The Beachcomber

Helping Bring Merchant Marines History to the Surface

By MARIA SCANDALE | May 26, 2017

Unsung heroes, the Merchant Marines, are getting recognition on Long Beach Island in an exhibit at the New Jersey Maritime Museum in Beach Haven.

The fleet suffered the largest number of casualties in American wars of all skirmishes dating back to 1775, by percentage of those enlisted, yet were not recognized for veterans benefits until the 1980s.

Some were previously farmers, some were commercial fishermen; they served on ships that were targeted by the enemy. Their vessels were targets because they carried the supplies for battle.

Bringing their contributions to the public eye locally is dear to Annette K. Schreiber because her late father, Raymond, a marine electronics repairman after moving to Brant Beach in 1952, served in the Merchant Marines in both the Atlantic and Pacific during World War II.

Assembling a small exhibit from memorabilia that they have so far, Schreiber and museum President Deborah Whitcraft are honored to have it on display in time for Memorial Day.

Whitcraft commented, “At one time these poor guys were never given the recognition they deserved, and were not considered to be military men, which is atrocious. The loss to merchant ships during World Wars I and II was astronomical. And these men played a huge role in the history of the United States.”

The website usmm.org gives insight into the scope of  “What is the Merchant Marine?”

“The Merchant Marine is the fleet of ships which carries imports and exports during peacetime and becomes a naval auxiliary during wartime to deliver troops and war material.

“According to the Merchant Marine Act of 1936: ‘It is necessary for the national defense ... that the United States shall have a merchant marine of the best equipped and most suitable types of vessels sufficient to carry the greater portion of its commerce and serve as a naval or military auxiliary in time of war or national emergency. ...’

“During World War II the fleet was in effect nationalized, that is, the U.S. Government controlled the cargo and the destinations, contracted with private companies to operate the ships, put guns and Navy personnel (Armed Guard) on board. The Government trained the men to operate the ships and assist in manning the guns through the U.S. Maritime Service.”

Young Raymond Schantz Schreiber Jr. eagerly left the farm plow in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania to volunteer, and served on oil tankers as a radio officer after obtaining training. His father had been in the Navy in World War I.

“If it weren’t for the Merchant Marines, the tanks in battle wouldn’t have had fuel, the airplanes wouldn’t have had fuel,” his daughter emphasized.

“How do you think they got fuel out to these battlefields and airfields out in the middle of nowhere? The Navy did not have the resources for that, and that’s why the Merchant Marines have always come through in wartime.”

Emotion tinges the words on his behalf because for many years, acknowledgement of these service members did not come forth from the general public. Her father upon his return was not offered the GI Bill that put other veterans through college, nor veterans health benefits, nor VA loans for housing. He had attained the rank of ensign in 1944.

“I typically say that the only veterans benefit he received was to be buried in the veterans’ cemetery in Arneytown,” Schreiber stated.

We talked in the vast museum with the lights dimmed at the end of the day, an hour before the Beach Haven Borough Commission was to issue a proclamation observing May 22 as National Maritime Day.

The reporter asked Schreiber if her father ever spoke of feeling in danger.

She began, “My dad had a sense of humor, and from what I gather, most veterans, at least of World War II and Vietnam, never over-dramatize what they did or what happened. And a lot of them didn’t talk about it as well.”

She continued, “One story that I remember him telling was that he was in a convoy – and I don’t know whether it was Japanese or German submarines, I don’t know which enemy, which ocean it was – but they were being torpedoed.

“All the other ships in the convoy, he was seeing them one by one getting torpedoed. For whatever reason, they did not torpedo his ship. And my father said, ‘Oh, our ship was too small for them to waste a torpedo on.’ That’s kind of typical of things my dad would say.”

Did her father ever talk of the pain of not being acknowledged for his service?

“I’ll tell you, my dad didn’t talk much about it,” she said. “I heard more about it from my mother. My parents met at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, and on registration day, they asked him if he was a veteran and he said no.

“And everybody around gave him dirty looks because, here a 6-foot-tall guy who looks like this,” she motioned to his picture, “and they’re acting like ‘Well, why the hell wasn’t he in the war?’ So he kind of had that discrimination against him for many years until the mid-’80s, and that was finally when they were recognized as veterans.”

When Schreiber, a licensed professional counselor holding a doctoral degree, was asked how the new museum exhibit makes her feel, she realized a moment of levity. “That’s usually what I ask.

“I’m glad that finally there is a place for Merchant Marine memorabilia and that the Merchant Marines is getting the recognition that it should have had a long time ago.”

“The Merchant Marines was started in 1775. They were merchant ships that were being preyed upon by British navy ships and by other British merchant ships, and when the United States declared independence, they gave them letters of marque.” A letter of marque essentially gave permission for a vessel to be armed and used to capture enemy merchant ships, which otherwise would have been acts of piracy.

The fledgling 13 colonies had only 31 ships in their Continental Navy. So, they issued letters of marque to privately owned, armed merchant ships. “Merchant seamen who manned these ships contributed to the very birth and founding of our Republic,” says the website history.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed the value of the Merchant Marines: “(Mariners) have written one of its most brilliant chapters. They have delivered the goods when and where needed in every theater of operations and across every ocean in the biggest, the most difficult and dangerous job ever undertaken. As time goes on, there will be greater public understanding of our merchant's fleet record during this war,” World War II.

Beach Haven Mayor Nancy Taggart Davis delivered the proclamation of National Maritime Day at the May meeting of borough council.

“We’re proud to recognize it,” she added. “My father was a gunnery officer on a Merchant Marine ship, crossed the Atlantic many, many times during World War II.”

Whitcraft provided the space to display vintage war posters, documents, photographs, related books and a variety of other material.

Schrieber hopes more families come in and add to the exhibit. Several have said they had relatives who were Merchant Mariners, but few detailed local stories have surfaced yet.

“When I started posting about National Maritime Day on Facebook, some of my classmates had told me that their fathers, grandfathers, uncles had also gone into the Merchant Marines during wartime,” Schrieber said. “Some of them had been the commercial fishermen out of the area.”

Beach Haven’s proclamation says, in part: “America’s open seas have long been a source of prosperity and strength, and since before our Nation’s founding, the men and women of the United States Merchant Marine have defended them. From securing Atlantic routes during the naval battles of the Revolutionary War to supplying our Armed Forces around the world in the 21st Century and delivering American goods to overseas markets in times of peace, they have always played a vital role in our Nation’s success. During National Maritime Day, we celebrate this proud history and salute the mariners who have safeguarded our way of life.”

For more information, see the website usmm.org, and, of course, visit the N.J. Maritime Museum at 528 Dock Rd., Beach Haven, phone 609-492-0202.

 

 

 

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