WWII Merchant Mariners Get
Long-Deserved Recognition As Combat Veterans
by Ken Corn
Brevard resident and World War II veteran Harold Wellington (pictured above) traveled to Baltimore for the 2020/21 American Merchant Marine Veteran Convention and Congressional Gold Medal celebration. This year, the convention is notable because the U.S. Government will recognize the Merchant Marines who fought during the Battle for the Atlantic of World War II as combat veterans.
In 2019 Congress passed the Merchant Mariner Act. The Merchant Mariner sailors were officially recognized for shipping supplies to the Allies while sailing defenseless against German submarines patrolling the Atlantic Ocean. President Donald J. Trump signed the Act into law in the spring of 2020. The remaining living World War II Merchant Marines, like Harold Wellington, were supposed to be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal during the 2020 convention. The COVID 19 pandemic postponed the ceremony in the summer of 2020 and in November of 2020. Finally, the Merchant Marine Association organized this convention to honor these veterans with the Congressional Gold medal to these deserving veterans.
The attendees of the event visited the S.S. John W. Brown docked in the Port of Baltimore. “Welcome aboard the John W. Brown, please watch your step,” A John Brown docent said as twenty-one WWII veterans, eleven of them over 100-years-old, climbed up the gangway and into the past.
The S.S. John Brown is one of only two remaining operational Liberty Ships that participated in World War II. The tour brought back memories for 94-year-old Edward Pascale.
“A lot of memories of being up at night, all night standing by the guns. The submarines were out there and they were hunting, and we were chasing the submarines,” described Pascale.
Museum V.P. Ken Corn shoots video of Merchant Mariner Edward Pascale on the deck of the SS John W Brown.
These men faced an enemy hidden by the sea. They never knew when they were about to be ambushed. Some of these men served in the engine room forty feet below the waterline. According to Brevard resident Harold Wellington, if a ship were to be hit by a torpedo, the water would pour in on top of the men in the engine room, and they would not get out. Standing in the boiler room of the John Brown, Wellington remembers his first time stepping foot on a Liberty Ship. His supervisor took him down into the engine room and left him there with no training.
“They brought me down here and said, ‘this is the boiler room you got the first watch,’ then turned and walked off,” said Wellington. “I have never seen this thing before. What in the hell do I do now?”
Merchant Mariner Harold Wellington talks about his time aboard a Liberty Ship during WWII
Being a Merchant Marine was a dangerous job in a war zone. The U.S. Government refused to acknowledge the Merchant Mariner as a combat veteran. WWII Merchant Mariner, Lee Cox, remembers how the other servicemen unfairly treated him. Cox said other military personal believed the merchant sailors were civilians instead of people serving their county.
Cox said, “We got insulted a lot during the war by the Army guys.” He went on to say that Navy guys would say, “Hey draft dodger drunks”.
Bill Balabanow also remembers his days in the Merchant Services during the war. He believes the American public did not give the same recognition to the merchant sailors as other military branches.
“Our casualty rate was higher than any other branch in the Service,” said Balabanow. “People don’t know we were there during the invasions of all those islands in the Pacific.”
WWII Merchant Mariner Lee Cox in the engine room of the Liberty Ship SS John W. Brown during a tour.
At a gala dinner the last night of the convention, the U.S. Maritime Administrator unveiled the secret design for the Merchant Marine Congressional medal. Medal shortages caused by the Covid 19 Pandemic prevented the Maritime Administrator from awarding the gold medal to the veterans. The U.S. Mint will not publicly release the images on the medal until they make the awards. The attendees of the convention got a sneak peek at the drawings of the medal. The Maritime Administrator asked everyone in the room not to publish pictures of the drawing on social media and asked the press not to release any images on professional media outlets.
Veterans like 101-year-old Charles A. Mills say that it is about time that the government recognizes their combat service.
“No Army, Navy, Coast Guard, or Marine Corps can move without the U.S. Merchant Marine because we are the supplier,” Mills declared. “You can’t fight a war without a supplier.”
Thank you for recognizing these brave souls. My father was Army infantry in WWII and I’m sure was delivered to foreign shores by a Merchant Marine vessel. As a civilian he became a licensed Master Mariner as did I. I am proud of their courage and am giving a presentation on them next year at the Combart Art Symposium at the Museum of the Marine Corps and would appreciate any support or contacts.
Capt. Wallace, I am grateful for your service to our country and for your father’s in both the Army and Merchant Marine. You are honoring these patriots with your presentations.
Janis Allen, Board Member, Veterans History Museum of the Carolinas
It would help to know where his museum is located.
Great question, Tom Shytle. The Veterans History Museum of the Carolinas is located at 21 East Main Street in Brevard, NC. Please visit when you’re in the area; we would love to meet you.
P.S. The Veterans History Museum of the Carolinas has a gallery dedicated to the Merchant Marine. The veteran mentioned in this article, Harold Wellington, gives personal tours that include stories about his service on convoy duty in the North Atlantic. In the fall of 2022, we will have video programs of this and our other galleries available on http://www.theveteransmuseum.org.
I publish an e-newsletter which includes information about coming events as well as streaming programs. If you would like to receive this, please email email@example.com, or click here to subscribe to our email list. Thank you for your interest!
I would like to know if my uncle was on this list. Elmer Newton Gibbons. Born around 1916-1918. Merchant Marine Captain from California, that I know of.
When will the U.S. Merchant Marine be recognized on patriotic holidays like the upcoming Memorial day? Who should be notified ?
I am a combat veteran of the Vietnam war. I have often wondered why the merchant marine veterans, especially those from WW II, have never been fully thanked by their country for the courageous service displayed in execution of their duties. Without them supplying the essentials of fighting a war, the outcome could well have had a different ending. I am also sure that most Americans don’t realize that they suffered the highest death rate of all the combat participants, losing over 8,000 sailors. WE OWE THESE SAILORS MORE THAN WORDS CAN SAY. Give them their due on all our veterans days because they truly deserve our gratitude.
Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Juergen H. Thode. At the Veterans History Museum of the Carolinas, we agree with you. We have a gallery dedicated to exhibits and to honoring the brave heroes of the Merchant Marine. In the fall of 2022, we will post video tours of this and our other galleries on our website. To receive info about this and other new events and videos, I invite you to subscribe to our free e-newsletter by sending your request to firstname.lastname@example.org or click here to subscribe to our email list. Thank you for your interest!. Thank you for helping to honor these courageous Americans.
You and I were in Team 96, IV Corps in early 1968 during and after Tet. Amazing we’re still able to reconnect. I have a goofy picture of you driving a Saigon cyclo with your devilish and funny grin. Always wanted to find you and SFC Ernest Toby. Mike Garcia and Dale Boatman are still productive and good people. Our DSA, Colonel John FP Hill was buried at Arlington in 2011. Never met a more caring and honorable military or civilian leader.
You need your cyclo picture….your family would B love it. Best wishes, Mike Cox McKague
James Thomas Lindsey, in his 98th year, was recently recognized along with a group of 9 other WWII Merchant Marine Veterans by Speaker Pelosi in the House of Representatives. They received beautiful bronze replicas of the Gold Medal that was struck to honor this service. He deserves to have some recognition in the local press. Where do we go to get a Press release on this event.? The paper will not print a story without authentic verification
I am just seeing this, my father was in the MM, during WWII. I had no idea they were finally being recognized for their service. Unfortunately, he passed last year at the age of 95. He originally worked for Higgins Boat here in New Orleans at the age of 16. How do I go about obtaining a medal for him to put with his flag? Who do I contact?
If I would have known, I would have made sure he was recognized before his passing.
My dad died 2 years ago at the age of 100. He went to college on his own dime, while preaching full-time as a Methodist minister. Thankfully, after he retired and buying a house, he was able to get a VA loan. He also qualified to go to the GWV Nursing Home (Blue Goose).
In response to Mr. Balabanow’s statement, my dad didn’t drink or cuss when he joined or discharged. He was everybody’s best friend because he could be their DD.
Is there a way to find men still living that were on my dad’s ships?
Thank you for covering this important information! As a Navy vet, I, like others, had wondered why the WWII Merchant Mariners were not considered ‘veterans’ of WWII. My father, Oscar Louie Ingram, attended the Merchant Marine academy during WWII, and served as an officer oboard the E. A. Peden as a Jr. Engineer. I was very surprised when I saw the 1950 census where he listed himself as not being a veteran. I had previously assumed they were considered veterans. I am so glad this has been corrected. Unfortunately, my Dad died in 1980, so never knew this!
My Dad was in the Merchant Marines during WWII but he was not notified of the recognition. Who can we contact? He is alive and well – turning 95 in Jan. He joined young. Thank you!!
My father trainer at what is now the USMMA (King’s Point) in 1940. He was commissioned as a LT JG and sailed the North Atlantic under the Lend Lease policy. He was also commissioned in the US Navy. He saw action in the Mediterranean as well as the MidEast. Under this new designation, would I as his son be able to apply for his Gold Medal (bronze version), and if so, how? Thank you in advance. John R. Finegan, Southbury, CT