Maurice Gibbs -June 2008

by: Joshua Balling

Maurice Gibbs knows a little something about the sea – its awesome power, its romantic allure, and its lonely isolation. 

The retired U.S. Navy commander grew up on Nantucket during the 1930s and ’40s, when the island was a different place than it is today, more connected to its nautical past and in synch with the ocean around it.

His Naval career spanned 34 years, much of it in Antarctica, further removed from the comforts of the 20th century than just about anywhere else on the planet. These days, he spends much of the summer aboard Sea Chantey, the gaff-rigged ketch he bought from Rear Admiral Ted Eshom in 1976, cruising the waters around the island. 

He is a 12th generation Nantucketer, a direct descendant of one of the island’s settlers, Tristram Coffin, and the great-great-grandson of Elisha Bunker, killed while whaling off the coast of Peru. 

His grandfather and uncle served in the Coast Guard, and he was instrumental in helping found Nantucket’s own Coast Guard auxiliary.

Few Nantucketers alive today can claim a closer connection to the sea. Gibbs feels the tug of those islanders now gone who helped rescue their comrades from its often treacherous grip. 

“Nantucket is special. We were at the crossroads of the east-west traffic across the Atlantic,” he said Gibbs, 74. 

“Life-Saving goes way back on Nantucket. The first Humane Society station was built in Coskata in 1794, and the building is now in Quidnet. That is a chunk of priceless history. But it’s not the building, it’s the people who served. The brotherhood of man is strongest on the sea. Those that manned our stations in those early years were all men of the sea who understood this. That’s what intrigues me.”

Science and Baseball

Growing up on Nantucket, Gibbs was first intrigued by science, astronomy in particular. He spent a lot of time at the Maria Mitchell Association with Dr. Margaret Harwood. 

“I was always in that library,” he said. In a way, it would be a portent of things to come.

His earliest memories, though, are of working on John Ring’s farm off what is now Somerset Road, where his father was the foreman. Ring had 40 head of dairy cattle, and the pasture land stretched all the way toward Cisco.

Gibbs’ father also worked as a carpenter, and in 1942 became a patrolman in the seven-officer Nantucket Police Department. During his early teens, Maurice’s parents separated. His mother moved to Florida and Gibbs chose to stay on Nantucket with his father. 

“Nantucket has changed a lot since I was a boy,” he said. “I’m a product of the Academy Hill School, and the only sports arena on the island was in Bennett Hall.”

But that didn’t stop him from playing baseball, and he developed into a talented pitcher, good enough to draw the eye of the Washington Senators at Joe Stripp’s Baseball School in Orlando in 1951.

Two things conspired to end his dream of playing professional ball.

“I had actually hurt my arm pitching in our Nantucket league, and it was a pretty cool period in Florida where I did it no good by trying to pitch through it. I was just a dumb teenager not listening to advice,” Gibbs said. “However, it did seem possible that I could go on to San Antonio in Class A ball, when a phone call from my father made it clear that the ‘real world’ was just around the corner and my dream had competition.”

That competition was the draft. Soldiers were needed for the Korean War.

“Life had different imperatives then. Dad called to say I was number three on the Nantucket list. The fellow ahead of me had injured himself in football and was likely ‘4-F.’ Thus, I was number two and had to make my mind up. So I came home and enlisted in the Navy after some months of watching and waiting to see what would happen just ahead of me on that list,” Gibbs said.

In the Navy

Gibbs had no intention of making the Navy a career. 

“I was only going to do my four years, but things sort of fell into place. I was married (to renowned lightship-basket-maker Jose Reyes’ daughter Sena, we had a small child, and I couldn’t afford college,” Gibbs said.

That’s when the Navy dangled the carrot: Three years in London. 

“That was a plum assignment,” said Gibbs, who served as an enlisted weather forecaster in the British capital, and would return more than a decade later as a lieutenant charged with supervising all weather services and weather communications in the European Theater, much of his work top-secret. He credited his rise through the ranks in the Navy weather service in no small part to his childhood on Nantucket, learning from Margaret Harwood at the Maria Mitchell Association and Jack Shaw at the high school.

“In the Navy, there was no astronomy at that time, so I tried meteorology, mainly because in our high school science class we built a wind tunnel. Jack Shaw was a wonderful teacher, and we did a half-year of astronomy, a half year of meteorology. As a young child, that steered me.”

Ice cold

But if any one destination defined Gibbs’ Naval career, it is Antarctica. In all, he participated in six expeditions to the bottom of the world, the first in 1955-56 to aid in the establishment of “Little America V” on the Ross Ice Shelf during Admiral Richard Byrd’s last expedition.

Antarctica was a forbidding place, but a beautiful one. The same rules of everyday life don’t apply when the temperature is often 40 or 50 degrees below zero for days on end.

“A lot of people don’t understand about the conditions. Twice when I was the duty officer, we had major fires, You don’t have water, you have to put it out with a powder, Fire is a great danger. If you spilled fuel on clothing, it was like cryogenics. It was so cold it would burn you instantly,” Gibbs said. “We had a whole set of rules you had to abide by. If it was below a certain temperature, you couldn’t go outside. It didn’t happen on my tours, but people were lost down there. It’s a different life. The beauty is devastating, but the dangers are too. It can get you.”

Gibbs found plenty to keep himself occupied, even, while wintering-over for 13 months in 1966 and ’67, the base went seven months without a mail call.

His official assignments varied from expedition to expedition, and changed in scope as he rose through the ranks, but largely involved collecting meteorological data to ensure the safety of the Navy and scientific personnel in the area, and also collecting data for scientific analysis.

“My days were very busy. I took a lot of reading material with me. I was studying Russian, reading ‘War and Peace’ and ‘Dr. Zhivago’ in Russian. I spent a lot of my time reading and studying. I also studied English, ‘Churchill’s ‘History of the English Speaking People.’ That was the only place I’d ever been that I made work for the crew. You need to keep busy down there. It’s a mental health thing,” he said.

Although the Cold War heating up, the friction between the U.S. and Soviet Union didn’t kindle much of a flame near the South Pole. Scientists of all political ideologies worked together in the interest of research – and survival. The Navy was simply the logistical arm of the U.S. operation, Gibbs said.

When Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev died, the American flag flew at half mast.

“This was a time when scientists of many disciplines would systematically attack the many unknowns in their various spheres of interest. We didn’t let the Cold War affect us on Antarctica,” Gibbs said. “Some human things transcend Cold Wars.”

One of Gibbs’ jobs in the 1960s was to select the flight paths that would be workable each day to do the aerial mapping of the continent. His hard work paid off. Mount Gibbs, a 10,290-foot peak in East Antarctica, was named for then-Lt. Gibbs by the U.S. Government following completion of his fourth expedition for his part in the early aerial mapping of the continent.

“Unless you’ve been there, you can’t imagine its vastness. Sailing around and flying over Antarctica taught me just how vast and beautiful this world is. It is one of the most awesome spectacles, yet some of the most dangerous times I’ve experienced in my life. But the science that is being accomplished there would boggle the mind. So many disciplines come together on ‘the ice,’ not least of which is meteorology, my field,” Gibbs said.

Through the ranks

It was the Navy that provided Gibbs with his education, and he made the most of it. Following his second tour in London in the late 1960s, now-Lt. Commander Gibbs – who early in his Naval career taught geopolitics, world Marxist strategy and counter-insurgency courses at the Chief Petty Officer Leadership School in Florida – was selected for a pilot program at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. It was here he obtained his bachelor’s degree in government and international relations in 1974.

Following a stint aboard the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy in Norfolk, Va., Gibbs was selected to attend the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He graduated in 1977 with the equivalent of a master’s degree in Naval Command. He stayed on to teach, and in 1980 was promoted to commander. The following year he was transferred to Pearl Harbor and served as the staff meteorologist and oceanographer for the commander of the Third Fleet.

During this time, he briefly returned to Antarctica. In 1985, he held supervisory positions in Washington on the staffs of the Oceanographer of the Navy and the Chief of Naval Operations. 

During this tour he was twice called on to put a planning group together to support special operations in the Mediterranean, first on the Gulf of Sidra operation in 1985, and later the Libyan air strike in 1986, where he provided the weather and oceanographic planning to the Chief of Naval Operations.

He retired Nov. 1, 1986 after 34 years in the Navy, his last post at the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. 

“It was time to go,” Gibbs said. “Like every job, it had its highs and lows, but I really enjoyed it.”

Return to Nantucket

Following retirement, Maurice and Sena Gibbs moved to Maui, Hawaii, where Sena had inherited a farm from her father. It was a difficult time. She had recently lost her father, and the couple lost a son in an accident. 

Maurice and Sena ended up divorcing, and Gibbs moved back to Nantucket in 1989. In 1991, he married the former Millie Norcross, another 12th-generation Nantucketer.

“When I got back initially I was kind of bored, so I took a job as administrative assistant at the Nantucket Historical Association, and when the director resigned, I was offered the post,” he said.

Gibbs served as the executive director of the NHA for two years, until he stepped down in 1993 to take a non-paying job as president and director of the Nantucket Life-Saving Museum. Now the president emeritus, he stayed on until the museum merged with the Egan Maritime Foundation in 2004.

It was a job to which he was uniquely suited given his genealogy and love of history, and one in which he took great pride and pleasure.

“The founders of the Humane Society of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (the predecessor to the Life-Saving Service and the Coast Guard) were the same ‘band of brothers’that had led us in the Revolution years earlier,” Gibbs said. “The larger theme here is that man must help his fellow man, a thought that transcends cultures, animosity and even war between nations. After all, the idea originally came back to England and Holland from the ‘China trade’ period when the west discovered that the Chinese had the equivalent of a Humane Society upon arriving to start trading in 1708. But did it start there? No, the lighthouse at Alexandria (300 BC) was for the same reason. So it is a theme that does truly transcend all.”

Retirement life

Gibbs’ is still a life of the water. He plans to launch Sea Chantey toward the end of June, and sail her well into the fall, after all but the hardiest sailors have hauled their vessels. He patrols Nantucket Harbor with the Coast Guard auxiliary, and mans the watchroom down at Station Brant Point most afternoons.

“Although it’s getting a little painful with the taxes and the cost of living, Nantucket is still the only place I call home,” he said. “Some people kid me that I’m related to half the island. Maybe so. I don’t know. When my mother’s mother died, she was 99. My daughter, who is now 51, was her 26th great-grandchild. The family is still multiplying.”

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