When Benjamin Johnson, Sr. started working as a longshoreman at the Port of Savannah, videotape, weather satellites and lint rollers had not yet been invented.
It was the Eisenhower administration. Johnson had returned home from the Korean War. And one invention very significant to our city’s history was still on the horizon.
“It was a beauty,” Johnson says.
“It” was the first container ship Johnson saw. Carrying cargo stacked like interlocking bricks, that first container ship in 1965 was a glimpse of Savannah’s future.
“I knew they were going to move more cargo through this port than ever before,” Johnson says.
Johnson, 80, recently retired after working 58 years at the port. His dockside view of our maritime past is tinged with frail-voiced memories of long hours, uncertain work and backbreaking exertion.
Before containers, men heaved sacks and boxes from ship to shore. After them, cranes whisked containers from ship to truck. You’d think that would make Johnson’s work easier.
“There wasn’t nothing easy about longshoreman work,” he says. “If you’re strong, you’re going to survive, if you’re weak, you’re going to fall.”
Johnson labored at every job there was on the docks. Lasher was the hardest. He’s the man who secures containers to ships using heavy chains and 20+ pound turnbuckles.
He also drove trucks, ran cranes and signaled. Signaling is basically a safety man. In all his roles, the containers never, ever waited on him.
“They’re going to come over with another container,” Johnson says. “You got to be quick right there and move on out the way.”
When a 40 ton container is moving toward you, you better move out of the way. One mistake and you’ll wind up dead. Johnson never suffered any major accidents, he says.
But the job’s danger and physicality were minor compared to the mental skill that it takes to earn a coveted place among the dock’s senior workers. He retired as a foreman.
To get there, he spent years waking up at all hours of the day and night to wait in line for jobs that might or might not come for weeks. Try raising a family on that uncertainty.
“Everything falls on your hands,” Johnson says. “Ain’t nobody going to come and get you out of your bed to come get you over there to work.”
If you don’t show up for work, they don’t bother calling you to find out what happened. You just don’t work. He taught these lessons to his children.
“Your work speaks for yourself,” Johnson says. “If you’re a good worker, you’ll get another job.”
Now Johnson’s children are working to make sure their father gets the recognition he deserves. The International Longshoremen’s Association recently honored Johnson for his service.
“It’s called giving them flowers while they’re still living,” says the Rev. Christopher Johnson. “It’s for him to be able to see the appreciation that people have for him and think of him for the things that he has done.”
The younger Johnsons also are fighting to secure their father a Purple Heart for combat wounds in Korea. This easily could have been a Veteran’s Day story.
But on this Labor Day weekend, we honor the men and women who keep this country humming. Their jobs change – not always for the better – with every new invention.
And containers were just one change that Johnson saw at the docks. He also recalls the thinning of manpower through automation. Still, he wouldn’t have any other career.
“Longshoreman is about the best job that you can get in the United States,” Johnson says. “You can provide for your family and live the life that you want to live.”