Merchant Marine Liberty ship SS Jeremiah O’Brien Replica
Upon entering the museum, a beautiful glass-encased replica of the Merchant Marine Liberty ship SS Jeremiah O’Brien draws visitors into the Harold Wellington WWII Merchant Marine Exhibit. Wellington served in the Merchant Marine from 1942 to 1946, the U.S. Army in 1948, and the U.S. Navy from 1950 to 1954.
Merchant Mariners suffered the highest rate of casualties of any service in World War II: 3.9% of their numbers or 1 in 26 mariners. [Source: usmm.org.] In his personal account of his WWII experiences, featured in “We Shall Return Victorious.” by author Janis Allen, Wellington describes the dangerous waters his ships traversed as they carried war supplies to the troops in Europe: “After boot camp, we sailed to Galveston, Texas, but I don’t know how we made it past the North Carolina coast, because they were blowing up ships like crazy down there. My first trip in early ’43 was to London while the Germans were bombing England. You could hear them coming.”
What Harold and many of his comrades did not realize when they enlisted was that the Merchant Marine was not classified as a service but rather as a civilian job. He left the Merchant Marine in 1946, having survived the war on Liberty ships dodging German air strikes and submarines. Two years later, he was drafted into the Army with the explanation that he had never been in the service. Wellington said: “We were getting blown all to pieces! And they say, ‘You’ve never been in the service.’”
After some time in the Army, Wellington was able to join the Navy, serving his country once again during the Korean War. He retired from the service in 1954.
Reflecting on the significance of the collection and on what it means to him personally, Wellington recalled: “When we were in the Merchant Marine, we were called bums, drunkards, and draft-dodgers because almost anyone could join. It did not matter if you were old or had flat feet – they took you. For a long time after I got out, I was embarrassed to admit I had been in the Merchant Marine. But I’m proud of it now.”
Congress approved a bipartisan bill
In 2019, Congress approved a bipartisan bill to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the merchant mariners of World War II. “Finally, we are getting recognition and credit for the job we did,” notes Wellington. “Unfortunately, there are not many of us left.”
An significant feature of the Veterans History Museum is its collection of rare and often unique artifacts. Harold Wellington’s Merchant Marine exhibit displays summer and winter uniforms, a lifeboat sextant, a ship’s clock made by the Chelsea Clock Company of Boston, and a life preserver off the Merchant Marine tanker SS Mission Delores, as well as books, photos, medals and ribbons.