In the summer of 1937, eighteen-year-old Ed Soltesz, armed with a newly-acquired Radio Telegraph Operator’s license, came to San Diego and went to sea. Having seen the ocean only once, Soltesz signed aboard a Portuguese tuna clipper for a fishing voyage to the southeast Pacific. In the next four years, Soltesz worked as the radio operator on several tuna boats out of San Diego, the “Tuna Capital of the World.”
This past July, Bob Wright of the Oral History Committee of the San Diego Historical Society, spent several hours with Ed Soltesz as he recounted his experiences as radio operator and fisherman aboard the tuna boats of San Diego. What follows is an edited transcript of that taped, oral interview. The complete transcript is available for reading in the Research Archives.
WRIGHT: This is an oral interview with Mr. Edward S. Soltesz, who from 1937 to 1941 had various jobs on tuna boats out of San Diego. Today’s date is July 20, 1990. My name is Robert G. Wright. Can you give me your full name?
SOLTESZ: My full name is Edward Sandor Soltesz. I was born in New York City on August 24, 1918. I was raised there until my folks brought me to California, to Los Angeles, in 1932, just in time for the big Long Beach earthquake.
WRIGHT: Were you right in the middle of the earthquake?
SOLTESZ: We were in Los Angeles and we were on the second or third floor of an apartment. It knocked us down and off our chairs. There was no major damage in our building or in our area.
We had tremors for over a year and some pretty good tremors that would shake things. I was young and pretty scared but we lived through it.
WRIGHT: I understand that you got interested in radio?
SOLTESZ: Well, the way it turned out, I graduated from Fairfax High School in 1935 [Los Angeles]. Of course, those were the depression days and my dad told me he couldn’t send me to college. I had been studying to be a mechanical-engineer. I didn’t know what to do so he suggested I talk to some of my instructors and have them counsel me. We didn’t have counseling in the schools in those days. He thought that perhaps I would like to go into something like electronics (we called it radio). My last semester I switched over and took electric shop. From there I went to Frank Wiggins Trade School [Los Angeles] for two years and I took up radio.
In 1936 my folks were managing an apartment building. My dad taught me how to paint and repair furniture and everything else. So I worked my way through trade school. I had even worked in high school, in grocery stores. Dad died in 1936.
WRIGHT: He was a young guy.
SOLTESZ: Yes, he was in his forties. I became sole support for my mother. I took over management of the building.
A year later, in 1937, I passed the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] exam and got a radio telegraph operators license. I was eighteen at the time.
One of my school mates, who had also passed the exam, came to me right after that and said, “Ed, I’m going to San Diego and get a job on a tuna boat. Do you want to come with me?”
Being eighteen and very naive — had no idea what was going on — I said “sure, why not.”
Up to that time I think I had seen the ocean — the Pacific Ocean — only once. I had no idea what a tuna boat was. I didn’t even know what tuna was, nor did I know what a radio operator did on a boat.
So we came to San Diego, in July 1937. [My friend] had an aunt who had friends who lived on Logan Avenue. They had a little porch up above a grocery store. We had two cots and a cold water tap and a laundry tub. That was our room. It cost us four dollars a week, per person. That included one dinner every night.
We were allowed to use the kitchen facilities for breakfast.
We would go down in the morning and get a box of corn flakes for ten cents, a quart of milk for ten cents, and a couple of bananas. We would go back and split that between the two of us. That was our breakfast.
Then we would start walking the waterfront looking for a job. We would walk the waterfront all the way up to what is now the Coast Guard Station.
WRIGHT: You would go to the canneries?
SOLTESZ: Yes, the boats were unloading at the canneries. So we would talk to the skippers or the crewmembers and see if their radio operator was going to go out with them again because radio operators didn’t stay very long with one boat.
So, the area that is now Seaport Village and the big hotel down there [Marriott] and Convention Center — that was all railroad tracks. There was a concrete wall and the old Star of India was there as a derelict. We would walk all through there.
San Diego at the time was a beautiful, dreamy little city. No pollution. I recall the biggest payroll was the Navy. Then the tuna industry, with the canneries, the workers, the boats, the ship chandlers, and Campbells Machine yard down there — boat yard, that was the next big industry.
We exported cotton and imported lumber. I recall seeing Harbor Drive just stacked up twenty feet high with bales of cotton. We were shipping them out from the valley [Imperial Valley]. We were a great exporter of cotton.
It was really a nice little town. Very quiet.
We would walk the waterfront. We would walk back to Broadway Pier, up on the second landing and sit there and rest our feet. Then we would cut across the town. We took a shortcut back to Logan Avenue. We passed a market on 12th and Market [A. J. Kahn Fruit at 644 12th St.]. We would buy a sack of fruit and that was our lunch as we walked. Then, we would soak our feet in cold water in our little apartment to help the blisters along, then we would make another run down the waterfront.
WRIGHT: What was your friend’s name?
SOLTESZ: His name was Art Arturo. He stayed at sea. He just retired recently. He became a skipper and went on through the war.
We would make one more run in the evening. Art shipped out in two weeks and I shipped out in thirty days.
I recall I had thirty dollars when I left Los Angeles, I still had ten dollars left. I had purchased food and some gear for my fishing trip, and paid our rent.
The first trip I went on was on the Cabrillo. Frank Theodore was the skipper. I believe the boat belonged to the Medina family. Joe Medina, the old patriarch, had gone back to the Azores for a vacation so Frank took the boat out.
WRIGHT: What was your first impression when you went on board ship?
SOLTESZ: Well, my first impression… We left here in the evening and we were out off the Coronados Islands in time for dinner. I never saw so much food in all my life.
WRIGHT: Did you get seasick?
SOLTESZ: Well [laughs], I’m getting to that. Of course I’d fed myself (we hadn’t been eating very well) and I ate like a horse I guess. I had never had mayonnaise before in my life and lettuce salad with mayonnaise — I just gorged myself. The next morning I woke up and became seasick.
WRIGHT: If you were just laying off Coronado I can understand that.
SOLTESZ: No, we were heading down. We ate as we were underway. By then we were down off Baja California. We were out fifty-nine days on that trip and I was seasick for fifty-eight. They used to beg me to eat. The cook would come up and say, “Sparks, you gotta eat.” Of course, they always called the radio operator “Sparks.” I couldn’t eat hardly anything but I managed to survive. I talked to the good Lord a few times!
WRIGHT: As a radio operator were there many demands on you?
SOLTESZ: That depended. Of course, I was useless on that first trip because I had no idea what was required or what to do. But little by little I caught on. We had some very old fashioned gear. The receiver was terrible. I had a hard time hearing anything. Other than hearing time signals from WWV so the navigator could check his clock, I really didn’t do much.1
The task, the real job of the radio operator was probably twofold. One was to get the time signals for the navigator.
The other — there would be what we called code books. There would be two skippers — they might be friends or relatives — and anywhere from two to twelve boats that would make an agreement, or pact, to exchange honest information. They would tell each other where they were, what fishing/baiting conditions were, and they would try to help each other.
They would have their operators create a secret code, a cipher code. Of course, everything was in Morse code — dots and dashes. We were supposed to talk to other (non-code) boats and find out where they were. Well, we lied to each other because we wouldn’t tell where we were! If we knew something about another boat we would tell. So little by little that information on all the boats would sort of filter around through the fleet.
We had about ninety or one hundred boats that carried radio operators, mainly for insurance purposes. About one third of them stayed in what we called local waters, that was between San Diego and Cabo San Lucas. They fished off Morgan Bank, U.S. Bank, and a couple of other banks, sometimes up in the Gulf of California. Our job was to find out where they were getting the bait and where they were getting the fish, and try to find out weather conditions.
Some radio operators would be “paper captains,” because the skipper of the boat would not be an American citizen. They had to have an American citizen as a legal captain but they had no say so in the operation of the boat. Others became navigators and most of them learned to fish.
So out of the seventy-five boats that went south — we went as far as Panama and out the Galápagos Islands — some of us would learn to fish.
Now, when I finally got this first job and the skipper said OK, I’ll give you the job if I can’t find anyone else, they were looking at a hundred pound sack of bones that didn’t look like he could live through a trip! They had these big Portuguese fishermen that weighed two hundred/two hundred-thirty pounds. All muscle and no fat. They didn’t know what they would do with something like me on board!
WRIGHT: On this insurance business, I don’t understand that.
SOLTESZ: Well, their liability insurance and all that. The insurance company just wanted them to have a radio operator so if they got in trouble they could yell for help, I guess. That was the insurance part of it.
WRIGHT: None of this was audio [the radio].
SOLTESZ: No, this was all code. It was very, very primitive. The sets were built in old switch boxes. You remember these old electrical switch boxes about two feet high and eighteen inches wide? Had a big crank for the switch handle. An enterprising young man from a earlier trip took these boxes and built a transmitter inside of them, and then purchased a small receiver. That was the equipment. We ran off of batteries.
WRIGHT: All vacuum-tubed I assume?
SOLTESZ: Yes, they were vacuum tubes. When I started out there were three tubes in the receiver. The radio shack was very sparsely furnished.
WRIGHT: Was the crew sympathetic with you on that first trip?
SOLTESZ: No, I kind of had a bad start because no sooner did I get down in the morning to the boat with my bag and clothes, my seabag… here stands a man from the radio operators union, from Los Angeles, (and I was the first person to come under this) he said “Ed, you cannot sail until they sign a contract and give you a hundred and fifty a month.” We were getting a hundred and twenty-five a month, which was good in those days. That was excellent! And room and board, all you could eat.
And he [union representative] says I can’t go. I begged and pleaded, and said “look this is my first job.” It was the old case of you can’t get a job unless you have experience but you can’t get any experience without a job.
But they wouldn’t allow that so they held the boat up for four days. Finally, no other radio operator showed up that was experienced so they took me. So I sailed under a cloud, you might say, that first trip. And with my inability to do much on the radio — I didn’t know what was going on…
WRIGHT: And sicker than a dog.
SOLTESZ: Sicker than a dog… Then I gave him [the skipper] some very bad news on the way home. This was when the industry itself had a big, huge change. They went from ice boats to brine boats. On the way home I was able to get enough information that indicated that the canneries were no longer accepting fish.
WRIGHT: From ice?
SOLTESZ: From the boats with ice. They all had ice at that time. The canneries said: “Well, the fish smelled a little, the scales were worn off, the body was punctured, the meat didn’t look too good…” They were throwing entire loads of fish away, one boat after another!
WRIGHT: Where did they throw it away? At sea?
SOLTESZ: No, the cannery would take it and grind it up for fertilizer.
WRIGHT: And were making money off it?
SOLTESZ: The money they got for that [fertilizer] went to pay for unloading the boat. So the boats got nothing. When I told Frank about this we were maybe a week out of San Diego coming home, with a load, which was hard to get. I was really the bearer of bad news, it’s a good thing they didn’t throw me overboard.
We received a wire telling us to bypass San Diego and go to Wilmington and unload at Wilmington which was in Los Angeles harbor, because we might have a better chance of saving our fish. We arrived and lost our load. I was the only one to get paid. I got my three hundred dollars for two months. Of course, the crew got nothing. In fact, the crew had to pay — take out of future profits — all the costs of fuel that was burned, the food that was used, and all the other expenses of the trip.
WRIGHT: Now this was a “bait” boat, where they fished from the “racks” off the stern?
SOLTESZ: That’s true. We did not have tuna purse seiners, as such, in those days.
WRIGHT: Were they called bait boats at that time?
SOLTESZ: Yes, we would call ourselves bait boats. There were other small boats that were catching bait with nets and they were seiners. In San Diego you could catch sardines and anchovies in San Diego Bay in those days. Of course, most of that went to the canneries. Sometimes they would sell it to us or else we would do it ourselves. I remember setting bait among the warships that were anchored in the center of the bay here. Or, we would go out to Point Loma, Ballast Point, or even off the Silver Strand where we could get a good load of bait. Now that was “cold water” bait and we could use that if we were going to fish in local waters which was considered between San Diego and Cabo San Lucas, or, if we were going out to the Galápagos Islands.
WRIGHT: Just for the record, a bait boat means this is a fishing boat where you collect the bait in a well and then you get down near a school of fish and somebody will “chum” with the live bait to keep the school up close to the stern of the boat. Then the guys would pull them in with one, two, three pole fishing. Just bring them in one at a time.
WRIGHT: Is this about all you can tell us about that first trip?
SOLTESZ: I was, of course, laid off. They weren’t going to do anything. They were going to come back to San Diego and wait for Joe Medina, I believe it was, if I’ve got my names straight.
WRIGHT: You came down with the boat, though, didn’t you?
SOLTESZ: No, I didn’t. I stayed up there. My mother was still up there so I stayed there, but right next to us the Chicken of the Sea was unloading. That was a well known boat in those days. And the radio operator had just quit. So I went over there and ask them for a job.
Harold Morgan, otherwise known as “Pop” Morgan, was a Scotchman. He owned the boat with two brothers. He was Harold and there was Walter and Donald. Harold had two sons. The three owners would take turns. One would stay home every third trip. So I went out with Pop Morgan.
Now the Cabrillo, I joined that on July 20, 1937 and I left on September 17, 1937. Then I joined the Chicken of the Sea on September 24, 1937 and stayed with them until May 1939.
WRIGHT: What about the seasick business?
SOLTESZ: Well, it was depression times and there was no work to be had anywhere…
WRIGHT: Sick or not you went.
SOLTESZ: I went and I was starting to get over it. By the time I left the Chicken of the Sea, I could stand a little rolling, normal rolling of the sea, rolling pitch. But if we had a storm then I would feel it and I’d be out of operation for a couple days! Little by little, I got used to it.
WRIGHT: You can die from it, you know.
SOLTESZ: Well yes, you can dehydrate and it was bad. I don’t want to go into what happens but it really takes everything out of you.
The Chicken of the Sea was kind of interesting. Let’s see if I forgot anything. I would like to give you as much about the tuna industry as I can.
The radio rooms that we had were just a cubicle about maybe seven foot by seven foot. One bulkhead had a desk and typewriter, and the equipment, the radio equipment. There was just enough room for a chair and the back bulkhead would have a bunk. So the bunk was about six, six and half feet, and that was the size of the room.
WRIGHT: You had your own bunk in the radio room, rather than be down with the crew?
SOLTESZ: In most of the ships it was that way.
WRIGHT: Do you remember the manufacturer of the radio equipment?
SOLTESZ: The receiver was a National SW3. This was my first receiver. It was a three-tube regenerative receiver. On the next boat, the Chicken of the Sea, it was a SW7. That was a tuned RF set with seven tubes. From then on that’s about the best it ever got. I never had a Superheterodyne.
The reason I give you a description of my room is because Pop Morgan liked to come in the evening and sit on the bunk and watch over my shoulders as I was copying whatever there was to copy. I wasn’t very good yet. He always complained that he couldn’t read my chicken scratchings, my pencil. He tried to get me to use a typewriter. Well, we weren’t allowed to practice on a typewriter when we were going through school because the examinations were always taken with pencil. So we had to copy code with a pencil.
But the next trip, he took off. Walter Morgan came on board and I asked him — that was the first time I’d met him — I asked him what he wanted me to do. I wanted to please the skipper. He said, in no uncertain terms, what I could do with the radio equipment! He didn’t need it. He knew where he was going to go and what he was going to do and we could throw everything overboard.
WRIGHT: You too?
SOLTESZ: Me along with it!
That gave me a chance to start learning to type. And by then I was getting more and more familiar with what was going on. To go back. The code boats would talk with each other and pass the secret messages around and then they would talk to the other boats trying to fill in and get information. We had several code boats and they belonged to different groups so I had two or three different ciphers that I had to work with.
I noticed that they were all almost along on the same line so I started doing something that everyone else was doing — copying the other boat’s messages, secret messages, and trying to de-cipher them. Little by little, once you got the key to the de-ciphering, you could break their codes. So you automatically had more code boats without having to talk to them and we gathered more and more information that would be fed back to the skipper. We would tell him [for example], “no use stopping in this bay because there’s no bait there, such and such boats have been there, and they left. They tried it for several days and there was nothing, no signs of bait. Such and such a boat is catching bait down there in Costa Rica,” or wherever. That would save weeks and weeks of time. The shorter the trips the more trips we could make a year.
WRIGHT: Your value increased?
SOLTESZ: That was the major use of the radio operator. That’s what it really became.2
WRIGHT: Was that during a period of time where that’s all you did?
SOLTESZ: No, the radio was just to get you on board because boats were mostly of ethnic personnel, you might say. They were either all Portuguese, all Italians, or Japanese. There were a few of them that were mixed crews. Occasionally you would have a non-ethnic cook (who was the hardest working man on board). You would probably have an engineer, and sometimes a navigator. But the rest were all of the same ethnic background. The radio operator just got on because he was the radio operator.
Old Pop Morgan — he didn’t do so well. I was on there two trips and they lost part of their load. He was paying me more in salary than the crew was getting. So he got real smart real quick, (being a Scotchman), and he offered me a full share if I would give up my salary. I was fishing anyway. I was passing fish, I was scrubbing, I was doing everything everybody else did. I was young. It was something to pass the time, and it was fun. But he got smart and he thought he would reduce my salary by putting me on the full share. It turned out that it didn’t matter I made about the same amount of money. But finally — his youngest son, who had gone through radio school — in May of 1939 — his son came aboard as radio operator and at that time I discreetly took my leave and quit.
WRIGHT: That sounds like it was the end of your fishing days.
SOLTESZ: Not quite. I had quite a ways to go yet. One of the things I’d like to go back on: the Chicken of the Sea, something funny happened.
It was very hard to get weather reports in that part of the Pacific. There weren’t too many ships. In fact, the weather bureau contacted some of us and asked us to send in weather reports every day. We had a special code, and I enjoyed doing that. The Mexican stations themselves were very hard to copy. The Mexican operators had a habit — and it was throughout all of them — that when they sent code, if a letter ended with a dot they would not stop at one dot, or two dots, or three or four, whatever, they would continue to send a string of dots. So that was very hard to copy them and with the boat rolling, with the equipment in poor condition — we had plug-in coils in our receiver to change bands and these receivers were so old that the contacts were worn. Every time a wave hit the bow it would shake everything on board ship and these coils would pop out so you lost all communication. You had to pop them back in and twist them to get just the right contact.
So weather reports were very hard to get. If there was any noticeable storm (reported) it was always after the fact. The Gulf of Tehuantepec, which is the southern edge of Mexico, was noted for its terrific storms. There is a gap in the mountains where the wind comes from the Gulf [of Mexico] and blows through there and blows out of the Gulf of Tehuantepec and out to sea. In fact, it gets so violent that it moves the shoreline out to sea several hundred yards. Many ships were lost on the reef down there as they hugged the coast to get away from the big swells which built up as you went further and further out to sea. It would be real violent out at sea. They would try to hug the coast without realizing that the shoreline had been blown out to sea. They thought that they were in deep water but it was pretty shallow and they would hit a reef there. Several ships were lost.
We came across that gulf one trip and it was in the summer time and, of course, that’s the “chubasco” or hurricane season. Harold Morgan had his eldest son, Harold Jr., and his young son was summer vacationing so he came out too. The two sons were aboard. We really took a beating going across the Gulf [Tehuantepec]. So we stopped in Acapulco. We stayed there several days waiting for the storm to pass. Finally, the native officials told us that everything was fine, we could leave. So we left and it was calm outside. We didn’t realize it was the eye of the storm. That night the storm hit us again. It was really bad because we were close to shore and the land down there is sheer cliffs just like Point Loma. That’s typical of that coast line going down there. The storm really hit us hard.
I remember that as we went aboard in Acapulco no one was feeling any pain. There were bars along the waterfront — we had a good four days there and it was no problem. We enjoyed ourselves and everybody was feeling no pain as we came on board.
We had a Finn and he was really loaded. He was singing in Finnish and he was reeling down the gangplank. It was really just a plank — 2 x 10. He had a couple bottles of tequila in his belt and one in each hand. He was drinking out of one as he came aboard.
We left that night. We were all asleep except whoever was tending the wheel. In the middle of the night I got thrown out of my bunk it was so violent. I woke up and looked around to see what was going on. I went below into the galley/dining room where everybody always congregated. And there was practically the entire crew with the skipper and his sons and everybody else lying on the deck and rolling back and forth, sicker than dogs!
I was too frightened to become seasick that time so I ran up to see who was at the wheel and here’s this Finn, just singing at the top of his voice in his native tongue, swigging out of the bottle and telling me, “Sparks, this is great weather! It brings back memories of when I went cod fishing with my father in the North Sea!”
If it wasn’t for him we would have never pulled through, because we were only two to three miles off the coast and we would have been blown against the rocks. We couldn’t launch the skiffs — we had no life boats. The skiff was a workboat and that’s loaded with nets and paraphernalia. Never in all my years did I see any life jackets on any tuna boat except once, I recall we had to haul all the chain out of the chain locker for some reason and underneath the chain were some beat-up old life jackets. I can’t swim but swimming would not have helped any one.
So we finally made our way to Manzanillo. We went in there to hide from the storm. We stayed a few days until we were sure that everything was okay. For some reason, we weren’t suspicious at the time, but normally the skipper is up at the bridge when the lines are tossed off the dock. There might be one crew member on the dock to lift the lines off the bollards and jump aboard.
Well, here’s Pop Morgan with his two sons on the dock helping lift the lines off. As soon as the lines are off (his young brother is up at the wheel) he says, “okay Donald she’s all yours. Take her home. The boys and I are going home by train.” So he took the train to Mexico City and went home with the boys and Donald took the boat home.
WRIGHT: How old was Donald?
SOLTESZ: Donald was a little older than I. He was the youngest of the three brothers that owned the boat. So Pop took his two sons and they headed home by train. When the young Morgan boy got his license and came aboard as radio operator, I quit.
I had a call from the union saying that there was a Norwegian tanker that needed a radio operator for a short time. I thought, well, a Norwegian tanker, they’d probably go to Norway. Their operator got sick and they needed someone to ride the boat until someone was able to send for a Norwegian operator from Norway to meet them somewhere in the world.
I thought I would get a chance to go to Norway, this is great, I’ll take it. So I went aboard and I thought we were going to go down through the Canal [Panama], that we would have tropical weather so I had clothing for warm weather. I woke up the next morning and I saw no land but instead the sun was rising astern of us. We were headed west. I asked one of the crew members where we were going and he said we were going to Japan. This was 1939, right before the war and they were taking a load of oil to Japan.
They all spoke Norwegian, the captain could speak English and so could some of the officers. But I was a curiosity on board. Of the crew, probably the only one that could speak English was the electrician, he had lived in New York for a little while. He became friendly with me and they (the crew) were very curious about this American on board. They wanted to know what salary I was getting. The union had informed me that I had the regular type of salary where they pay me from the time we leave port until the time we got to a home port (in the U.S.A). I would get first class accommodations coming back whether by train or boat.
The electrician said the skipper was kind of sneaky and this may not happen. [He told me] I’d better check with him and find out if he understood the agreement. I talked to the skipper one day and he said no way! “You get paid while you’re working and when we drop you off, where ever it is, your pay stops and you have to find your own way home.” So this frightened me and when we got to Yokohama I wrote a letter to the union in Los Angeles.
There we unloaded and went back down to Guayaquil, Ecuador to pick up a load of oil. When we got down there — they pick up their oil from a pipeline going out to sea — there was no town there. Being curious I got a ride in the little tugboat back to shore and I saw a little hut on the beach. It was the only hut in sight and that turned out to be the agent’s office and a commissary for the people that ran the oil field there.
There was also a post office. And just on the spur of the moment I went in and looked around. In my best Spanish which was practically nill, I asked if there was any mail for me. There were two letters from the union for me, telling me that when they dropped me off at any port I should go to the American Consulate. So from Guayaquil we went around to Montevideo, Uruguay, through the Straits of Magellan. This was in August and it was a beautiful trip. I don’t think very many people had gone through there at that time. It was winter and snow would block out the passage but they used to navigate by counting the number of revolutions of the propeller and using a stopwatch. That was how they zigzagged their way through there without being able to see the rocks.
When we got to Montevideo, I was told that the new operator would relieve me there and I was to celebrate my 21st birthday there and the skipper wasn’t going to budge. Then I found out that I didn’t have papers, a passport, because on the tuna boats we didn’t need passports. There was a possibility that I couldn’t go ashore. I grabbed the skipper and I said, “look, I am not going to sign off and I don’t have a passport and no country in the world will accept me and you’re stuck with me as long as you are sailing. I’m going to be a passenger on your boat.”
So we went to the American Consulate and he was absolutely no help to me. He said, “you know, you’re on a foreign ship and the minute you do that we don’t have anything to do with you, you’ve lost all rights of an American. If you want to do anything you go to the Norwegian Consulate.” So we went there and we had a big argument and he threw us out.
In the meantime, I got friendly with the agent there (Montevideo) and he made arrangements for me to go to the other part of town to get my photograph taken and then we went back to the American Consul and I got some temporary papers to get me back into the States, but we didn’t tell the skipper. Finally, he agreed that he would take me to Mexico, to Coatzacoalcos, and he would pay me up to that point. And then from there on, there was no more salary but he would pay for the railroad fare through Mexico to go to the first American port that I would come to.
So when we got to Coatzacoalcos he dropped me off at the mouth of the river and left orders for the agent to take care of me. Since I had such good luck with the other agent in Montevideo, I took him out to dinner and wined and dined him and told him my problem. We had something in common, he had a brother that was going to school in the states so immediately we were compadres. I made sure he had plenty of beer and wine and steak. The next day he called the skipper and told him there was no way to get me home by train, that I would have to go by boat to New Orleans and then take a train through the United States. So the skipper agreed to that and somehow or another he (the agent) arranged for me to be paid a salary all the way back to Los Angeles with first class train fare. I went home via a banana boat from Coatzacoalcos to New Orleans. That was the end of that.
But on that tanker, on the first night I went into the dining room, and they are very frugal (the Norwegian‘s), and the engineer, instead of running his generator to make 110 volt DC for the lights, he probably was running it at around 84 volts so the bulbs were all very dim. But he was saving fuel.
I went into the dining room with the officers. They brought in a big platter of food which was hard to see in the dark. I couldn’t see what it was, just a heaping platter of something. They all pushed their plates up to it and scooped food on their plates. And I waited and waited for the meat to come on the table.
Nothing was happening and these people were eating all around me and I thought well maybe it’s a Norwegian custom to eat vegetables because it looked like a big pile of boiled cabbage. So I did the same thing and pushed my plate up there and took a big mouthful and I got stabbed by bones!
It was lutefisk, a Norwegian codfish. They dry it and it gets hard as a rock. It shrivels up and gets all gnarled. You can beat it on the steel deck and it won’t break. The steward later showed me — he was so proud — he had three huge vats of water with lye and they soaked the fish for three days in this water. Then the fish would puff up again just like when it was fresh. And that’s all they ate for dinner. Well, I couldn’t eat it. I had never eaten fish and I didn’t like it and the bones didn’t allow me to eat it. They ate it like we eat watermelon, the bones just seemed to slip right out of their mouths. I had three months of that.
As soon as we got home, the union called me again and said they had a good job for me on a Greek ship. And I said no thank you, I am going back to fishing.
From there I went on the MV Northwestern. (I was on the Athos, the Norwegian ship from May 1939 to September, out of Port Hueneme). There were two skippers on the Northwestern. For the first half of the trips, there was one named Rasmussen and it had a mixed crew. The second half was with Manuel Coelho. I was on there from November 1939 to September 1940.
Then I went on the Europa and Salvatore Crivello was the skipper. That was an Italian ship. I was on her from November 1940 to May 1941.
Then I went on the Endeavor with Joe Monise.3 Monise was a big name and I was on that ship from May 1941 to February 1942. By that time I had all of the secret codes broken so we didn’t need a code boat. We went out on our first trip for fifty days.
At that time fishing was becoming scarce. Bait had disappeared from almost everywhere (1940 to 1941). We (the tuna fleet) had fished out all the bait and sardines and the anchovies down in Mexico and it was very hard to find bait. If you did find bait it was very little and then it was hard to find fish. There was a time when boats were out 6, 8, 10 weeks, two months. In fact, we made several trips while other boats were still out on one trip. Our first trip was fifty days, then we made one at forty-five days then forty-two days.
Those were good trips. On the forty-two day trip I netted $1,200 for my share and that was excellent. That was because we had all the codes and we saved a lot of time by not looking in places there was no use in looking. We went out on the last trip and things were very bad and the only place there was to get bait was in the northern part of Ensenada. We got a partial load of bait, and that’s cold water bait. We tried to fish local banks and cold water areas.
One day I heard signals and there were two boats talking to each other. Their signals were very loud [but] they were reducing their power until I couldn’t hear them. They must have been out in the Galápagos Islands. Each boat had a distinctive signal or fist (the way the man keyed the signals). I noticed that there were two boats on which I had no reports. I couldn’t tell where they were, no one knew where they were. So I told Joe that since we got the cold bait and there was nothing to do here that we should go to the Islands. So we went out to Galápagos Islands and by the time we got there we found nothing — no fish.
We played around there for awhile and Joe got an abscessed tooth. His whole head was swollen, his eye was shut. We were begging him to go to Panama and see a doctor because there were no doctors out there. He was stubborn and we waited and waited. Then one day I was listening in and there was a boat that was reported to have been seen, a two-masted boat heading north and it looked like he had a full load. You could tell whether he had fish or bait. If he had bait, then the water that they were circulating in their bait tanks would be coming out on the surface and there would be an eight-inch stream of water coming out. If there was no water, then you knew it was just fish. He was going home. And there were only three or four two-masted boats. He had been seen a few days earlier heading south out of Costa Rica. Everybody knew he had no fish on board, they had some bait, and the only place to go was the Gulf of Panama. Here they were a few days later heading home fully loaded. I told Joe and away we went. He said, “we’ll go to Panama and I’ll get to a doctor. On the way we’ll stop at some of the islands.”
We stopped at Malpelo Island which was pretty far from Panama and we loaded up in three days plus one hour. On the first day we arrived there in the afternoon about an hour before sunset (the fish stop biting at sunset). In that hour we caught forty tons. And the next morning we started and we rode all around that little rock sticking out in the middle of the ocean and we couldn’t bring any fish to the surface so finally he said we had our luck and let’s go into Panama. So we all got out of our wet clothes and started heading away. The chummer was cleaning out the bait box and throwing the dead bait overboard and all of a sudden we looked back and the fish were jumping. We turned around and fished all day. We got 100 tons. The second day was an exact repetition of the first and also the third day.
It was very tiresome and numbing to stand in the racks. My hands were tired because when I was three-pole fishing I would be matched up with two fishermen and their heavy poles. We had to cut off the knots from the bamboo to make fishing poles.4 But when you were three and two-poling, each pole had to have the same strength. So for a limber pole you cut the bottom off and for a stiff pole you would cut off the top part and the bottom would get real big. The Portuguese were big people and they could wrap their hand around that pole and it was no big deal for them. But for me, my hand couldn’t hold it so I had to twist my wrist so that it would lay in there. By the end of the day, my hands were curled and the skin was raw. My fingers would be stiff in the morning so I dipped my hands in the bait tank and then one by one I would have to open my fingers. Then our knees would get sore because they were braced against the rack.
We wore a pair of shorts and boots and sometimes we wore hats. When we went to Galápagos the water was fifty degrees and the wind blew like mad. It was very cold. We would put on an oil-skin coat and a hat and sometimes trousers. As the boat rolled we would be swamped with the swells and it was kind of hard to hold your footing. But the way the rack was built, we could put our toe underneath the rail to prevent us from floating off to sea. It was hard if the water was high and you had a fish on [the hook]. We had ninety and sometimes hundred pound limits put on us by the Fish and Game Warden but it was still three-pole and it was hard.
The trick was to get the fish lined up but they came from all directions, you never knew when they were going to hit. Their favorite way of coming was from under the boat heading straight out. They would grab the lure and just about pull your arms out of their sockets. You had to turn the tuna around but they kept swimming and the thing was to guide the tuna so that they helped, by swimming, to pull them up until you could get them out of the water. By then there would be enough momentum to lift the tuna up over the rail.
Most of the fishing was done with one pole. Especially on the coast. Sometimes the fish got to be twenty or thirty pounds.5
WRIGHT: Fishing in the racks like that, did you get sores, boils…?
SOLTESZ: Yes, you used to get itch, especially inside your legs, chaffing from your clothes. We never had fresh water on board other than to drink. We took all of our showers — bathing was in the saltwater. Of course we were standing in the water all day long. We would get chaffed. In the morning you put on your wet clothes that were soaked with saltwater and you always had saltwater, so your legs, especially where you had the pouch where the butt end of pole would rest, would chafe. You would press against that and would really get a chafe inside your thighs. Your knees would get banged up a little. If you were hurt on board ship that would just add to the misery. There were people who would get hurt, that was why I was able to get those fishing pictures6 because the only time anyone could take pictures was when they were hurt and they couldn’t perform in the rack.
WRIGHT: Hurt in what way?
SOLTESZ: They would have a broken arm or their hand would be ripped wide open and they couldn’t hold a pole. Those hooks were very dangerous.
WRIGHT: You could lose an eye!
SOLTESZ: Yes, you could. The only time I went overboard was on the Northwestern when I had a crewmember who had his eye poked out. He was so afraid of losing his other eye he had a mask that he wore. We were three-pole fishing and he didn’t see the fish coming up, grabbing at the lure, at the hook. I just got a flash of that gold and I held on, gripped the pole so much harder to make up for it — he didn’t see it and with just two of us holding on, the fish took the poles. I was holding on too hard and it happened too quick. I found myself in the water. That was the only time I went overboard.
WRIGHT: You were able to climb back on board?
SOLTESZ: I had a hat on, a varnished hat (this was in the Galápagos Islands), and as the boat drifted away the guy in the last rack saw my hat, picked it up, and there was I, underneath the hat. So he pulled me aboard.
WRIGHT: In talking to other guys who fished they said, when you have a school of fish up next to the boat it’s better for the man to go into the water but don’t let the pole go in the water by itself or the fish will go.
SOLTESZ: Yes, that’s the problem. You life wasn’t worth a nickel if you let go of your pole because if a fish swam through a school dragging one, or two, or three poles behind, it would spook the school and they would disperse. So that was the end and then, of course, you were a dirty word for doing that.
I never heard of anyone getting killed. We heard of people getting sick, having to be put ashore or being badly injured.
A lot of times men would get their hands stuck in the winch — the anchor winch. When they were launching the skiff to get bait, they used a winch. They used rope and if they got their hand tangled that would really ruin a hand real quick!
The other thing would be, some of the chummers would get hit on the head with a hook. Sometimes you would be pulling real hard and the hook would tear out of the fish’s mouth and it would swing way up and around. Of course, the idea was to try to stop its movement but you couldn’t always do it because if you were off balance you just couldn’t do too much. That hook would swing way back and up in the air and if the chummer had his head out from under the canopy he’d get hit on the head and it would crack his skull.
WRIGHT: You had really classic boats, all wooden boats.
SOLTESZ: There were all wood, they were sturdy little boats. How they got through those chubascos, I don’t know. Really, they were excellent boats, seaworthy boats.
I was injured here [pointing], I had a hook, hook me right behind the shoulder blade [under left arm]. Of course, we had no doctors aboard, no medical equipment. We all carried our own first-aid kit, which was a cigar box with a bottle of iodine, mercurichrome, band-aids, and liniment to take care of the sore hands and muscles. All we did then — they opened the wound up and poured some liniment in there [the shoulder]. It never did heal. It wasn’t until World War II on one of the boats where we had a doctor that they finally had to cut that out. The scar grew back and I had to go into the Marine hospital in San Francisco and have it taken out. They gave it an X-ray treatment. Since then it has been alright.
We all get banged up a little bit. But that was par for the course. You just keep on fishing. Unless you really were badly injured and you couldn’t do anything.
WRIGHT: I understand that when you found a school of fish you fished twenty-four hours a day until something happened to change it.
SOLTESZ: Right, if the fish were biting — fish would start biting at sunup and would stop at sundown. You wouldn’t even stop for meals — for lunch or anything.
The cooks made soup in these big aluminum tubs that were eighteen inches in diameter and maybe eighteen inches tall, big round aluminum tubs. We always had soup at lunchtime. He’d [the cook] be waiting there and about 3:00 if we didn’t stop to eat he would throw that overboard, never used it. He’d start dinner. He would probably make some cold sandwiches and hand them down to the racks in between as we went around and worked the school.
We would go into a school and then keep up with the fish but eventually as we were drifting at very slow speed with the propeller, we would kind of swing out of the school and then had to come around and make another try at the school.
During the time we were coming around, we moved fish from the deck behind the fishermen, up mid-ship, to make room for more fish to come aboard.
WRIGHT: Wasn’t there somebody on deck running them down into the hold?
SOLTESZ: No, we would stop. When the decks got too full, to where the fish started falling overboard, then we would stop fishing. We would all jump in and pass the fish forward.
I’d like to get back to the icing because that’s something interesting. When we left San Diego we would stop at the Union Ice dock near the B St. pier and they would grind up ice and blow it into the hold. They left a few of the wells empty so that when we caught fish, the fishermen would put on warm clothes, dry clothes, then go down and shave this ice and put a layer of ice on the deck [in the hold]. Then they’d lay the fish next to each other — pack it just as tight as they could.
WRIGHT: That must have been a hell of a job, with the boat bouncing around too!
SOLTESZ: Yes. They would scrap some more ice and put a layer of ice on top of that layer of fish and then they’d put another layer of fish. We would have to do that.
So, we would pass the fish forward to mid-ship and then go back into the school and fish some more until we couldn’t catch any more fish because they would fall overboard. Then the men would put on their warm clothes and go down and ice down the fish. Then we would come back up and do some more fishing. That would go on all day long, as long as the fish would bite.
At the time that I mention where we were losing all that fish [Chicken of the Sea], and that’s a big thing because that’s when the big technical change took place, we no longer used ice, we converted to brine. Now in brine, what we did, they made all the tanks waterproof so they wouldn’t leak. You would have a tank on each side on the ship, port and starboard, and back aft there were small tanks because the ship hull was very shallow and maybe carried three/four tons of fish in that area. As you worked forward the tanks got larger and larger until the last tanks forward would hold maybe 20 tons of fish (on a large boat). They converted them [the tanks] so that before leaving port we would fill those two large tanks (one on port and one on starboard side) with fresh water. We would add rock salt to it. We would do that because you could get a denser brine — so they told me — by adding rock salt to fresh water than you could to seawater. The seawater had other chemicals or something. So you could bring the temperature of that water down further than you could otherwise.
When we caught fish on a brine boat each well had a manhole on deck. All we would do as we moved around to re-approach the school was lift the manhole and slide the fish down the deck and plop down the manhole. The natural motion of the ship would make them all settle evenly.
WRIGHT: You didn’t need a man below?
SOLTESZ: No. We had seawater in there, refrigerated seawater. They would run it through refrigeration and cool it until we finished filling that well. Maybe we filled it in one day maybe it took a week to fill that well. But when we filled the well with fish then we sealed it with the manhole cover and then we would run that cold water, continually circulate it until the temperature stabilized at whatever they were doing, maybe about 32 degrees. And then they would pump that water overboard because that was seawater and it was full of slime and blood and everything that went with it. The fish would be clean and dry.
Then we would pump in the brine that we had mixed. We would pump that into the well and then we would circulate that for two or three days depending on the situation until it got down to about somewhere — unfortunately, I didn’t have anything to do with refrigeration per se so I just forgot — but it was somewhere between 28 and 30 degrees. They had to hold it within about a degree. It would move up and down about a degree.
Then after the two or three days, when the temperature stabilized and the tuna was all frozen, all clear through to the bone, then they would pump that brine water back into those holding tanks and then use it again later in the other tanks. The fish would be dry and we had coils in the tank that would hold the temperature.
WRIGHT: In other words, the fish were frozen solid but there was no moisture around them?
SOLTESZ: Once we pumped the water out it would be dry, frozen solid just like your frozen vegetables that you buy now — peas, carrots, and all that. It would last. That was one way of saving your fish.
Then, perhaps a day or two before we arrived in San Diego they would shut down the refrigeration and start pumping seawater through the well to start thawing the tuna out so the men could pick them apart. The fish would be frozen and stuck together. You couldn’t chop them apart because then you broke the skin and then the cannery wouldn’t take it.
WRIGHT: I heard stories that the canneries would reject fish and yet take them for fertilizer. Did you get that feeling?
SOLTESZ: At that time, when we were losing a lot of fish, of course, that was the feeling. So far as I know, to the best of my knowledge, they [the boats] did not get reimbursed for the fertilizer because they balanced that against the work that had to be done: unloading the fish, weighing it, and then sorting it, whatever they did.
WRIGHT: I heard that sometimes they had a thumb on the scales.
SOLTESZ: Well, this is possible although we always had someone up there from the crew watching the scale master. But you don’t know what they did to the scales inside. I wouldn’t know, I really couldn’t say, yes or no. There was always that feeling, of course.
WRIGHT: What were you getting paid for this?
SOLTESZ: If I remember, when I first started tuna was something like $35, $45 a ton. It got up to $95.7 I’m not sure whether we were getting $140 by the time I finished or if that was after the war.
WRIGHT: How much money would you make on a trip?
SOLTESZ: I was making about $300 — and that would be on a two month trip. So that would be $150 a month. Each trip it seemed I was making more, I was always getting on better boats. On the Endeavor, that last trip, I made $1,200 in forty-two days. That was good money.
Of course, the Portuguese and Italian fishermen were the wealthy people in town. Point Loma was all Portuguese and they had beautiful homes out there, mansions. The Italians were in the Five Points area, India Street, and around there. They all drove beautiful cars, had nice homes, and were very well-to- do.
WRIGHT: And you were just making it?
SOLTESZ: I did well, I did very well too. There was no work ashore. If you went to the CCC’s [Civilian Conservation Corps] or something like that you got what was considered cigarette money. I remember my father, if he made $25 a week, he could have supported us like kings. He was lucky to make $12 a week in his last years.
WRIGHT: December 7, 1941 came along. What happened then?
SOLTESZ: Well, we were coming home and we were probably off Ensenada. I was trying to send a message in to the coast station to let the cannery know we would arrive the next day. The coast station wouldn’t take the message and he [station radio operator] told us to stop transmitting and get off the air. He said “we are at war, Pearl Harbor was bombed.”
Back in those days, no one knew where Pearl Harbor was. No one traveled, it was depression days. You were lucky if you knew what the next state was!
Pearl Harbor? I told the skipper, I said, “we’re at war, they tell me. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.”
He said, “where’s Pearl Harbor?”
“Beats the heck out of me, I don’t know, but they bombed it, we’re at war and I can’t send a message!”
So we all got scared. No one ever thought of war. We didn’t know what to do but just instinct told us, that night, to turn all the lights out. Everybody slept on deck. We all sat at the rails, looking out, looking for submarines. You know how you’re mind works at times.
The next morning we arrived off Tijuana, off the bull ring, and we were met by three destroyers. They came up to us and told us to stop. They wouldn’t tell us anything, they had their guns trained on us. We thought, “holy mackerel! What’s happening?”
So, we waited, just drifting there. Pretty soon we saw a carrier come down the channel. I think it was the Lexington. She came down the channel full speed — you head south when you go out the channel — and then she made that turn, she was laying way over when she made the turn, heading for Hawaii.
They let us come on in. That night I went to the bar across from the hotel, the Golden West Hotel. I used to get a room there. That was a nice hotel back in those days, around the plaza there. We went to the bar and we heard some Marines talking. They had been loading airplanes all night long on the Lexington, getting her ready to ship out to Hawaii.
That was the end. We unloaded. The skipper told me I might as well go back to Los Angeles, visit with my mother. “I’ll send you a telegram or call you when it’s time to come back. We don’t know but there’s some talk that the Navy is going to confiscate the ships.”
WRIGHT: Which boat was this?
SOLTESZ: That was one of the top boats, the Endeavor. We sat around. We unloaded in December. I guess by the time we got a place in line, we probably unloaded by the 15th of the month. I went up to Los Angeles. Nothing happened.
Finally, in February, [the skipper] called me, “you better get down here real quick, be here by tonight and get your stuff off the boat because the Navy is taking it over.”
When I went down there I tried to enlist in the Navy but they found out I had only one good eye so they wouldn’t take me.
WRIGHT: How about the draft?
SOLTESZ: I was 1C or something like that because I was supporting my mother. The Navy wasn’t taking a lot of people in (right away). When we knew that was it then I got a call from the union in San Francisco telling me they had a troop ship that was manned by merchant seamen, and they needed radio operators. I went up there and eventually joined the United States Maritime Service. I was commissioned a Lieutenant j.g.
WRIGHT: Going back to tuna fishing, I understand that they were kind of superstitious. Ever notice that?
SOLTESZ: The only thing superstitious that I understood, became aware of, was that they loved the porpoise, the dolphin. It went back to the old story where in the Azores or somewhere a fisherman lost his boat and he was by himself. The dolphin came along and swam under him and carried him on his back to shore.
The dolphin was like a saint to the fishermen. We never, ever, that I know of in my five years, ever injured a porpoise. Although the porpoise and fish swam together in schools they weren’t exactly one on top of the other. A good skipper would go around the porpoise and circle around the school of porpoise to find where we should chum and see where the fish would start coming to the boat. We would stay with them [the tuna].
The porpoise wouldn’t even come near us. Apparently, they didn’t like the lures. Our lures, our hooks, had feathers and catgut wrapped around them and when they got wet they looked like squid in the water. That apparently was a delicacy for the tuna. The porpoise didn’t care for it. I don’t know what the porpoise ate.
WRIGHT: The whole thing changed when the purse seiners came in.8
SOLTESZ: Unfortunately, yes.
WRIGHT: We are about out of tape here. Let me thank you for the Historical Society for this interview.
Thank you very much.
SOLTESZ: Very good. It was my pleasure.
Edward Soltesz spent four more years at sea. Commissioned in World War II as a Lieutenant (j.g.) in the U.S. Maritime Service, he served aboard merchant ships and troop transports as a radio-telegraph operator. His service took him from Alaska to New Zealand and Australia, to India, Korea, and dozens of islands and atolls in the south and west Pacific Ocean.
1. WWV time signals came from Fort Collins, Colorado, National Bureau of Standards.
2. There was tacit agreement among the radio operators that breaking each other’s secret code was not only a challenge, but a part of their normal and expected routine.
3. With the outbreak of World War II, the Endeavor was taken over by the United States Navy for use as a supply ship. On October 25, 1942, the Endeavor was attacked by Japanese destroyers in the South Pacific and sunk. See San Diego Union, 30 August 1945.
4. The bamboo came raw from Japan. The fishermen had to fashion them into usable poles.
5. “We would usually start fishing with one pole unless we could spot the tuna near the surface and identify them as two or three-polers. If the fish were too large or biting very rapidly, we would switch to two-pole. When they became even larger, we would switch to three-pole. In the Galapagos Islands, we would be pretty certain to start with two-pole or three-pole.
One pole could handle up to approximately 45 pounds if the fish were biting slowly. Two-pole would handle between 45 and 90 pounds, and three-pole thereafter. The deciding factor was the strength, weight, and experience of the fisherman; also, how tired they were from fishing, and weather conditions.”
6. Edward S. Soltesz, Pole Fishing for Tuna, 1937-1941, 20 min., videocassette, Research Archives, San Diego History Center.
7. Between 1937 and 1941, the average annual price paid to west coast fishing boats ranged from $5.35 to $6.32 a pound for yellowfin tuna. Actual prices paid at the canneries fluctuated, depending upon current market conditions and the condition of the fish. See Department of Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, Survey of the Domestic Tuna Industry by A. W. Anderson and W. H. Stolting, Special Scientific Report: Fisheries No. 104, 1952.
8. Following World War II, many fisherman experimented with nets as an alternative to labor-intensive pole fishing. By the early 1960s, most of the local fleet had turned to seine-net fishing. Seining, particularly in the early years of its use, often killed great numbers of porpoise. Modern techniques have reduce the mortality to porpoise. See Michael K. Orbach, Hunters, Seamen, and Entrepreneurs: The Tuna Seinermen of San Diego (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977).
Edward Soltesz left the tuna industry with the outbreak of World War II and served as a radio-telegraph operator for the U.S. Merchant Marines. Following the war, Mr. Soltesz worked briefly for KSDJ (now KCBQ) radio in San Diego, before embarking upon a thirteen year career with General Dynamics, Convair Division, as an Avionics engineer. In 1962, he left General Dynamics to begin a second career as a financial planner. He has lectured and conducted classes on financial planning and is the author of the book, Retire in Style: The Lifetime Security Planning Guide. Mr. Soltesz is now retired and resides near Las Vegas, Nevada.