Plaque honors merchant seamen for WWII service
They were among the first to go to war zones, the last to return, and the group that suffered the highest casualty rate in World War II (WWII). With the dedication of a new memorial to merchant marine veterans last Monday, American Legion Post 257 in Vineyard Haven ensured that their hardships and sacrifices are not forgotten.
In opening remarks at the dedication, Veterans Services Officer Jo Ann Murphy said Ralph Packer, owner of R.M. Packer Company and a former merchant mariner, suggested the idea for the memorial. Although he did not want to be in the limelight, Ms. Murphy thanked Mr. Packer at the ceremony's end for making it all possible.
Mr. Packer downplayed his role with characteristic modesty. In an interview with The Times a few weeks ago, he said the merchant marine memorial was a group effort that included Ms. Murphy, past post commanders Fred Thifault and Ed Colligan, and merchant marine veteran Rodney Elden.
"I would just like to say that we all are a committee working diligently to recognize merchant mariners," Mr. Packer said.
Several years ago Mr. Thifault suggested getting a ship's anchor to display when he was the post commander. Mr. Packer found one from a Navy ship through a marine salvage company.
The committee agreed the new merchant marine memorial should incorporate the anchor. According to Ms. Murphy, Mr. Packer offered to donate a new plaque for the display. He also arranged to move the 1,700-pound anchor to his company's workshop in Vineyard Haven, where it was sandblasted, repainted glossy black, and returned in time for the Memorial Day ceremony.
The source of inspiration
Mr. Packer's ties to American Legion Post 257 and the merchant marine run deep. His father, Ralph M. Packer Sr., served in the merchant marine and then in the U.S. Navy during World War I. He also was a past legion post commander.
Following his father's path, Mr. Packer served as a Merchant Mariner from 1950 to 1956 and received a commission as a Naval Reserve Officer. He also has been an active member of Post 257.
"I really think when you stop and look back, the merchant mariners have been involved in moving our commerce in peacetime, but they stepped forward and moved millions of tons in World War II," Mr. Packer said. "They were probably the first line in the war, because the German subs almost destroyed the tanker fleet coming from the U.S. "One out of every 26 merchant mariners that served were lost - higher than all the other services."
The Merchant Marine is a fleet of ships that carries imports and exports during peacetime. During wartime it becomes a naval auxiliary to deliver troops and war materiel, according to the American Merchant Marine at War website.
It took 15 tons of supplies to support one soldier for one year at the front during WWII, the website also noted. Mariners delivered it all, tanks, amphibious craft, airplanes, jeeps, ammunition, PT boats, trucks, medicine, and food.
At last week's dedication ceremony, merchant mariner Brian Murphy and former merchant mariner Richard Reinhardsen unveiled the new memorial. Legion bugler Edson Rogers played the merchant mariners' official song written in 1943, "Heave ho, my lads, heave ho."
WWII veteran merchant mariners Rodney Elden and Sam Issokson of Vineyard Haven, and Louis Larsen and Jim Morgan of Chilmark sat close to the memorial as the guests of honor.
Mr. Packer had asked his friend Mr. Elden to write the words inscribed on the plaque. "With dedication they transported vital materials to the war fronts of the world and through their deeds and sacrifice contributed to victory in Europe and the Pacific," Mr. Elden wrote of his fellow mariners.
Some wartime statistics about them will go on another plaque: 6,834 died; 11,000 wounded; 833 ships sunk; 604 taken as prisoners of war; 61 died in prisoner of war camps.
The veterans' stories
In an interview with The Times a few weeks ago, Mr. Elden said he enlisted in the U.S. Navy at age 17 and served as a bugler aboard the USS Cincinnati.
He was released from the Navy after his acceptance to the California (Cal) Maritime Academy. Mr. Elden joined the merchant marine when he graduated in 1941 and spent three years in oil tanker convoys to England and the South Pacific.
At age 25, Mr. Elden became the chief engineer aboard the SS De Pauw Victory ship, launched in 1945. The De Pauw, run by a crew of 48, headed for Iwo Jima with about 500 troops and supplies onboard. The Navy supplied the ship with a gun crew of 13.
The De Pauw landed right at the beach at Iwo Jima, Mr. Elden said. The crew spent a week there unloading troops and supplies, including a lot of candy bars and Coca-Cola extract in 50-gallon kegs.
While at Iwo Jima, Japanese Kamikaze pilots made many suicide attacks on the Island and frequently targeted merchant marine ships.
Ed Horn, Mr. Elden's classmate at Cal Maritime, was killed aboard the S.S. Elgin Victory, the De Pauw's sister ship, when a kamikaze pilot struck the ship en route to Iwo Jima.
"They'd pick a target, and the sirens and the lights would go off," Mr. Elden said. "You didn't pay much attention to it after awhile. It became part of the accompanying music. If your ship was targeted, there was nothing you could do about it."
The De Pauw left Iwo Jima with no casualties. The ship then headed to India to pick up some Army pilots who had been flying "the Hump," the eastern end of the Himalayan Mountains, into China to resupply the Flying Tigers and the Chinese government of Chiang Kai-shek.
After experiencing the horrors of wartime, Mr. Elden and the crew got some comic relief.
The De Pauw continued to Ceylon to pick up 500 rhesus monkeys for delivery to a pharmaceutical company in New Jersey for drug testing. As they sailed past Sicily, one of the pilots opened up all the cages around 3 am and let the monkeys out.
Since Mr. Elden had experience with a pet monkey as a boy, he coached the crew on how to catch them. They emptied burlap bags filled with sawdust, kept onboard for oil spills, and used those to round up 470 monkeys. Unfortunately, 30 jumped overboard to avoid capture.
The other veterans at last week's ceremony also shared some of their experiences afterwards. Mr. Larsen and Mr. Morgan served together in the merchant marine. They left Martha's Vineyard for South Portland, Maine, to start work aboard the SS Charles Dauray, launched on April 5, 1944. Mr. Morgan said it was one of New England Shipbuilding Company's fastest built Liberty Ships.
Mr. Issokson joined the merchant marine shortly before WWII started and got out after the war ended. When asked where he sailed, he rattled off, "The North Atlantic to the United Kingdom, the Mediterranean and into the Caribbean, through the Panama Canal, and to Australia, North Tunisia, the Marshall Islands, and the Hawaiian Islands."
Mr. Larsen said the Dauray sailed in the second convoy into Antwerp, Belgium. Out of 30 ships, 3 were lost. "The German buzz bombs were fierce - we had 180 one night," said Mr. Larsen. "We got hit our second time over there."
Merchant mariners served in all wars and military operations that followed WWII. In 1991 they accomplished one of the largest sealifts in U.S. history during Operation Desert Storm.
Although merchant mariners who served in active oceangoing service during WWII were given veterans' status in 1988, they did not receive the same benefits as other veterans.
On May 12 the U.S. Congress House of Representatives passed H.R. 23. Under the bill's provisions, about 10,000 merchant marine veterans who served during World War II, including members of the Army Transport Service and Naval Transport Service, would receive a $1,000 monthly pension.
It also offers education benefits to merchant marine veterans, who are, on average, 85 years old. The bill has been referred to the Senate's Committee on Veterans' Affairs.