Captain J. E. Shields
a'board SOPHIE CHRISTENSON
Photograph kindly shared by his grandson Jim Shields, 2011.
"Among my most interesting friends on Seattle's waterfront was Capt. J. E. Shields, shipowner and master mariner extraordinary, who became an international figure a few years before Pearl Harbor by saving from foreign invasion the rich Bristol Bay fishing grounds. This area is famous as the world's greatest district.
With nets across the lanes followed by migrating salmon, Japanese fishermen were a threat to the huge Bristol Bay salmon packing industry, and were hampering the operations of the Puget Sound codfishing fleet.
Protests were of no avail; Capt. Shields sent his famous wireless message asking that a dozen rifles each and plenty of ammunition be sent to the schooners SOPHIE CHRISTENSON and CHARLES R. WILSON, fishing in the Bering Sea. Capt. Shields commanded the SOPHIE, while Capt. Knute Pearson was master of the WILSON.
The dispatch attracted attention all over the country and was cabled to Japan by news agencies. It was followed a few days later by this message from the SOPHIE:
'Hurrah! Hurrah! All Japanese boats out of the Bering Sea. Rifles no longer needed'.
Shields, single-handed, had been successful in what repeated protests and international negotiations had failed to accomplish. The Japanese left the Bering before the run of red salmon began and consequently there was a big pack that year. The sturdy skipper had won a one-man war without firing a shot.
The famous dispatch of Capt. Shields requesting rifles and ammunition for the SOPHIE CHRISTENSON and the CHARLES R. WILSON, was followed by an announcement by a high Coast Guard officer that "if there is going to be any shooting in the Bering Sea, the Coast Guard will do it," but leaders in the fishing industry only smiled.
I remember a typical story of a codfishing cruise told to me in 1938 by Capt. Shields after his famous "one-man war" with the Japanese. The SOPHIE CHRISTENSON, commanded by the colorful sailing ship skipper, had just towed into Poulsbo, a codfish center for more than 40 years, after a five-month cruise. In the hold of the picturesque vessel were 385,000--not pounds--but codfish, caught on the Bering Sea fishing grounds. In the log of the four-masted sailing schooner were entries that read like pages of a movie thriller.
Capt. Shields told of chasing the invading Japanese out of the Bering Sea.
'We had 150 fathoms of chain out and it was blowing great guns,' read one of the entries in the log of the SOPHIE.
There were days when it was impossible to get a dory over the side and not a fish was caught. Then there would be smiling skies and smooth seas and the fishermen were in their dories by 4 o'clock in the morning, harvesting the gray cod from the sea. The fishermen did not expect calm weather all the time and often sent their blunt-nosed dories into heaving swells, leaving behind them the whine of outboard motors and the odor of burned gasoline.
One night, a hardy, bearded, fisherman told me, we were lost on the banks in a great fog far from the ship, but Capt.Shields was equal to the situation. With a mechanical fog horn going full blast, he went aloft to the crosstrees and there, 85-feet above the heaving deck, rigged an automobile spotlight hooked up to a six-volt battery. The skipper spent three hours there alone, flashing the brilliant light into the cold, murky night until he saw a faint blur through the ghostly fog. The 'lost' fishermen boarded the ship at 3 o'clock in the morning. They were glad to get back to the SOPHIE and thanked the skipper for what he had done for them.
High-line man for the voyage was Ray Press with 21,155 fish. With a five-pound sinker and two hooks, Press landed as many as a thousand fish a day.
Cod are caught in deep water with halibut for bait. The fisherman gradually brings the school closer to the surface, where he works with two lines, one on each side of his anchored dory. With the precision of a machine, he pulls up one line, takes the fish off, baits the hooks, drops the line with its five-pound sinker, and hauls away on the other line. The fish sometimes come into the boat at the rate of 100 an hour, often being caught two at a time.
A typical day's work begins with breakfast at 4 o'clock in the morning and by 4:30, the dories go over the side and fan out from the mother ship.
Arriving in the Bering Sea, the ship anchors about 10 miles offshore and the fishermen, in their dories, go as far as five miles from the vessel. By 9 o'clock in the forenoon, the dories, laden with codfish, begin coming in. The fishermen eat dinner before returning to the fishing grounds. This is the heaviest meal of the day. By 5 o'clock in the afternoon, they return for supper and conclude the day's work.
During the morning, the dressing crew begins work as soon as the first dories arrive. If fishing is good, the crew works from that time until the day's catch is in the hold. Sometimes, these men work well into the night putting the catch in cure, since each day's take must be processed in order to be ready for the following day's catch.
Capt. Ed Shields, son of Capt. J. E. Shields, is plant manager at Poulsbo and skipper of the schooner C. A. THAYER. He says his plant, originally started in 1911, is the only one of the Pacific Coast that produces and markets codfish.
Ed Shields made his first trip to the Bering in 1934. Between cruises, he attended the UW where he studied engineering. He graduated in 1939 and then took a year of advanced engineering at Harvard. He put his engineering knowledge to practical use at the Puget Sound Naval Station during WWII.
| Pacific Coast Codfish Co. crew |
unloading their schooner, Poulsbo, WA.
Photo by B. Torvanger, Pt. Madison, 1914.
From the Saltwater People Historical Society © archives.
As skipper and owner of the SOPHIE CHRISTENSON, Capt. J. E. Shields was the most versatile of master mariners. He was navigator, ship's doctor, pharmacist, a judge of all disputes involving the crew, chief fish-tallier and dentist."
This story, Captain J. E. Shields and His One-Man War, was written by the Seattle waterfront reporter R. H. Calkins, who published his colorful collection of c. 50 essays under the title High Tide, The Stories of Seattle's Waterfront.(1952)
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