Credit due mariners who delivered the goods

Toledo Blade [Ohio] June 25, 2000

by Jack Lessenberry

DETROIT - They are largely forgotten heroes, men who made victory in World War II technically possible, who suffered a higher percentage of their number killed than any branch of the armed services - and got little credit for it.

They are the surviving wartime members of the Merchant Marine.

"We built the largest fleet of merchant ships ever and operated them to take cargoes and passengers to every part of the wartime globe," said James V. Shannon, who enlisted at age 17 from his home town of Galveston, Tex., exactly 55 years ago, and eventually retired in the Detroit suburbs after many adventures at sea and on land.

"Then, after World War II had torn the world apart, we set out to help put it back together again with cargoes of every kind. My part overlapped," he said.

This summer is a special one for local mariners (call them sailors, seamen, whatever, but never marines) thanks to an event in both Detroit and Toledo. The S.S. John W. Brown, one of the last of 2,700 "liberty ships" built for merchant mariners during the war, is now a floating museum, normally anchored in Baltimore - but right now in dry dock in Toledo. After overhaul, the ship will be open to the public July 17-20 before steaming to Windsor, where visitors may inspect her July 20-24.

Merchant mariners have never gotten much respect. During the war they had to endure the taunts of those who called them "draft dodgers" and, afterwards, had to fight for decades before a federal court in 1988 and an act of Congress in 1998 finally led to "limited" recognition as veterans for mariners who served in wartime.

Yet there were few missions more dangerous than ferrying cargo across the Atlantic in the early days of the war, with wolf packs of U-Boats roaming the seas. "We used to talk about whether it was better to be on an ammunition ship or a tanker. I figured an ammo ship. If something went wrong you wouldn't even know what had happened, which is better than burning to death," Mr. Shannon said.

Lots of his fellow sailors did go down to meet Davy Jones. According to unofficial statistics, 8,851 mariners were killed at sea -- more than one out of every 25 of the 215,000 who served. That's a higher rate than the Marines, who lost one in 34.

Other branches of the service had a much lower casualty rate. President Franklin Roosevelt, a sailor himself, understood the mariners' contribution. "They have delivered the goods when and where needed in every theater of operations, and across every ocean in the biggest, the most difficult, and most dangerous job ever undertaken."

FDR "intended to extend the GI Bill to the Merchant Marine," said Mr. Shannon, who has become sort of an unofficial historian of the service, and especially of the "Hoffmann Island Radio Association," a merry band of those, like him, who became radio operators, and who publish a literate and entertaining newsletter, "Tales After Hoffmann."

Unfortunately, FDR died, and nothing happened. So instead, mariners "paid cash on the barrelhead for our degrees. It was build up the bank account, come ashore, and watch it ebb to low tide, and then catch another ship," said Mr. Shannon, who eventually made it through Southern Methodist University.

Many sailors like him got educated and then came back into service when the Korean War broke out in 1950. Even after the fighting ended in both wars, many a mariner fell victim to mines. "A mine, once laid, has no friends."

These days, there is still a Merchant Marine, and a Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, N.Y., but the world has changed. Many "American" ships are actually registered elsewhere to save expense. "You might say the U.S. merchant fleet now essentially consists of American-owned ships under foreign flags, Scandinavian officers, and third world unlicensed crew," he said resignedly.

The World War II generation feels letting our fleet dwindle is a mistake, but one for future generations to sort out. These days, they are striving for long-overdue recognition for themselves and for members of the related U.S. Maritime Service, who trained wartime Merchant Mariners for little pay and less recognition. They've built an excellent web site (www.usmm.org) that is better than many a Gen Xers' page.

Mr. Shannon finally got his honorable discharge last year, as did several of his buddies, formally classified as Coast Guardsmen. Now, they want Congress to add a Vietnam-style "Wall of Honor" to the Merchant Marine Memorial in Los Angeles.

Their real monument is themselves. Though some members of the armed forces had a superior attitude, Mr. Shannon once worked for an admiral who knew better. "He had been given the job of getting a liberty ship back to the United States, but his engineers couldn't figure out how to get the engine started.

"Finally a seaman appeared and said, 'set this gauge here, and that one there,' and got it started for him in no time. "Are you the chief engineer?" a sailor admiringly asked.

"No," the man said. "I'm a wiper," the lowest hand there was in the engine room. The old seahand laughed. "Just remember two things. We were there, and every man was a volunteer." That, alone, deserves a salute.



Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

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