BREWER, Maine — Nonagenarian Perry Drew was a Bangor High School junior when he was drafted during World War II, and the veteran’s hat he wears today makes most people wonder what he did during his time in uniform.
“When they see his hat, they think he was guarding prisoners,” his wife, Pauline Drew, said recently of her husband’s traditional black veteran’s hat with gold lettering that reads “U.S. Navy Armed Guard, WWII.”
Perry Drew was in fact guarding something very important: the supply lines to Allied partners in Europe that had been devastated by German U-Boats, some of which were discovered off the coast of Maine.
Drew, 92, sets aside each Memorial Day to remember those who fell before him, and other service members who never returned home. He skips all the local veterans and Fourth of July parades, but makes it a point to attend each Memorial Day parade in Bangor.
“I want to dedicate this [day] to all the guys who died from torpedos and bombs,” he said. “And all the rest who never came back.”
Drew was one of about 145,000 sailors of the now disbanded Navy Armed Guard, who manned deck guns to protect supply ships that delivered everything from troops, tanks and ammunition to U.S. partners around the world.
“It was quite an experience,” Drew said, holding his veterans walking stick adorned with so many Memorial Day parade attendance stickers there is little room left for more.
“War is hell. It’s unbelievable that it went on. I was lucky. Over 404,000 [U.S.] men were killed in World War II,” he said. “They never came back.”
Lucky is an understatement. Drew was one of 27 teenagers — all 18 or 19 years old — who left the country aboard the Joseph F. Warren, a Liberty Ship built at the east yard of the now defunct South Portland Shipbuilding Corp. that first launched on April 5, 1943.
The Navy Armed Guard monitored the sky and water for for enemy aircraft and destroyers, mines and U-boats — the nickname for German submarines — while the Merchant Marines operated the vessels.
The German navy and its submarines, called “Wolf Packs” by the U.S. sailors, started prowling the shipping lanes off the Atlantic seaboard, hunting for merchant ships, shortly after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor that thrust the U.S. into World War II. They were very successful, Drew said.
“Most people don’t know this, but in the first year about 250 ships were sunk off the coast, mostly by German subs,” he said, adding that media reports at the time were downplayed to ensure young men would still enlist. “None of the merchant ships had any guns.”
Between January and August 1942, “they would destroy 22 percent of the tanker fleet,” according to a New England Historical Society article. “The U-boats killed 5,000 seamen and passengers, more than twice the number of people who perished at Pearl Harbor.”
That meant Drew’s job was precarious at best. He survived 14 missions — seven going over to Europe and seven coming back.
“They’re trying to sink you, no matter where you are,” the Brewer veteran said, sitting at his kitchen table with a scrapbook filled with photos of the men he served with and the massive guns he used.
His most dangerous mission was to the Russian port of Murmansk, a 1,600-mile trip from Scotland through U-boat- and destroyer-infested waters. Of the approximately 800 ships that attempted the passing, 97 were sunk.
The Liberty Ships were nicknamed “ugly ducklings” by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and were the first vessels built like an assembly line, with parts made in 36 different states by people who in some cases had never seen the sea.
They trudged along at a painstakingly slow pace of just 11 knots, or about 12.6 miles per hour.
The vessel was 441-feet long and 56-feet wide and could carry 9,000 tons of cargo, plus tanks, locomotives and other equipment on deck, and had a distillation system to make the seawater drinkable. They carried a crew of about 44 Merchant Marines — paid volunteers — and 12 to 27 Naval Armed Guards.
The Warren was painted with hull No. 782, and had a 4-inch stern gun that used ammunition that weighed 54 pounds, Drew recalled. It also had a 3-inch bow gun, and several .50-caliber machine guns mounted along the ship.
Drew also served on the Robert J. Collier, a ship made by Bethlehem-Fairfield in Baltimore, Maryland, that had hull No. 1003.
The South Portland shipyard built 30 ships for the British before making 236 Liberty Ships, the first that launched on Nov. 11, 1942, according to the Maine Historical Society.
The last Liberty Ship was put into the water around April 1945.
Drew returned from the war and took a job at the local mill, which closed under the name Eastern Fine Paper in 2004.
“I call it the forgotten Navy of World War II because most people, even those in the Navy, don’t understand what we’re talking about,” the veteran said.
A congressional resolution was passed in 1998 honoring Drew and the others who served in the Navy Armed Guard, including the approximately 2,100 who died with the sinking of 710 Liberty Ships.