Memorial Day in Lititz

By on May 28, 2014

Memorial Day speaker sheds some light on an often forgotten branch of veterans

William Balabanow

William Balabanow

Onlookers, most of them attempting to make use of whatever shade was available on a sunny and warm Memorial Day, lined up in droves on both sides of Main Street in Lititz to see the parade. Among the local emergency services vehicles, marching bands, Civil War re-enactors, and Boy and Girl Scout troops was a single Jeep Wrangler, unadorned but for a magnetic placard on the side that marked it as belonging to the Merchant Marines, the branch of service that this year’s guest speaker, William Balabanow, served in during World War II.

The crowd trailed the parade to the Moravian Cemetery for the memorial ceremony and hear Mr. Balabanow speak.

“Well, what do we call these members of the Merchant Marines?” he asked. “The preferred name is Merchant Mariner or Merchant Seaman. Never, ever do you call them a Marine.”

A round of laughter accompanied that remark, before he continued.

“A Marine is, by common acceptance, reserved for the U.S. Marine Corps. The Marines did the fighting while, quite often, it was us Mariners who took them en masse to the general staging areas and took them as much fighting material as we could get through, and then brought them home again after their job was done.”

A significant part of Balabanow’s service was during WWII. He said, “The role of the Merchant Marines in WWII was one word &tstr; logistics. The fighting branches had very few if any vessels to carry cargo. They needed tons of supplies per fighting man, millions of tons of heavy equipment in every war theater. This is what made the Merchant Marines so indispensable to the war efforts. How else would the fighting men get there? Also, the fighting men require mountains of hardware, food and medical supplies. This stuff did not just show up on a beach waiting for fighting people to come and make a war. It had to be taken there and placed in service while the beaches were being secured. And that is where the Merchant Marine came in.”

While many some may have known the job the Merchant Mariners were expected to carry out, it is unlikely that anyone in attendance expected to hear what Balabanow had to say next.

“As you all know, Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese on Dec. 7, 1941. However, here are a few little known facts that scarcely got a headline. The unarmed American vessel, the City of Rayville, was struck by a freshly laid German mine off the coast of Australia on Sept. 8, 1940. This was the first casualty of the war, as one Mariner was killed due to this war-like activity. Now this was a full year before Pearl Harbor. Prior to Pearl Harbor, there were 23 American-owned vessels that were chartered and subsequently sunk with 243 Merchant Mariners killed in action even though the U.S. technically was still neutral. This backs up our motto, “First to go and last to return.”

Another unexpected and surprising piece of information shared by Balabanow was the difficulty the Merchant Marine ships had simply escaping from our own coast.

“For a while the Merchant Marine vessels were being sunk off the coast from Halifax to Key West and in the Gulf of Mexico at an unbelievable rate,” he explained. “Sinkings occurred so close to shore that beach-side residents could see a ship exploding, burning and sinking. Records show that approximately 300 ships fill this category. The newspapers did not carry this news, only the local residents knew of these actions. In many cases, the government suppressed this news, and in some cases actually distorted the facts as it did not want the American nation to know of these horribly tragic events. It was bad for morale and detrimental to the recruiting services.”

Despite the heroic efforts of the Merchant Mariners in transporting our servicemen and women, keeping them supplied, and bringing them back home, they weren’t given much recognition until recently. Balabanow said, “It was only in 1988, after 40 years and numerous lawsuits that WWII Merchant Mariners received veteran status making them eligible for some limited benefits from the Navy and the Veterans Administration. The American Merchant Marine participated in every war and every operation since 1777. The U.S. first honored the Merchant Marine by acknowledging May 22 as National Maritime Day. Sadly for us, many calendars still do not report that date.”

After making the crowd assembled at the cemetery aware of the sacrifices made by the Merchant Marines, Balabanow made sure to remind everyone of the sacrifices all members of the Armed Services have made to keep this country free. He ended his speech by saying, “Please look around at yourselves. Thank a vet. Thank a vet for our freedom. It didn’t come cheap. God bless America!”

Merriell Moyer is a freelance feature writer for the Record Express. He welcomes your feedback at merriell071@gmail.com.

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