The United States Maritime Service, sometimes referred to as Mariners, but known worldwide as the Merchant Marines, suffered casualties of 3.9 percent, equating to roughly 9,400 killed and 12,000 wounded of the roughly 215,000 crewmembers during World War II.
This number is above all other U.S. Armed Services during World War II, including the U.S. Marines with an estimated 2.94 casualty percent.
The Merchant Marines spent its service living up to its motto, “Acta non Verba” — Deeds not Words.
Two such Merchant Marines who lived this motto were Roy Walker and his twin brother Ray, born Sept. 26, 1924, in the west end of Atlanta. Their father worked the tracks for the Seaboard Railroad. The boys attended J.C. Harris Grammar School until age 11 when the family moved up the tracks to Abbeville, S.C., before eventually returning to complete their education at Central Night School in Atlanta.
Roy worked for Seaboard Railroad after graduation, but with war clouds gathering on the horizon, the twins knew they’d probably be separated for the first time. To stay together, they signed up for the Merchant Marines in mid-1941 before their country entered the war.
“We were 17 years old,” Roy said. “According to the Merchant Marine Act of 1936, even a 16-year old could sign up.”
The twins trained in St. Petersburg, Fla., and stayed at the Renaissance Vinoy. Roy said he can’t recall what he learned, but he had trouble swimming.
“They pushed me off a scaffold into the water once; I just sort of gurgled and went straight down,” Roy said. “I still can’t swim.”
Roy and Ray, plus two buddies, Earl White from New York and Tommy Thompson from Seattle, reported to Houston after graduation. Before facing the Atlantic, the foursome delivered fuel from Houston to Tampa.
“I got seasick my first day at sea,” Roy said. “Never again after that.”
The Walker twins were sent from St. Petersburg, Fla., to Sheephead’s Bay, N.Y., for radio school. The two decided to go AWOL and just went home for several days.
“When we went back, they threw us in the Steward’s Department, which is mess duty, and it worked out fine for me,” Roy said.
Once hostilities commenced, Roy and the gang were assigned to the same Liberty ship loaded down with high-octane gasoline.
“We sailed to New York first,” Roy said. “Our purser went ashore and got our orders. Then we sailed across the Atlantic. We were so heavy-laden you could reach over the sides of the ship and touch the ocean.
“Like they say, you ‘batten down the hatches,’” Roy said. “A 50-foot wave hit our ship and tore away all the life boats. Not very reassuring when you’re crossing the Atlantic during wartime.”
Always assigned duty on the Liberty ship, which President Franklin Roosevelt described as “real ugly ducklings,” they carried the war material needed for victory. A crew of 38–62 men ran the Liberty ships with a compliment of 21–40 Navy personnel to manage communication equipment and man the weapons.
“On one trip, we saw a periscope following us,” Roy said. “They dropped depth charges on it but I don’t know if we sank the sub or not.”
Roy made out a weekly menu, handled the foodstuffs, helped cook 15 dozen eggs daily and said even if they dropped an eggshell in, they left it there.
“I’d buy all the playing cards and Coca-Colas from the purser,” Roy said. “The Cokes cost me 5 cents, but I could sell them to soldiers for 50 cents and used the playing cards to run a continuous card game. The officers had a game every night and I’d furnish the cards. They would have a side “kitty” for me, so I’d make a few bucks on that, plus if an officer got mad from losing and ripped up a card, I’d charge him $50 for a new deck.”
One soldier had a better idea. He bought all of Roy’s Cokes for 50 cents each and resold them for a dollar.
“He got caught and lost all his stripes,” Roy said. “Sort of ironic, don’t you think?”
For an 89 year old, dates and times can be confusing, but Roy still remembers the ports and cities of his service.
“On Gibraltar, we’d lower baskets to local boys and they’d send stuff back up to sell,” he said. “Once, I got a fine Gibraltar linen tablecloth for two packs of cigarettes. I didn’t smoke, so that was a great deal.”
A lifelong teetotaler, Roy shunned alcohol unlike the rest of the crew.
“I remember on one crossing, the whole crew got drunk. I found out the compass heading and steered the ship most of the night.”
He and Ray toured Marseille, France. “It was a beautiful city,” he said. “But you still saw a lot of war-related damage.” They climbed ruins in Rome, Italy. “We transported Italian diplomats back to Italy on one crossing. Nice gentlemen.”
Landing on the boot of Italy, they had to sail before high tide.
“One of our deck hands untied the hawser (ropes used as mooring lines) and tossed it off the dock,” Roy said.
“Well, someone started the screws at the same time and the hawser became entangled with the propellers. We got stuck in Italy for a month.”
Roy and his buddies convoyed several times. “We had an aircraft carrier with us once. We’d watch the planes take off and land; some went right off the end into the sea. Most of the pilots were rescued, I think.” He also recalled a day the sky was thick with airplanes. “Thousands of them all headed to Europe.” Best guess is that Roy Walker witnessed the D-Day Invasion at Normandy.
Docking at Boston in December 1944, Roy called his ‘sweetheart’ back in Georgia to ask her hand in marriage.
“She lived in Gloster,” he said. “That was a one-building town about five miles west of Lawrenceville, a flag station for the Seaboard Railroad.”
Roy and Mildred were married in the Glen Memorial United Methodist Church at Emory University. His twin brother Ray, married his own sweetheart in the same ceremony.
Roy said, “The preacher had to write down both names to be sure he married the right man to the right woman.”
The war ended with Roy and Ray Walker in Le Havre, France.
“Everybody was glad it was over,” he said. “We were glad to be alive and glad to be going home.”
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and free-lance writer. Contact Pete at firstname.lastname@example.org and visit his website ataveteransstory.us.