The Mystery of the Ship of Fear
by Jim Hicks
The freighter Pomona, scabrous with rust, heavy-loaded with scrap iron, was a week off the California coast, westbound for Formosa, when her first mate, Alf Olsen, realized he had not seen the captain for a day and a half. this was not unusual. In 30 years at sea Capt. Jacob Natvig, 51, had developed a real attachment for whisky and he often stayed below. But Olsen decided to investigate. He rapped on the captain’s unlocked door and went into the sitting room. A chair was overturned and papers from the desk littered the floor. Olsen stepped uneasily to the adjoining bedroom and stopped in horror. The captain lay on his bunk, his head gashed below the right ear. Blood sheeted the walls and filmed the porthole so that a ghastly pink glow spread over the room. A big green fire axe which normally hung outside the door lay by the body.
Hands shaking, Olsen backed from the cabin, locked it and ordered the ship turned toward the nearest port. And she lies there now (above), tight-warped to a pier, filled with frightened men and the smell of death. She brought to land a story of violence. terror and appalling drunkenness at sea -- and the Honolulu waterfront dubbed her the “hell ship.”
The Pomona is a Liberty ship, built in the U.S. in 1943, now owned in Brazil, registered in Liberia and crewed in Norway. She sailed from Stavanger, Norway last October with a mixed crew of Norwegians, Finns, Spaniards and West Indians who hated each other almost from the beginning. Within a week a finnish sailor lost his mind and ran screaming through the hip until he was caught and subdued. He was put ashore at Bilbao, Spain.
But the trouble had started and the chief cause was the captain himself. Jacob Natvig was a convivial man. This cruise to last a year, would bring him to retirement. He like to have a glass or two over his nightly pinochle game and more over stories of his years at sea and ore for any reason at all. “The captain was a good guy,” a seaman said much later. “He was always drunk. We didn’t see him much when we were at sea.” Captain Natvig often drank with his chief steward, Anker Baardsen, though less for affection than for convenience. Baardsen was a tall and gloomy man given to fits of violent emotion. When not drinking with the captain, Baardsen was demolishing bottle after bottle with other officers. The abstainer among the officers, said the crew, was First Mate Olsen, 34, a round-faced man with curly hair and a worried look.
The crew was also drunk most of the time and fight among them were constant and savage. After Spain, the ship lurched through a half-dozen Caribbean ports. At Port-of Spain, an alcohol-crazed sailor jumped overboard and was recovered. Later he jumped ship at Guadalupe. The crew pilfered from the argo and when the captain accused a sailor of theft, the man called him a liar and went unpunished. Two stowaways boarded at Caribbean ports and rode untroubled to Baltimore Chief Steward Baardsen was seeing airy schools of flying fish that no one else could see.
From Baltimore the Pomona rounded through the Panama Canal and bore north for California. Another crewman tried suicide and was taken ashore. The ship was filthy. Cleaning was the chief steward’s duty and he was rarely sober enough to remember it. Litter coated the decks. Paint hipped and everywhere rust grew in ugly flecks. The heads -- shipboard bathrooms -- reeked. Nor was this the only neglect. Merchant ships normally conduct regular fire and lifeboat drills. But despite angry demands from the crew, again Natvig never held a single drill.
At San Pedro, Calif. the Pomona loaded scrap iron for Japan. She crossed the Pacific, lost another sailor to insanity and returned to California. On the bridge one night, the helmsman, Miguel Marriaga, and third mate, Reidar Klovnig, quarreled, Marriaga, who carried a long, wickedly sharp knife, snarled, “Try anything with me and you’re going to get a nice scar on your face.” Captain Natvig refused to punish Marriaga, and now all discipline vanished.
The men dared anything. The engine-room crew simply quit working. Officers took over and maintained steam until the crewmen were persuaded to go back to work. At San Pedro, the Pomona loaded scrap and set out for Formosa.
A few days out, on a Wednesday night, Baardsen was in the captain’s cabin. Both were drinking heavily. It was the last time that Captain Natvig was seen alive. On Friday, May 15, Olsen found his body.
After turning the ship toward Honolulu, 600 miles to the southwest, Olsen went to Baardsen’s cabin. “You were drinking with the master Wednesday night,” he said. “What time did you leave?” Baardsen pondered, “About a quarter past midnight,” he said.
“What condition was the captain in?
“He was well, but drunk, of course. Why?
“The Captain’s been murdered,” Olsen said. “No!” Baardsen cried. “You’re crazy!” Olsen thought he appeared genuinely surprised. He told Baardsen to remain in his cabin and went to Chief Engineer Svensen, with whom Baardsen had finished the night of drinking. Svensen recalled that Baardsen had joined him at about 3 a.m. -- much later than Baardsen remembered it -- and that they had drunk Scotch whisky until 7 a.m. when Svensen had collapsed. Olsen decided to lock Baardsen up, not as a suspect but just because he was the last man known to have seen Captain Natvig alive. The crew jumped to the conclusion that Baardsen had gone mad and the ship was going to Honolulu to put him ashore. With three men insane in seven months, that seemed a reasonable deduction. But Olsen knew, and the mates and the radio operator knew, that there was a murderer aboard. For three days to Honolulu, they walked warily through the passageways and did not sleep. At Honolulu, a bizarre legal situation developed. Since the crime had taken place at sea in the foreign vessel, it was outside U.S. jurisdiction, Honolulu police made a “courtesy investigation” but could do nothing. The ship was of Liberian registry, but a trial in West Africa seemed pointless. Finally Norway decided that since both the captain and Baardsen were Norwegian, it would send two detectives out from Oslo.
On the second day in port Baardsen broke his dinner plate, slit his left wrist with the sharp edge and wrapped himself in his blanket to die. He was taken to a hospital, crying, “I didn’t do it. Everyone’s against me.” Most of the seamen and Olsen himself do not believe that Baardsen killed the captain. Though there was a tiny blood spot on his shirt, it was too small to analyze and he said he had cut his neck. Even his attempted suicide was considered not indicative, for he often was deeply depressed. He is tall and the Pomona’s men do not believe he could have swung an axe while drunk without striking the ceiling on the upswing. The captain’s ceiling is unmarked. Baardsen, recovering in a hospital, has agreed to accompany the detectives to Oslo, but there is no sign that he will be charged. The U.S. Immigration Service allows the men to go ashore, but they must report daily to the ship. They want to go home, but the company is trying to hold them to their year-long contracts and compel them to sail together again.
The authorities seem to have no suspects for captain Natvig’s death. No fingerprints were on the axe and no clues were found in the cabin. Most of the men on the ship believe that the murderer is still aboard and they are deeply frightened. They have individual cabins, but they have paired up for protection and those who sleep aboard do so with knives in their fists. They have refused to stand night watches. Officers move about the ship with their backs pressed to the steel bulkheads. The men will not work and the filth piles up on decks. Curiosity draws people to the pier to stare up at the crewmen at the rail. The men stare back. At night no one domes. The Pomona rocks slowly, her rusty plates creaking as they rub against the pier’s bumpers. On an upper deck Third Mate Klovning paces steadily, taking quick little dat glandes over his shoulder. He is afraid, as every man aboard is afraid, that the man who murdered the captain will strike again.