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Old 06-11-2008
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A story of the merchant marine at war

In WWII the US merchant marine lost men proportionally only smaller than the Marine Corps. Many of those who were not killed in action were later taken by the sea. Liberty ships were launched at a rate of one per week; they had to be as the Germans were torpedoing them almost as fast. This is the story of one young merchant mariner, only a cadet at the less than a decade old US Merchant Marine Academy. Actually the academy wasn't officially dedicated before 1943 but was training officers in various facilities well before that time. Cadet O'Hara was one of 142 cadet-midshipmen who lost their lives in WWII and, to this day, the USMMA is the only federal academy to have sent it's cadets to war if only in relatively unprotected merchant ships. It's the only federal academy with a battle standard as a result. You won't read much else about the merchant marine at war but I hope you remember how a 19 year old Edwin O'Hara became a hero at the cost of his life and acquainted the German Navy with the concept of citizen-soldier. The gymnasium at the USMMA at Kings Point, New York is named in his honor.

The American Spectator
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An inspiring story Sailaway. One I had never heard.
Thank you for sharing it.

Steve
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Old 06-11-2008
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Excellent tale Sway! My father in law probably trained some of that crew to use a sextant as that is the only thing that saved him from a similar fate to the many Liberty ship men he graduated with. Those WWII guys were every bit as much heroes as the Army/Navy guys who got the glory and the benefits of being in the armed forces.
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Get the old Victory at Sea series, and sit and enjoy the merchant men in the North Atlantic as they steam to Europe.
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Nice to hear that story again. First heard it 44 years ago as a USMMA plebe. I am sure you are a USMMA grad also sailaway21. My 4 years as a merchant mariner during the Vietnam War were pleasure cruises compare to what the WWII mariners saw.

Jim
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Good God, the Hopkins fired first? The Liberties were meant to be in a convoy (except they were too slow), by themselves they were 10-knot coffins for their crews if they met any opposition. But that ugly duckling ship, like the 2-1/2 ton truck, and the C-47 (aka DC-3) airplane, won the war. This according to Genl Eisenhower, whose word I'd accept. The Liberties were built with all the technology of 1900, with reciprocating steam engines instead of turbines, and the simplest hull design. The only modern thing on them were the welded seams (instead of riveted), and these were a new enough technology that it didn't always work (bad welds, or "slugged" welds made the midships seams vulnerable), and some of them broke in half, starting at the hatch corners.

The merchant mariners who manned them, in these lightly-defended ships, took a huge risk.

I know there was controversy between the War Dept and the unions about the merchant marine, but regardless the latter did its job, and didn't get all that much recognition for it until recently. They took some awful losses, and kept on signing on to new ships to go out and face the same risk again.

I hadn't heard this story, but am now glad I have.

Last edited by nolatom; 06-11-2008 at 02:08 PM.
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Jim,
Class of '78.

You probably remember Captain Tyson, I forget what his job was there, but remember he had three ships torpedoed out from under him! That behavior, being plucked out of the sea or, in this case, sailing 2200 miles in an open lifeboat, and then just signing on to the next outbound ship was not at all uncommon. It's what was done because it was what was needed to be done.

For anyone interested, there is now a decent museum adjacent to the USMMA at Kings Point focused on the merchant marine. It's worth a trip to the campus just to see the Blue Riband trophy for the fastest transatlantic passage which may reside in the museum-I'm not sure- it used to be in
Wiley Hall, which is the admin building and the former home of Walter Chrysler. The title, btw, is still held by the Big 'U', the SS United States, which many of you have probably seen laid up in Norfolk.
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Thank you, Sway!
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My father served as a marine engineer in the merchant fleet during WWII, before I was born. He had one ship torpedoed out from under him. He was pulled out of the North Atlantic and ended up in England, before he was able to return home. I have pictures somewhere of his ship going down. The watch standers on duty when they were hit did not make it.

He was pleased when the merchant seamen who served during WWII were finally awarded veteran's status in 1990. I'm glad he lived to see it happen.
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My father, as a 15 year old in 1940, endured the Blitz as a rooftop fire spotter. After that, he came to the conclusion that being on the Atlantic convoys was somehow safer, or at least one ate better. He was a British Merchant Navy A.B. and then officer from 1941-52, and did the Murmansk run, the Atlantic run, and went all the way to Australia during the war, and then went whaling in Antarctica afterwards, when that still seemed like a good idea. To the end of his life, he sported a forearm tattoo with the Rose of England over an anchor, a funny thing for a Welshman with an Irish last name to sport, but it may have been merely to celebrate a Lisbon whorehouse deflowering when he was 17. Ah, good ol' Dad.

He was reportedly born with a caul, alleged to save one from a death from drowning, and while I can't speak to that, I do know that both times that he "jumped ship" during the war (jumping ship meant declining to sign back on to another voyage in hopes of finding a better berth in another ship), both ships in question went down with all hands. I also know that he never attended a MN reunion, because almost all his wartime friends were dead.

But he did wear a blazer with the Merchant Navy crest, and as he died in '06, I have it and the very few mementos of his service that survived from then until now.

The startling thing to note is that he had four years of wartime service, and yet was barely 20 in 1945. It is a different world today.
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