By Clark Fair
Even a short list of Bill Tingley’s accomplishments is impressive.
When the ARCO Juneau — the first tanker filled with crude oil from Prudhoe Bay — pulled out of the Port of Valdez in early August 1977, Capt. William “Bill” Tingley was piloting the vessel. After the state of Alaska created regulations to control its own marine commerce in 1969, Capt. Tingley initially received License No. 0001. When Seaman 1st Class Tingley was a gunner during the Normandy Invasion on June 6, 1944, he offered cover fire and was later given credit for helping to capture a German soldier.
But after a life of doing and of constant movement, Tingley, now 86 and living with his wife, Wilema, in senior housing in Soldotna, says he’s happy just to be in one place. Although both Tingleys have been struggling with health problems — Bill has had two strokes, while Wilema is suffering from degenerative vision — Tingley himself seems content.
“Now I’m interested in taking care of my wife. It’s the best job I ever had. I’m her eyes, and she’s my brain, helping me with things I don’t remember or I forget,” he said.
His long life has been mostly one in motion.
William Arnold Tingley was born April 16, 1925, in Attleboro, Mass. He said he remained in Massachusetts until he “couldn’t stand it anymore,” and at 17 enlisted in the U.S. Navy. The year was 1942, and by the middle of 1944 he found himself aboard the Francis D. Culkin — a military cargo vessel often called a liberty ship — churning toward Cherbourg, France, as part of D-Day.
On one of the days that followed, after American troops had captured the beach and scared away all the foreign laborers that the German army had left behind, he was surprised to see what appeared to be a lone German soldier racing his way down the beach.
“Here comes this one kid running toward the ship with his hands held high,” Tingley said. “And he was scared to death he was going to get shot, you know, because he was supposed to stay with the gang. Fortunately we had some boys in the Navy crew who could speak their native tongue, the same language (Polish, in this case) as our prisoner.
“So we fed him and gave him cigarettes and were nice to the poor guy because he was conscripted. He wasn’t in the army because he wanted to be; it was either that or get shot. Then the authorities came and took him away. That was our big deal. We captured a German prisoner.”
Tingley’s term of service lasted only two years, three months and 27 days because he contracted rheumatic fever and “our great government” — a phrase he uses frequently and sardonically — wouldn’t allow him back in the military.
After two months of R&R in a Florida military hospital, he received the bad news.
“They told me I was getting discharged, and I assumed it was out of the hospital. And I was greatly surprised when it was plumb out of the Navy,” he said.
He even lost his partial disability pension because, he said, he was told that he was not “disabled to a compensatory degree.”
So Tingley searched for another niche to fill: He became a brakeman for the Southern Pacific Railroad. He got married for the first time. He moved around the country. Finally, he learned that he could return to sea as a member of the U.S. Merchant Marine.
“I never mentioned the Navy or anything to ’em,” he said. “They didn’t ask; I didn’t tell ’em. Anybody who’d go to work in those days was great.”
Quickly, he became a seaman first class and began rising in rank, all the way to earning an inland waters master’s (or
captain’s) license. Then he went to work for the Chevron Shipping Company, a marine division of Standard Oil of California, and had to start all over again because Chevron shipped in the open ocean, and his license didn’t count out there.
Once again, he climbed the ranks — able seaman, third mate of the ocean, second mate, chief mate and then master of ocean unlimited (meaning any ocean, any tonnage). Eventually, Tingley became a company pilot — and that promotion led him up and down the Pacific Coast and eventually to Alaska.
A pilot’s primary job is to go aboard vessels for which “pilotage” is required, and from the bridge direct the ship in and out of safe harbor. A pilot is in charge of steering, speed and all navigation, while the ship’s captain remains on board to make certain that the pilot’s orders are carried out.
By the early 1960s, Tingley had formed what he thought was an equal partnership with William L. “Bill” Johnson, another pilot working for Chevron. The two of them had pioneered numerous routes into Alaska waters, and Johnson had already quit Chevron and moved to Homer to start a piloting company called Alaska Marine Pilots. In 1964, Tingley moved north to join him, and he was not happy with the “equality” he perceived in their business arrangement.
It turned out, he said, that Johnson was in charge, while Tingley became more of an employee who “did all the dirty work” and had to “squawk” to get any raises in pay.
And just as his Alaska piloting career was off to a rocky start, his marriage became rocky, too. His wife did not like their new home, and after four years in the state said that she had had enough.
“She had no use for Alaska or any of the people in it,” Tingley said. “I just said, ‘Well, the best thing for you to do is go back where you come from, and enjoy yourself and leave me alone, ’cause I am staying.’ I had it all on the line. I had quit Standard Oil — a good lifetime job, company pilot and all that stuff — and, for the first time, she took my advice, and left. Then I divorced her for desertion, which was easy to get in Alaska.”
But Tingley was not alone for long. At Land’s End in Homer he had met Wilema, a single mother who was working as a waitress there and whose husband had died when they were living in Kodiak a few years earlier. Wilema, of mixed Blackfoot and Scots-Irish descent, had grown up near Browning, Mont., on the Blackfoot Reservation.
“Three days after I was divorced, we got married, Willie and I,” Tingley said. “She needed a husband. I needed a wife.”
Each of them brought three children to this 1968 marriage, and Bill worked his piloting duties hard to help keep his family in groceries.
When the state Department of Commerce began issuing Alaska marine pilot’s licenses in 1969, Tingley sent in his $100. In
the mail arrived a receipt dated Aug. 22 granting him the state’s No. 1 license. Within a very short time, however, two other pilots (including Johnson) complained that they should have license numbers higher than Tingley’s. The department asked him if he would mind changing numbers.
Because only the license itself, and not the number on it, was important to him, Tingley said, he agreed to appease what he termed “a couple of crybabies.” And so he became licensee No. 3.
In 1975, he and five other men — Jim Hurd, Bob Glud, John Cunningham, Jerry Robinson and Ed Murphy — formed their own piloting company, the Southwest Alaska Pilots’ Association. He offered a full share in the new company to Johnson, despite the way he felt he had been treated. Johnson turned him down.
“He said, ‘No, I’m not going to work for you dinks.’” Tingley said that Johnson promised to run SWAPA out of business, but in the end it was Johnson’s business that faltered.
According to Hurd, who still lives in Homer, SWAPA succeeded because, “That’s where the talent was.”
He praised the competency of Tingley’s piloting skills and said that SWAPA “opened up the commerce of Alaska in those days.”
The SWAPA pilots began by serving all of Alaska, including trips all the way to the Red Dog Mine near Nome, and gradually narrowed their scope to mainly Southcentral and Southwest, including Cook Inlet, Prince William Sound, Bristol Bay and beyond. In Cook Inlet, they served ports in Homer, Anchorage, Seldovia, Port Graham, Nikiski, Drift River and Tyonek. They also served Kodiak, and in Prince William Sound they served Whittier, Valdez, Cordova and Yakutat, among others.
“Any place anybody wanted to go where there was enough water, we took ’em,” Tingley said.
Many times, they had to establish the routes by testing them out personally for tides, wind, rocks, weather patterns, ship
sizes and potential cargo loads.
They stayed plenty busy.
“When things were going huckledy-buck in Valdez, we’d have four pilots over there,” Tingley said. “They had four terminals, and you had to be able to cover everything.”
Although SWAPA is still going strong, Tingley retired in 1991. For a change of pace and to be closer to many of their children, he and Wilema moved to Arizona, where Tingley made extra money with real estate transactions.
On March 6, 2009, they returned to the peninsula, choosing to live in unfamiliar Soldotna rather than in a changed Homer. A daughter lives only a few blocks away now, and several other children and grandchildren are scattered throughout the peninsula.
These days, a bad back keeps Bill Tingley sitting more than on the move, but he’s just fine with the pace.
And with some satisfaction, he can look back on a career in which he was a pacesetter.