Merchant Marines fought for freedom in WWII

By on July 2, 2019

The history of World War II is filled with stories of the courage and sacrifice of members of the United States Armed Forces including the Marines, Army, Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard. Often overlooked, however, is the United States Merchant Marines; civilian seamen who stepped into a military role to help defeat this nation’s enemies.

Cargo ships, transports and tankers, all civilian-owned and manned, took to the sea to carry the weapons of war to battlefronts around the globe.

“When the war broke out, America was not prepared for it,” said Bill Balabanow, a Merchant Marine veteran who resides at Brethren Village. “The army and navy, they didn’t have any cargo ships, so they came to the Merchant Marine.”

Before the smoke from Pearl Harbor cleared large convoys of ships set sail for ports in England and the Pacific, all burdened down with men, ammunition and equipment.

“We were the truck drivers of the sea,” said Merchant Marine veteran Clarence Newcomer, 92, of Manheim. “We carried 98 percent of everything that the army, navy, Coast Guard, Air Force, Marines needed to do their jobs. And we carried the men themselves. There wouldn’t have been an invasion of Normandy, an invasion of Italy or North Africa, without the Merchant Marines.”

More than 215,000 men of the Merchant Marines took to sea, sharing the same risks as any of the military units they carried. And, like the military, the Merchant Marines paid a price.

Some 733 American merchant ships totaling 3.1 million tons were lost at sea to enemy airplanes, mines, or submarines. Of the 215,000 sailors of the Merchant Marines, 8,651 died, including at least two men from Lancaster County; William M. Musser, lost in 1944, and Charles G. Palmer who was killed in 1942. Proportionally, the Merchant Marines suffered larger losses than any other branch of service. Merchant Marine deaths were 1 man in every 26 who served. This was in contrast to losses for the Marines (1 in 34), Army (1 in 48), Navy (1 in 114) and Coast Guard (1 in 421).

Men were not drafted into the Merchant Marines, but rather they volunteered Balabanow, 93, had just turned 17 in 1944 when he tried to enlist in the Navy. He failed the physical because of a twisted spine.

“I was listed as 4-F,” he said.

Undaunted, Balabanow heard that the Merchant Marines were recruiting.

“We were told we were going to go into government service,” he said.

Newcomer, who joined in November 1944, heard about the Merchant Marines from a friend.

“He said to me ‘do you wanna go join the Merchant Marines?’ and I said ‘what the heck is the Merchant Marines?’” Newcomer said. “He told me they were looking for men and we could go to Philly and sign right up and we could get going. So we did and the next thing I knew I was at Sheepshead Bay (in Brooklyn NY) for boot camp.”Training was supposed to last 13 to 15 weeks but the demands of the war sped up the process.

“Our training was supposed to include survival training, rowboat training, swimming and all that stuff,” Newcomer said. “But we didn’t get any of that.”

He never even set foot on a ship until he was assigned to the SS Marine Robin for his first convoy; the first of nine back and forth trips he would make. Besides troops below decks in the hold, the

SS Marine Robin’s topside deck was crammed with equipment; tanks, trucks, jeeps, or even airplanes.

“Whatever they could fit on the deck we carried,” Newcomer said.

The ship was headed for England, although Newcomer did not know that.

“We had no idea where we were going, what we were going to run into,” he recalled. “You just never knew.”

Newcomer was made a steward and served meals to 24 Army officers. On that first convoy 13 ships were sunk or damaged after being torpedoed by German submarines or striking mines. Forty-two Merchant Marines or Navy men were lost.

It wasn’t just submarines and mines that the men who sailed these waters had to fear. There was Mother Nature herself.

Clarence Newcomer (left) and Bill Balabanow served as Merchant Marines during World War II.

“A lot of people don’t realize that sailing the North Atlantic, especially in wintertime, was no picnic,” Newcomer said. “We went through hurricanes and major storms with huge swells. We’d be down in a hole surrounded by water and the next thing you knew we’d pop back up on top of the waves.”

Unlike Newcomer, Balabanow, who served as a radio operator, saw duty on two oceans. While he served on cargo vessels in the Atlantic, his last ship during the war was the tanker Esso Camden which ferried aviation fuel to Pacific battle fronts in the Philippines and Okinawa.

The tanker carrying Balabanow left Aruba on June 19, 1945 for her only wartime voyage. Headed for the Philippines she passed through the Panama Canal, then across the Pacific to Homonhon

Island in Leyte Gulf before dropping anchor at Manila.

“We discharged part of our cargo at the Philippines then we went on to Okinawa,” Balabanow said.

On Okinawa the battle for the island still raged.

“I distinctly remember seeing flashes ashore and we were told that is was night bombing or the Marines mopping up by trying to blow up Japanese hidden in bunkers,” Balabanow said. “We could watch the bombing on shore from the ship. The Japanese had a lot of bunkers there with troops inside.”

After Okinawa, the Esso Camden headed for home, stopping first at the large Pacific Fleet anchorage at Ulithi Atoll. She left Ulithi on Aug. 27, 1945, 12 days after the Japanese surrendered, and was approaching Balboa at the Panama Canal when the surrender formally ending the war was signed in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2.

Both men rejoiced at the end of the war. For Newcomer it meant he could smoke on deck at night and open the curtains of the ship’s portholes without fear of inviting a torpedo. He left the Merchant Marines in 1947.

After the war Balabanow stayed on and served on ships carrying food and supplies as part of the Marshall Plan to rebuild war-torn Europe. He retired from the Merchant Marines in 1979. The end of the war, however, found the Merchant Marines as being the odd men out when it came to the nation showing its gratitude. While men who wore America’s uniforms of Marines, Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard, were celebrated and paraded along Main Streets all across America, the Merchant Marines were ignored. They received no GI benefits or any other recognition and, in fact were even called derogatory names.

“People didn’t even want to admit we were there,” Newcomer said. “Popular people like newsman Walter Winchell didn’t like us and called us draft-dodgers and that we were drunken seamen.”
It wasn’t until 1985 when Code of Federal Regulations 3.1 was passed giving them limited recognition along with 18 other groups such as the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators, Reconstruction Aides and Dieticians.

Real recognition came in 1988 when Merchant Marines who served on ships from Dec. 7, 1941 until Aug. 15, 1945, were officially classified as veterans. Since then memorials across the country began acknowledging the Merchant Marines’ service. The national World War II Memorial in Washington D.C. has a bronze plaque right along with the other branches of the service, and their theme song sounds and their flag waves at military burials in Fort Indiantown Gap. In 2005 Pa. House Bill 58 awarded $500 bonuses to Merchant Marine veterans from Pennsylvania.

Locally, Merchant Marine veterans with proper documentation &tstr; an Honorable Discharge (DD214) and campaign medal — are entitled to membership in the Amvets, American Legion and VFW. Their service is also honored on area memorials across Lancaster County including Millersville, Landisville, East Lampeter, Woodland Hills Cemetery in Lancaster and in Lancaster Square. A memorial planned for Manheim will also acknowledge the Merchant Marines.

Merchant Marines were recently added to the Veterans Honor Park of Lancaster County, which includes an obelisk bearing the bronze emblem of each military service. The inclusion of the Merchant Marines was due largely to the lobbying of Balabanow and Newcomer and funding from Lititz American Legion Post 56.

“We just want to be treated equal, which we should be,” Newcomer said. “We earned it.”

Larry Alexander is a freelance writer and columnist based in Ephrata. He is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He can be contacted at 

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