It’s 1948. After three years in brutal Japanese prison camps — first breaking rocks, shoveling sand, and hauling sacks of cement… then mining copper deep underground — you’ve made it to the US on a one-year student visa. Which is about to run out. You need to find a way to get a green card. What do you do?
If you’re my dad, Paul Loong, and you have no other options, you head from Chicago to New York and sign up for five years as a merchant seaman on American-flagged ships. Five years of hot, cramped, tedious, and hazardous work, working deep in the bowels of ship as a fireman tending the boilers, because at the end of your hitch, you’ll get your citizenship.
Did we mention it’s hot? Oil-fired boilers, and all that. And it gets even hotter when you go to the Persian Gulf, which as an oil tanker, that’s pretty much your thing.
At least, though, you get to travel. Sure, since you’re on an oil tanker, the destinations are mostly refineries and oil ports, but you do get to see some sights: Iran (the Abadan refinery), Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE; Durban, South Africa; Mombasa; Mozambique; Australia; New Zealand; Noumea; the Philippines; and a few stops along the Mediterranean, including Athens:
All thanks to the post-Standard Oil companies (which is why the ships include “Stanvac” and “Esso” — though, oddly, the SS Camp Namanu appears to have been named for a Camp Fire Girls camp in Oregon.)
You spend most of your time from 1949 to 1951 on the Stanvac Singapore. Some of your shipmates, who are also foreign nationals, have the same hope as you — US citizenship after five years of service.
All that came crashing to a halt in Port Arthur, Texas, December, 1950, after one of those shipmates told an port-of-entry immigration officer that he hoped to become an American citizen after his five years of service.
Boom. Simply by saying they knew about an existing law, the foreign national crewmen were declared mala fide seamen, acting in bad faith, to be disqualified from citizenship.
The rest of the story is told in the film — detained in jail, deported from Ellis Island… by being put back on the same ship, where he sailed for another year, until April, 1951, when he arrived in New Orleans, and realized his merchant marine service meant nothing.
So Dad signed up to go to war again. More on that in the next post.
All photos in this post are from the film, Every Day Is a Holiday, and come from my father’s scrapbook. We’re working on digitizing and archiving all of them, including the captions he meticulously wrote in the margins.
In the meantime, learn how to buy a copy of Every Day Is a Holiday on DVD, where you can also sign up to be notified when the film becomes available on premium streaming services and other events.