RICHMOND -- The SS Red Oak Victory has lost one of its most beloved and knowledgeable figures.
Bill Jackson, the ship's chief engineer emeritus whose nautical knowledge and experiences from more than six decades at sea were matched by the colorful and insightful stories he could tell, died Oct. 28 in San Leandro. Jackson, who grew up in Berkeley, was 94.
His mother was Frances Albrier, the first woman elected to the Alameda County Democratic Central Committee (in 1935) and a longtime activist for equality.
Jackson's family held a memorial service for him Nov. 10 on board the World War II-era cargo ship in Richmond, where he was a longtime volunteer.
"The man could charm anyone," said Lois Boyle, president of the Richmond Museum Association, which owns the Red Oak Victory.
"Any guest who came to the ship had to stop by the chief's office because that's where all the stories were. He will definitely be missed."
From 1935 with the Merchant Marine through the first Gulf War in 1990 with the U.S. Navy, Jackson traveled the globe, experiencing its many cultures while witnessing history and expanding his encyclopedic knowledge about the workings of ships.
His remarkable career included being on ships that were torpedoed and sunk crossing the Atlantic during World War II, even though the U.S. Navy and Merchant Marine rejected him for all but menial jobs as a steward when he tried to enlist because he was black.
"I told them, 'If I'm going to die in this war, I ain't going to die serving food,' " he recalled in a 2005 interview with Jess Rigelhaupt for the Regional Oral History Office at UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library. "And that, in 1942, was the big change. It took me three or four days before I could get my job secured, but good people down at the Coast Guard and the shipping commissioner and the union stood up and said, 'If he can fight and he can die, he can work.' "
"Bill broke the color line for the East Coast Seamans Union and, therefore, of the Merchant Marine," said Craig Brammer, a teacher who had Jackson speak to his classes at Vacaville High School. "He knew, in retrospect, what he had done but he was never a braggart. On that first voyage, hated by the chief engineer and the captain, he would spend upwards of 18 hours daily in the filthy bilges but earned the respect and affection of most of the remaining crew."
Jackson, a San Francisco native who grew up in Berkeley, got his first experience at sea while still in high school, joining the Merchant Marine shortly after the 1935 San Francisco waterfront strike, where he marched in the picket line.
"I made China, Japan, and the Philippines before I was 16," he said in the ROHO interview.
After World War II, Jackson saw duty in the Korean War and Vietnam. He also worked for years on the hospital ship SS Hope, based in Oakland. In 1990, when older ships were pressed back into service for the first Gulf War, the Navy called on Jackson, then 72 and retired, as one of the few people who knew how the mechanics of the vessels worked.
"I have sailed 146 ships in my career. I have sailed every type of engine, in every position -- steam ships, diesel ships ... oil tankers, all these," he said in his oral history.
When the SS Red Oak Victory was pulled out of the Mothball Fleet in 1996 and brought home to Richmond, where it was built at the Kaiser shipyards, Jackson came aboard as a volunteer.
He had an office on the ship, complete with a complement of manuals he could refer to -- though he could usually recite most information off the top of his head.
"He was a brilliant man," Boyle said. "He knew and understood the ship."
Last year, when the Red Oak was towed to dry dock in San Francisco to have its hull refurbished, Jackson was there, describing what it would take to make the ship seaworthy again and expressing his hope that he could see the work to completion.
Read Bill Jackson's oral history at http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/ROHO/projects/rosie/.