American Merchant Marine Page Hosted by Bruce Felknor

Song of the Merchant Mariner
by Bruce L. Felknor

Now hear the song of America's merchant marine,
Its Herculean deeds in World War Two,
Supplying the needs of its country's war machine,
Disdaining all perils as only the brave can do.

A hundred eighty thousand men and boys,
None drafted, ev'ry one a volunteer,
To serve on ships the oceans tossed like toys,
Deliv'ring an invading army's gear;

Each knowing ev'ry time he sets to sea
That out of port he's in a zone of war,
Where lurking submarines can plainly see
His ship a target, just another score.

Torpedoes' wakes are hard to see at night,
But when they hit, the sea's suffused with light.

A hundred eighty thousand gallant souls,
From nineteen forty-one to 'forty-five,
They sailed across the oceans' seas and shoals,
To keep the Allies' chance to win alive.

In old rust-buckets, lumb'ring Libertys,
They braved the winter North Atlantic's storms,
In tankers too, and newer Victorys,
Through oceans' rolling, pitching, tossing norms.

And in the far Pacific--misnamed ocean!
Nothing like some atoll's calm lagoon--
Epitome of violence in motion:
They faced the fury of a full typhoon.

In convoy, or alone on zig-zag course,
The billows were the U-boat's stalking horse.

A hundred eighty thousand seamen who--
Civilians to a man--confronted death,
From torpedoes, guns, and bombs that flew;
Each trip meant facing death with ev'ry breath.

No-one knew the destination when
A man signed on to make another trip
(The captain has all secrets in his ken,
To be destroyed if they abandon ship.)

Some faced it more than others; when you sail
With "ammo" or with aviation gas,
You know that if one day your luck should fail,
Your body won't attend your fun'ral mass

The U-boat captain's dream is realized:
When such a ship is hit it's vaporized.

Offshore, in Carolina's latitude,
A stalking U-boat's periscope reveals
A coastal tanker riding deep with crude.
The unterseeboot sends a brace of "eels."

Explosions, and a viscous pad of oil
Congeals and thickens on the icy brine.
Blown overboard, two swimmers vainly toil
Until their strength is gone, and then resign.

Down by the stern, the tanker bursts afire;
A gutt'ring flame spreads o'er the oil-choked sea.
Now sinks the stern; the upright bow's a pyre
That's quenched in diving to eternity.

A lifeboat head-count tallies who's alive:
Thirty-two of forty-four survive.

A hundred eighty thousand mothers' sons,
And thousands faced the U-boats and the planes
'Long Norway's coast: the deadly Murmansk runs,
Where death and ice bestrode the ocean lanes,

Where submarines, torpedo planes, and more,
Where German cruisers joined the fight to close
The Allies' access to North Russia's door,
Thereby relief to Stalingrad foreclose.

Far north beyond the Arctic Circle, and
Bear east and sail across the Barents Sea;
Turn south: Murmansk or Arkangelsk. There's land!
No subs, but bombers, bombers constantly.

Midsummer ice and sunlit nights conspire
With subs and bombers: unremitting fire.

A hundred eighty thousand, some of whom
In convoys sailed "the Med" to bring supplies
For Sicily's invasion, anteroom
To Hitler's Europe, and to his demise.

A trick when eastbound vessels reach Gibraltar:
Limpet bombs stuck to the hull by swimmers.
The watch of marksmen downward peer, nor falter
To shoot whatever moves among the glimmers.

We're moored at Bari; German planes appear,
Torpedo, bomb, and strafe. Unloading ships
With troops and ammunition disappear,
Blown skyward in a small Apocalypse.

A quaint and bustling port when all is well,
With bombs can be the hinterland of hell.

On D-Day hordes of men and tons of gear
Crossed the English Channel to a port
That ne'er existed any other year,
Invented for this day, great tides to thwart.

An artificial port, breakwaters, piers,
All made in England, towed to France's door,
And sunk in place, so ships could dock in tiers
And land their cargo right on Europe's shore.

Down the channel sailed a bridge of ships,
With men and cannons, trucks and jeeps and tanks,
Machine guns, pistols, rifles, loaded clips,
And ev'rything to arm and feed the Yanks.

All brought by merchant ships and tugs and crews,
Without which the Allies were sure to lose.

A hundred eighty thousand; many went
Into the far Pacific and its isles,
To often-hostile beach with armament
And food and gas and medics' goods in piles.

A Liberty moored to a rickety pontoon pier
Discharges, using its winch and cargo booms
On drums of gas, assorted crates--we hear
A plane! Guns manned; a friend. The work resumes.

Sometimes the guns of merchant ships were all
The antiaircraft weapons at the beach.
Each shell-burst formed a threat'ning smoky pall;
and some shots blew up planes that they could reach.

Then Kamikazes: some of them were killed,
Their sacred mission ever unfulfilled.

The war was won in nineteen forty-five,
And then began the troops' repatriation.
The homeward-bound in merchant ships arrive,
To great parades and gen'ral celebration.

GIs came home to preference in hiring,
Home-purchase mortgage guarantees, and yet--
The GI Bill of Rights their zeal inspiring--
A college education free of debt.

The Army and its Air Force were included,
The Navy and the Coast Guard and Marines,
But the merchant seaman was excluded:
The one that fueled and fed their war machines.

He offered his life to his country each time that he sailed.
To thank him his country and congress and government failed.

Two shipmates who were prisoners of war,
Slave-labor at notorious River Kwai,
Protested their exclusion from the corps
Of veterans. They're rebuffed at ev'ry try.

Forty-two years later, joined by friends,
They took the case to U.S. District Court,
Where the string of slights abruptly ends
With a solid finding of support.

Vets at last, when half their mates have died,
Old men, too late for college, housing loans.
Forty years late, being vets brings a surging of pride--
And a veteran's marker to label the site of their bones.

Of all branches they died in the war at the paramount rate,
And got grudging acknowledgement, finally, forty years late.

[There were 180,000 men sailing at the end of 1944.]

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