History: The United Seamen’s Service in Vietnam

This article was originally published in the NMU Pilot, the official organ of the National Maritime Union of America, AFL-CIO, June, 1970. As for why I’m republishing it here? Maggie was my mother, and I interfaced with the USS for a couple of years in the 70s at their club in Naples, Italy.

Margaret Draper makes good under fire with United Seamen’s Service Center in Cam Ranh Bay


WHAT do you mean, “whatever became of Margaret Draper?” Why, she is working at the most interesting job she ever had in her life and enjoying every minute of it. Margaret is Assistant Director of the United Seamen’s Serv­ice Center in Cam Ranh Bay, South Vietnam. She has been on the job for a year, putting up with all sorts of inconveniences like running out of her fa­vorite visual aid-lipstick, getting her hair mussed in helicopter downdrafts and sweating out occasional Vietcong alerts-all this so she can give the best of service to ship crews and military personnel in that godforsaken corner of the globe.

In the year she has been out there in Vietnam ­she’s due to be reassigned soon – Miss Draper has shared a lifetime of experiences, some good, some bad, and has profited from a new and deeper under­standing of the men she went to Vietnam to serve. “1 am constantly meeting the same diversity of pur­pose and attitudes in people that one finds any­where el se in the world and that, of course, makes each day stimulating. I have met men here who were formerly ranchers, hotel owners, stunt men, actors, sailboat racers, PhD’s, floaters, students and lost souls,” she wrote in one report.

Her presence in the Cam Ranh Bay Center pro­vides the men with a most photogenic reminder of home. Working closely with USS Director John Chambers, she performs a multitude of services running from arranging outdoor barbecues to shop­ping at the local Post Exchange to clearing away military red tape so a seaman can have a reunion at the Center with a son fighting nearby with the Ma­rines. “Margie Draper is always ready to help or assist you while you are there and there are many ways that a worldly seaman needs help and assist­ance,” one crew member wrote The PILOT recently from Vietnam.

The United Seamen’s Service opened the Center in Cam Ranh Bay late in 1966 at the height of the Vietnam sealift when sometimes as many as 100 ships waited in the harbor to discharge cargo. NMU used its influence to virtually move moun­tains of red tape so that the Center could open. The National Office sent Vice President Mel Barisic to confer in Washington with Maritime Administra­tion, Navy, MSTS and Department of Defense officials on the project.

Barisic and Assistant Contract Enforcement Of­ficer T. J. Walker made a total of three trips to Vietnam to expedite construction of the Center and otherwise improve mail service, shipboard condi­tions and shore leave privileges for merchant sea­men in the area. The Union also backed construc­tion of the Center in Qui Nhon.

Indoctrination course. Like all USS club person­nel from the States, Margie underwent a brie but thorough indoctrination before departing for her post in Vietnam. This included a tour of the hiring hall in New York, a visit to the Upgrading and Re­training School and talks with NMU officials at the National Office and port levels. “You have no idea,” she says, “How much easier it is to hit it off with the seamen when they find I know what a ‘killer card’ is, and what goes on at sign-on and pay-off’, and which end is up on a console in the engine room of an automated ship.”

Miss Draper’s arrival in Cam Ranh Bay last June was made less traumatic when she was greeted by Vietnam veteran Elmira Liebau whom she was replacing. Miss Liebau, known as “Lee,” was very helpful in getting the neophyte settled in surroundings that were different, to say the least. A “must” for the newcomer were instructions in the protocol for a woman living on a military base, a compendium of delicate do’s and don’t’s laid down by men, who else?


On  inspection trip to Cam Ranh Bay last year, Vice Admiral Lawson P. Ramage, then commander of the military Sea Transportation Service, tells Margaret Draper how delighted he is with the facilities of the USS.


A simple plumbing job can take weeks in Vietnam. Just like home, as USS Director John Chambers and Miss Draper find in business huddle above.

After giving Margaret an appropriate introduction to the mysterious workings of the ice-making machine and how best to coax the Vietnamese employees of the Center to give their all to their jobs, “Lee” went on to begin the second year of her tour of duty at a new post at Qui Nhon, leaving the “new girl” a full set of instructions on the care and feeding of a new cat family.

Some routine. After the first few weeks in Viet­nam, the days began to fall into a routine. That is, if you can call “routine” the explosion of bombs at the Convalescent Hospital last August 7. At that time security was tightened and everyone was in­structed to keep their eyes peeled for VC terrorists. After that scare, a steady round of visiting ships in the harbor to pay respects to the Captains and to leave notices of activities at the Center proved to be one of the more pleasant of Margaret’s varied duties.

Margaret with Sailors - Cam Ranh Bay - 1969 (2)

An average of 10,000 seamen visit the Cam Ranh Bay Center each month. Among them were these SS Britain Victory crewmen, (L-R) Cadet Kenneth Carden, Norman Leon,Jr., Miss Draper, Larry McCain, Roy Russel, Ricky Dermody. Taken in 1969.

At the Center her time is well spent meeting and greeting a succession of visiting brass from the American community. A lot of hard work goes into preparing special buffets for the merchant seamen and soldiers, but the reward of seeing the delighted smiles of the visitors more than compensates for the days and sometimes weeks of planning neces­sary to make these affairs successful.

The Center at Cam Ranh Bay never lets a tradi­tional holiday such as the Fourth of July, Thanks­giving and Christmas go by without making a spe­cial effort to bring a touch of home to the men out there. USS Executive Director Ed Sette was a spe­cial guest at last year’s Thanksgiving dinner and dined well on a turkey and all the trimmings do­nated from the freezer of the SS Rider Victory.

They also serve. People like Margaret Draper and John Chambers at Cam Ranh Bay, and Elmira Lie­bau and Bob Sprague at Qui Nhon, and other USS personnel in Centers around the world come into daily contact with the seamen who show their appreciation for their services in many ways. But back on the home front, a lot of hard work also is being done to get more funds from the seamen’s unions, from the shipping industry and from the various community funds with which to carry on their work in Vietnam and in other ports around the world. Not the least important aspect of the work of the staff here in the States is keeping open the lines of communication with the Department of Defense in Washington so that the Centers in Cam Ranh Bay and Quin Nhon can continue to render their much needed services. The United Seamen’s Service, in case you did not know, operates on mili­tary premises in Vietnam under an agreement with the Military Sea Transportation Service which states, in part:

“The United Seamen’s Service is a non-profit wel­fare agency, international in scope, established for the purpose of serving the American merchant ma­rine, military personnel, members of the United States Department of State, and other authorized contract workers with the services-” The agree­ment goes on to list 24 different services, some of which USS cannot render in a war zone and some of which are improvised as the need arises. But with­out these services, and without the zeal of dedicated people like Margaret Draper, morale among mer­chant seamen in Vietnam would be low indeed, so low as to seriously hinder the job of supplying our fighting men in Southeast Asia.


Dressed for party, Miss Draper gives final approval to trays of canapés fashioned by the chef, Mr. Do.

Despite the worldwide decline in merchant seamen (the huge computer-controlled cargo behemoths require ever-fewer humans to run them), the United Seamen’s Service still functions in seven centers around the world, providing necessary services to seafarers.

As I gradually work through mom’s papers, I know there are other photos and tales from this era, and I’ll do my best to get them up here as time permits.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

The United Seamen’s Service – Naples, Italy

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. Palazzo-Reale-di-Napoli

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.

Naples - Royal Palace - Entry 2

Palace Entry, View 1 – Upstairs it was a lot fancier.

Naples - Royal Palace - Entry

Palace Entry, View 2

Naples - Royal Palace - Ballroom


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 [2004] 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.

Changing times

“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.

The Facilities

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.

United Seamen's Service - Naples - 1969(Via Acton 18, in the Royal Palace basement)

United Seamen’s Service – Naples – 1969
(Via Acton 18, in the Royal Palace basement)

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.

Naples - 1970 - Daniele at the Gift Shop

Daniele D’Ettore manning the Gift Shop in the 1980’s

USS - Gift Shop

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.

USS - Library

Turn left, and you’d find yourself in the main dining room/bar area: kitchen to the right, bar to the left.

USS Naples - Dining Room

Music and dancing were common here.

USS Naples - Kitchen

The kitchen. Lots of good food came from here.

USS Menu

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¢.

USS Naples - 14 ft snooker table

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.

USS Naples - Slot Machines

Slot machines and other games were available.

USS Naples - party room

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.

The People

Naples - Serving Orphans

Daniele D’Ettore assists director Margaret Draper (right) in serving a party of local orphans hosted at the center.

Angela and Elena

Angela (waitress and bartender) and Elena D’Ettore in front of the phone booth Margaret had designed and installed.

USS - Daniele and Franco Paint

Daniele D’Ettore and Franco Molino painting one of the dormitory rooms.

Agostino Maiorano and Daniele d'Ettore

Agostino Maiorano (Accountant) and Daniele D’Ettore in 1983

USS Naples - 1969 - Chris, Franco Molino, friend, Daniele d'Ettore

Some random bum off the street, Franco Molino, a friend or relative, and Daniele D’Ettore in 1970.

USS - 3 Gorgeous Girls (Unknown, Anna, Luisa)

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.

Commodore A.J. Bartlett

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.

USS Naples - Change of Command Cake

Change of command cake.

Naples - Daniele's Brother

Daniele’s brother helps with the painting effort.

Naples - 1970 - Captain James W. Hayes

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.

Naples - 1970 - Joe Harter (Riverside, CA)

USS Cascade: Sailor Joe Harter repairs a movie projector

Naples - USS - Ship's band

A ship’s band entertains

Naples - USS Cascade - Dan in the Wood Shop

USS Cascade: Sailor Dan in the Wood Shop

Naples - USS Cascade - Machine Shop

USS Cascade: A sailor works in the machine shop.

Naples - USS Cascade and destroyers

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.

Naples - USS Surprise PG97 Crew

Crew of the USS Suprise (PG-97)


Left, Cdr. J. Norman Messer, Executive Officer of the USS Cascade, with Captain Robert Schniedwind.

USS - Card Game

A card game in progress in the bar.

USS - Napoli Elders 2

A contingent of elders from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sings Christmas carols.

USS Children's Party - One more whack

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.

Other Locations

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

1969 - USS Cam Ranh Bay Moon Launch

Staff at Cam Ranh Bay celebrate the landing of Apollo 11.

USS Bremerhaven

Europe Trip - Jun 1971 - Bremerhaven - USS bar


Europe Trip - Jun 1971 - Bremerhaven - USS Club


Europe Trip - Jun 1971 - Bremerhaven - USS sign

Advertisement on a building nearby

Europe Trip - Jun 1971 - USS Bremerhaven 1

Pool Hall

USS Genoa

USS Genoa - 1970

USS Genoa – Gift Shop

USS Genoa - 1970 - Ted Weaver

USS Genoa Director Ted Weaver

USS Egypt

Margaret - USS Egypt

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.