Pioneering Sea-Land executive John R. Pyron was tasked in 1968 with convincing American shippers to use the country’s first commercial container service in the transpacific, and the company and trade never looked back.
When Sea-Land Service began offering commercial container services in the transpacific in late 1968, no one then quite grasped how important this trade would ultimately become for U.S. commerce. In fact, many Far East ports were ill-equipped for loading and offloading containers from ships.
However, it was John R. Pyron’s job at Sea-Land to sell this newly found service to American shippers, which he successfully did throughout the 1970s.
Pyron died on Feb. 15 at his home in Asheville, N.C., surrounded by his loving family. He was 91.
Pyron was born on July 9, 1926, to Clifford and Agnes Pyron of Charlotte, N.C.
He enlisted in the U.S. Navy upon graduating high school and participated in the “island hopping” campaign in the Pacific, including participating in the action at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. He also survived a Kamikaze attack, during which his ship, LST 808, was struck on May 18, 1945 off the island of le Shima.
After the war, Pyron returned to his home state and obtained a Bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1950 and became a teacher.
At the encouragement of a friend, Pyron joined Winston-Salem, N.C.-based McLean Trucking in the mid-1950s, and shortly thereafter, became part of a cadre of executives who, under Malcom McLean’s direction, launched the “sea-land” service for moving standard-size containers onboard ships. Pyron relocated to Oakland, where he managed Sea-Land Service’s West Coast service.
Sea-Land started in the Pacific in July 1966 as a contract carrier to the U.S. Defense Department in Okinawa. Before the end of that year, the ocean carrier was calling Subic Bay in the Philippines and Vietnam’s Cam Rah Bay in 1967. The main vessels for the Vietnam service were the C-4Js, which were capable of carrying about 600 35-foot containers. Sea-Land used smaller C-2 vessels to feed containers to other Vietnamese ports during the war.
Although not involved with Sea-Land’s military container services, Pyron was tasked, along with Henry Gilbertson, Charles Hiltzheimer, and others, with leading U.S. sales and marketing efforts to start the commercial transpacific container services during the late 1960s. Sea-Land’s dilemma then was finding commercial cargo to fill its ships returning to the U.S. West Coast after delivering their military cargoes to Japan and Vietnam.
Sea-Land’s first commercial eastbound call was at Japan’s Yokohama in December 1968, followed by Kobe and Hong Kong. Feeder vessels were used to send containers to ports in South Korea and Taiwan. The service rapidly expanded and changed in the immediate years that followed.
“John Pyron was one of the keys – some would say the key – for setting up the transpacific container trade, along with the Japanese carriers, at the time,” said R. Kenneth Johns, chairman of R. K. Johns & Associates, who was also a senior executive at Sea-Land during that time. “When this service started, no one then realized that this would eventually become the most important U.S. trade.”
Pyron was known as a hands-on manager, who led by example. “I can still see him drenched with perspiration hand loading LTL into Sea-Land containers at Ocean Terminal for Sea-Land’s first sailing from Hong Kong,” recalled Gerald M. Cople, who worked with Pyron at Sea-Land for about 20 years.
Sea-Land tasked Pyron during the 1970s with starting other container services throughout Asia, including China, and the Middle East. He worked in various senior executive roles at the carrier for 27 years. He retired from Sea-Land in 1986, a year after the carrier was acquired by CSX.
Pyron then served on the board of directors for a short-line railroad and a couple other companies. He and his wife, Susie, moved from New Jersey, where they had lived for years, back to their hometown of Lewisville, N.C. in the early 1990s. In 1999, they settled into the Deerfield retirement community in Asheville, N.C. As his health permitted, Pyron routinely attended the various Sea-Land employee reunions throughout the country.
In addition to his wife, Susie, John R. Pyron is survived by four sons, John Jr., Clifford, William and Judson, and seven grandchildren. A memorial service will be held on Monday, Feb. 19, in Asheville. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made in John R. Pyron’s name to the Deerfield Employees Appreciation Fund, 1617 Hendersonville Road, Asheville, N.C. 28803.