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Steve Lunetta: Never forget: World War II Marine Merchants

Posted: October 4, 2009 9:50 p.m.
Updated: October 5, 2009 4:55 a.m.
I am always fascinated by untold stories from our nation's past that illustrate, entertain and cause reflection.

One such story is that of our valiant Merchant Marine during World War II.

Without understanding our past, we run the risk of losing important lessons that were paid for in sweat - and blood.

I received such a lesson last Sunday when my wife bought us tickets on the SS Lane Victory, a World War II-era freighter that cruises five times per year from Long Beach Harbor to Catalina and back again.

The Lane Victory is a fully restored Victory ship built at Long Beach. Launched in May 1945, she cruised one time in the South Pacific before the war ended.

She also served during the Korean War, rescuing 7,000 refugees fleeing the Chinese army.

Finally, she saw service during the Vietnam War, ferrying cargo to our troops in the 1960s.

Mothballed for 20 years, she was finally given to the United States Merchant Marine Veterans of World War II by President Ronald Reagan in 1988.

The ship has been carefully and painstakingly restored to its original condition.

The men who crew her today are a mix of 80-year-old veterans and younger guys who want to remind us of the sacrifices of the Merchant Marine.

As I walk her decks, I am surrounded by reminders of the sacrifices of these brave men.

The decks are adorned with weapons designed to destroy the planes that sought to send her to the bottom of the sea.

Fifty-caliber machine guns and 20-mm deck guns were some of the tools for this deadly business.

Unfortunately, against a determined Kamikaze attacker seeking to strike the ship with his own plane, the weapons were fairly useless.

These weapons could not disintegrate a plane fast enough before it hit, causing the sailors to have the saying, "If the 20s open up, hit the deck."

Disaster could strike the ship at any moment and the defensive tools provided could do little to prevent it.

The engine room is not a place for the faint of heart. Older ships were powered by steam created by heating water in boilers with fuel oil.

The heat from the boilers makes the room a living hell - 105 degrees Farenheit with no air movement. If the heat were not bad enough, the dangers of the room machinery are real.

Many surfaces are scalding hot. Super-heated steam is an invisible gas that can cook the flesh off bone in seconds. Explosions due to excessive pressure were common.

I had heard the word "oiler" describing a position within the engine room and asked one of the veterans what it was.

The octogenarian replied that an oiler was simply the man who oiled the engine.

He then fearlessly stuck his hand into the moving parts of the engine to show me how it was done. At 80, the man still had no fear.

Within the main corridors of the crew areas, plaques are affixed in commemoration of all of the merchant ships lost during WWII, including the names of the seamen who perished.

Under the name of each lost ship is a description of the circumstances of its sinking.

Most ships lost were due to torpedo attacks or shelling from German U-boats (submarines).

Some of the crew lists were very large, signifying that all crew members were lost.

Often, these were ships separated from convoys and were attacked alone.

The crews would radio for help, then clamber into the life boats, never to be seen again.

The treacherous and cold North Atlantic claimed many merchant seaman. Their families would never know their fate.

During the return cruise from Catalina, we were "attacked" by four Nazi fighter aircraft.

During their initial approach, they flew in formation at low level, heading straight for our position.

I could only imagine the fear struck into the hearts of the merchant sailors, many just 17 or 18 years of age, as they stared down the radial-engined horrors that quickly approached.

As the mock battle ensued, deck guns firing blanks and German aircraft catching fire, I once again marveled at the bravery of the men on these small ships.

Lacking heavy ordinance or armor, the men fought with what weapons they had, hoping it was sufficient to live and fight another day.

The men of the United States Merchant Marine and Navy Armed Guard laid an immense offering on the altar of freedom.

We should never forget.

Steve Lunetta is a Santa Clarita resident. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. "Right About Now" runs Mondays in The Signal.


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