The ancient peoples were able to solve the problem of navigation across large expanses of land and water with the methods at hand. We would call them primitive today, but they all involved a sophisticated degree of knowledge and judgment. The Scandinavians looked to the sun and moon to get across the north Atlantic. The Chinese would do the same, and ancient maps show them moving down the coast of China to south Asia. The Polynesian people learned to sense their location and direction from dipping their hand in the seawater and noting the temperature and direction of the sea currents.
By the time that my family and I crossed the Pacific in 1958, all of these skills had been lost or forgotten. I was only 12 years old, but had no awareness of the ancient methods of navigation. The new technologies of radar and sonar were our guides. We had entered the modern age of machines identifying our location and providing our direction. The President Wilson was part of the class of modern passenger ships, advertised to an eager public as “your American hotel abroad.” We boarded the ship in San Francisco, the booking made by the Board of Global Ministries of the Methodist Church. We had grown to trust the machines of the day to protect and guide us to our destination.
On board ship we discovered others who were headed for Asia: military personnel, business, education, and those of us from various churches in the US. Postwar Japan was beginning to recover from the devastation of the Great Pacific War. As part of Japan’s recovery their citizens and government were eager to import whatever came from the West that appeared to be helpful. The Japanese were willing at that point in their history to listen to all voices from their former conqueror that might help them gain a full recovery. Our ship of 579 passengers represented a microcosm of American life at that time, a snapshot of what the West could offer.
As Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, General McArthur had called church leaders to his office in Tokyo immediately after the war. Japan, it was feared, would fall to the Communists in the poverty of the postwar period. MacArthur saw the Christian Church as a bulwark against this threat, and in 1946 encouraged the various churches to incase their missionary efforts. As a child I was not aware of any of these broader political forces, only that we were back on a ship full of adventures and new experiences.
In the late ‘40’s and ‘50’s the passenger ship was the least expensive means for the mission boards or churches to send their missionaries and all their belongings to distant lands. So here we all were, individuals and families from the many denominations and faiths of Western civilization, all on one ship in the middle of this great ocean. Our direction was guided by modern technology; our spirits by faith. As a child I could never tell a Presbyterian from a Baptist, or even a Methodist. I would only find out later from my parents that there was a difference that I couldn’t understand. Those who were priests from the Church of England or the Catholic Church could be identified by their clerical collars if they chose to wear them at sea. When we held evening vespers or Sunday worship together out on deck or one of the large lounges, some of us would be more expressive, an “Amen” or “Yes, Jesus” voiced from the assembled faithful. Others would sit quietly, prayerfully with their hands clasped and their heads down, in meditative prayer.
It was in these early years that I first heard words such as “fundamentalist” or “Bible centered.” I had heard about the “historical Jesus” and the word “exegesis” from intense discussions on deck sitting by the pool. Thee were divisions in the Christian church that I had never known about before, opening up in front of me on board this ocean liner.
The five-day voyage from San Francisco to Honolulu had been pleasant, with sights of albatross, dolphins, and flying fish. Our short stop over in Hawaii was a chance to run in the sand, wander around Waikiki, and once back on board ship, throw leis to the shore with a wish to return.
It was somewhere east of Honolulu that the storm hit. The sky turned first grey, then dark. As the sea began to take on a dark grey-blue hue, and the nighttime sky was devoid of stars. The ancient peoples might have known how to sense and outrun this monster, but our captain said it was squarely in our path and was too large to avoid, To maneuver the ship north would only expose its sides and lead to violent rolls. For our own safety and comfort, it was explained, we would head into the eye of the storm and pitch up and down, rather than roll side to side. We had faith in the technology of the new stabilizer bars to get us through.
A Pacific storm is humbling. All the power and intelligence that humans can muster are nothing in the face of the fury of a winter storm in the open water. There really is no place to hide in rolling seas. The first warning of the power of the approaching storm is the one perhaps seen most quickly by the ancient peoples. The birds left the ship. The albatross with their giant wingspread carrying then aloft like giant kites, ceased their effortless shadowing of the ship and were gone. Off to quieter waters, away from the humans who had apparently lost their senses and are headed right for the winds that would have torn their bird bodies into pieces. Following the departure of the birds was a change in the color of the clouds and the pressure of the wind in our faces as we went up on deck.
And then there were the waves. The waves of the Pacific broadcast messages as to what is to come. The wavelets of a summer breeze can playfully dance across the surface of the water announcing the slight shifts in air. Then there are the waves that vary in height and depth, testifying to the strength of the wind that lies ahead. And finally there are the rolling underlying swells, which can push the waves and wavelets to terrifying heights. With the approach of a Pacific storm these all align in one direction to forecast the approaching destruction.
Most of us on the aging ship had never seen the power of natural forces coming at us in this storm. Tornadoes are swift and focused, their savage energy tearing at a strip of land leaving behind a destructive path. The summer thunderstorms in the Great Plains are the confronting of the cold air from the north with the warm moist air of the Caribbean. The heavy downpour and lightning strikes leaves tree limbs down, with power outages, and a cleanup of sometimes several days. None of these experiences prepared us for the violence that was to follow. As the birds fled and the air and sea changed their appearance we were all on board left with the sense that this storm, the January Pacific storm, would be different from anything we had seen before.
The SS President Wilson had been built in 1944, originally to be used as a troop ship. The ship never saw combat, but was converted into the new mode of pleasure transportation, the ocean liner. With its open decks with swimming pools and twin screw propellers that would push us to 20 knots, it gave us an overall sense of security. My siblings and I felt secure on the large vessel. We thought that the pitching and rolling of the ship was entertainment, like some of the carnival rides back home. As the ship moved closer into the fury of the storm the pitching became more violent. We would lie in our bunks at night and hear the “thump thump thump” of the twin propellers coming out of the water as the bow of the ship pitched forward deep into the sea. And then the creaking of the rivets of the bulwarks as it rocked from stem to stern. Daylight came, and we held onto the rails along the hallways to get around the ship. The decks were roped off for our safety, but we could walk carefully to the bow and watch the pitch of the ship into the green water of the ocean. The water would splash over the height of the mast, and then come crashing down on the deck.
With all this rocking and pitching came motion sickness. Most of the other passengers on board became very ill and remained in their cabins. For at least an entire day most people did not move about the ship. The first class dining room was empty, except for our family and a few other hardy souls. The waiters had to hold on to the tables and walls to serve us our meals. There were metal bands around the edge of each table, and these were raised up to prevent the dishes from sliding off. While seated at the table my brother’s dinner plate would slide over in front of me and mine would move over to my sister. The ship would then roll the other way and our plates would return to their original position.
As children we were somehow unafraid, and marveled at how the furniture would move and how we had to hold onto banisters and handrails to move around the ship. Most of the other passengers became terribly sea sick, and were ill for several days. Somehow we were immune to this symptom of rough water, but knew that we had to spend time in our cabin quietly reading or resting.
Religious or spiritual differences among the passengers became secondary when people needed help in midst of the storm. Overcome by nausea, vomiting in the halls and public areas, unstable on their feet and in danger of falling down, passengers coalesced as a community seeking peace with one another as the storm thrashed around them. My father, for example, helped the daughters of another missionary who were so overcome by nausea that they had to be helped back to their cabin. We became close friends with this family throughout or years in Japan, our friendship strengthened by the Pacific storm.
The rainbows and calm seas that finally greeted us the morning of the third day were a blessing, a reminder of God’s grace as we face the storms of life. The birds had returned, the color of the sea back to blue, and the sunrise was spectacular. We had all somehow been transformed by living the storm together. We held a few evening events on the rest of our journey to Yokohama, and the mood was friendly, loving and with a renewed caring of each other. Even to this day I remember being greeted warmly by those who would not have noticed a small child before the storm. I believe that this event strengthened all of us for the challenges of the work that lay ahead.