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“Dealing with Ships is a Different World”—Maritime Difficulties in the Azores

The work of a Foreign Service Officer is rarely quiet or uneventful, and often involves navigating tricky relationships between the laws of the country in which one is posted and the interests of the United States. Adding in the rules, both written and unwritten, of the maritime world only complicates matters when an officer gets posted at a coastal site.

Ponta Delgada (2003) | Feliciano Guimarães, WikiMedia Commons
Ponta Delgada (2003) | Feliciano Guimarães, WikiMedia Commons

James McGunnigle arrived in the Portuguese-held autonomous territory of the Azores islands in 1966 as a newly-minted Foreign Service Officer. As he navigated his new career, the ports of Ponta Delgada brought unexpected challenges to his daily work. Along the coast, any number of ships from any number of countries could stop by to refuel, dock, or seek assistance. With each new arrival, the specifics could vary wildly, leaving those in the consulate to manage new issues in their wake.

In this “Moment in U.S. Diplomatic History,” McGunnigle recounts a few of his more memorable experiences with the ships that marked the coastline of his very first posting abroad. He discusses covert oil spills from docking ships and the implications of the laws of the sea with a death onboard a vessel.

James McGunnigle’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on December 8, 2017.

Read James McGunnigle’s full oral history HERE.

Drafted by Miranda Allegar

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“. . . there was always some new problem.”

Image of an Oil Spill (2017), National Park Service
Image of an Oil Spill (2017), National Park Service

Fueling Malfunctions: Well, at that time there were groups of ships that would stop by on their way to assignments to the Mediterranean fleet. The ships would change about every three or four months. The destroyers would come back, and they would all stop in the Azores to fuel. Whenever they did, there was always some problem. I remember one story where there was an officer who was newly appointed to grade commodore. Commodore was just above a captain, and the commodore commanded the three destroyers. They came in, and I was acting Principal Officer in the consulate because the Consul was on leave. So I took the Commodore to meet the Portuguese authorities as is customary protocol. Then he went back to the ship, and said, “We’re going to be out of here during the night.” So, during the night, the phone rings. It’s two o’clock in the morning, and it’s this commodore. He said, “Jim, I’ve got a real problem here. The pumps for the fuel just aren’t working fast enough. They’re going to delay my departure, and I’m a little pissed off. I’d like you to do something about that.” Oh really? So I walked down to the port and into the port command, and said, “What’s going on?” He says, “Well these are the pumps we have. Everybody knows what size these pumps are and the speed at which they operate. That’s all we can do.” So I told the commodore, and he told me how disappointed he was in me. I should have done a better job and blah blah blah. The next morning at nine o’clock—because I had been up all night, I’m strolling to work in the consulate—I looked down, and the fleet is still there! I went down. What had happened was that one of the fuel tanks was full of sea water, but they had put this big hose on that tank and kept pumping oil into the tank—it’s a black oil that they burned in the ships in those days—the tank had leaked and the oil had flooded the whole port. It was awash in black water. I said, “What are you going to do about that?” He said, “I don’t know, but don’t tell anybody.” He got his men out and they put down lines to contain the oil, so it would stay in one corner of the port. They actually got out there in small boats with pails to pick this stuff up. They hired tanker trucks to take it away; it took them a couple of days. So, we were giggling a little bit about that. Another destroyer came in and hit a container ship and knocked a hole in the side—that had to be settled.

Rescue Trips: A ship came in during a storm, an American freighter, not a warship. One of the members of the crew was having a heart attack. So the captain of the ship decided to not wait for the port pilot, since it was during the night. He was just going to charge in and get that crewman on the shore so he could get to a hospital. Well, he went up on the rocks, right on the seawall of the small town. Standing on a sidewalk, and you could look up and see the ship. Then the man died. Also, they used to station a Greek sea-going tug in the Azores year-round, just to wait for something awful to happen. Then the tug could charge you a lot of money for a rescue. So, the ship is on the rocks; can’t get off; the rudder is broken; the dead guy is on the ship. The crew all get off the ship and fly home. They put the dead guy in the freezer, and then the Greek tug tows the ship to Lisbon for repairs; total disaster. We had a lot of those. We had a ship blow up right off the port once—broken into two parts. The Greek tug went out, brought one half in, and docked it. The tug went out for the other half of the ship, but then the Portuguese port authority said, “Whatever was on that ship that caused the explosion is still on that ship. I don’t think we want to bring any other parts of that vessel in here.” The Greek has already gone out and he has a rope tow on the other half of the ship, which is still floating. They said, “You can’t bring it into port. It’s bad enough there’s one half here already. So then the tug owners decided they had to sink it. It’s a law of the sea that once you’ve got a ship under your control, you can’t let go of it; then it becomes a hazard. So they asked the U.S. Navy if they would sink, but the Navy refused. They put a bomb on it, but the bomb was a dud. So finally a British submarine comes in, and they sink it, you know, right down to the bottom.

Q: Dealing with ships is a different world.


B.A. in Political Science, Hofstra University 1958–1962
M.A. from the Maxwell School, Syracuse University
Joined the Foreign Service 1993
Ponta Delgada, Azores—Visa Officer 1966–1969
Quito, Ecuador—General Services Officer 1969–1972
Cairo, Egypt—Administrative Counselor 1988–1991
Paris, France—Administrative Counselor 1991–1995