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Employee Portrait Gallery—Emerson Hiller

spacer Employee Portrait of the Week - Emerson Hiller

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Emerson Hiller stands on the bridge of R/V Knorr during Voyage 73 in 1978-79. He wrote an article about the trip for Woods Hole Notes (predecessor of today’s Woods Hole Currents) entitled “Voyage to the Ice.” (Photo by Rob Goldsborough)


Emerson Hiller joined WHOI as master of R/V Chain in 1959. He became first master of the new ship Atlantis II in 1963, and then he moved to Knorr upon its delivery in 1970. Captain Hiller’s seamanship and skill at working with scientists to accomplish any mission, often conducting experiments never done before, were known throughout the oceanographic community. So were his off-hours skills.

Grandson of a whaling captain, Emerson enrolled in Mass Maritime’s predecessor after graduation from Fairhaven High School in 1936. During World War II, at age 24, he was the youngest man to earn an unlimited master’s license and the youngest to take command of a liberty ship. He returned to the merchant marine after the war and later tried working ashore for a couple of years in the 1950s. But he missed going to sea. Serving as master of the Fisheries research vessel Albatross III in 1958 introduced him to research at sea. When that ship was laid up, he spent a few months aboard a coastwise oil tanker before joining WHOI.

According to many letters assembled for a notebook when he retired in 1983, Captain Hiller trained up many a green chief scientist. Though he claimed his interest in the ocean extended down only 18 feet to be sure there was enough water for the ship, he was also engaged by the research being done aboard his ships and willing to roll up his sleeves to see that it succeeded. And he was willing to firmly remind the chief scientist when it was time to quit and head for shelter or home.

More than one crewman said he’d prefer to have Hiller’s hand on the wheel (or joystick, in Knorr’s case) in difficult times. The letter from A-II Chief Engineer John Bizzozero (“Johnny B”) described one of those times, an encounter with “the wave of all waves” in 1964 between Bermuda and the Azores. “The vessel, laboring heavily in gale force winds, shuddered and literally stopped on impact, as tons of water came on deck. As water came cascading down the ladders and passageway, I remember ascending to the bridge to find the following: Seven wheelhouse windows broken, water washing from one side of the wheelhouse to the other, the third mate with a . . . lacerated eye from flying glass, the helmsman with a broken leg at the wheel, and Emerson Hiller with cuts on his neck and throat, blood streaming down on his clothes, turning the vessel around to run before it.” The wave was estimated at 40 feet, damages totaled $24,000, and the broken leg was the worst injury.

Over his 24 years at sea for WHOI, Captain Hiller was host to many dignitaries. Howard Sanders and George Hampson named a deep-sea clam for him and its resemblance to his profile. He was called upon to be master of ceremonies for Director Paul Fye’s grand retirement party. This tall man was a large figure in WHOI history.













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