Pacific Lifelines

Excerpt from: Sea War: The Story of the U. S. Merchant Marine in World War II, by Felix Riesenberg, Jr., New York: Rinehart & Company, Inc., 1956

Big convoys were sailing in the spring of 1943 and in their history belongs the story of Captain Thomas Blau, USNR, one of the great sailors of his day.

Born in Riga, Latvia, and sent to sea at the age of nine, Blau entered the United States Navy when he was seventeen years of age to serve one hitch. He then spent fifteen years in the ships of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, rising to command.

A big, forthright man, who combined sternness with great good humor, Captain Blau went into the Navy during the first World War and among the honors he earned was the Navy Cross for salvaging a torpedoed freighter. In World War II he commanded thirty-thee convoys, hauling four hundred thousand troops without the loss of a single ship although under attack many times. This record brought him a citation from Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King, which noted among other acknowledgements that

". . . By his valuable suggestions for the improvement of the convoy system and his productive contacts with the Merchant Service and Allied Naval units, Captain Blau attained highly beneficial results for our forces and contributed materially to the successful prosecution of the war. . . .

Admiral King's commendation of Captain Blau was not type of report that the American public was receiving about the Merchant Marine. More characteristic was the banner that the Akron Beacon Journal streamed across its first page on January 21, 1943, for the edification of Ohio readers:


The following story carried the charge that merchant sailors had refused to work cargo on a Sunday. When the Associated Press picked it up and put it on the wire, the National Maritime Union filed two libel suits, each for two million dollars, and threatened a third. All over the country people talked about the "Guadalcanal mutiny."

On January twenty-ninth the Navy issued a release from Washington which quoted Admiral Halsey as saying that "in no instance have merchant sailors refused to unload vital supplies at Guadalcanal." A House Affairs Sub-Committee investigated the "strike" story and found it false.

Serious charges of insubordination were made by individual military officers in the Pacific, Mediterranean and even at lonely Ascension Island in the South Atlantic. Quick enough at tradition and usage, some of these gentlemen were either openly rebelling against or were ignorant of the War Shipping Administration regulations that governed the work of merchant seamen, even though the WSA existed in the office of their Commander in Chief.

Some old-timers seemed to think they were coaling ship in the Spanish-American War Navy; "ninety-day wonders" inclined to act like socialite bouncers at a country-club dance. Writers who later set down the stories from a military angle recorded "incidents" in which the Merchant Marine "gave trouble," using that and similar phrases as though they were describing insubordination on the part of a recalcitrant domestic employee.

From Midway, on the eve of the Japanese carrier attack in July of 1942, came the damning report that merchant seamen had been paid one thousand dollars each to sail the Nira Luckenbach out from Hawaii and upon arrival refused to unload bombs and gasoline on a Sunday unless paid double overtime.

That was the substance of a "memory" report which was made and confirmed by the military and later quoted within Armed Forces circles. The report again was not true, and the Navy itself established that one of the confirming witnesses was a person of unstable character. But the slander received greater circulation than the statements of fact by merchant mariners:

The Nira Luckenbach, with five hundred tons of bombs and two thousand barrels of gasoline, together with other vital provisions, arrived at Midway on May thirty-first. Captain William Stone found neither gear nor stevedores, although he had been assured that adequate facilities and manpower were available to discharge the dangerous cargo.

Only the three deck officers, the carpenter and the bosun were able to run the fast deck winches which they proceeded to do, discharging "wing and wing." There were no nets for the gasoline drums so the merchant sailors used escape nets from under the lifeboats; the carpenter made special slings for the ammo in Number 1 hold and the hazardous job of handling the winch there was taken by the Third Mate, an old steam-schooner sailor.

The trouble, and the basis for the subsequent false reports, began with the buck-passing over which military man would sign for the $1.05 per hour overtime to be paid the winch-driving officers, not the crew. No one-thousand-dollar bonus was ever paid anyone, and the crew did not refuse to work.

Sandwiched between the Guadalcanal and Nira Luckenbach aspersions was an incident that occurred in Alaskan waters during September, and received wide notice when Drew Pearson picked up a version of it for use in his October 23, 1942, column, "The Washington Merry-Go-Round." Commenting on "union hours" he wrote:

On the other hand, Army and Navy officials accuse seamen of malingering even in zones of war. In a foreign port a destroyer approached a docked merchant vessel and called out "Throw us a line." But the merchant crew having done their eight hours, was ashore and there was no one to throw a line. . . .

In open harbors subject to enemy bombing, Army and Navy officers want to unload transport vessels in a hurry, regardless of the 8-hour day. But merchant seamen quit on the stroke of the clock, they cry.

Coming from a newspaperman like Drew Pearson this report seemed as factual as it was condemning. Only a few people at the time heard the version of Captain Frederick T. Coleman, master of the Liberty ship Thomas Jefferson.

The Jefferson was anchored, not docked, in Kuluk Harbor, Alaska, when a United States Navy destroyer ranged alongside just after seven in the morning, unheralded, and threw a heaving line onto the after deck where thirty soldier passengers were idling. With too much way on her the destroyer overran the landing and her skipper was given the "Bronx Cheer" by GIs.

On the next attempt, after eight o'clock when the merchant crew had turned-to, the destroyer was secured and took aboard fuel. The skipper did not sign for the oil until forced to by orders from his superior and then with bad grace, as though the master of a Liberty ship and not the Nation's Chief Executive had passed the regulation. An officer from the destroyer came aboard the Jefferson, tossed a slip of paper at the Chief Engineer, and said, "There's the receipt for your goddam oil!"

These and many other cases, as against a very few displays of individual baulking, were magnified, publicized and repeated until they were firmly entrenched in the minds of the American people. The public would give a collective shrug to the story that the United States Army had honored twenty-four-year-old seaman Robert Reese Clay with the Purple Heart for saving the lives of seventeen men in a torpedoing off New Guinea when his own leg was shattered. Things went so far as to give birth to the ridiculous yarn that union sailors had refused to lower the boats until guaranteed overtime when a Japanese submarine torpedoed their ship in the Indian Ocean.

The death toll of merchant mariners had passed the three-thousand mark before the Pacific offensive was well underway, and almost that many more would die at sea before the end. Every day widows and parents were receiving a WSA communication signed, "E. S. Land, Administrator:"

We know that words of condolence can be of little comfort to you in your grief for the death of your brave _____________, __________ but we want you to feel we share in your sorrow. As truly as any member of our Armed Forces who is killed in battle your __________ gave his life for our country and the cause for which it fights -- the hope of freedom on this earth for all mankind. . . . It takes iron fortitude and indifference to danger to be a good merchant seaman in this war. Their duty is to face -- on every voyage -- the constant threat of death, and go on with their work accepting this threat as the commonplace risk of a day's job. . . .


Rumors, Lies and Innuendos