From 1970 to 1971, I lived in the Royal Palace in Naples, Italy. Yes, it was the basement, but it was still the Royal Palace. During that time I was intimately associated with the United Seamen’s Service, a non-profit organization serving the needs of merchant sailors around the world. This was the experience of a lifetime, and here is the story. Caution: This is a lo-o-n-g post. Look at the nice pictures if you don’t feel like reading.
Il Palazzo Reale (Click for a larger image). The star indicates my window. You can see the dome of the Naples Galleria in the background.
Palace Entry, View 1 – Upstairs it was a lot fancier.
Palace Entry, View 2
But back to the basement for me. In 1969, my mother Margaret Draper was finishing up service as the assistant director for the United Seamen’s Service club in Cam Ranh Bay, Viet Nam. Her departure, like that of everyone else, was precipitated by the imminent fall of the South. Her next assignment was to become the director of the club in Naples. She invited me to come along for a year. I thought about it for 0.68 seconds, and gave her an enthusiastic “yes.” Below, I re-blog an article written by Jason Chudy in the Stars and Stripes on May 17, 2004. I hope he doesn’t mind; it’s a wonderful history of the club, written at the close of an era. Thereafter, we’ll go back in time a bit.
NAPLES, Italy — For more than 53 years, the Naples United Seamen’s Service Center hosted aircraft carrier and car carrier crews, cruise ships and even congressmen. Unfortunately, changes in location and time led to the center’s April 16  closure. But for the two-man staff of director Bill Moerler and long-time employee Daniele D’Ettore, as well as for the hundreds of thousands who stopped in during the center’s nearly 54 years, the memories will remain.
Daniele D’Ettore holds a photo showing him receiving a plaque for the United Seamen’s Service Center in Naples, Italy, during his time as director from 1974 until 1982.
United Seamen’s Service Center director Bill Moerler, left, and long-time employee and former director Daniele D’Ettore lean against the center’s jukebox in Naples, Italy. The jukebox, like D’Ettore, has been serving center patrons for more than 50 years. D’Ettore, who’s done everything at the center from doorman to director in his 53 years of service, said that the jukebox has been with the center for as long as he has. The jukebox has original 45s featuring a wide range of music, from Roy Orbison to Michael Jackson.
Wisconsin Sen. Alexander Wiley mugs with sailor Lawrence Seliger and Army Cpl. Mark Seliger, constituents from Marathon, Wis., in this undated photo. Both sailor and senator alike visited Naples’ United Seamen’s Service Center, as well as many top Italian singers and musicians, and military and civilian officials.
“It was a hotbed of activity, almost standing room only,” said Cmdr. Jim Romano, chief staff officer of the Naples-based Military Sealift Command Europe. Romano first visited the center as a seaman apprentice in September 1973, returning more than a half-dozen times since. The center started out in the Galleria Umberto I in 1950 and moved to the former horse stables of the Naples Palazzo Reale (Royal Palace) a few blocks away the next year. Palazzo Reale, which was home to the Bourbon kings in the 1800s, became home to the center until 1997. Its location was an easy stroll from the Navy’s fleet landing. During its heyday, the club drew hundreds of people a night. When an aircraft carrier came to visit, thousands would pass through the doors each day. “Everyone talked about the seamen’s center,” said Romano. “Probably 90 percent of the sailors pulling into Naples … had been to the seamen’s center. It was the stopping place before we went out in town or where after … we’d finish up the evening.” Romano also visited Naples, and the center, with the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal in 1978. “Things were hard,” said D’Ettore about the carrier visits. “We’d finish about 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning when a carrier was in Naples.” D’Ettore has worked at the center for 53 years, doing everything from doorman to director. His wife, Elena, cooked in the center’s kitchen for 45 years, only hanging up her apron last month. Those carrier visits, Moerler said, could earn the center enough money to operate for three or four months. The center wasn’t only popular with the Navy. Visiting cruise ships would send over their bands and stage shows to perform. Hundreds of undated photos, many showing musicians and high-kicking dancing girls, sit in a box at the center. D’Ettore remembers many popular Italian singers performing at the club, too. Many visiting politicians and dignitaries also stopped in. For example, the center, in conjunction with the United Service Organizations, hosted President Clinton’s secretary of defense, William Cohen, and his wife for dinner.
Location is key
The center at Palazzo Reale was a top Naples nightspot for military and civilian alike, said Moerler. Though the general public couldn’t enter the club, a young woman on a sailor’s arm wouldn’t be denied admission. For many years, though, the city government wanted the center gone. One reason, Moerler said, was because of Naples’ desire to reclaim and restore Palazzo Reale. Another reason, although it was never publicly acknowledged, was that the center drew sailors and other mariners away from local businesses. Prices for beer and food were cheaper at the center because of its nonprofit status and low rent. In 1997 the government succeeded in their attempts and forced the center to move into the port itself. The move, which took them about three kilometers from the Navy’s fleet landing, eventually helped kill the center for good. During a visit by the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise and cruiser USS Gettysburg earlier this year, not one sailor stopped in. Not only had the center’s location changed, but also its clientele.
“When I came in the service, you could work hard and play hard,” said Romano. “It was kind of an accepted thing. If you went out and had too much to drink … as long as you didn’t get in trouble … they put you back in your rack [bed] and if you got up the next morning and got to work, nothing was said.” Now, Moerler said, sailors and civilian mariners don’t drink like they used to, nor do they want to spend their short port visits in a bar. That time spent drinking could not only cost a lot of money, it could cost a career. Civilian mariners could lose their license for being intoxicated at work while military members can be reduced in rank for even a first infraction. Navy ships also don’t make port visits to Naples like they used to. In the past few years only a handful of ships have stopped in Naples, including only two aircraft carriers. Even the merchant ships have changed operating schedules. More time in port means less time at sea making money for their owners. Some ships aren’t even in port long enough for the crews to get off. And when mariners would stop in, they’d buy items that didn’t earn the center enough money to survive. So now, Moerler will move on to a seamen’s center in Germany and D’Ettore will run his family bar. Everything left in the club will be sold or moved to other centers. “I think it’s sad,” said Romano. “You always knew you could stop by and feel welcome. It was part of coming to Naples.”
USS: Aiding seafarers The United Seamen’s Service was started in 1942 as a nonprofit, nonsectarian organization to provide health, welfare, education and recreational services to the men and women of the American Merchant Marine and seafarers of other nations. Since then, the USS has increased its customer base. It serves American seafarers and their family members, U.S. military and government civilians as well as seafarers of other nations and people working in the maritime industry. “We’re like a USO [United Service Organizations] for the Merchant Marine,” said Bill Moerler, Naples USS Center director. The service has eight centers worldwide: Casablanca, Morocco; Bremerhaven, Germany; Diego Garcia; Guam, Manila, Philippines; Pusan, South Korea; Okinawa, and Yokohama, Japan. Two USS centers in Genoa and Naples, Italy, have closed within the past year. The remaining centers provide recreation, phones, fax, mail and money order services, food and beverage sales, gift shops, small libraries and health articles. Books in the libraries are kept up to date by shipments from the USS-affiliated American Merchant Marine Library Association. Center personnel also provide an outreach program that brings USS services to seafarers aboard ships, in hospital or even jail. Both U.S. Public Law and Department of Defense regulations establish “cooperation with, and assistance to” the USS in support of its mission. The Navy’s Military Sealift Command Europe has close ties with the USS, serving as its liaison with the Naples military base. “Over many years MSC Europe, as with MSC in general, has had a special relationship with the USS,” said MSC Europe’s public affairs officer Ed Baxter. “They provide a good service, especially in places where a military infrastructure is not available,” he said about USS.
As mentioned, in 1950 the USS club moved to the basement of the Palazzo Reale in 1950. The area was used both as a stables and a storage area and supply depot for the palace – based on what I was told, at one point ships could come right up to the waterfront side of the building and discharge their cargo for easy access.
One would enter the club by passing through the metal gates on the street level, and ascend to the first floor via a long stairway, passing storage rooms which were used for keeping supplies and sawdust (very useful for cleaning up after sailors who had had too much to drink.) The stairs led to the main entrance of the club.
Daniele D’Ettore manning the Gift Shop in the 1980’s
Looking back at the entrance from the library. Notice the 40-foot ceilings; painting those was fun for the staff.
Straight ahead was a lounge area and a small rotating library, where sailors and seamen were encouraged to borrow books and leave others that they had finished reading. About the only channels available on the TV were RAI1 and RAI2.
Turn left, and you’d find yourself in the main dining room/bar area: kitchen to the right, bar to the left.
Music and dancing were common here.
The kitchen. Lots of good food came from here.
The menu. Prices had been altered to reflect changing economic conditions – some up, some down. At the time, the Lire was still at 624 to the dollar, which made 100 Lire about 16¢.
In the back, entertainment. This was a 14-foot snooker table. We once had to move it so that the floor around it could be repaired with terrazzo. It must have weighed 16 tons, and took at least a dozen hefty sailors to move.
Slot machines and other games were available.
All the way in the back of the club was a large party room which had been resurrected from long inactivity and spruced up. In between were sailor’s dormitories for emergency lodging, the manager’s apartment, and storage rooms.
Daniele D’Ettore assists director Margaret Draper (right) in serving a party of local orphans hosted at the center.
Angela (waitress and bartender) and Elena D’Ettore in front of the phone booth Margaret had designed and installed.
Daniele D’Ettore and Franco Molino painting one of the dormitory rooms.
Agostino Maiorano (Accountant) and Daniele D’Ettore in 1983
Some random bum off the street, Franco Molino, a friend or relative, and Daniele D’Ettore in 1970.
Three of our beautiful part-time hostesses: Luisa on the right, her sister Anna in the middle, and I can’t remember the name of the young lady on the left.
Maria Annella (volunteer interpreter) and Commodore A.J. Bartlett (Commander, Service Force 6th Fleet) talk to some random bum off the street. Background left, Edward J. Sette, Executive Director of the United Seamen’s Service.
Change of command cake.
Daniele’s brother helps with the painting effort.
Captain James W. Hayes, USN. Captain of the USS Grand Canyon, AD-28, a destroyer tender which provided a large number of USS clientele from 1970 to 1971. The Grand Canyon was replaced by the USS Cascade, AD-16.
There were many others who worked and served and visited, but it would be impossible to list them all. What follows are some photos which I took during my tenure there in 1970 and 1971.
USS Cascade: Sailor Joe Harter repairs a movie projector
A ship’s band entertains
USS Cascade: Sailor Dan in the Wood Shop
USS Cascade: A sailor works in the machine shop.
The USS Cascade (AD-16) and her charges. These destroyer tenders were floating factories – if they couldn’t figure out how to repair or replace something, nobody could.
Crew of the USS Suprise (PG-97)
Left, Cdr. J. Norman Messer, Executive Officer of the USS Cascade, with Captain Robert Schniedwind.
A card game in progress in the bar.
A contingent of elders from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sings Christmas carols.
A children’s Christmas party at the center. Just one more whack…
I crammed a lifetime of experiences into that brief period – there are scarcely words to record them all, and this is but a sample of what went on.
The USS had many clubs throughout the world in wartime, and even as late as 1971 there were more open than exist today.USS Cam Ranh Bay
Staff at Cam Ranh Bay celebrate the landing of Apollo 11.
Advertisement on a building nearby
USS Genoa – Gift Shop
USS Genoa Director Ted Weaver
Director Margaret Draper in front of the USS club in Alexandria which she created and launched over the course of 5 years
There are currently 7 centers operating, including Bremerhaven, Germany; Casablanca, Morocco; Diego Garcia, B.I.O.T.; Guam, M.I.; Naha, Okinawa, Japan; Pusan, Korea; and Yokohama, Japan. As long as there are seamen on the waters, it is hoped that the USS will be there to serve their needs.
The Old Wolf has spoken.