Remembering the SS Poet 39 Years After She Sailed from Philadelphia

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The loss of the SS Poet 39 years ago this month set me on a path and a quest that continues to this day. The incredible families of the lost crew continue to be an inspiration. (They drop flowers off the Cape May – Lewes Ferry every year.)

Here’s how I covered the memorial at Old Swedes.

A CRUEL MYSTERY OF THE SEA AFTER 3 YEARS, GRIEF MARKED FOR POET CREW

   Robert R. Frump, Inquirer Staff Writer

The bronze plaque below the church’s altar stated simply at the bottom: “O God thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.”

The relatives of the crewmen and officers of the SSPoet could see a ship on the cold, slate-colored Delaware River through one window of Old Swedes Church yesterday as they filed past the plaque, searching for the names of their sons, husbands and fathers inscribed on the right-hand side. 

“In Memory of The 34 Men of The U.S. Flag Merchant Vessel S.S. Poet, Lost at Sea October 25, 1980,” were the words on the left of the plaque. “Pray For Us,” was all it said above the list of names.

Some relatives cried out loud. Most wept.More than 200 friends and relatives of the crewmen gathered yesterday to dedicate the plaque in Gloria Dei (Old Swedes) Church at 916 S. Swanson St., in honor of those who died on the Poet after it sailed from Philadelphia Oct. 24, 1980.

Only the enigma of the 36-year-old Poet remains constant: No trace of the ship or crew ever has been found. A Coast Guard investigation produced theories as to why the ship sank: It was old; repairs had been deferred, and the hull might have given in. But no certain answer has been produced, and very likely, one never will be.

The wives, mothers, sisters and daughters of the dead have seen much change in three years.

“How long can you keep thinking that he’s going to come back?” asked Dolores Sallee, the widower of Poets eaman Ricky A. Sallee. “After a year, you believe that he’s gone and that he’s found peace.”

It was not that easy for her children, however. Daughter Robin was 6 years old, son Christopher 16 months when their father sailed. Christopher has adjusted. At age 4, he says a prayer each night: “God bless Daddy in heaven.”

April, who is now 9, took longer. “It was hard for her,” Ms. Sallee recalled. And for a while it stayed hard. The girl kept waiting for her father to come home, Mrs. Sallee said, and would not accept his death. The mother sought professional counseling for her daughter, and it seems to have worked.

“She and I both realize that he is gone now and that he is in peace,” Ms. Sallee said. “I felt the spirits of every man who died in that church today, all of them at peace.”

Others have found peace and friendship through their common grief. Herbert S. Courter, 75, formerly of Oaklyn, N. J., now of Port Charlotte, Fla., and his wife, Dorothy, shuddered with tears yesterday. Poet crew member Roland H. Courter, 39, was their only son. They have no other family.

Mrs. Elizabeth Jackson of Philadelphia, mother of Poet crew member Carl Jackson, hugged them both yesterday as the three huddled together in front of the plaque.Mrs. Courter said that she had adopted the other Poet families as her own and would so treat them for the rest of her life. Her husband had waited three years to set the record straight: Initial news accounts of the Poet‘s sinking had identified his son incorrectly as a drifter – a description that stings the father still.

”Too often, people think of seamen as drifters only because they go
from sea to sea and from shore to shore,” he said yesterday. “My son worked in orchards in Florida picking oranges rather than stand in line for an unemployment check. He was a respectable, solid, hard-working man, the opposite of a drifter.”

In these three years there have been more than tears and sorrow. Three Philadelphia women – Lisolette Fredette, Barbara Schmidt and Anne Bradley – all mothers of Poet crew members – actively have been lobbying for more investigations into the Poet‘s sinking. They have also sought changes in legislation that would help restrict the use of very old vessels.

Mrs. Fredette, the chief organizer of yesterday’s service, testified before a congressional committee this summer. Last year, the three formed an informational picket line in front of an old vessel on the Baltimore waterfront.Their reform movement has been slow-going. Old ships resembling the Poet still sail, subsidized by government programs intended to build a strong merchant marine. The Penny, for example, the Poet‘s sister ship, is scheduled to leave soon for Africa, despite a long history of failures in its machinery and hull. It is owned mainly by Henry J. Bonnabel, the chief owner of the Poet. He did not attend yesterday’s service.

“We are doing what people have done since time immemorial,” said the Rev. David Rivers of Old Swedes. “Gathering together to sing songs and say prayers.”Let us pray, too, for the Poet‘s sister ship, the SS. Penny,” Rev. Rivers added. “We would ask also prayers for those who go to the sea in that ship.”

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