The View From 1776

A Memorial Day Tribute to Unsung Heroes

My thanks to reader Bob Stapler for the following tribute to his father and to all the merchant mariners who made victory possible in World War II.

The United States Merchant Marines ? Unremembered Heroes of WWII
By Robert W. Stapler

When I was but a lad,
?my greatest hero was my dad.

No great mystery there.? Many boys live in awe of their fathers: giants whose lanky stride force small boys to hurry just to keep up and whose mere presence lend confidence or bravado to boys not ready to take on the world.? Yet, for so many of my generation, our fathers truly are larger than life and took giant strides that dwarf our own.? We are the post-World War II baby-boomers.? Most of us never missed a meal, suffered dislocation, got separated from family, or marched away en mass to war for a cause everyone signed onto.? Oh, sure, a few of us went to Vietnam or saw brief action in some banana republic, but we never experienced a whole generation rising out of economic ashes to fling itself into total war with everything we cherished in the balance.? Few generations do.

So it was that most boys my age had dad?s with medals in drawers and who could brag of battles their father?s fought; ? all but my dad.? My dad had no medals, belonged to no military unit, had no military rank, and couldn?t claim to have killed a single Jap or German.? My dad was a merchant seaman, and for the longest time I thought that meant he?d somehow missed all the action other dad?s had seen.? On the one hand, I was glad he?d avoided getting killed, but felt a little shamed he hadn?t taken the same risk other boy?s dads had taken.? He even bragged of being more a lover than a fighter, which I found disappointing.

Part of the problem was all the war movies.? In 1957, when I first took stock of such things, WWII movies made up about 1/5th of all the movies we?d see on television or in movie theatres.? John Wayne was the greatest movie war hero of all time, and if the Duke didn?t play a guy from your dad?s bunch, well then, it must be your dad hadn?t amounted to much in the war.? There were movies about marines landing on tropic islands, soldiers storming beaches in Italy and Normandy, airmen bombing German war factories, and even one about Seabees courageously building air bases near the front.? The only movie ever made about ships that haul cargo, Mr. Roberts, makes the freighter a Navy ship and the crew all enlisted swabbies (at least, Cagney gets to play a merchant seaman turned Navy captain), and the only action provided comes from Ensign Pulver who final gets up the nerve to toss the old-man?s palm tree overboard.? That movie even contrived to make cargo duty seem so safe a single ship could plow back and forth across the Pacific for months unescorted, and the greatest hazard to its complement as boredom.? True, the Japanese didn?t go after cargo ships the way the Germans did, but they didn?t leave them alone either.? Otherwise, the only time you see cargo ships in war movies is from the vantage of Navy ships guarding them or U-boats sinking them.? Basically, in the movies, they?re a bunch of antiseptic targets devoid of any human dimension.

Another problem was holiday parades.? Each 4th of July there?d be a parade with lots of veterans marching along in the uniform of their service.? I remember other kids calling out to their dads marching smartly along in uniforms that no longer quite fit, yet decked with ribbons and smiling benignly on the crowd of mere mortals.? My dad had no such uniform and marched in no parade.? There he?d be, saluting the brave fathers passing by.? He?d stand with us kids among the mom?s and granddads, sometimes choking up over the mere mention of ?boys who hadn?t come home?.

I knew from listening to my dad he?d served aboard ships carrying war supplies to men fighting in far away places like Murmansk, Okinawa, Tarawa, India, Sidney, Burma, Scotland, France, Italy, Greece, Adak, and Morocco.? He?d been at or near almost every major beach-assault of the war, including D-Day.? But, you?d have to assume from what little he said he?d been just one more REMF.? He told us what it was like living months at sea and how scared he?d sometimes get thinking he?d be sunk.? I knew he?d been sunk a couple of times, but still didn?t get it that this was the equal of ?real? fighting.? He told us how the Liberty ships and freighters he?d served on had guns too small and inaccurate to be much good against enemy ships, submarines, and airplanes; and how dependent they?d been on the Navy to watch over them.? This gave the impression the Navy guys were the heroes, risking their necks to protect my dad (kind of like some rich merchant with his body guard).?

I don?t recall exactly when it hit me that my dad had seen as much ?action? as the bravest soldier, sailor or marine; or what he?d said that made it sink in.? Probably, it was when he got around to talking about lost shipmates.? About that same time, he began telling my eldest brother what it was like being shot at and sunk, and related the time he?d been sunk on the Murmansk Run and fished out of the water before he froze to death.? I couldn?t help but feel some awe, and tried to imagine being in water so cold it would kill within minutes.? Gradually, we mined stories out of him about the other times he?d been shot at, fighting fires aboard ship where there?s no choice but to get the fire out, ships flooding, men drowning, men shot at while trying to stay afloat, ships blundering into mine fields, standing lookout for U-boats and planes, staying together in the water, watching fellow ships getting blasted in convoy, ships separated from the convoy, babysitting seasick soldiers in transport, and the relief everyone felt on spotting land.? He told us of the many wonderful shipmates he?d known and soldiers he?d met in the war, many of them credited with heroism he never ascribed to himself.? We found out he?d been in it even before America?s entry into the war, an underage teen two years short of a high school diploma.?? He?d remained at sea from the time of the allied collapse and throughout the Battle of Britain because keeping the supplies flowing was just too important.? Because of this, he failed to finish high school or go to college.? He never expressed jealousy over the shabby treatment given the merchant seamen.? To him, the other services were brothers who got the recognition they deserved, and it was just tough luck civilians couldn?t seem to see how much merchant seamen had also given.?

That?s about where my awareness stayed for many years, until my dad started getting sick.? First he developed emphysema from years of exposure to chemicals and fibers.? His lungs were a mess and, at age 50, he began to keep bottled oxygen handy for those times he couldn?t get enough air.? He was still working because he?d been self-employed for years running a small air-conditioning business and had no access to disability benefits.? I rode around with him, sometimes fetching oxygen from the back of the truck as he drove.? It didn?t dawn on me then (because I was ignorant of such things) that most guys in his condition could apply for some kind of benefit.? In those days, that was true because most guys his age were recognized war veterans entitled to compensation for war related health problems.? Not the merchies, though.? WWII merchant seamen were not granted any recognition until 1988, by which time my dad?s health problems were greatly compounded by asbestos (again from hauling war materials).??

When he turned 65, my dad was mostly bound to a wheel chair with oxygen strapped to it.? He stayed as active as he could, but that meant my mom had to attend to all the preparations that enabled him go on outings.? By the time Congress got around to recognizing the merchies, many were already dead or dying from war related exposure to toxic materials hauled across the oceans without any protection of the men regularly exposed to it.? My dad was past saving and got one three month stay in a veteran?s hospital and burial in a veteran?s cemetery.? He never got a VA loan to buy a home, finish his education, or regular care that might have kept him alive to a decent age.? The bitterness my dad never expressed came pouring out of my mom while she sat watching the blotches of cancer eating away at him and drugs that dulled his once bright mind.? I, too, sat and watched this once vital man first shrivel, and then waste away in morphine edged pain.?? He died at home in order to be close to my mom when it came.? He feared dying more from leaving her alone than anything else.? He cherished life, and one of the last things he said to me was ?The worst day living is better than the best day dead?.? I knew he meant it as a joke, because he was always making such jokes.? This one was a paraphrase of a popular bumper sticker variously describing fishing, sailing, or golfing versus work.? Yet, it didn?t come across as a joke.? It sums up his attitude toward life, and that of his whole generation, rather well.? It describes the reserves of pluck stored up after pulling themselves out of a depression, defeating monstrous enemies, and building a new kind of life that acknowledges no regret for opportunities missed.

To those who don?t know about the U.S. Merchant Marines and their service in WWII, I will relate the following:

Without the U.S. Merchant Marine, the Allies would have lost the war, and we?d now be living in a very different world.? For every soldier serving in Europe, Russia, and Pacific, the Merchant Marine transported 11+ tons of material each year vital to his support.? 215,000 merchant seamen served during WWII (up from 55,000 pre-war).? 8,300 merchant marines were killed at sea and another 1,100 died from wounds.? 663 merchant marines were taken captive, with 66 dying in captivity.? In all, 1 out of every 26 merchant seamen died in action, the highest casualty rate of any wartime service.? 33 merchant ships were sunk each week of 1942, the worst year for the Merchant Marine.

The bravery of the men who made up our Merchant Marine is unquestionable, and arguably surpasses that of combatants armed to protect themselves.? Like other non-combatants (e.g., nurses, medics, truck drivers) who stood in harm’s way, theirs is the greater valor.?? Yet, they received no Medals of Honor, Purple Hearts, or citations for valor.? At last, the Merchant Marines are being granted the single honor of resting among brave men.? While you are thinking this Memorial Day on fallen soldiers, airmen, marines, Navy and Coast Guard seamen, think too on the thousands of merchant seamen, still living and dead, who preserve your freedoms through their sacrifice.? Give to them the same gratitude we give all such heroes.? If you happen to know one still living, thank him and thank him for all his shipmates.

Celebrating my dad?s life and heroism this day are my Mom, his five sons, one daughter, various grandchildren (including my son), and great grandchildren.

?Bob Stapler is a Mechanical Engineer living and working in Maryland (and striving hard to fill his father?s shoes)