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The wealth of documentation about my great-grandfather James W. Freeman that I have inherited recently reveals great clarity on his life at sea. Family tradition provided he served in the Merchant Marine. While it is correct that he served at sea for some time in a civilian capacity, before that he enlisted in the United States Navy during the Great War. Among his papers was a record of his enlistment and discharge certificate.

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Fig 1. James W. Freeman’s U.S. Naval Enlistment Record (reverse side of discharge cert.) Image Source: Author’s Collection.

He enlisted for naval service in Oklahoma City on 20 March 1917, less than a month before the United States officially entered into WWI. Oklahoma is some distance from his home in Laton, Kings County, California, so why he was there remains unclear, but I do have a letter addressed to his mother from the city of Tulsa. His enlistment record suggested he had great facility with the manufacturing and forming of copper into various products, because he served as a coppersmith and coppersmith 1st class. Coppersmiths worked in the naval yards manufacturing pipes, artillery shells, and other parts commissioned for naval ships. His ratings were no less than 3.5, classified as very good, and maintained an excellent (4.0) rating for “Sobriety” and “Obedience.”

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Fig 2. My great-grandfather James Wallace Freeman. He was born 20 Feb 1896 in Yakima, Washington. Image Source: Author’s Collection.


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Fig 3. Coppersmith Shop is U.S. Navy Yard. Image Source: U.S. Naval History Heritage and Command.

According to his Certificate of War Service, he did spend sometime aboard the U.S.S. Ozark (BM-7), formerly the U.S.S. Arkansas. Launched 10 Nov 1900 and commissioned by the navy 28 Oct 1902, Ozark was classified as a “Battle Monitor,” responsible for cruising and patrolling the coastal waters. The ship could complement up to 220 men and was outfitted with 8 large guns. Upon the declaration of War, Ozark joined Submarine Division 6 of the Atlantic Fleet and cruised to Tampico, Mexico, ordered to cruise and defend the coastline. A year later, Ozark sailed to New Orleans and assisted in defending the waters from Key West to the Panama Canal Zone.[1]


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Fig 4. U.S.S. Ozark while on cruise. Image Source: National Archives and Records Administration. For more photos of U.S.S. Arkansas (Ozark), visit http://www.navsource.org/archives/01/arkansas.htm



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Fig 5. James Wallace Freeman’s Discharge Certificate from U.S. Navy, 29 Aug 1919. Image Source: Author’s Collection.

James was honorably discharged from the Navy 29 Aug 1919 at the Mare Island Naval Base, near the city of Vallejo, California. After a short period of leave, he continued the seafaring life, in a civilian capacity. On October 6 1919, he applied for a Citizen Seamen’s Identification Card at the Customs House in San Francisco after arriving on the merchant vessel S.S. Alliance. These ID cards are very much comparable to Seamen’s Protection Certificates issued by the U.S. Government until 1871, because they provided proof of citizenship. On 3 Sep 1918, the Federal Government mandated all seamen embarking from U.S. ports were required to apply for an ID card and permission to sail from the Collector of Customs [T.D. 37753].[2] Seamen’s ID cards included such information such as the seamen’s full name, nationality, date of birth, birthplace and birthplace of parents, naturalization information (James Freeman’s ID card provides his U.S. Navy discharge number as proof of citizenship) and a brief physical description. These ID cards are in custody of the National Archives and Collected with NARA Record Group 41, Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation.


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Fig 6. Citizen Seamen’s ID Card for James Wallace Freeman. Image Source: Author’s Collection.

Around January 1920, James Freeman was admitted to the Marine Hospital in San Francisco.[3] The nature of his admittance is unknown, but his stay may have lasted several months because he made no voyages the year of 1920 and his ID card has stamps from immigration officers in England dated 1921.

There are multiple crew manifests listing James W Freeman, which I located through Ancestry.com. The crew manifests in conjunction with discharge slips and other documents have allowed me to reconstruct his voyage history and life at sea.

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Fig 7. James W. Freeman’s Discharge Slips for voyages on the West Nosska. Image Source: Author’s Collection.

James W. Freeman completed seven voyages from 1922 to 1923 on the merchant vessel West Nosska that carried cargo and supplied between the East Coast of the United States and England. James carried his knowledge of marine machinery from the Navy onto civilian ships. The documents stated that he served in the capacity of an assistant engineer. Upon completing his final voyage in Jun 1923, he had ascended from 3rd assistant to 1st assistant engineer.


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Fig 8. S.S. West Nosska. Image Source: Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation Inc.


These breakthroughs in my great-grandfather’s seafaring career were made possible because my grandmother had held on to these documents. Using the wide array of sources has given me a much clearer picture and chronology of his life at sea. Having served in the Navy, I now have confirmation that he was a veteran of WWI. This is much different from the original notion that he was always a Merchant Mariner, which did not receive recognition for their role in the military until 1988 and even then it was mostly in part due to the Merchant Marine activity in WWII.[4] But before I inherited any of these documents, I did locate photographs of my great-grandfather in what I now know to be navy uniform and a certificate of appreciation addressed from the White House, dated 1964 shortly after James Wallace Freeman died, that acknowledged his service as a veteran. Together, all of these sources has brought this part of his life full circle.

Today is the day which the United States dedicates to honoring it’s veterans. I felt the best way possible for me was to share the stories and experiences about veterans in my family that I’ve gathered through my own research. Have you done the same? If you’re looking to get started or gather more information, try some of the tips mentioned in my blog post “Stories of Sacrifice: Researching Your Veteran Ancestor.”


[1] “Ozark II (Monitor No.7),” Naval History and Heritage Command (http://www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/ship-histories/danfs/o/ozark-ii.html: accessed 30 May 2016); Remo, “USS Arkansas (BM-7), Naval Warfare, posted 10 Jan 2012 (http://navalwarfare.blogspot.com/2012/01/uss-arkansas-bm-7.html: accessed 30 May 2016).

[2] United States Department of Treasury “Treasury Decisions Under Customs and Other Laws,” Volume 35 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1919), 76. Accessed on Google Books.

[3] “1920 United States Federal Census,” database with images, Ancestry (Ancestry.com: accessed 30 May 2016). Assembly District 31, San Francisco, California; Roll T625_136, Enumeration Dist. 367, page 1B.

[4] “United States Merchant Marine,” Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Merchant_Marine: accessed 30 Apr 2016.)


Copyright (c) 2016 Jake Fletcher.

Jake Fletcher, “Researching the Merchant Marine Career of James W Freeman,” Travelogues of a Genealogist, last updated 30 May 2016. https://fletcherfamilytree.wordpress.com/2015/01/17/researching-the-merchant-marine-career-of-my-great-grandfather/