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Column: Life at sea provided oceans of memories
Johnny Vardeman

You might say Fred Hulsey’s exciting and adventurous life started when he was 13 years old.  Fred had to drop out of school to help support his mother and his eight siblings after their father died.

He picked cotton and plowed a mule on their small farm in the Mossy Creek area of White County. On Valentine’s Day 1941, the family home burned, leaving 16-year-old Fred with only the clothes he was wearing.

He joined the Civil Conservation Corps, one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s programs to provide jobs in conservation projects. The CCC camp in Gainesville was located near the end of Rainey Street in the vicinity of the present Gainesville High School.

The CCC transferred him to Nevada and then to California, where he was when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He left the CCC to help build submarines for the U.S. Navy. Fred says he always wanted to go to sea, so he hitchhiked to Mobile, Alabama, to join the Merchant Marines, starting a 39-year career that provided him with enough stories to pass down to his family for a lifetime.

Merchant mariners were in American convoys crossing the Atlantic to supply allied troops. He witnessed ships being torpedoed and dive-bombed. On one such trip, an enemy torpedo just missed the bow of his ship and struck another one nearby.

When World War II ended, Hulsey’s ship was in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Other seamen in port were celebrating. A brawl broke out when some British Royal Navy sailors had to board his ship from theirs to get to shore. After it was all over, the British and Americans went ashore and continued their celebration peacefully together.

His roommate on one voyage off the coast of Romania fought with another sailor over two packs of cigarettes. The other sailor ended up dead, and Fred’s roommate hid out ashore for a week, delaying his ship’s departure.

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Fred Hulsey served 39 years with the Merchant Marines, which provided him with enough stories to pass down to his family for a lifetime. Photo courtesy Clay Hulsey

Another time, Fred’s ship ran into a hurricane in the north Atlantic. Damaged, the ship headed to the Azores where it took more than two days to make repairs. Yet another hurricane struck his ship, causing a fire that forced it to head to Spain. The crew had to flood the cargo hold to extinguish the fire. The efforts of Fred and his crew earned the ship an Admiral of the Seas award and a trip to New York City for a banquet in their honor.

Hulsey was the last person to see a passenger disappear on one of his voyages. The Canadian woman, wearing a long dress, was at breakfast and had a disagreement over the oatmeal she was served. She got up and left through a passageway, never to be seen again. They searched the vessel and the surrounding sea to no avail.

During all his journeys and adventures, Fred found time to take correspondence courses to complete his high school education. Then he studied engineering, qualifying as a licensed engineer and advancing to chief engineer.

After his career at sea, he became chief engineer for a firm in Baltimore, Maryland.

In retirement since 1983 in Banks County, Fred has done a little gardening, but at 98 years of age next month and having to use a walker, he answered “nothing,” when asked what he does now. Even if that were true, he’s packed decades of memories into a very interesting life.

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Fred Hulsey, who turns 98 this month, has resided in Banks County since his retirement in 1983. Photo courtesy Clay Hulsey
A store-y book wedding

Gussie Rogers was born in Hiawassee, Georgia, but Lake Chatuge covered the family farm, and they eventually ended up on a farm in Clermont. She got a job at Millner’s, a clothing store on the Main Street side of Gainesville’s downtown square.

Fred Hulsey came home to Clermont in 1954 on a break from sea duty. He and Gussie met, eventually deciding to marry. Gussie’s co-workers suggested the wedding be at Millner’s on a Wednesday afternoon when stores around the square traditionally closed. A minister would be handy as the Rev. Roger Tankersley also worked at Millner’s. Store owners decorated the store for the occasion.

Gussie and Fred Hulsey will celebrate 68 years of marriage Aug. 24. The Hulseys are the parents of two sons, Clay and the late Carey Hulsey.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; 770-532-2326; or His column publishes weekly.