A Merchant Seaman's Memory of World War II
Interview by Jessica Curtin
A Merchant Seaman's Memory of World War II He is 79 years old, retired and living in Neptune Beach, Florida. After a life spent on and around ships, he suffers from severe emphysema caused by the asbestos insulation used in engine rooms. He traveled to France for the 50th anniversary of D- Day and was awarded the Legion of Honor by the French government.
You were afraid half the time, you could put it that way. I was 25 on D-Day. I was on a sea-going tug. Our job was we left New York a year ahead of time of the invasion with a lot of other tugs and we were going to be transporting the goods to the beachheads. 'Cause you know half those beachheads weren't done in five minutes, huh? It took a year, 18 months to assemble everything that they needed. So I was in right in on the beginning of it, and D-Day itself was the biggest engineering feat of the war, as a matter of fact. All those troops being assembled, and all the equipment that was moved into the beachheads. I guess our army was a good army, but the Germans had the placement there. It was terrible, it was a slaughter on both sides. And, what can I say to you, I was there, I was on Omaha beach on D-Day, 10 o'clock in the morning, and we got two, three-thousand ton barges, full of everything thing that they needed, right away, ammunitions, bombs, whatever, dynamite to get up the cliffs with, and all type of ammo that they needed.
We lost an awful lot of people and I can't even think of the impression on me.
Anything about the war, the merchant marine had a big act in it. Supplying the British with everything they needed. The merchant marines lost more men in the first half of that, than anybody else in the war, including the army, navy and anything else. We weren't recognized. There was a law passed in congress a few years ago that now we're veterans. I'm a veteran now. I can go to the veteran hospitals and be buried in Arlington.
I remember once we were off the coast of Southern England, and in the convoy, ships got hit. We had to go and pick them up, it was about a mile off shore. The ship ahead of us, it was called Leopoldville. 800 men died. The ship...it had a dragon on there. The ship was torpedoed, the water was so cold you could only be in twenty minutes, because your blood congealed. We lost 800 men. We saved a lot of them, I was scared half to death you know, you can't put it any other way. But you were. Being scared was natural, but you still had to do your job. We picked up what we could. The doctors just opened these guys up--the stiffs. I was dead tired, and I was second engineer. I went in to bed, went to my cabin and went to bed exhausted, I didn't even take off my clothing.
Where were you when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed? What was your first reaction?
I was in New York. Well, the reaction was, this is going to stop the war. It was going to save people's lives. In Britain, half the people couldn't even sleep. They had to go into the subways, they had bunks alongside the walls. They'd go down and sleep in the subways. War is a terrible thing.
What were your impressions of the enemy, of the German and Japanese soldiers and civilians?
The people themselves, they don't create the wars. It's the guys like Hitler and everybody else that create the wars. Like right now in the Persian Gulf with Hussein. The people are the ones who suffer. I had a lot of respect for the German people, as far as seamen go. The Japanese, I never trust an Asiatic, even today I don't trust an Asiatic. In a way it's people's fault for letting these people get in power. Our own government, we have so many counterbalances, that's why it's the greatest country in the world. Your have the Senate and you have the House, and you have the President and the Administration, you've got everything checking one another, huh? And that's good, because it keeps some of these people in line. Cause they're not all saints. There's gotta be dumb people who are not too honest. Let's put it that way.
You don't despise the people but you're out there to kill them.
Did you ever see any of the films put out by the War Department about the Japanese?
Well, a lot of this is propaganda, too, we use propaganda, for crying out loud. They made out Hitler and Mussolini and the other guy, they made them look like animals, you know what I mean? The one thing I resent is even the media, in this country, and the TV, if you watch some of these television commercials, you know what I'm talking about, they treat the average American citizen with a sixth grade mind. I resent being treated as a sixth grader. I resent it myself, my education came from being all over the world, and I know there is a place in New York City which is called Madison Avenue, where these baboons write these things up. They manipulate the masses. That's what this President is trying to do now.
When did you first hear of the holocaust against the Jews?
Well, to take human life like that, they had to be crazy. Because Hitler started it all, but he couldn't do it all, he had to have people working for him. You know the Germans were pretty smart people, huh? Engineering-wise and everything else. If you look back in history, you'll find out when he got in power, the first thing he brought in was sex, you know what I mean? Yeah, young girls, it wasn't frowned on. They got these young boys and girls together, and then, you know. And then they went around saluting Hitler. All the propaganda, and of course who're they going to pick on, the Jews. Why he started with them, it was because of the first World War. Because the Jew, profited and prospered when the Germans were starving. They bought up everything in there. That's why he crucified them once he got power. That's why he killed them all.
Could the US have done more to help the Jews?
No, what could we do, unless you declared war right away. No, no, he couldn't do anything. The British tried, the British couldn't do anything either.
What did you think of the internment of Japanese Americans during the war?
Oh, well, that had to be. That was the only thing you could do. They were so impregnant on the West Coast with espionage. I just told you before I never trust an Asiatic, huh? Well, hell, they almost run Ford Motor Company into the ground. They run around there with the little cameras, taking notes and everything else. They're very aggressive people. We had to do it. As a matter of fact we paid them just a couple of years ago. We gave each Japanese, from the United States Government, I forget what it was, $5000 or whatever. For their internment. You had to do that. When you're at war, you're at war. What did they do with us? This is war. War is no holds barred, pal. The atrocities that are done, to their own people, to one another. Why take a chance? They could create havoc because this country was more or less unprotected.
If you think of it, it was only our background that helped to win this war. What they built in this country was fantastic.
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The human body is built that way---you've got to shove things in the back of your mind. You don't want to think about it any more. I don't dwell on it. I think of something else. I think of the funny times we had, the happy times. How we used to get rid of it on the ship, we called it kangaroo court. Somebody gets out of line. They all get a few drinks in them, then they hold the court and pick on somebody who needs it. I got tried once myself (laughs). I fell overboard. Yeah, you're not a sailor 'till you fall overboard you know. I was going back in Plymouth, England, and it was a blackout. The English at wartime, it got dark at 10 o'clock at night you know. We were coming back to the ship, we were stumbling in the blackout. We were stumbling over the railroad tracks and the trains were going by with no lights on, and when we got back to the docks, the ship was tied up alongside on an angle (laughs). We all carried flashlights, but I inadvertently, I don't know, had mine off at the time, and I walked right off the end of the pier. About 50 ft. down to the water, right between the ship and the pier. But luckily they had a log in there, like a fender. I could've got crushed. Well, I sobered up right quick. It was cold water, oh my gosh, and I'm hollerin' and hollerin'. Ross, he had his flashlight too, and he got his flashlight on, and says, where the hell am I? So they got me out, and anyway, a week or so later they held a kangaroo court for "polluting the harbors of Plymouth." You get punished and everything else, but they bring out your whole character.
I don't regret any of it all. I mean the hard times, I don't regret them. Most of us were too dumb to be scared. We were scared, period, most of the time. You had to kick yourself to get down into the engine room and do your job. That all passes you know. You get out of it.
It pushes men to the utmost of what they can possibly do, and then they have to do more. Some of them can't stand it, they break up.