In Memoriam: Emerson H. Hiller


The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution announces with great sorrow the death July 10, 2004, of Emerson Harlow Hiller at his home in Fairhaven, MA, of cancer. He was 84.

Emerson Hiller joined the Institution staff in 1959 and served for 24 years as master of several research vessels before retiring in 1983. He was named master of the Research Vessel Chain in December 1959, transferring to the new Research Vessel Atlantis II in 1963 shortly before it was commissioned in Baltimore. He served as master of the AII until 1970, when the Research Vessel Knorr was delivered to the Institution, and remained in that position until his retirement in August 1983.

Emerson Harlow Hiller was born August 3, 1919 in Mattapoisett, MA, and attended grade school there. He graduated from Fairhaven High School in 1936 and enrolled at the Massachusetts Nautical School in Boston (now Massachusetts Maritime Academy), completing the deck program in 1940. He spent two years as a cadet on the Nautical Training Ship USS Nantucket, maintaining close friendships through the years with some of his fellow cadets. Together they founded the "Ancient Mariners" club of retired sea captains and officers, which continues to meet on a regular basis. He also spent six months with the US Coast and Geodetic Survey on the M/V Explorer, conducing hydrographic and topographic surveys in Puget Sound.

He served in the US Naval Reserve from 1939 to 1943, and joined the US Merchant Marine during World War II.   He rose from cadet officer to master in five years, serving two years as a master of 10,000-ton liberty vessels and four years as deck officer with the American Mail Line, Ltd. of Seattle. After Pearl Harbor, Captain Hiller served as mate aboard the liberty ships Meriwether Lewis, George H. Williams and Anthony Ravalli.   He assumed full command of the liberty ship John S. Copley at the age of 24, at that time the youngest recipient of an unlimited master's license to command any vessel on all oceans of the world.

Emerson Hiller came ashore in 1956 to work as a self-employed salesman in marine and builders hardware, but missed going to sea. In March 1958 he was named master of the fisheries research vessel Albatross III for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (now the National Marine Fisheries Service) in Woods Hole. When the vessel was laid up a year later he took a temporary relief job with Tidewater Oil Company of Delaware on a coastwise oil tanker, working as an able bodied seaman and standby on the bridge to gain piloting time and experience.

During his 24-year WHOI career Emerson Hiller had many memorable experiences, from the rogue wave that smashed bridge windows of the Atlantis II in 1964 to entertaining Princess Grace and Prince Rainier of Monaco and their family aboard Atlantis II for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. He explained seagoing operations to Vice President Hubert Humphrey, hosted a scientific reception aboard Knorr in 1973 at the United Nations in New York - the first ship ever to call at that organization - and held parties for orphans in remote foreign ports.

His seamanship and skill at working with scientists to accomplish the mission, sometimes conducting experiments never done before, were known throughout the oceanographic community. As a colleague noted, Emerson Hiller's "leadership, seamanship and élan were matched by none. Woods Hole became famous and highly respected in many ports around the world because of his activities .” At a retirement party in his honor in September 1983, Emerson Hiller was presented a number of gifts including a bottle containing certified water from the four oceans of the world and a collage of clam shells, particularly those named after him. Spinula hilleri, named by George Hampson and the late Howard Sanders for its resemblance to the captain, was officially recorded in a 1982 article in the Journal of the Museum of Comparative Zoology.

A skilled woodworker and craftsman, Captain Hiller was known for the small boats and beautiful cabinets and furniture he built while at sea for relatives and friends with woods collected around the world.   He built Monsoon during a voyage in the Indian Ocean and continued to sail the 18-foot sailboat in Mattapoisett Harbor until recently. Table tennis was another favorite pastime at sea, and his "sink, lampshade and dictionary" shots were legendary. He was an avid ham radio operator, keeping in touch with WHOI ships during their voyages, and making friends in various locations throughout the world.

He is survived by two sons, Thomas P. Hiller of Mattapoisett, MA, and Emerson H. Hiller, Jr. of Dartmouth, MA; a daughter, Jane Hiller Farran of Philadelphia, PA; eight grandchildren and two step-grandchildren; and many nieces and nephews.

Visiting hours will be held Friday, July 16, 2004, from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Wilson Funeral Home, 479 County Street, New Bedford. Burial will take place Saturday, July 17, at 10:30 a.m. at Cushing Cemetery in Mattapoisett, followed by a service at 11:30 a.m. at the First Congregational Church, 34 Center Street, Fairhaven. Family and friends are invited to a reception after the church service at the Hiller home at 114 Green Street, Fairhaven.

In lieu of flowers, donations in memory of Emerson H. Hiller may be sent to the Mattapoisett Library Trust, c/o Mattapoisett Free Public Library, Barstow Street, Mattapoisett, MA 02739. Memorial gifts will benefit the Marine History Room at the library.


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Emerson Hiller

Emerson Hiller on the mast of the Knorr in 1982 during the Warm Core Rings Experiment. (Peter Wiebe, WHOI)