top of page

The Bessells of Port Washington 

by Chip Behal

Authors note: Matthew Bessell, a descendant of Port Washington residents, donated to CNPHS an archive of material relating to his father, Bob Bessell, and grandfather, Wesley S. Bessell, Sr. He also recorded a video interview with his father Bob regarding his service during World War II. That interview, recorded in June 2010 on his parents’ 64th wedding anniversary, now resides in the Library of Congress as part of the Veterans History Project. Subsequently, CNPHS President Chris Bain interviewed Bob about his recollections of events in the Port Washington area. Then in 2023, Bob was interviewed by local podcasters discussing primarily his wartime recollections. This article incorporates some of the elements from all three interviews, the archive, and additional research.

Matthew Bessell’s grandfather, Wesley S. Bessell, Sr.

Matthew Bessell’s father, Wesley S. Bessell, Jr.

Wesley S. Bessell, Jr., known as “Bob”, was born in Hahnemann Hospital in Manhattan in 1921, though his family lived in Port Washington at the time. Bob graduated from Port Washington High School. He quarterbacked the football team in 1938, and in 1939 was painted by his Beacon Hill neighbor, well-known illustrator Jack Sheridan, for the cover of the Saturday Evening Post’s 1939 World’s Fair Issue (April 22, 1939). The cover shows Bob waving his hat. 

In 1937, when Bob was 15, he skipped school on May Day and went to a beach on the other side of Beacon Hill. He “borrowed” a canoe and paddled out to a big black yacht off Glen Cove. Bob described it as diamonds flickering on the black hull as the sunlit water reflected off her. Bob paddled that little canoe around the bow and saw a work crew of about six guys painting her. He said to the crew, “Hey, I’ll swap ya’ even.” One of the crew, a big, black-haired guy replied, “Oh, a wise guy, huh?” Things were tense for a moment, but then everyone laughed it off.

Then the big guy said, “Hey, wise guy, do you want a job?” Bob asked, “Where?” The crewman replied, “Here.”   This was the Depression, and Bob said yes.  He was told to be at the New York Yacht Club landing in Glen Cove on Saturday morning at 9:00 a.m. and meet the Chief Mate. That Saturday, Bob’s mother drove him over to the NYYC landing, he had his interview, and he was given a berth aboard the yacht for a trip to England across the Atlantic. That boat turned out to be J.P. Morgan’s yacht, Corsair IV.

Corsair IV in Vancouver, B.C. in 1948, repurposed as a cruise ship and sporting a white hull.

Among Bob’s duties during that voyage was rising early to wash salt water off the decks and to chamois down the varnished brightwork. He didn’t have to polish the brass because it was coated in Cosmoline (a waxy petroleum-based corrosion inhibitor) during the trip. After he finished washing and wiping, he would go to the gyro (navigation) room on the starboard side of the yacht (which was the south-facing side heading to England) and lie on the cabin sole in the warmth of the sun and have a snooze. At 15 years old, the crew allowed him that indulgence. 

One of Bob’s early girlfriends was Ruth Bayles, whose family-owned Bayles’ Drug Store. Near the drug store was Zeidel’s men’s clothing store which served a clientele including gentlemen and, in particular, yachtsmen. [Author’s note: In Port Washington, if you needed formal yachting attire such as a yacht club patch for your blazer, fresh white pants for Race Committee duty, or a yacht club burgee insignia for your hat, you went to Zeidel’s.]

 

After Bob returned from his Corsair adventure, he went to Zeidel’s and got a job as a captain on Harry Doniger’s wheeler-yacht Hershey. He took the Donigers[i] to various locations including Lake Champlain, Nantucket, and Block Island.

Bob was intrigued by the flying boats and the hangars he saw near Manorhaven, and one day he said to his mother, “I wanna fly.” One Sunday, his mother, instead of driving to Beacon Hill, drove to the hangars. The crew outfitted Bob in a raincoat and a helmet, and Bob could see the plane bouncing around on the water, and he said, “I don’t think I want to fly.” His mother said, “You’re gonna fly.” And up he went. As time went on, Bob would see the PanAm flying boats in Manhasset Bay. When he was captaining the Hershey, he would see patrol boats clearing the harbor so the big flying boats could land and then taxi to the pier by the hangars on Manhasset Isle. The passengers in those days were well-dressed. The men wore suits and ties, and the ladies wore dresses. You didn’t fly in blue jeans in those days. Bob also recalled seeing the Graf Zeppelin as it flew down Long Island Sound. It was a weekly occurrence.

 

When Bob was 16, his next-door neighbor on Fairview Ave., Stanley Fenton, owned a butter and egg company. Fenton hired Bob, who had a driver’s license, to handle his route on Long Island all the way to Montauk so he could go on vacation for two weeks. Bob figures he messed up the orders pretty good since he was never again asked to cover the route.

When Bob was growing up, the sandpits were still operating, but some areas of the pits were idle. Bob said he used to shoot at ducks up there in the idle section from a place that had surveyor’s marks on it called Nanny-goat Hill, but he was not particularly successful. He went up there with a couple of his nephews one day, and he had his .22 rifle with him. One of his nephews challenged Bob to shoot a coffee can lid that he tossed in the air. Bob just took what he called a “reflex shot” – no aiming; he just pointed and shot – and put a hole right through the center of the lid. Bob recalled that incident as the moment he knew that if the country went to war, he did not want to be looking at another person through his gunsight. That was why he decided to enlist in the Merchant Marine. He wouldn’t have to shoot anybody.

Bob was living with his parents in Port Washington when he enlisted in the United States Maritime Service (USMS), aka the Merchant Marine, in 1941. Having a job on a ship was a big deal coming out of the Depression. Bob said he joined the USMS in order to have what he expected would be more autonomy than if he joined the Navy. He didn’t want some Bosun’s mate telling him what to do. He attended training at Hoffman Island[i] off Staten Island in Lower New York Harbor. The bombing of Pearl Harbor occurred while Bob was attending that training. He was in Section 32. They were to have received seven months of training, and at the conclusion of that training, the men would obtain their Able-bodied Seaman’s (AB) papers and their Lifeboat

Vema-2.jpeg

Hoffman Island, merchant marine training center off Staten Island, New York. Trainees climbing to the tops of the schooner Vema.

papers. After Pearl Harbor, the training was shortened to four months. Because of his experience on the Corsair, Bob got a position on the training vessel Vema, a three-masted schooner that operated on and around Long Island Sound. Section 32 trainees were sequestered in the Sloane House (similar to a YMCA) under lock and key. Then they were shipped out from the New Jersey side of the port on tankers that were trying to evade a fleet of German U-boats that were sinking commercial shipping traffic along the East Coast.

Over the course of his maritime service, Bob attained rank of Lieutenant Commander in the USMS. He made 14 trips back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean and one trip on the Pacific. On his first trans-Atlantic voyage as an AB at age 21, bound for the Red Sea/Persian Gulf with railroad materiel, his ship SS West Hardaway was torpedoed off Grenada by the U-502 under command of Jürgen von Rosenstiel on June 15,1942, just a day's sail from Trinidad. All hands survived the attack. The crew sailed and rowed four lifeboats to Margarita Island off Venezuela. From there, they went to Trinidad and were subsequently flown on a C-3 back to Florida. Bob was then put on a train to New York. He received a ribbon for that action in September 1942 while studying for his Third Mate’s license in New London, CT.

 

In addition to the SS West Hardaway, Bob also served aboard SS J.W. McAndrews, SS Cristobal, SS Atlanta City, SS Zane Grey, SS Gutzon Borglum, and SS Edward Rutledge. He described his war experiences as “a traumatic time.” Because of the transient nature of the Maritime Service, Bob remained in close contact with only one of his shipmates.

 

In late 1944 into early 1945, Bob was serving aboard the Zane Grey when she was stationed at Antwerp, Belgium. After the Allies stopped the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge, the Germans mounted attacks on Antwerp using V-1 and V-2 rockets along with some of the earliest operational jet bombers, the Arado. The anti-aircraft gunners were unsuccessful defending against these jet aircraft because they flew so much faster than piston-powered propeller aircraft. During one attack by the Arados, Bob and his crewmates could see the contrails of an Allied bomber group at 30,000 feet on a run into Germany. All they could do was look up and wish those guys would come down and help them fight off the jets.

Bob and Sheila, 1940s

Bob met Sheila Brabin, who would become his wife, while ashore in Liverpool, England in 1943. It was Bob’s third Trans-Atlantic voyage. Her family had been bombed out of five houses in Liverpool. He and Sheila were married in England in 1946. They were together until her passing in 2019. After she came to the US with Bob, he knew that she could not be residing in the town where he grew up surrounded by his friends listening to all their stories with no frame of reference, having come from England. So, they and Bob’s brother-in-law, Steve Chambers, moved to Tarrytown, NY where they got an apartment. Then Bob got a job as a Superintendent’s Assistant in the New Hyde Park School system, so he and Sheila moved to Westbury, and from there to Huntington. While they would visit Bob’s parents in Port Washington, their social life did not revolve around Port Washington.

In Huntington, one of Bob’s post-war jobs had him digging ditches for a construction battalion at Rolling Woods, building houses for veterans. While working there, Bob suffered an injury to his back. Unfortunately, there was no GI Bill available for the USMS, so Bob and his family received none of the government support that was offered to other military branch members and their families after WW II.

On July 15, 2023, shortly after his 102nd birthday, Bob Bessell was awarded a Congressional medal honoring his service in the Merchant Marine Service during World War II. The medal was authorized by the Merchant Mariners of World War II Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2020 to honor “United States Merchant Mariners of World War II, in recognition of their dedicated and vital service during World War II.”  Bob is now living in North Carolina.

[Author’s note: The original gold medal is on display at the American Merchant Marine Museum (AMMM) on the grounds of the United States Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, NY. For information on visiting the AMMM and viewing the medal, go to https://www.usmma.edu/museum, or call the AMMM office at (516) 726-6047 for information on opening times.]

WesleySr

According to Bob, his father, Wesley Sr., was one of 21 architects chosen by the WPA to design post office buildings.[i] The family spent three years in Alexandria, VA. Bob recalled being kicked out of school because he was “a Yankee and proud of it, and didn’t know where the Mason-Dixon Line was.” After Alexandria, the family moved back to Fairview Ave. in Port Washington.

 

Some of the commercial structures Wesley designed include Post Offices in Cranford, New Brunswick, and Perth Amboy, NJ, and The Mount Vernon Seminary for Girls (now the D.C. Headquarters of Homeland Security at 3801 Nebraska Ave. NW, Washington, DC).  The seminary and the New Brunswick PO are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

 

Wesley designed one of the first garden apartments in the Village of Great Neck Plaza. Constructed about 1939 at 19 Barstow Road, “the small complex was originally named Dunstone Garden Apartments. It is a vernacular interpretation of Dutch Colonial Revival style buildings.”


Wesley also designed schools including the Kensington School in Great Neck and the Flower Hill School in Port Washington, a design for which he won 1st Mention [Honorable Mention] in the 1928 Common Brick School Competition.

Flower Hill School

(circa 1927)

Port Washington, NY

Wesley Bessell Sr., Architect

Matthew Bessell’s grandfather, Wesley S. Bessell, Sr.

 

As mentioned at the top of this article, Bob’s family was living in Port Washington when he (Wesley Jr.) was born in 1921. It turns out Bob’s father, Wesley S. Bessell, Sr. (1883-1967), was also a significant figure in Port Washington. A Columbia University graduate, who went on to obtain his license to practice architecture from Cooper Union night school in Manhattan, Wesley was a well-respected architect who designed buildings both locally and nationally. Wesley designed the family home, known as “Orchard House,” which was completed in 1920 at a cost of $30,000. He also designed the Port Washington home of Mr. and Mrs. Frank T. Lyon on Hampton Road, known as “Old Farm,” the Port Washington home of Clarence Budington Kelland for which he received Honorable Mention in the Small House Competition from House Beautiful magazine in 1930,[iv]and in 1927 the Tudor-style house on Brookside Drive in Plandome called “Hemlock Hollow” for Long Island City businessman Leroy Latham.

Screenshot 2024-02-27 at 4.53.02 PM.png

Wesley designed the locker room/grill room/pro shop[i] for the North Hempstead Country Club. He was compensated for those designs with a life membership to the club. He also designed the Port Washington Police Station (now the brick P.A.L. building adjacent to the ball field located near the Town Dock).

 

Wesley also designed some of the family Christmas cards, including one welcoming Bob back from one of his wartime voyages.

The listing of Wesley’s designs in this article is focused primarily on local projects. It is by no means complete, as he designed or collaborated on many other homes and commercial/governmental structures during his career.

 

Wesley was also an author. He contributed significantly to a 26-volume series called The White Pine Series of Architectural Monographs,[i] including “Old Woodbury, and Adjacent Domestic Architecture in Connecticut.” In addition, he wrote many articles for various magazines including Popular Mechanics and Good Housekeeping during the 1920’s and 30’s.

 

Along with Jack Sheridan and Rube Goldberg, Wesley was a member of The Dutch Treat Club, a member of the American Society of Illustrators and President of American Institute of Architecture in the late 1930s.

1_CNPHS Logo-trim.jpg
bottom of page