I talk to Ralph O’ Callaghan about his time in the Merchant Navy during the Vietnam War, travels through Communist China and how he defaced an image of Mao Tse Tung.
How did you come to join the merchant navy?
I attended the radio school in Dublin, where I got an internationally recognised certificate after two years. So I was with Irish Shipping for a while, and then I went freelance, where you could join any company or country you wanted to, instead of being attached to the radio company. I applied to a Hong Kong company, which it was owned by an Irish man from Kildare. They flew me out to Hong Kong on a two-year contract. I stayed in the merchant navy for ten years.
Why did you decide to join?
When I was in the scouts as a child, they brought us to do some camping outside Glasgow. When we were on the ship going across, we got talking to the radio officer, and he brought us up to the radio room and showed us what he was doing – Morse code and all the work. I got interested in that, so after my exams I decided to go to the radio school and got my qualification. I went back later to do a radar course too.
What did you do as a radio officer on board?
I was in charge of all the radio communications, comings and goings, getting reports, warnings. I was in charge of monitoring the distress frequency.
Where did you travel to first?
On my first trip with Irish Shipping, we went to Baltimore – and somebody was murdered on the ship. It was an Irish crew, and we went in on a maiden voyage – a brand new ship. I was the second radio officer. When we got to Baltimore there was a special reception because it was the maiden voyage, and another Irish ship came in at the same time. The crew from there were pretty tough. They came over and had a big party on our ship, and then went back to their own. The next day we were told that one of the crew men was missing. So we had all the police down, guys were taken away and questioned, the ship was held up until we eventually sailed. We loaded a full cargo of grain to bring to Glasgow, and after a few days at see we got a call from that other ship. There were two brothers on that ship, and one was the missing man. He thought his brother’s body was in the grain. When we got to Glasgow, the police had to come and check the grain. His body wasn’t there; I never found out what happened.
You were in the merchant navy during the war in Vietnam, and you traveled to that part of the world; Vietnam and China. What was your experience of the war?
The Hong Kong company chartered you out to anyone who needed the ship. It happened that the ship I was on was chartered by the Chinese Communists. We saw a lot of aircraft activity – flying in and out – the Americans on their way to Hanoi. When we got to Hai Phong there was just constant bombing along the way; the aircraft dive-bombed the power station and the docks. Luckily we came out unscathed.
Were there ships you would have know that were damaged?
The next ship over was called The Dartford, and it was astern of our ship – it was hit by a stray rocket from an American plane. We had to have the Union Jack painted on the side of our ship – as we were registered in Hong Kong which was a British colony, so the Americans would know not to target us. It made us neutral. We were a cargo ship, so we didn’t carry weapons. But we did carry trucks and amphibious planes. The Americans had a blockade controlling all the ships going in and out of Hai Phong, and we were trying to avoid them. They would stop the ship if they thought you had arms or ammunition.
Did you ever get to go to Vietnam again?
Yes, I later went there on holiday. We went to Hanoi, Hai Phong and Halong Bay. Down to Saigon and the Mekong Delta. One thing that impressed us was the unemployment rate. There was no social welfare, so if you didn’t work you starved. If you didn’t have a job you had to sell counterfeit stuff on the street or matches, books, things like that. You could get anything at all counterfeit – Rolex, Omega, any sort of cameras, and that sort of thing.
Did you see any conflict while you were there?
Not on the last visit, it was quite peaceful after it was united – but very much government controlled.
You spent some time in Communist China, what was the country like at that time?
It was during the cultural revolution. There were lots of demonstrations, anywhere you went there were people demonstrating with their Mao badges, their flags, their little Mao books. We didn’t have any problems. We went up to a commune, where we were shown around and given lectures and tea, and they showed us around some factories.
Do you have any memories from the time?
There was no traffic; everyone was on bicycles. Everybody was dressed in blue denim with multiple patches everywhere, and they all looked very hungry. The children didn’t have any socks, just rough looking shoes. They were very impoverished, but as they said at the time, nobody starved. In the Colonial days millions starved – but in the Communist times they would say that they were poor, but nobody died.
Did you get to speak to any civilian people while you were there? Did you get to know anyone?
Everything was very controlled and it all went through an interpreter from the government. You would never know if he asked them the right question, or if you got the right answer back.
What kind of signs did you see, if any, of the regime in daily life?
A lot of posters of Chairman Mao everywhere on the walls, red flags. Lots of slogans painted everywhere. All blank walls were covered in papers and posters.
I believe you had to make an apology for dishonoring Mao. Can you tell me what happened?
They used to more or less take over the ship and control everything when we got in. They would leave their propaganda magazines everywhere. There was one with Mao on the cover with his hand raised like in a Nazi salute – so I drew a little Hitler moustache on him and forgot about it. About a day later all hell broke loose. Soldiers came down with guns. We don’t know how they found out, but maybe one of the crew reported it – a lot of the crew were Communist. They demanded to know who did it. I told the captain it was me, so he made me confess. I had to stand up front while they questioned me. They wanted a confession, so I wrote out an apology. So they said this won’t do – you have to say exactly what you did and why you did it, so I went back and went really overboard. I went back to my cabin while they decided what to do with me. I had to then write an apology, which was read out and deemed not explicit enough. I had to do it again, and then eventually they accepted it, and wanted a statement of repentance. They let the ship leave, but told me I could come back to China anymore.
And you never went back?
I did, I had to go back to China later on. Funny enough they didn’t recognise the Irish passport, because Ireland didn’t recognise Communist China – they recognised Taiwan ad the real China. They put a sheet of paper in my passport, stamped it, then took it out on the other end.
Were you ever afraid at that time?
I was young and stupid and a bit apprehensive, but not afraid.
What brought your career there to an end after ten years?
When we were coming down from Hai Phong to Hong Kong, with another ship and there was a row between the third mate and the chief steward early in the morning. The crew attacked – the crew were all Communist – they were told to take disciplinary action against the European officers and they attacked the bridge. I was on bridge on watch, and I heard the noise of people coming up the staircase, so I ran over, closed the door and locked it. But they came in another door, jumped on me and threw me down on the ground – kicked the living daylights out of me. Then they went out on the bridge and attacked the people on the bridge. I think the people who were in control finally quietened them down, we had to send a message to Hong Kong to have the police standing by. They wanted us to apologise, but we refused so we got the remainder of our contracts honoured, and they flew me home. I never went back.