World War II – Merchant Marine
Merchant Marines in WWII — From the Congressional Record – House, Vol. 153, Pt. 15, 21368, July 30, 2007
“There is not, nor should there be, any debate as to the invaluable service given by American merchant mariners during World War II. In fact, World War II merchant mariners suffered the highest casualty rate of any of the branches of the Armed Forces other than the United States Marine Corps, as they delivered troops, tanks, food, fuel and other needed equipment, and material to every theater of World War II. Enemy forces sank more than 800 merchant vessels between 1941 and 1944 alone.
“ ‘As General of the Army, Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe, Dwight David Eisenhower stated, ‘When final victory is ours there is no organization that will share its credit more deservedly than the Merchant Marine.’ Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Theater said that ‘The Merchant Marine…has repeatedly proved its right to be considered as an integral part of our fighting team.’
“General of the Army Douglas MacArthur…stated that ’With us they have shared the heaviest enemy fire. On these Islands I have ordered them off their ships and into foxholes when their ships became untenable targets of attack. At our side they have suffered in bloodshed and death….They have contributed tremendously to our success. I hold no branch in higher esteem than the Merchant Marine Service.’
“…President Franklin D. Roosevelt eloquently and accurately summed up [their] contributions… ‘’They have written on of its most brilliant chapters. They have delivered the goods when and where needed in every theater of operations and across every ocean in the biggest, the most difficult and most dangerous job ever taken.’
“Yet despite this record of exemplary, indispensable service to America’s war efforts, merchant mariners were not given the formal recognition and benefits granted other services by the Congress through the G.I. Bill of Rights in 1945…until Congress extended limited veterans’ status to these gallant American citizens in 1988.”
Being only fourteen when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Mr. Roy Laciura of Independence, Louisiana who is now 86, was too young to enlist during World War II. But after VE Day (Victory in Europe), and before VJ Day (Victory in Japan), he joined as a steward in the Merchant Marine.
With the war still raging in the Pacific, thousands of troops and tons of equipment in Europe were waiting to be returned home. Mr. Laciura served as a crew member on Liberty Ships that carried cargo across the Atlantic and were then converted to “troop carriers” to bring our soldiers back home.
Why did you enlist in the Merchant Marines?
“On the advice of my brother who was in the infantry in Guam. He said that it was, what HE thought was the safest branch to be in. So I followed his advice and joined the Merchant Marines.”
Was it safer?
“No, in the end it proved the Merchant Marines lost more men, man for man, more than any other branch in the service [besides the US Marine Corps]. And in the end we became a branch of the United States Coast Guard.”
Why do you think they lost more men?
“I guess because we carried the cargo. And I think they were trying to keep us from delivering the goods.”
So, if they could get you, then they could get the soldiers indirectly.
Did you have a rank in the Merchant Marines?
“No, I didn’t. I served in the Steward’s Department.”
How many different ships did you serve on?
“I started out on Liberty Ships and I wound up on the tanker for Standard Oil in Baton Rouge.”
Do you know how many Liberty ships were built?
“I think there were 2700, and don’t quote me on the figures, but there were more than 2700 of them built, and of the 2700, there’s only 2 of them known. They were located and made seaworthy, and brought back to this country to use as museums. One’s in Baltimore, Maryland and I’m not sure where they other one is.”
To join the Merchant Marines, did you go through Basic Training?
Where were you in Basic Training?
“Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, New York.”
What do you remember about your Basic Training?
“They gave us a little training basically to get into a 20mm machine gun real fast, identify an airplane and try to estimate its speed and how to shoot it down. They flew a plane across the screen – we had to try and identify and estimate its speed – and shoot accordingly to knock the plane out of the sky. Basically that’s what it was. We learned how to tie some knots, organized marching. But as far as the steward’s department, there wasn’t anything in particular that I learned from that training.”
But just in case, you knew how to do those things.
“Yeah. That was just in case because on our Merchant ships we had twelve Navy men we called “armed guard” and they manned the guns on the ship. And if something were to happen to one of the Navy men, then our captain COULD order us to man a gun which in my lifetime, in my experience as a Merchant Marine, never happened. So I never did get into any physical military activity.
“We did, however after the war, sail in mine-infested waters. That was dangerous…and we got bonus pay of $2.50 a day for going through mine-infested waters. In fact on one of our return ships we brought troops and twelve war brides back with us.”
“We had a couple, in medicine I think, in the military, and they came back with us. And I had charge of their quarters – the passengers’ quarters – the war brides. And one day, the wife of the man came running upstairs all excited saying that she saw a mine! And the husband was standing there shaving and he said, ‘Oh honey, it’s just your imagination.’
‘“Oh no, no, no. I’m telling you I saw a mine!’
“Her husband said, ‘Well did you tell the Captain?’
“She said, ‘Yes! I told the Captain!’
“’He said it is a woman’s imagination, but I know I saw a mine!’
“So that was kind of funny. Did she see a mine? I don’t know. She said she did. But that’s probably my biggest danger.
It was close enough, huh?
Tell me about your first trip after you enlisted and you got on your first ship. Where did you go?
“My first ship, we landed in Port Said, Egypt. Unbeknown to me, we had to anchor out and wait for a pilot to come aboard to take us into the dock. And they had shown us some movies as to the dos and the don’ts. I guess life got a little dangerous out there. They told us foreigners and military men, don’t travel alone. Travel in pairs. Be careful with sicknesses and illnesses, who you do business with, what you do, when you do.
“So what I was most impressed with was my first witness of a different lifestyle in my lifetime and the way they did things. They had no machinery, not even a two wheeler.
“We would unload our ship, mostly of grain. And we’d winch it down to the dock. And they would use people – Arab people — and they were kind of like a little machine. They’d trot over to the dock. Back up to the dock. And someone there on the dock would push a 100 pound sack of grain on his back. And he’d wobble around a little bit and get straightened out, focused, and then he’d take off with that sack of grain onto the next station. I don’t know where he brought it necessarily. But I was amazed that no machinery and equipment [were used]. Everything was done by hand and foot.
“And we unloaded some miscellaneous cargo like we had some I-beams on hand. I’m talking about 12” high beams – maybe 20 or 30 foot long – and the same thing, no equipment. We’d lower it down on the dock and they’d get enough manpower and line them up on both sides of the I-beam and those people had a custom of praying for strength. And they would get together and get beside the I-beam, kneel in prayer, say their prayer. And all of a sudden the order was given to lift the I-beam and walk away with it. And they did! [smiling] No machinery. Hand and foot again. And I was impressed with how far ahead we were of these people living in this life.”
Where did you go as you traveled?
“Oh, on my first trip I went to Port Said [he says, Port “Sed”], Egypt – some would say “Sah-eed’.” From there to Alexandria. From there to Haifa, Palestine, I think it was. At that time it wasn’t Isreal. And there to Latakia, Syria. And from there on to Algiers where we converted the ship to a troop carrier and brought 650-750 troops back to the United States.
“After the war, the big problem was transportation – getting’ everything back – the men and the equipment. Four years of bringing it all over there and all of a sudden it’s over with and we gotta bring it all back.
“So that’s what we did after the trip. We loaded up our troops and brought ’em back and got ready for the next voyage.”
How many trips would you say you took to bring troops back?
I brought troops back on two trips.
In Part 2 of “Bringing the Troops Home,” Mr. Laciura tells of stowaways, people he met while overseas, and lessons learned.