Howard V. Wilson: Battle for the Atlantic
The men and women of the United States Maritime Service (Merchant Marine) were chief among the unsung heroes of World War II. U.S. merchant ships, privately owned and manned by civilian crews, were the first American casualties of the war, before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The ships of the Maritime Service were crucial to the movement of U.S. troops, and of supplies and equipment to Allied nations abroad, marking them as important targets for the Germans and Japanese. By January 1942, German U-boats lurked off the east coast of the United States with the goal of destroying American Naval and cargo ships. Because of their importance to the war effort, they played a key role in the "Battle for the Atlantic" - the ongoing struggle for control of shipping on the Atlantic Ocean. In 1941, to meet the need for increased shipping, President Roosevelt ordered that 1,751 "Liberty Ships" be built, and that 250,000 men be recruited to crew them.
By the end of the war, the U.S. Maritime Service had sustained more casualties than any other branch of service during the war. More than 9,000 merchant seamen were lost (1 in 26), and at least 1,554 ships were sunk.
LC = Linda Cameron, interviewer
HW = Howard V. Wilson
HW: Well it was '43 when I went to Murmansk. That was in December of '43.
LC: And why were you sent there?
HW: Well, we had to deliver supplies, because the Russians were Allies, too, you know.
LC: What kind of supplies were you carrying?
HW: Well, we had just about everything, pertaining to the war.
LC: Tell me what happened.
HW: The convoys that went to Russia, there was over 30 convoys that didn't make it to Russia, and there was only about sixteen ships that made it back. So I was on one of the lucky ships that made it back.
When we went by Norway [the Murmansk Run took ships from Scotland to Russia, over the top of Norway], well, you could hear the planes. It was overcast, so they probably couldn't see us, so we were lucky that we made it there.
We were in [the] bay in Murmansk, and we got bombed. So the skipper – we pulled anchor, and then we went to Archangel. Then from Archangel we got icebreakers…
LC: Where's "Archangel?"
HW: Well, that was just up before you get to the White Sea. It was Archangel. So then we had a couple of icebreakers breaking our way through, and we hit Molotov, Bukaruski[?], and Solombo[?]. We delivered supplies at every port. But then, we had to be out of there at the end of May, otherwise we'd been froze in again. We hit Archangel, Molotov, Bukaruski[?], and Solombo[?]…up in Solombo[?] we – there was another ship that – his propeller or the screw, they'd called it, was…they couldn't make it back, so we had to give 'em half our supplies that we had so we'd have supplies coming home. But then, we was ready to come home. Well, we had seven Russian pilots that we brought back, and we gave [them] to an English ship [so] that we wouldn't have to go into England, and they were in the invasion of Normandy. And we were on our way home, then, and we had pulpwood for ballast. It was pretty rough in the seas. Just like a cork in the water; 30-foot waves, and what not.
LC: You mentioned that you had Navy gunners...?
HW: Oh, yeah, there were Navy gunners [U.S. Naval Armed Guard] aboard our ship, because they were supposed to protect our cargo, and everything, but we still manned – helped man the guns, too, at that time, but later on it was different.
LC: Were your ships originally armed with guns, or were they added?
HW: Well, our ship had a few guns. Before, a lot of them, had just a pole – a telephone pole that looked like a big gun.
LC: And a lot of the ships were lost during that convoy, correct?
HW: Yes. Yes, there was a lot of ships, and a lot of seamen that's out in the water, that has been forgotten about, that our country should recognize all the ones that made the effort for World War II that are still out in the sea, and they don't get their recognition.
Editor's Note: The men and women of the Maritime Service were not given Veteran status at the end of the war, even though recruits entering service from June to December 1942 were officially sworn into and later discharged from the Naval Reserve. They were not provided with G.I. Bill benefits, and were at a disadvantage when competing with other veterans for jobs. Howard Wilson and other veterans finally received recognition as Veterans of World War II from Congress in 1988, too late for full benefits.
Wilson, Howard V.; Linda Cameron, Interviewer, Howard V. Wilson Oral History, Minnesota Historical Society: Minnesota's Greatest Generation Project, 2007.