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Jim Hargraves and Royce Holman

Jim with sisters

Snapshots of a Sailor’s Life

James William Hargraves, a biography

Born April 14, 1924 at 4:00 am
To David Marvin and Celia Elizabeth Horton Hargrave
Possibly at the Hargrave Farm in Young County, Texas
Paternal Grandparents James Butler and Martha Ellen Kelley Hargrave
Maternal Grandparents William Lee and Salena Elizabeth Bradford Horton
Married Charleen Novell Cooper January 14, 1949 at Bremerton, WA
Died April 15, 1993 at Port Orchard, Washington
Buried in the family plot at Medlan Chapel Cemetery, Young County, Texas


I began this narrative with the idea that it should be a typical family history piece; that is, long on known fact but generally impersonal in the telling. After assembling all the photos and pieces of paper, I set the work on the ‘back burner’ to ‘cook’ for a while. Six months later, I am struck by the blindingly obvious fact that this is the personal story of a man I adored as a child and loved and respected as an adult. So. Please expect and forgive the occasional reference to myself, my brother and my sisters. Each one is wrapped within a favorite memory.

This piece is made up of some things known from personal experience, some things I have been told, some by Uncle Jim himself, some came from family and friends. It’s entirely possible some stories have been embroidered or happened differently. Photos have been matched to the time frame whenever possible. In some cases the photos represent the individuals involved but not the date. Documents are from his personal archive. Additional documents may exist. Revisions may follow.

Jeanne Hargrave
February 2010

David Marvin (called Marvin) Hargrave and Celia Elizabeth Horton were married in 1920. (1) Marvin was 33, Celia was 19. Their first child, Martha Lena, was born in 1922. Their son, James William, was born in 1924. The third child, Betty Lyndell, was born in 1926. They either had a small farm or lived in a separate house near the family farm a few miles outside Graham.

Family lore holds that Jim weighed only two pounds at birth; that he was so premature and tiny that he fit in a shoe box. Evidently and understandably, his timid young mother was fearful of handling him and kept him in the middle of a double bed for several months.

His father, Marvin, died suddenly in late August 1931. Mattie Bell related that her brother came home pale and sick one day and passed away the next afternoon. A reasonable guess would be that he had a serious heart attack followed a few hours later by a fatal one. His family, who had been opposed to the marriage, believed – and apparently spread the belief – that Celia had poisoned her husband.

Following Marvin’s death, Celia gathered his belongings, carried them out into the yard and burned everything – adding fuel to the fire as it were. It is entirely possible that her Cherokee heritage had taught her that fire was the best way to deal with unexplained illness that might be contagious. In any event, her actions created havoc and was probably provided the excuse the family needed. They took her children away and turned her out to fend for herself.

From 1931 until he went out on his own ten years later, Jim (nicknamed Buster within the family) remained in the custody of his uncles, John Hargrave in particular. Although Jim was a great believer in family loyalty and respect for one’s elders, he had no good memories of John during those years. Or later. In his own words:

(The following is quoted from a letter from Uncle Jim to Aunt Vickie Fields on February 24, 1957. The letter rambles quite a bit and centers around a sensitive issue involving his sister (our mother) Martha Lena. Some editing has been done.)

You know, Vickie, Martha Lena, Betty and I were orphans as my father died in August 1931. We had a poor life as children. My grandmother was too old to really take care of us not that she didn’t try. Lord knows how she did. You wouldn’t believe what actually went on while we were kids.

I went to school. While in the 6 th year in, my last year, I had a teacher who said in class one day “The Lord gave us two ends – one to think with – one to sit with. How we progress through life depends on which one we use.” All through that term I kept thinking about it and in the many years afterward

In 1941 I left home and, because of my grandmother, I was sorry afterward. But it was my uncle John I couldn’t tolerate any longer. It was one thing to work and turn the money I made over to him as long as long as I could get some clothes to go to school. I was making $14.00 a week and going to school at the same time. I only wanted some clothes for me and my two sisters, he said he was running things and his word would go. He made me quit the job (at Butler’s Dairy in Graham) as punishment for arguing with him.

There are many incidents I’ll never forgive him for as long as I live. I have driven within a few miles of where he lives but I’ll never set foot in his house. He has said he doesn’t know why I don’t but I still remember a lot of things in those years that I’ll never forgive him for. If you knew what I know…

This is not to cast any reflection of my grandmother as she was the finest person to us. But she was in her 70s when we went to live with her and my uncles ran things. There is no way I could ever repay the love my grandmother showed us. But I can never say in words how I feel about my uncles.

The uncles in question would be John and Flynn. Jeff had been married for many years and living elsewhere. Jim adored his aunt Mattie Bell and the feeling was clearly mutual. She, Jeff and May were long married by the 1930s and living away from the farm.

His birth certificate incorrectly listed his surname as Hargraves. The family made no effort to correct the error and he used it throughout his life. According to Novell, he never corrected the error because it differentiated him from his uncles.

Royce Holman and Jim became friends at school ( Shawnee Park School in Graham). Royce told me that Jim was the kid everyone picked on because of his small size and abject poverty. Royce, older and larger, stepped in to stop the bullying. The bond formed during those years lasted to the end of Jim’s life. The exhausting trip by car that Royce and Kathleen made during Jim’s last illness, when Royce was himself ill, provides testament to the strength of their friendship. Royce mourned his death deeply and sincerely as would Jim have done had Royce predeceased him.

As was common at the time for country children, he was frequently kept from school to work on the farm. He made it to the seventh grade before the quarrel with John ended his schooling.

Jim was slender and small boned, over six feet tall as an adult. He was dark haired, dark eyed with a Cherokee look to him, features inherited from his mother and shared with Martha Lena. He related the following story or perhaps separate stories to Carolyn and me:

Carolyn remembers Jim telling her that he and Martha Lena were made to remain in the wagon while the rest of the family, including blonde, blue eyed sister, Betty, went into church on Sundays. The family belonged at least nominally to the Church of Christ.

I remember his relating that, as children, when their grandmother, Martha Ellen, went to visit a certain family in Graham, he and Martha Lena were left in the wagon because their Indian appearance frightened one woman. This woman might have been Mary Elizabeth Wampe who had been rescued from the Comanche as a child. (She was raised by David and Elender Kelley and was therefore a foster sister to Martha Ellen. Through her marriage, she became a great grandmother to Royce Holman.)

Having had enough of his uncles, Jim found his way to Galveston and the sea in 1941 at age 17. He related the story of his first voyage. Destination: Bombay. Jim and Royce, teenagers still and green as Texas grass in April, were warned by older hands about the hoards of beggars who would throng the docks when they arrived. Naaah! We’re tough they thought and ignored the advice. I don’t remember whether they managed to fight their way free of the mob or were rescued by shipmates, but the lesson was learned. From that time onward they carried billy clubs whenever they went ashore in India.

Jim and Royce, smoking ‘seegars’ [cigars] and reminiscing, brought out a story of the two of them enjoying smoking stogies [cigars] on the fantail of a troop ship during WWII while sea sick soldiers around them hung over the rail booting their stomach linings.

These and others are great stories of a young manhood lived largely at sea. Fun to hear and maybe fun to tell once the hard cold reality had softened with time. But that hard, cold, reality insists that it was a cold, hard, life.

Imagine if you will, standing your watches during a voyage across the north Atlantic in a large, constantly pitching, metal box. Maybe you are a deck hand enduring days and nights of frigid, often stormy cold. Certainly you are waiting and wondering if this is the day or night a German submarine will find you. If that happens, if a torpedo hits the munitions in the cargo holds, you life will be ended in an instant – or worse – you might be thrown alive into the icy sea. The odds are not in your favor. As you approach the British Isles, the Luftwaffe is flying regular bombing runs looking for you and the cargo your ship carries. They are determined to stem the flow of men and materials into the war zone. Their ‘kill’ rate is impressive.

In 1941, when Jim first went to sea, he was seventeen years old. Tall, skinny, innocent as a babe, he would have known that he had to be a man. Ready or not, he had to find a way to live on his own. It’s almost inconceivable, now, but that was a common enough occurrence in those days.

Ashore far from home, alone or with shipmates, it isn’t surprising that he developed a friendly acquaintance with demon rum. At some point prior to 1945, he woke up in a hospital in Galveston, having stumbled off a pier while ‘severely impaired’. Fished out barely in time to save his life, he spent some time in the hospital. He rarely touched so much as a single beer from that time to the end of his life.

In November 1944, Jim went ashore in Seattle and had surgery to repair a damaged eye. While recovering he found employment at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, an employer he would return to from time to time throughout his career.

On April 6, 1945, Jim enrolled at Seattle for training aboard the SS American Seafarer which was based at Training Station Avalon in California. He received a designation of grade as Fireman Second Class on June 16, 1945 and was discharged by the United States Coast Guard on August 15, 1945.

From the American Seafarer, he went to the SS James Cook (8/3/1945-12/12/1945); to the SS Nathan S Davis (1/7/1946-1/20/1946); to the SS Josephine Shaw Lowell (1/20/1946-6/31/1946 and finally to the SS Sinclair Rubilene on 7/15/1946.

Although he generally took whatever berth was available to him at the time, he worked most often as an engine room hand (oiler, wiper). Photos, home movies, slides in his archives are filled with dark engine room shots punctuated with row after row of dials and red lights. He survived at least one shipboard boiler explosion – an explosion that occurred only minutes after he had gone off watch and left the engine room - an explosion in which several men died. It was a dark, hot and dangerous job. For a very minimal wage.

He said once that, had he saved the hazardous duty pay he earned during the war, he would have been a wealthy man. He sailed both the Atlantic and the Pacific. Sadly, the individual ships’ Certificates of Discharge for the years 1941-1944 were not found in his records. There was, however a Certificate of Substantially Continuous Service for the years January 25, 1942 through October 10, 1947

The explosions that destroyed Texas City on April 16, 1947 loomed large in Jim’s experience and in his memory. Certificates of Discharge documents clearly indicate that he had been discharged on April 14 from the SS E.R. Kemp at Houston. He signed onto the SS Lyons Creek which was due to sail out of Galveston. The back of the original photo is noted ‘explosion at Texas City 1947’ in his hand.

Based on the documentation and his recounting, it is likely that he and Royce arrived in Texas City in the immediate aftermath of the explosion and helped however they could in the aftermath of the disaster. A second deadly explosion occurred on the 24 th. In recounting the story, Jim indicated that the SS Lyons Creek had set sail earlier that morning.

There are other sea stores:

Once, in Athens, he entered a waterfront tavern on street level and took a seat at the bar. Sometime later a disturbance began. When the police came, he left via a side window only to discover his exit was about ten feet off the ground!

He had a long time friend, a Filipino man, whom he met now and again on one ship or another. They met in an alley in Singapore – in the midst of a brawl involving several men. Unfortunately, they didn’t elaborate on the story in my hearing the summer the man came to visit but I suspect it was a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time as it’s doubtful that Jim was a willing brawler.

There was the mid-Pacific crossing with a UFO skipping in the ship’s wake for days at a time.

At the time of the Exxon Valdez accident in Prince William Sound during the 1980s, I remember that Jim didn’t seem concerned about the damage. The waters around Florida, he said, were one big oil slick from the American ships sunk or damaged by German warships. The earth will heal itself, he said.

Some of the pleasure he found at sea had to do with friendships forged over time and renewed by chance now and again. As time went on and the face of the merchant marine changed, his satisfaction dimmed. It could be that, in time, shipping became (a) more of a refuge than a joy and (b) a place where he could go and be sure of a job.

Jim was a playful young man. His sister, our mother, Martha Lena adored him. She looked forward eagerly to his visits. My only memories of her laughing are tied to his visits. I can remember watching with her for his little blue Ford coupe to come around the corner near our home.

He loved the ladies and had many close female friends through the years of his youth. Mary Elizabeth Holman Brisco and Kathleen Howard Holman, Royce’s sister and wife respectively, were close lifelong friends. As were his first cousins, (Mattie Bell’s daughters) Janelle and Norma Jean Gilmore. Among his possessions at one time was a sizeable box full of pictures of pretty smiling girls met here and there across the world.

He was also a terrific uncle. He took me to Graham shopping, once, handed me over to the lady in a local dress shop and told her to let me pick out whatever I wanted. Among my choices was a little red coat. He never got tired of telling the story of the little red coat. I’ve included a photo of myself at age 3 or so on a family visit to Santo, wearing that little red coat. He was the photographer.

During the time he was ashore following eye surgery, he met a girl named Novell Cooper. He would have been about twenty-one. She would have been sixteen. She was petite, curvy and cute and a ‘nice girl’. Novell has said that they dated casually when he was in port and on January 14, 1949, they were married at Bremerton, Washington.

Within a day or two after they were married, they set off in the little blue Ford coupe for Graham, Texas, where Jim was scheduled to report to the draft board on January 20 th.

It is said that that winter was a particularly nasty one everywhere across the country. Jim and Novell traveled through Oregon, California and most of Arizona with no trouble but, east of Tucson, they ran into an ice storm so severe that a service station attendant in Lordsburg, New Mexico had to chip the ice from around the door frames so they could get out. Evidently Ford Motor Company’s reputation for great heaters was well deserved even back then.

Once in Graham, Jim dutifully reported to the draft board only to be told what he already knew. He was partially blind in one eye and therefore 4F.

He brought Novell to meet us soon after. Upon being advised that Novell was my new Aunt, I promptly responded that “I don’t need no new Aunt. I have Aunt Doris, Aunt Dorothy, Aunt Myrtle and…” Unfortunately, that story was one that he never stopped telling. I was nearly six by then and certainly had been taught better manners. Years passed before I came to understand that I recognized that, with his marriage, he would no longer be “ours”.

They settled down in a duplex apartment in Breckenridge and Jim went to work as a roughneck in the oilfields for a time. Ultimately, after being laid off in an area never flush with jobs, Jim went back to sea in December 1949. This left Novell on her own among strangers. His Aunt Mattie Belle took her into their family and kept her occupied while he was away.

He had wanted to buy back the Hargrave family land and settle down to farm after his marriage,. His Uncle John, for whatever reason and by whatever means, made that impossible. When he related this story, during the last year of his life, it was clear that the bitter taste of that disappointment remained.

Odd experiences occur in every life. For Jim, one of those events occurred during the Korean War. In port in Pusan, a ship’s captain sent for Jim. Upon reporting to the captain, he was introduced to a man, of similar age and exceptionally similar appearance – and the same name. The other James Hargrave, a US Naval officer, was from Virginia. Evidently, meeting one’s doppelganger, wasn’t interesting enough to pursue because nothing further came of the introduction.

Jim came ashore again in March 1952. He and Novell moved back to Washington and bought a small farm outside Port Orchard. His mother, Celia, came to live with them for a while until the mother-wife conflicts began and Celia went back to Texas. The land seemed good enough but the area around the house was so damp that Novell became chronically ill. After the farm was sold, they bought a two room summer cabin on an acre of ground at Lake Devereaux in Mason County near Belfair, Washington.

One of the first things he did after moving to the Lake was to clear all but a few of the tall fir trees from the lot. This made the neighbors unhappy. However, we can move forward in time a few years and find all those neighbors camped in the basement at the Hargraves’ house after the Columbus Day wind storm in 1962 brought trees and heavy branches down across roofs and yards. The men worked together for several days to clear the private road out to the highway.

In January 1954, during a period when he was ashore and employed at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Jim and Novell made another winter journey to Texas and became guardians of my brother Mark (age 5) and myself (age 10). I consider it a mark of his character and commitment to family that he did not hesitate. However, it must be said that his Aries personality (leap before looking – or – in this case, leap before getting an enthusiastic buy-in from spouse) came to the fore with a vengeance.

Picture two young adults learning to cope with two messed up kids in a two room cottage in the middle of a dreary western Washington winter. More rooms were needed. More money was needed to make that happen. Jim went back to sea that spring where he could earn more by working extra shifts. He turned thirty in April that year. He had been ashore for three years.

Over the next decade and more, the cabin gradually grew into a large family home. A little odd in spots, but roomy. Construction began with two bedrooms, a dinky bathroom and a carport and expanded with a partial basement which was later expanded into a full basement.

The summer the basement expansion took place – circa 1955 – the Jenkins boys came to stay to help with the digging. Novell, wisely, went to visit her mother. Arlen and I, both age twelve, were assigned to kp. After a truly ghastly meal of burned hamburger patties and burned fried potatoes, we served up bowls of home canned plums and ice cream. Jim was in his element with a houseful of kids. We sat around the table and had such a wonderful time with him laughing and teasing and telling funny stories that evening that I didn’t even mind cleaning up the purple mess afterward. Much of his early playfulness had disappeared by then under the weight of responsibility and while I’m sure more important events occurred, this is a memory I treasure. This was a brief reappearance of the uncle I adored.

There was a spooky incident around that time – maybe a year later. Jim was at sea. Mark and I were at home alone one winter evening when we both heard his footsteps go down the outside stairs to the basement. Jim’s distinctive footsteps on concrete. No one else’s. A few minutes later, the footsteps climbed the stairs. We called Novell and asked her to come home from the neighbor’s. “Nonsense.” She said, less than happy to have had her visit interrupted. Then it happened again. Down the stairs. Up the stairs.

Months later, when he was home again, we told him what we had experienced. After some thought he shared that there had been a point in time, during a very bad storm in the Atlantic, when he had been off duty and in his bunk. He had been mentally walking through the steps of a project at home to keep his mind off the pitching of the ship and the danger they were in – a project that took him into the basement for tools several times.

He picked up malaria somewhere along the way. I came home from school one day to find him in the middle of a full blown attack. High fever, severe chills, in and out of delirium, the attack lasted a couple of days. He explained what was happening in a lucid moment but not where he picked it up or when? I’ve wondered how often he got sick at sea.

Late in the 1950s the US Government undertook the building of a nuclear class merchant ship. Named the USS Savannah, the ship was in service from 1962 until 1972. Jim qualified for service aboard the Savannah and was set to begin training at San Francisco when family issues intervened. He left the Merchant Marine and was shore until 1967. Acceptance into this program represented a high point in his career to that time and having to forego it was a bitter disappointment.

Jim retired his union card after leaving the Beaver State in September 1960. He had been shipping on States Lines ships steadily since 1957 and had worked his way up to Jr. Engineer with the potential for further promotion. When he reactivated his card and returned to the sea in 1967, it was at consistently lower ratings for lower wages.

Jim became very ill at some point in the mid-1960s and was hospitalized in Tacoma for an extended period of time. There was a rumor at the time that a radioactive canister had gotten away on the deck of a Navy ship at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and that he had been exposed. Novel said it was a staph infection that got out of control. I took her word for it but admit I have always been curious.

At the end of his career, Jim found himself in demand with the shipping companies and the union, who relied on his skill as a refrigeration specialist. Already partially retired and never fond of flying, he was the one the union called when the order came in. On at least one occasion, possibly his last voyage, he flew out to Singapore to tend refrigerated containers in such bad condition that he ended up literally sleeping with them.

In the 1980s the United States Government finally and formally recognized the contributions of the Merchant Marine in winning second WW2. That was both a proud and long awaited day for Jim. He served his country long and well during WWII, through the Korean Conflict and Vietnam. He and those like him deserved the recognition (document) that was too long in coming.

A three page spreadsheet has been compiled from his individual Certificates of Discharge and a separate resume and has been included. Unfortunately, ports of call were not included on the documents so I can’t say specifically when he was where.

However, we can safely speculate that, in more than forty years of sailing, he likely found himself watching the world’s major ports come up on the horizon. Bombay, Shanghai and Singapore, Tokyo, Manila, Pusan, Saigon, Taipei, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Bankok, Sydney and Melbourne, Murmansk, Rio, Havana, Panama, Havana, Buenos Aires, Ankara, Tel Aviv, Athens and Piraeus, Beirut, Rome and Genoa, Port Said, Marseilles, Nantes and Le Havre, London, Liverpool, Belfast, Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. Add the American Ports and maybe a south sea island or two and its pretty safe to say he experienced at least a taste of most of the world that was and would come to be.

I went out into Puget Sound once with a group of friends. Coming back through the locks and into Salmon Bay after dark, I was struck by the vibrant activity of the life of the docks – that is to say that I got a small but illuminating look at where the real work of the world takes place.

LENA ’S THOUGHTS: I agree that Uncle Jim’s life is worth remembering. His smile and laugh will always be with me.

Sadly enough, he taught us to love unconditionally. Without him my life would have been much emptier than it was as a child. His gentle clown-like approach always made me laugh. He always seemed to recognize something said inside of me yet never asked me anything. He love for us was genuine and loyalty was one of his best attributes. I believe he had the strongest character of anyone I have ever known.

There was a sadness in him but he would quickly hide this and do some silly dance or tickle me if he realized I was analyzing him. He drew me to him in a way no one else ever did and my love for him even now makes me realized how blessed and lucky I was to have him in my life.

My first memory of him was when he and Grandma Celia picked me up and took me to Mother’s grave. They were the first to explain and through tear filled eyes, Jim told me who he was and who I was. I haven’t thought about that in years, but looking back now I know that must have been one of his worst days. He became someone unique to me that day. I knew I could trust him and I believed he really loved me.

He was very political and outspoken about his beliefs as I remember. The Middle East was one topic I remember him and Uncle Johnny discussing loudly and prophetically. As the world exists today, I marvel at how close to the reality their conclusions came.

CAROLYN REMEMBERS : On a warm summer day, a tall lanky fellow with thin hair and bright eyes that twinkled came into my memory. He had a great smile that lit up the whole room when he was in it. There was so much laughter when he was around. He bought me red cowboy boots when I was four.

Uncle Jim was urgent in mind, almost compulsive about taking us four children to meet these strange kinfolk all over the state if Texas. There were so many houses and the lineup of strange faces seemed never ending. It was so confusing to me as a small child.

He loved his mother, Celia, so much. He rescued her from Graham when I was 15 (1968). She and I flew to the state of Washington together. In mid-flight Grandma tried to escape the airplane. Uncle Jim thought it was a great story about how the stewardess and a teenaged girl had to hold her down.

In December 1979, three days after Christmas, our house in Graham burned to the ground. Uncle Jim, Novell and Celia had been visiting before that and were in Fort Worth visiting Lena when they heard. He returned to Graham and seemed to flash back to the time when his sister, our Mother, lost her life in a house fire here in Graham (November 1957). There was such sadness in him around that loss.

About his childhood, Uncle Jim said, “When I was 7 years old, my dad, Marvin, had just died. Us kids, Martha, Betty and I were taken away from mother. There was no money and she was unable to care for us. Uncle John troubled me for years, I held so much against him. Uncle Jeff Hargrave was my favorite. Uncle Flynn was very strict but he was good to me.

Jim was delighted that family history was being written down. He had told and I had written down story after story during the earlier visit. Sadly all were lost in that fire. Equally sadly, we never got around to replacing the loss.

Jim spent the last active years of his life taking care of his mother with a patience few can even aspire to. He grieved at her death and took her home to Graham for burial. He came home from her funeral emotionally exhausted and physically ill and was never well again. He survived Celia by only four years.

He passed away in the early hours of April 15, 1993, a victim of pancreatic cancer. He is buried in the family plot at Medlan Chapel in Young County, Texas

In closing:

He knew how to say, “I love you,” and was generous with the words.

He was a tease. “Give me some sugar.” Was his prelude to grabbing the nearest female or child and doling out a big hug and maybe a whisker burn.

Zinnia was his favorite flower.

He liked – and collected – watches.

He was a fiend at the pinochle table.

He was a dyed-in-the-wool chauvinist with an old world view of a woman’s place in the scheme of things. He wanted his wife plain and at home.

He was a total news junkie. Call it an overactive imagination if you will, but when big news is popping, I swear he is right here, with me, watching it all happen.

He possessed a remarkable knowledge of world events and could trace the origins of current events to the root cause in history. He was a wonderful teacher to those who would hear him.

He drank his coffee black and strong. He chain-smoked Pall Mall cigarettes. He chewed on really awful cigars.

He put duty before personal happiness.

He was a kind, generous and loving man – a Christian in the very best sense of the word.

Finally, it has to be said that you could take the Jim Hargie out of Texas but you never could take the Texas out of Jim Hargie.

When its all been said and done, he was an exceedingly human, most excellent man who deserves to be remembered with respect and affection. I loved him then. I love him now. I miss him every day.

For those with an interest in learning more about the merchant marine contribution to the war effort, go to for the article, U.S. Merchant Marine in World War II. Also see Google for boatloads of additional information.

© 2010 Jeanne Hargrave. All rights reserved.

© 2009, all rights reserved