CASTINE, Maine — Like so many veterans of World War II, James Wood and Lawrence Bartlett speak with pride as they recall their contributions to the American war effort nearly 70 years ago.
Yet for decades, their own government did not recognize them and hundreds of thousands of other merchant mariners as veterans. Even today, few people hear about the merchant mariners who risked their lives — and sometimes sacrificed them — aboard the cargo ships that kept the Allied military forces supplied with ammunition, war materials, food and fresh troops.
“We were right in the thick of it, that’s for darn sure,” Bartlett said recently. “We lost a lot of men.”
About 150 people, as well as hundreds of members of the Maine Maritime Academy student body, gathered on Friday to mark Veterans Day. And while MMA’s ceremony honored all veterans, merchant mariners once again played a special role given the institution’s history and academic emphasis.
MMA’s campus is also special to Bartlett, Wood and other members of the Down East chapter of American Merchant Marine Veterans for another reason: That is where the organization erected a memorial to their fellow mariners who didn’t return from World War II.
“The seas washed over them. And they were gone,” reads the top line of the inscription of the memorial, prominently placed next to the flag pole on the campus quad. The inscription concludes with: “We shall not forget them.”
Statistics vary from source to source, but it is clear that merchant mariners and the Naval Armed Guard members who escorted the mariners’ ships paid a heavy toll percentagewise during World War II.
The memorial in Castine states 6,895 merchant mariners — including 60 from Maine — plus 1,810 Armed Naval Guard members died in the war. An American Merchant Marine at War website puts the mariner figure closer to 9,300 — or one of every 26 mariners, the highest casualty rate of any branch of the military in the war.
Cargo ships were torpedoed by German and Japanese submarines, shelled by enemy ships, struck underwater mines and targeted by kamikaze pilots. More than 1,500 ships with the U.S. Merchant Marine Service were lost during the war.
Even so, merchant mariners returning from the war did not qualify for the G.I. Bill that enabled many vets to pursue higher education and other benefit programs. And it was not until 1988 that the U.S. government formally recognized World War II merchant marines as veterans.
Wood joined the merchant marine service in 1943 at the age of 17 after he was told that the Navy wouldn’t take him until he graduated from high school and the other branches in his home state of Connecticut said they were only taking recruits through the draft. At the time, Wood assumed the U.S. Merchant Marine service was another branch of the military because, like others in the armed services, his commission was an act of Congress.
“We didn’t think about it because we were all young kids, we were all coming from home and we were all doing our part,” said Wood, who now lives in Seal Harbor.
Wood sailed around the world during the war on board ships supplying the European, African and Pacific fronts. He later would help supply the U.S. military efforts in Korea and Vietnam during a seagoing career that spanned 50 years. He now serves as vice president of the veterans group, although he was not able to attend Friday’s ceremony.
Wood said he was fortunate in that the closest call he experienced was when German V-2 rockets landed near his ship while they were docked in Antwerp, Belgium, at the end of the Battle of the Bulge. But others were less fortunate.
Despite the lack of benefits, however, Wood added: “I don’t regret anything, that’s for sure. I would have gone anywhere.”
Bartlett, an East Vassalboro resident who serves as the veterans group’s president, joined the merchant marines in 1944 when he was just 16, with the help of his mother’s signature. The Navy wouldn’t take him because of his age, so Bartlett became a merchant mariner.
“I wanted to go to sea,” he said. “Patriotic duty was a big part of it and I wanted to do my share.”
Like Wood, Bartlett was on board cargo ships that sailed the treacherous North Atlantic as well as the Mediterranean and the Pacific. Although he did not go into specifics, Bartlett said he gladly would have foregone the $5-per-day bonus pay he received from the U.S. government for sailing in combat zones rather go through the areas that he did.
“We were sitting ducks on those old Liberty ships,” he said. “Eleven knots was the best we could do.”
Bartlett believes President Franklin Delano Roosevelt would have made merchant mariners who served in the war veterans had he survived, given his praise for the critical service they provided and the risks they faced.
But while he was pleased with the 1988 designation, Bartlett acknowledged he is a bit bitter that mariners were not given the benefits he believes they earned. Some veterans organizations still do not openly welcome WWII-era merchant mariners, he said.
“I have no regrets. I am very fortunate to be here,” he said. “But I do think we deserve something that we never got.”
About a dozen members of the Down East chapter of American Merchant Marine Veterans were in attendance at Friday’s ceremony in Castine. Carolyn Blodgett of Penobscot, who is the chapter’s secretary, was one of several women who remain active in the club to honor their merchant mariner husbands.
“We used to have quite a few members, but age has crept up on us,” said Blodgett, whose husband, Donald, served as a merchant marine during the war.
Blodgett and Noreen Robinson — also the widow of a merchant marine — helped lay two wreaths on the mariner memorial under a cool gray sky Friday after the indoor Veterans Day ceremony. Both of their husbands were heavily involved in raising the money to pay for the memorial.
Talking over lunch afterward in the MMA dining hall, Robinson said the organization had considered other locations for the memorial, but that MMA’s campus is the right spot. She said she hopes the memorial inspires the young future mariners who pass by it.