Which of the U.S. services had the largest percentage of deaths in World War II: the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, or Coast Guard? None of the above. It was the Merchant Marines. One in twenty-four mariners serving on merchant ships died in the line of duty during World War II.
My 86-year-old father, Gerry Hartzel, served in the Merchant Marines from 1944-46. Immediately after graduating from high school, my father decided to enlist. His dream was to become a pilot in the Air Force, but because of an eye injury in a childhood sledding accident, he was rejected for service. Still wanting to contribute to the war effort, my father decided to apply to the Merchant Marines. He joined many other men who were either too young, too old, or didn’t pass their physical for the armed services. My father was just seventeen years old.
The U.S. Merchant Marine is not a military service but acts as an auxiliary to the Navy in wartime. The Merchant Marine did not engage in combat but transported troops and supplies to Europe. They also brought home troops that were returning, wounded, or had died in action.
Merchant ships, however, were often in the middle of enemy action on the oceans and were a part of every invasion in the European theater and in the Pacific. From 1940 to 1942, German submarines (U-boats) sank Merchant ships faster than they were built. Merchant ships were also attacked by bombers, kamikaze, battleships, submarines, mines, and land-based artillery. A total of 733 Merchant ships were lost in World War II, and an estimated 9,300 of the 215,000 mariners who served gave up their lives on the oceans or off enemy shores.
In the last few years my father has often reminisced about his World War II days. He went through boot camp in New York, then applied for and was accepted into radio school in Boston. After graduating, my father was assigned as a radio operator on the SS Bernard Carter, one of 1,600 Liberty ships that became the backbone of a supply chain enabling the Allied war effort.
The Liberty ships had a crew of forty-four as well as twelve to twenty-five armed naval guards. Merchant salaries were equivalent to those of the Navy, but mariners had no vacation, paid leave, pension, or other benefits. They signed on for each voyage, which lasted a year or more.
My father loved his service on the SS Bernard Carter. The ship sailed from New York City to its first stop in Portugal in the Mediterranean Sea. Then they headed on to France and Germany. The three radio operators worked eight-hour shifts and slept in a little room at the top of the ship right next to the radio room. When there was danger of any kind, their job was to broadcast a warning over the ship’s radio.
One of the most perilous hazards for the Liberty ships was the magnetic mine, my father recalled. All steel ships have magnetism built into them, and when a steel vessel passed over an enemy-planted magnetic mine, the magnetic forces in the ship triggered a mechanism in the mine that set off an explosion under the hull.
A devotee of classical music, my father remembers how he was able to patch his small transistor radio into the ship’s antenna, which extended the entire length of the ship. It was one of the perks of being a radio operator. When off-duty, he was able to listen to music and news reports from the far corners of the world.
My father was one of the fortunate ones. During his several years in the Merchant Marine, his ship was never attacked, and when they were ferrying troops back and forth between Europe and the U.S. he felt as if he was doing his part in the war effort. My father especially looked forward to the opportunity to leave the ship at different ports where he often had a day or two to explore. His most vivid memories are of German towns that were almost completely destroyed, with nothing but piles of rubble left.
I remember as a child seeing pictures of my father in his uniform during the war. I was proud of his service to our country and assumed that he was a WW II veteran. It wasn’t until several weeks ago that my father was reminiscing about going to college after his discharge from the Merchant Marines. I asked if he received any veteran’s benefits to help him with college.
He said, “No. Nothing. I am not a veteran.”
“WHAT? What do you mean, you’re not a veteran?”
“Merchant mariners were not considered U.S. veterans, even though we were in the thick of the war and had many casualties. There was no GI bill for me. I had to work my way through college. I never received any benefits.”
“I’m afraid not. In fact, Merchant mariners were looked down upon because we were not officially soldiers. But I have no regrets. I loved being a radio operator. I saw the world. I made a contribution, and when I returned home I worked my way through Juniata College where I met your mom. I am so thankful to God that I wasn’t harmed and that my life worked out the way it did.”
My father’s comments prompted me to do some research, and I discovered that President Roosevelt was a great advocate for the Merchant Marine. In a 1942 speech he said, “It is with a feeling of great pride that I send my heartiest congratulations and best wishes to the officers and men of the new U. S. Maritime Service Training Station at Sheepshead Bay, New York. Ten thousand apprentice seamen in training at one station is a magnificent achievement, and the entire country joins me in wishing you every success and in paying tribute to you men of the Merchant Marine who are so gallantly working and fighting side by side with our Army and Navy to defend the way of life which is so dear to us all.”
Roosevelt promised the mariners veteran status, but, unfortunately, that promise died with him. Facing misconceptions about draft dodging, refusal to unload ships, and high pay, mariners were treated as second class citizens. For four decades, mariners were consistently turned down for veteran status. Finally, a court order in 1988 granted that status to American merchant seamen who rendered service to the U.S. Armed Forces in ocean-going service between December 7, 1941 and December 31, 1946.
“You are a veteran!” I told my father over the phone last week.
“Yes, you are. Mariners were granted that status twenty-five years ago, but you never knew it. You are eligible for benefits such as the use of Veterans Administration hospitals and burial in a national cemetery. I’ll do all I can to obtain a military service discharge certificate for you and do the paperwork so that you are eligible for the benefits.”
“I may not need those benefits,” he said.
“I know, Dad. What is most important, though, is that you finally have the respect, honor, and dignity accorded to all those who served their country during World War II. You are a veteran, Dad. Thank you for your service.”
To all veterans on this Veterans Day, thank you and God bless you for your service to our country and the world.