As we approach Memorial Day, most Americans are conscious of honoring those who have served in the military, so it isn’t surprising that nearly all of us could name the three largest branches of the armed services — the Army, the Air Force, and the Navy (of which the Marines are the land troops). Quite a few of us could add the Coast Guard to that list.
Very few, however, would think to include the Merchant Marine, what Jack Beritzhoff, former merchant seaman and author of Sail Away: Journeys of a Merchant Seaman, calls “the forgotten branch of the military”:
David Kudler: The forgotten branch?
Jack Beritzhoff: People don’t remember that the Merchant Marine was around before the Navy — during the Revolutionary War, the Colonies hired merchantmen to protect our shores and cargoes. At the height of the Second World War, when I served, there were over 250,000 merchant sailors bringing supplies to American forces and our allies, getting torpedoed by U-boats in the Atlantic and strafed by Japanese planes in the Pacific. There are a lot of historians who say that it was our merchant fleet that won the war as much as anything.
And yet you won’t find many memorials to dead merchant sailors. We weren’t even awarded veteran status until 1987; no GI Bill for us!
David Kudler: How did you end up in the Merchant Marine?
Jack Beritzhoff: When my draft number came up, I went down to the Army recruiting office. I was a skinny boy then, and so they made me 4F, not fit for service. Well, guys didn’t want people to think they were shirking, so I went to the Marines — they turned me down too. The recruiter said, “Son, there’s no way you could carry a pack that weighs more than you!” Then he told me that there was Merchant Marine training school run by the Army out on Catalina Island off of Los Angeles.
David Kudler: Had you ever been to sea?
Jack Beritzhoff: Nope. I grew up in Alameda, right off of the San Francisco Bay, but I’d never been outside the Golden Gate. When it was time to ship out, I was assigned to the USAT Barbara C, which was due to sail out of Fort Mason in San Francisco with a convoy. I got there, and it was this old wooden steam schooner, a coastal freighter carrying a huge load of lumber to deliver across the Pacific in Australia. We sailed out at sunset under the Golden Gate with the rest of these shiny ships — but by the time the sun rose the next morning, we were all alone. We couldn’t keep up with the fleet. For most of that first leg, from San Francisco to Honolulu, I was so sea sick, I would have been just as happy to die. But I knew I had it better than some: no one shooting at me, and if they’d attacked the ship, it wouldn’t have sunk — it was all wood!
David Kudler: Not exactly a glamorous entrance to the war.
Jack Beritzhoff: No. When we pulled into ports like Hawaii, or Pago Pago, or Numea, I’d have these stories going through my head: Dorothy Lamour at Waikiki, or Joan Crawford as Sadie Thompson in Rain, or sailing into a Free French port, seeing the gendarmes and the Foreign Legionnaires, thinking about Beau Geste. But when we finally sailed into Sidney, this wooden 1880s tramp steamer flying an American flag, we passed a ferry, and this school girl leaned over the rail and yelled down to us, “Oi! What war are you fighting in?” [Laughs]
David Kudler: Were you ever actually under fire?
Jack Beritzhoff: No, we were the lucky ones. I figured any Japanese sub or plane who saw us didn’t want to waste the torpedoes. But wherever we went, we came in just after the fighting was over; there was still the stench of death. And in French Caledonia, we sailed into the biggest fleet any of us had ever seen; they were on on their way to invade the Solomon Islands.
The war was always close. One day, as we were ready to leave port, I realized that we were carrying a hold full of wooden crosses. As I wrote in my book, “I need no Memorial Day to awaken the memory of those who remain so solemnly silent beneath those wooden symbols.”
David Kudler: You say you always had these stories going through your head. Were you writing even back then?
Jack Beritzhoff: No — I never even kept a journal. I’ve always regretted that. But I’ve always been a story teller. And so a few years ago, I started writing out some of these tales that have been in my head all of these years. Then, last year, Sail Away came out. Not many people can say they published their first book at 93!
Jack Beritzhoff was born in Alameda, California in 1918. He is a fourth-generation Californian, the descendent of a California pioneer.
Jack served as a member of the United States Merchant Marine from 1942, at the height of World War II, to 1952, at the end of the Korean War.
Since leaving his life at sea on a San Francisco pier over fifty years ago, he has lived in the Bay Area town of Mill Valley. He has three children and three grandchildren. Jack started writing at the age of ninety-one. His first book, Sail Away: Journeys of a Merchant Seaman was published by Stillpoint Digital Press in 2012.
For more information about the United States Merchant Marine, visit the service’s web site, USMM.org
All images copyright © 2012 Jack Beritzhoff except for cemetery image, by Marion Doss, which as used through a Creative Commons license and recruiting poster, used courtesy of US Library of Congress posters collection