Dade World War II Veteran Series: The Merchant Marine

November 9, 2017

Editor's Note: Don Wallace's was among the WWII veteran interviews I did in 2008-9 that I remember most vividly. He had joined the Merchant Marine at an insanely tender age and had all sorts of splashy nautical adventures involving guitar-playing Spaniards and dancing ladies with flowers in their hair. Later he became a U.S. Army officer, but the Merchant Marine was in his blood and he spent the rest of his life educating people about it. He educated me, and as a result I wrote the following article as part of my WWII series.


Don's profile was one I meant to run this week, but I discovered that somehow it hadn't made it onto the CD with the others. I was sick with disappointment, but decided to rerun the Merchant Marine piece in tribute to him. He died this January at 87. I am using his obit picture here. My U.S. Marine Corps vet father, Lawrence Ford, also mentioned in this article, died in November 2010. I had talked about him to Don and about Don to him, and while my father was alive Don would kindly send me articles and such that might interest him. RIP both of them, and now: Heave Ho! 


Heave Ho! My Lads, Heave Ho!


“Heave Ho! My Lads, Heave Ho!
It's a long, long way to go.
It's a long, long pull with our hatches full,

Braving the wind, braving the sea,
Fighting the treacherous foe.”


The above verse is from the anthem of the United States Merchant Marine.  I can’t say I’ve ever heard it.


In fact, I knew next to nothing about the Merchant Marine when I suddenly found myself scheduled to interview Trenton resident Don Wallace, who had served in that force, for the series I have been writing about World War II veterans.


So I asked my father, a former U.S. Marine – and, ironically, a onetime history teacher with a lifelong interest in the Second World War – for elucidation.  He said, “They made more money than we did,” then admitted that was the limit of his knowledge.


Not to slam my old man, who for all his sins is usually a mine of useful information – if he doesn’t know he’ll make it up – but after researching the matter, I find that his comment pretty much sums up the attitude of the American public toward the Merchant Marine; that is to say, one of singular ignorance and an ill-founded resentment that has caused our country at best to ignore this vital branch of service, at worst to abuse its veterans most shamefully.


So I thought it would be worthwhile, as a sidebar to this series, and as an honor to veterans whose service in this branch has been largely forgotten, to discuss briefly the Merchant Marine and the role it played in World War II.


As long as there has been a United States of America, it has had a merchant sea force.  Navy ships carry guns and aircraft and soldiers to man them, but that’s not all it takes to fight a war.  The federal government has always contracted with private shippers to move weapons, gasoline, food, even troops. 


In wartime, that means sailing through dangerous waters where enemy forces have a vested interest in preventing American supplies from getting where America needs them.  So merchant ships, though civilian-owned, have routinely been sunk by enemy fire, and the sailors who manned them have been just as dead in America’s service as if they had been enlisted in America’s military.


Again, these merchant ships have been owned by commercial concerns, and historically the sailors who crewed them were civilians, often of mixed nationalities, hired by the shippers.  But that started to change in the 20th century as the government legislated more control over the shipping it paid for.  The Seaman’s Act of 1915 established some basic rights for sailors as far as working conditions, food and punishment.  With the Jones Act of 1920, the government encouraged American ownership of Merchant Marine ships and required that at least 75 percent of a ship’s crew be American citizens.


But the real transition from purely civilian status began with the Merchant Marine Act of 1936 under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who saw the merchant force as vital to the national welfare.  “I do not mean vital merely in the conventional sense that it makes an important contribution,” he said, “but in the stronger sense that it is a crucially decisive factor in our continued existence as a free people.” 


The Merchant Marine Act enlarged and modernized the Merchant Marine and defined it as a force that “can serve as a naval auxiliary in time of war or national emergency.”  It also established federal subsidies for building Merchant Marine ships.

These subsidies resulted in the creation of the famous “Liberty Ship” that became the beloved totem of the Merchant Marine.  Liberties were made at lightning speed – Don Wallace tells of one built in two weeks – from prefabricated parts.  Utilitarian as opposed to graceful, the Liberty was dubbed “the Ugly Duckling” by FDR himself.


 (Photo: Historical shot of a Liberty.)


About 3000 Liberties were built.  Besides their ugliness, they were slow and easy to sink.  Yet even today veterans are still wild about them.  Why?  Maybe it’s just that certain feeling a sailor always seems to have for his ship.


When war broke out in Europe in 1939, these ships, and the men who sailed them, immediately became important to America’s Lend-Lease program as they began busily shuttling war materiel across the Atlantic to the Allies.  Then, after Pearl Harbor, when America entered the war herself, the Merchant Marine became even more vital, and the federal government instituted a massive campaign to recruit volunteers.  Uncle Sam might want YOU for the Army, but he wanted you for the Merchant Marine even worse.


For instance, Sam wanted you for the Merchant Marine even if you had a minor medical problem like a heart murmur or color blindness that would disqualify you for the other branches.  Young men of draft age could fulfill their service obligation by joining the Merchant Marine, but those too old or too young were also welcomed.  By the end of the war, the force was accepting men in their 80s and boys of 16.  Black men were also accepted, serving side by side with whites at a time when the other branches of service were strictly segregated. 


A 90-day training program endeavored to make sailors of these recruits, many of them landlubbers, but there was little time for weapons training and Merchant Marine ships were always especially vulnerable to enemy attack.  Eventually personnel from the Navy, Naval Armed Guards, were deployed aboard merchant ships, and sometimes merchantmen were escorted by military boats; but often sailors found themselves under attack and without defenses.  No example of this is so dramatic or so terrible as the tragic story of PQ-17. 


One of the Merchant Marine’s most dangerous jobs was to ship supplies to the Soviet Union, an unlikely yet crucial ally in the fight against Germany.  Convoys left from Iceland and risked polar ice as well as German U-boats on the way to Murmansk, Russia.  Convoys on their way to Murmansk were numbered PQ, on the way back QP.


PQ-17 left Reykjavik on June 27, 1942.  It was a convoy of 35 ships, 22 of them American Merchant Marine, carrying tanks, trucks and airplanes for the Russians, and it sailed under an escort of British naval ships. 


German intelligence had discovered the size and importance of the shipment, and a U-boat spotted the convoy as soon as it hit open waters.  On July 2, Luftwaffe torpedo bombers began attacking PQ17 from the air. 

(Photo from


Meanwhile, in London, Sir Dudley Pound, the admiral in charge of the English Naval escort, had received faulty intelligence that a new and deadly German battleship, the Tirpitz, was on its way to the scene.  Why, asked Sir Dudley, risk his precious English warships to the mighty Tirpitz for the sake of a bunch of merchantmen carrying supplies to the Russians?  He ordered the English escort to abandon the convoy. 


So the English battleships sailed to safety while the Germans picked off the defenseless merchantmen one by one, the American ships sinking under shiny new flags because it was by now July 4.  The sailors set out on the icy ocean in lifeboats, and they died in droves.  Of the 35 ships, only 11 made it through to Russia. 

The Liberty, knocked together in no time, was meant to be a disposable ship.  From the incident of PQ17, one might well surmise that the men of the Merchant Marine were considered just as expendable.  


Even as its sailors sank in foreign seas, at home the Merchant Marine was drowning in terrible press.  Since 1875, Merchant Marine sailors had been represented by trade unions.  Arguably, nobody needed a union more.  Before organizing, sailors were virtually slaves, subject to terrible physical punishments, supremely unsafe working conditions, and imprisonment if they tried to quit.


But during the 1930s, trade unions became associated in the public mind with the looming specter of communism, and even while Merchant Marine sailors died in the war effort, newspaper columnists we would now brand shock jocks were calling them “commies, cowards and draft dodgers.” 


Even the fact that the force was integrated racially was used to make it seem subversive and unAmerican – not to mention that its ships were carrying goods to the Soviet Union!


Another popular prejudice seemed to contradict the first:  While our brave boys are risking their lives in the war, those merchants are making money off it!  Those who did not condemn the Merchant Marine for communism condemned it for profiteering.

That attitude still lingers, as evidenced by the remark I quoted from my father, and veterans of the Merchant Marine are still bitter about it.  Certainly fortunes have been made off war commerce – but not by the poor tars sailing the ships.  Online, you can find tables comparing WWII pay scales for Merchant Marine crew versus U.S. Navy.  They are within a few dollars of the same.


FDR, the best friend the Merchant Marine ever had, had fully intended to include its veterans under the GI Bill.  He died in office, though, and Congress, influenced by the bad ink, killed dead the legislation he’d pushed so hard for.


So the Merchant Marine veterans received no assistance for college, no veterans’ hospitals, no subsidized mortgages.  Worse, in some cases the baseless accusation of communism stuck, and as the witch hunts of the McCarthy years began, many seamen were grounded, forbidden even their means of livelihood.


No legislation at all was passed to recognize the Merchant Marine’s service in World War II until 1988, by which time it was way too late for some old salts.  Even then, only some rights and privileges were extended to Merchant Marine veterans, and they are still struggling for legislation to correct this today.


The Merchant Marine participated in every invasion in the war including Normandy.  Percentage-wise, more men died in the Merchant Marine during World War II than in any other branch of service.


Yet when the men of the Merchant Marine came home from the war,  they received from the U.S. not a warm welcome from a grateful nation but the same message they’d heard from Admiral Sir Dudley:  You’re on your own, sailor.


So the veterans of the Merchant Marine are perhaps the most unsung heroes of World War II.  Is it not now time, 60-odd years later, to start singing them a little?  Come on, now, everybody, join in:


“Heave Ho! My Lads, Heave Ho!
It's a long, long way to go!”

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