Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Uncle Willie and the Merchant Marines

Uncle Willie and Aunt Anna have also found a way to sneak into the book I am writing. Amazing how my muse or the spirits of so many people seem to be telling me what needs to be in the story. Last evening I finally visited with my cousin, Duane, about his dad’s military service during WWII, and I was surprised with what I learned, not only about Willie, but about a branch of the military that I had never heard much about. I always thought that he had served in the Navy, but talking with Duane, I learned that Willie was a Mariner, serving in the Merchant Marines.
What is the Merchant Marine? 
The Merchant Marine is the fleet of ships which carries imports and exports during peacetime and becomes a naval auxiliary during wartime to deliver troops and war materiel. According to the Merchant Marine Act of 1936: "It is necessary for the national defense... that the United States shall have a merchant marine of the best equipped and most suitable types of vessels sufficient to carry the greater portion of its commerce and serve as a naval or military auxiliary in time of war or national emergency..." During World War II the fleet was in effect nationalized, that is, the U.S. Government controlled the cargo and the destinations, contracted with private companies to operate the ships, put guns and Navy personnel (Armed Guard) on board. The Government trained the men to operate the ships and assist in manning the guns through the U.S. Maritime Service.
What do you call people who are in the Merchant Marine? 
Mariners. Seamen. Seafarers. Sailors. Never marines! Mariners is the preferred designation, just like the Seattle professional baseball team. The term Merchant Marines is incorrect, but sometimes used by some old time mariners. 
This branch also has a military academy located in Kings Point, N.Y. such as the Army’s academy at West Point and the Navy’s at Annapolis and so on. 
When I first heard “Merchant Marine,” I mistakenly thought the men in this branch would probably be in little danger during the War, but talking to Duane, and researching more myself, I realized how wrong I was.
One fact about Willie for this entry:  Willie served as a gunnery officer on an oil tanker for almost 3 years from ’43- ’46. During that time, he crossed the Panama Canal 38 times on fuel runs from Cuba.
.Because one of my sons-in-law is from Panama, I have been fortunate enough to visit Panama and the Canal several times. This country and area are absolutely beautiful and the Canal is AMAZING. However, because of the humidity---Thank God for air conditioning!!!  Of course, there was no such wonderful invention during WW II. Life on a tanker had to be horribly hot. In addition, the aviation fuel was destined for some of the most treacherous places in the South Pacific.  Ports of call were the names of some of the most vicious battles of the war: Guadalcanal, Saipan, Formosa, and all the way to Australia. Because of the explosive nature of the fuel the tanker carried, it was never part of a convoy---always a lone duck on the huge ocean occupied by innumerable Japanese ships and planes pervading the air---an unbelievably  perilous situation. 
In the next few blogs, I will share more about the experiences of my uncle Willie during WW II.