Capt. William J. Atkinson, a merchant seaman whose career spanned the twilight of sailing ships to the age of the supertanker, died Saturday at his home in Essex of liver cancer. He was 80.
He retired in 1975 after a last voyage aboard the SS Seamar, ending a career that began in 1931 when he joined the USS Newport, a three-masted barkentine, at the Brooklyn, N.Y., Navy Yard while a cadet at the New York State Merchant Marine Academy.
He was born in Ellenberg Center, N.Y., where he attended local schools. He graduated from high school in Bloomingdale, N.Y., in 1930.
In 1933, after graduating from the maritime academy, he earned his third mate's license and signed on to a freighter. He got his master's license in July 1944 and held an active license at his death.
During World War II, he was a second mate on the M. T. William C. McTanahan when the ship was torpedoed and shelled by a German submarine in the Gulf of Mexico in June 1942 on a voyage from New York to Port Isabel, Texas.
In a memoir about the attack, Captain Atkinson wrote, "Soon after being relieved I went below to my room and had just started to undress for bed when the first torpedo struck, followed within seconds by the second torpedo. At the second strike all the lights went out and the ship took a heavy list to starboard. I ran to my lifeboat station aft. . . . The bos'n, Thomas W. Murray, came to the boat deck and I asked: 'Are you OK Boats?' His reply was 'Look at this' and held up his arms. The skin of his arms and hands had peeled off like a long pair of gloves and was hanging from his finger tips, a sight one does not soon forget."
The ship was towed to a yard and rebuilt.
During the war, Captain Atkinson commanded ships of the U.S. merchant marine and Army Transport Service.
In 1960, he became master of the National Defender, at 810 feet long and 104 feet wide the largest tanker to fly the U.S. flag at the time. Built at the Newport News, Va., Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co., the vessel could carry 500,000 barrels of petroleum.
Fred Hicks of Virginia Beach, Va., who sailed on the National Defender for five years and was chief steward and purser, said, "I didn't know any finer master than Captain Atkinson. How many captains, after 30 years, would keep in touch with you? But he did. He was like a father to me. We used to do several 90-day, around-the-world trips each year. In a letter to him before he died, I wrote, 'Remember all those sunsets we had together?' "
Captain Atkinson, who was also interested in heraldry and genealogy, became acquainted with Sir Walter J. Verco, head of the College of Arms in London, which presented him in 1956 with a grant of arms. In 1967, he purchased a title that had lapsed into disuse and became known as the Lord of the Manor of North Benfleet of Essex County, England.
During retirement, he became a 32nd degree Mason, was active in the Scottish and York Rite Masonic bodies, and was Most Illustrious Grand Master of York Rite Commandery No. 1 from 1990 to 1991.
He had served aboard Liberty ships and was a volunteer for the restoration of the SS John Brown at Pier 1, at the foot of Clinton Street in Baltimore, aboard which a memorial service is to be held at 2 p.m. Oct. 16.
He is survived by his wife of 41 years, the former Gertrude Knapike; two sons, William J. Atkinson Jr. of Boston and Thomas G. Atkinson of Linthicum; a daughter, Elizabeth Levenson of Houston; and two sisters, Eleanor McKillip of Saranac Lake, N.Y., and Grace Brewster of Bloomingdale.
The family suggested memorial contributions to Project Liberty Ship, P.O. Box 25846, Baltimore 21224-0846.