Martime Day recognizes support roles
Logistics and supply are often overlooked when people gather todiscuss the glories and tragedies of warfare. But without thecontribution of the U.S. Merchant Marines, the armed forces wouldbe unable to sustain any engagement overseas.
May 22 is designated as Maritime Day to recognize thecontribution of America’s seaborne citizen soldiers.
William P. “Pat” LaRue, 84, of Brookhaven, can remember servingas a merchant mariner during World War II, when, in the words inPresident Franklin D. Roosevelt, they “delivered the goods when andwhere needed in every theater of operations and across every oceanin the biggest and the most difficult and dangerous transportationjob ever undertaken.”
Born on May 14, 1923, in Texas, LaRue signed on with his father,William P. LaRue Sr., aboard a Texaco tanker in 1942 in Galvestonand traveled the Eastern seaboard.
“We saw where several ships had been hit,” he said. “They usedto run them aground if they could. There were more submarines inthe Caribbean than you would think possible. You wouldn’t believehow many ships were sunk there.”
According to the Office of War Information, 753 U.S. merchantships were sunk in all theaters of operation from September 1939through 1943.
“Once, I was standing there on the back with a friend when aship just disappeared. It just blew up,” LaRue said.
To this day, he said he doesn’t know what happened to the shipin his convoy. It may have been sunk by a torpedo or it could haveexploded from a turbine malfunction. Both were common occurrencesin the Caribbean during the war, LaRue said.
Either way, he said, the ship went down with all hands.
“They didn’t stop for anything or anyone who fell in the water,”LaRue said.
It wasn’t that they didn’t care, he said, but a stopped shipcan’t maneuver and became an easy target for submarines.
Typically, merchant mariners would sign on with a ship until itreturned to a U.S. port, when they were discharged and would seekanother berth. The LaRues shipped together again on the next ship,but separated and signed on with different ships for a third run.They never shipped together again.
“It just didn’t work out that way,” LaRue said.
During the course of the war, LaRue said he made many trips inthe Caribbean, but also crossed the ocean to the United Kingdom andinto the Mediterranean Ocean in support of the war effort.
LaRue said his ship was never struck, but there were a few closecalls.
While delivering a load in the Dutch West Indies in 1943, hesaid, the convoy was struck twice in the same day.
“We saw two fish (torpedoes) go by us, passing on the stern, andrun up on the beach. It blew water 600 yards high.”
That night, while the convoy was in harbor, the German U-boatstood off outside the harbor and lobbed shells blindly into it.
“They might have hit some of the ships, but they didn’t hit us,”LaRue said. “They didn’t make any of them or anything likethat.”
The close calls affected some people more than others. LaRueworked in the close, hot confines of the engine room with anotherman, who was the first assistant to the chief engineer. Enclosedwith the loud turbines, the engineers rarely knew what washappening topside.
However, that day both men watched the torpedoes pass on thestern and “the first assistant wouldn’t back below after that. Itmade him sick. He never did go below deck again.”
LaRue served as a merchant mariner on two other occasions,during the Korean War and Operation Desert Storm. He “made a haul”of sugar to Korea in the 1950s and during Desert Storm he was on aship carrying $1 billion in military equipment and vehicles to theMiddle East.
LaRue said he is proud of his service, but wishes the governmentwould give more recognition to the merchant mariners. Althoughseaman and ships automatically become a part of military logisticsin times of conflict, they are not considered a part of the armedforces and do not receive the benefits associated with militaryservice to the county.
The federal government addressed this oversight in 1988 whensurviving World War II merchant mariners were authorized to receivea monthly benefit of $1,000. LaRue said, though, the seaman shouldreceive more because supply ships are a prime target in war andthousands of merchant mariners have died while delivering thebeans, bullets and band aids to keep a war effort movingforward.