, itís dwindled to a sad state because of whatís happened to fish stocks.
Doel:You mean, for example, the depletion of the Grand Banks?
Kohler:Yes. Even worldwide — in our company training programs, our fleet department were certainly obligated to train young men for positions like marine manager — that sort of thing. You know they employed a lot. Some were good, some were not so good. But they came from Dalhousie University — which is a good university — St. Maryís, [inaudible] — and they couldnít write a letter. And I say that — it was always a shock to me. I used to have to edit their letters and correct them. These were bright young men.
Doel:Right. And I should say for the record, weíre talking about the period in the early 1980s or after the 1980s when you had left -Ė
Kohler:1981 to 1991.
Doel:To put that in perspective of which generation weíre talking about.
Kohler:So, I donít know which direction you want to proceed.
Doel:One question I wanted to ask on the Academy — did you have any particular interest in any of the sciences when you were growing up.
Kohler:Well, at that early age, itís very general. Yes, generally. But not deeply because I didnít have the education to understand. I think I could have made a good engineer. Iíve always had an understanding. I think I could have made a good medical doctor. I was always interested in that. However, my chief interest was to do exactly what I did — to be a ship captain. There may be better things in life, but there are a hell of a lot worse.
Kohler:And if youíre going to sea and youíre going to be aboard a ship, you may as well have the best job. [Laughter]
Doel:Yes. You had that in mind clearly when you went — when you first started out.
Kohler:Oh yes. I learned that at home.
Doel:One thing Iím curious about that you say that — did you have any exposure to biology or related fields when you were in the Academy?
Kohler:No biology at that time. Not in our local schools.
Doel:Thatís what I was curious about. Iím just curious to how much engineering — you had a lot of practical exposure in being on the ships.
Doel:Was anything trained or offered as courses in the Academy that you recall?
Kohler:No, no specific courses. We had a science course in every grade. But they were very elementary.
Doel:Theyíd be things like chemistry, for instance.
Doel:Did you have geology as one course?
Kohler:Not in the classes I was in. I believe in high school they had some biology. In the advanced — grades ten, eleven, and twelve. I was going to make a point. I didnít spend a lot of time studying either. Which of course is not anything to be very proud of — my scholastic record isnít much. I can say this with all honesty. After I went to sea — I was at sea maybe a year — I started studying and I donít think I stopped yet. But I really studied hard for year after year after year. Sometimes under very bad conditions. Before I became what you in the U.S. would call an unlimited ship captain — we know it as a foreign-going ship master — which covers everything and anywhere in the world. I normally — when I was an officer — I normally made certain every day at sea that I put in one solid hour. You know in a year, you gather a lot.
Kohler:It made it very easy for me in some respects — much easier than some of my colleagues — when I went back to the navigation schools because I had been through so much in correspondence courses — so much in informal study. I made certain I did it. And it paid off.
Doel:Where did the self-discipline come from — do you feel —?
Kohler:I think probably from my father. Otherwise, I generated it myself. But — even today now — if I know I have something to do, Iím going to get at it and do it. And Iím going to put so much time per day at it — and itís done. It gives you so much time to look at other things. Thatís the way I feel about it.
Doel:Yes. Thatís an interesting point. You mentioned a bit earlier on the tape that you had been ill and that was within a year or so of your first sailing.
Kohler:That would have been — I think I was in the hospital 1937-38 for three hundred sixty-five days. Then I was ashore here in Lunenberg for about a year — I couldnít do anything. It would have been about, I think, mid-1939 I went to school in Halifax to be a wireless operator. I didnít — I only did it so I could get to sea. I wasnít acceptable to the armed forces. I certainly would have joined the Navy immediately. Then I thought ďNo, Iíll get myself a berth and go to sea.Ē With my incapacity I certainly served my time as a seaman. Sometimes a little tougher than others. But I got along. Maybe made a little more effort. But I did all the things that were necessary — from everything possible. And that would have been, I think — I went back to sea late Ď39 or early Ď40.
Doel:And just to keep the chronology there. You would have been eighteen or nineteen when you went back to sea. It was your sixteenth — seventeenth year that you had the illness and recuperative period here.
Kohler:Yes. And when I had enough time served, I then went to school in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, for my first certificate — which was the lowest grade of five certificates. And progressively — as I served more time I was eligible for examinations. Iíd come ashore and go to school for the next grade up and the next grade up. Then I was sailing what was then known as a very large ship in 1948. I didnít have the top grade. I had the second grade. But I was able to have a certificate of permit by the government, to be master of such a ship. I served there — I donít know — a year or so. Then I came ashore and went for the top grade. So I went along every time I had enough time served. I didnít fool around in between — I got myself ashore. And as I just told you, I was always reasonably well prepared to go into school. I worked hard there. I worked hard in school.
Doel:Were you taking courses or correspondence courses when you were ill in the hospital or was it simply too difficult?
Kohler:No, I just wasnít. The kind of study which we were doing at sea — I donít know I had a specific correspondence course, but we had the guidance text and the guidance examinations of all the various grades in England and in Canada. We could work through those, and then we worked through — or I did — through the self-examiners. Youíd get a book of self-examiners — self-examinations — and work through those. It was all very valuable. And the people who didnít do that had to spend far longer time in school, on shore, before they were prepared to go for the government exams.
Doel:And those exams that youíre referring to are specifically aimed for those who are ready to stand for the exams?
Doel:These were based on these points?
Kohler:Oh yes. Right straight down the line on every subject. What was tough about it — I think — maybe good for us — if you were preparing yourself for examination for a certain grade — for the top three grades — you went into a full week of examinations. You had to prepare for all those at one time. Now the system is eased — itís sort of like the university. You can prepare for a subject and get a credit. If you get all your credits together in thirty months — if youíre successful — youíll have your certificate. But when I went — and always before — you had to do it all at once. So you were preparing for about seven written exams and three orals. But you had them all in the one week. So itís kind of tough.
Kohler:Yes. I didnít shirk on them. I worked hard at them. When I went to school I had certain subjects I studied — not here — on board and in Halifax or in Yarmouth. I had certain subjects that I studied from five-thirty to seven-thirty in the morning. I didnít need to waste time on that in school.
Doel:Which kind of subjects?
Kohler:One that I worked on very hard was meteorology — at home, early in the morning. It was interesting, but I found it a tough subject. Meteorology, as I think, is a very inexact science. Seamanship, practical seamanship — which really was preparing yourself for the oral examinations. Iíd work on that at home. But the rest — over weekends I would do things like review. Today people are allowed to have computers or calculators in class — we were not. We had to show — and I donít know what — if it was in mathematics or navigation or whatever principles or trigonometry, geometry. We had to show all our calculations on the margin of the exam paper. Did you go through that?
Kohler:Today they donít do that. They have a little calculator — put the answers down. I think a lot of people slip through today that shouldnít be qualified. I really do.
Doel:Well, showing either on the margins or wherever — one was demonstrating the way in which the problem was solved.
Kohler:Yes. Well, I can remember one examination. I was going for what would be — we had what was known as home trade mate, home trade second mate, home trade mate, home trade master. It was kind of a tough certificate. Then we had second mate foreign-going, mate foreign-going and master foreign-going. I can remember when I was finally up for my masterís home trade — which carried us to, I think, the equator and up the west coast and maybe up to Hawaii. However, I was doing an exam and got along fine and you know I was almost — and you had a time limit you had to finish it. I was almost finished and I realized the first problem I did related to all the others — and I had done the first one wrong. I didnít have much time, but I got through them all. I rewrote the whole thing in about an hour. Exam time I think used to be four hours, but I did the whole thing over. I had to leave my old work — my initial work. I made it. I was worried. I never failed an exam. And in those days they never even told us — you passed or you didnít pass. They didnít — no marks. Today I think people get marks.
Doel:Yes. How were the oral exams for you?
Kohler:It depended a lot on the examiner, and I guess you can believe that. They were pretty tough. A good examiner generally — he would recognize immediately — this person is well-prepared. Heís not trying to pull the wool over my eyes and go on nicely, but some of these other examiners were tough, competent, former ship masters. If they thought you were trying to pull the wool over their eyes — theyíd grind a man and grind him and eventually fail him. I never had that problem. I found them not easy — but not tough. And I can remember one exam, it wasnít an oral. I went out to the lavatory and the old examiner came out to the lavatory at the same time. I forget what he said to me. I knew him very well, Old Captain Waterhouse, old Englishman. He was known as one of the really tough ones. He said, ďHowís the exam going?Ē — because he was in the room — in charge. Well, I said, ďIt seems to be going pretty well. Then he said to me, ďYou watch that so and so number — question.Ē And I say,Ē oh?Ē And he said — he gave me lead that Iíd have missed that question. But he gave me — he wanted to. As soon as he gave me that lead — what it meant — what the question meant — no trouble to write it. I have some high memories of some of these men.
Doel:It sounds like you had a great deal of respect for them as practitioners.
Kohler:Oh, no question. No question. We had some real fine teachers too. And again itís gone to — the progressive time. Itís not the same character to the exams, and the exam rooms, and the people running them — that I know. I associate with young people now who are examiners and because I am on the executive of an organization known as the Company of Master Mariners of Canada. So I meet a lot of these people. Theyíre good people, but I can see itís not the old way of doing it. They donít have the relationship with the candidate — personal relationship. Itís just a job. These older men, they had a — they were interested in bringing the young men along. They had a personal interest in each candidate. Invariably they knew them.
Doel:What do you attribute that to the most? Is it the size, the numbers of people coming through, or is it broader changes in the society that preclude that kind of —
Kohler:Well, broader may be a term to use for it. I think itís a relaxation of standards. A lot of old people like myself feel this way and many times theyíre wrong in thinking that things were better the old way. But I do not believe the quality of people, in very general terms, who are becoming qualified are, would — How to express it? I donít think a lot would have made it forty years ago, fifty years ago. I donít think theyíd have made it. One reason, of course, is the strict relationship to — oh thatís not a good term. The demands and standards are not as high today. Theyíre higher in a theoretical manner. Theyíre higher in a theoretical manner. Now when we had to do our electrical engineering exam and papers. Itís simplistic towards what theyíre doing today. But the same type of person wouldnít have been able to do it in my mind forty years ago. Thatís not all of them, because the majorities are good people. Young people — because people go through it. I wouldnít want to take a dory across the harbor.
Doel:Thatís interesting. You mentioned a moment ago that one of the subjects you had studied was meteorology.
Doel:What kind of training did you get? Was it an applied meteorology? Or were you exposed to some of the underpinnings of meteorology as a science?
Kohler:Well, that came into the exams — the final step to master mariner or foreign-going master. We did take courses at the Navy School in Halifax which was well advanced for those days. And other than that, we had to do it either in school on an informal manner — without a particular class every day on meteorology, or at home as I told you. We went as deep into the subject as it was known in those days. I can remember one that I wrote. I felt the day before the exam very well-prepared. I woke up that morning — up until I was forty-five years old I used to suffer migraines. I woke up with a hell of migraine and I passed the course. But I found it really, really difficult to write it. I had to go out of the exam room several times. I finally got through it and I couldnít have made a good mark, but I must have had a pass mark. But we went as deep as they go. That was in 1951 I believe — Ď52.
Doel:Okay. Do you remember being exposed to concepts like weather fronts?
Kohler:Oh yes, very much so.
Doel:Was that part of the training? That kind of theoretical structure —
Kohler:Yes. At that time, Ron, they were still — they were working with the system as you see it today even on television. It was the data — there was a paucity of data. But daily you could get through certain channels by radio — the data. But even that, there was a paucity of it. Stations were very limited and far distant, in many cases.
Doel:Right. Particularly over the oceans.
Kohler:Yes. You could establish a system moving. But it wasnít established on a great deal of details. But today of course they got such a handle on it and still they make a mess of it many times. My sympathy lies with the meteorologist. Very much so.
Doel:Itís an exceedingly difficult challenge to —
Doel:To compute the dynamics of the atmosphere. Itís very interesting the degree to which you were exposed to the science at the time. Did you have guest speakers? Would practicing meteorologists come in or was the course actually —
Kohler:Well, in the Navy they had their own instruction — instructors. No, not in our school. Only people that would be our regular instructors and teachers. No, we didnít have specialists on it. They were few and far between — very much so. Always the data for stations were few and far between. They could establish major systems, but not any detail like is done today.
Doel:It was a kind of synoptic meteorology that you were exposed to, wasnít it?
Doel:That makes sense. Were there other particular memories from earning the grades on the examinations that you particularly recall?
Kohler:Well, of course finances were very limited. In those days there was — we could only go to school when we had enough time and correlated with our leave periods. You didnít get many leave periods, believe me. Sometimes weíd have to stretch those out and work on what meager savings we had to support ourselves. In my own case, I think I was married when I went for the last two. We had to slice things very thin.
Doel:And I should note that was in 1945 that you were —
Kohler:No, that would be Ď48 and Ď51 I believe.
Doel:Okay. Thatís for the exams. I meant the date of your marriage. Because you had made arrangements to —
Kohler:Oh, we were married on VJ Day 1946 — Ď45.
Doel:Ď45. Okay. This may be a good time to ask how you met your wife.
Kohler:I knew her all my life. All my life. Her brother grew up with me and she had other brothers going to sea. I knew her father all my life, and her mother as well. So we lived very close together. But during the interim — when we were in school together — of course, I was away to sea, and my wife finished — graduated here. She went to Halifax and trained as a nurse. I hadnít seen her for years. In 1945 I came home and I liked what I saw. So I made a contract.
Doel:[Laughter] So you hadnít been —
Kohler:I think it was Christmas 1944.
Doel:That you returned —
Kohler:Yes. I came from the west coast on leave. Iíd been at sea in large tankers for Imperial Oil Canada.
Doel:And that was both in the Atlantic and the Pacific that you were sailing in?
Kohler:And the Pacific.
Doel:What surface did you see then — that was — or did that last the entire period of the war that you were —
Kohler:The earlier part of the war I was in cargo ships — sailing in the Atlantic.
Doel:As part of the convoy series?
Doel:I should note that that is particularly covered in one of the oral history interviews that you have given locally that is in the [cross talk].
Yes. I should have tried to get my — Iíll go get a phone number. Excuse me. [Interruption to go get phone number.]
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