The first time he went to sea, toddling Don Miley crawled into a packing box and was adrift by outgoing tide.
Born in Muklteo in 1920, he lived in Seattle, then off to San Francisco when he was four-years-old. At age nine, he played around yachts as his brother fished, and determined he would become a sea captain. “I read all the books I could find on ships,” said Lopez Islander Miley.
He worked his way through Sea Scouts to the highest rank of Quartermaster, joining when he was fourteen, fudging his age one year.
“My father died of a heart attack when I was in high school,” Miley said. “When I graduated, I became an apprentice carpenter, but did not lose sight of my goal. Some Scouts found jobs with the Lighthouse Service, so I applied and joined the tender Sequoia. We serviced lighthouses and buoys along the California coast.”
Accepted by the Sailor’s Union in 1939, Miley traveled extensively including circumnavigation twice. On Dec. 7, 1941, when Pearl Harbor was bombed he was in New York. Two days later he was on an unarmed ship bound for Port Tewfic at the southern end of the Suez Canal. Without blackouts, the ship was vulnerable during the “turkey shoot” of U.S. vessels by German submarines along the east coast. Miley lost a tooth in Trinidad; one crewmember, after repeatedly threatening others with a knife, was put ashore in a hospital at Aden; the ship’s captain died when the vessel was leaving Port Tewfic; departing a second time after gaining a new captain, the boat rammed another in a blackout. While in dry dock his ship was bombed by German General Rommel’s Air Force. “No damage,” Miley said.
Back in Baltimore with extensive experience and accumulated time, Miley took the officer’s license exam. “I sat for the exam, eight hours a day for five days,” he explained. “Tough, but I passed it and was off to sea again, now in the Pacific. We were bombed, strafed, attacked by torpedo planes and by Kamikazes. “
Miley received his master’s license in New Caledonia, and worked for the American Hawaiian Steamship Company before being hired by Weyerhaeuser where he remained for 20 years as captain and coast pilot.
He made occasional voyages to Japan, Korea, China, India and some trips around the world. “During this time, I took 33 five-day, eight-hours-a-day exams for pilotage,” Miley said. On long sea voyages, he wrote articles for Boating Magazine and Naval Institute Proceedings.
“When Weyerhaeuser left the steamship business, I worked for Grace Line, running to South America. After a few trips, they gave me the hospital ship Hope.” Miley’s blue eyes gleam as he enthusiastically relates the experience. “I had 96 nurses in the crew, 26 physicians and surgeons on rotation every two months, a dental surgeon, an optician, and an artificial limb lab.”
The mission, at the invitation of a Columbia medical school, was to instruct local nurses and medical college staff in recent techniques. Duties included feeding starving children who had inadequate diets and treating cleft palates. “We made many deformed children beautiful.”
Later, Miley worked for SeaLand, a major container operation. “I was given bigger and better ships until I retired off a large container ship, a bit over three football fields long with a cruising speed of 33 knots.”
“I am a non-drinker,” Miley said, “and many of my shipmates went to bars for their recreation. I started going to ballroom dances and found I had a proclivity for it. When I retired, I was on a cruise ship to Australia and the director told me he was recommending me as a cruise dance host. He did, and I did. I spent most of my retirement riding cruise ships all around the world as well as riverboats on the Mississippi.”
“Thirty-six years ago I saw the San Juans en route to Victoria. Looking for waterfront property, I caught a ferry and visited each of the islands. When I went to the real estate office on Lopez a sign read, ‘At home, smoking fish.’ I decided this would be a good place to live.”
“The realtor found me in the ferry line, showed me a property, I bought it, and built my home. A sea captain’s life is quite solitary so it’s nice to be around folks who care.” Miley has two children in California.
When Miley was on the Hope in the 1960s, he talked with a young black Public Health nurse during that racially tense time. She seemed quite calm. “So, I asked her about it,” Miley said. “’Well, Captain, it takes all my time to love people. I don’t have time left over to hate anyone.’ I have tried to live by that lesson.”