The Unsung Heroes of the US Merchant Marine in WWII: And the Story of Convoy PQ-17

 

Life-Line of Freedom – the Merchant Marine poster. Artist: Paul Sample. National Archives.

 

 

The United States (US) Merchant Marine Act of 1936 stated, “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…”

In the late 1930s with the US foreseeing an approaching involvement in WWII, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered US shipyards to build ships that would be needed in the conflict and established the US Maritime Service which was responsible for training merchant mariners and the men of the US Army Transport Service.

The Merchant Marine was a commercial, non-military fleet of ships that was effectively nationalized by the US government in WWII. The men of the Merchant Marine were civilian volunteers. 

The Merchant Marine ships had limited defensive capabilities. Guns, to provide a defense for the ships and crews, were placed onboard merchant ships and manned by the US Navy Armed Guard which was a special unit of Navy military personnel at that time.  

On March 11, 1941, President Roosevelt signed into law An Act to Promote the Defense of the United States, more commonly known as the Lend-Lease Act, which was a program through which the US sent food, oil and fuel, supplies, equipment, and war materiel to England, countries of the British Commonwealth, China, the Free French, other Allied nations, and the Soviet Union.  

On December 8, 1941, President Roosevelt declared war on Japan after the surprise attack December 7, 1941, on Pearl Harbor, Oahu, US Territory of Hawaii.  

The ships of the US Merchant Marine in WWII sailed around the world to deliver troops, supplies, food, aircraft, gasoline, oil, guns, shells, vehicles, tanks, bombs, ammunition, medicine, equipment, and needed materiel for war.  It played a critical, logistical role in the war. 

In addition to enemy warships, aircraft, and submarine attacks, the Merchant Marine vessels faced the perils of weather, icebergs, rough seas, mines, sharks, and in the Pacific Theater Japanese “kamikaze” attacks.

 

Battle of the Atlantic (September 3, 1939 – May 8, 1945).

After Italy joined the Axis countries on June 10, 1940, submarines of the Italian Royal Navy (Regia Marina) worked with Germany to interrupt and stop the Allied flow of supplies to areas of conflict.

The Allied forces of the US, Canada, Britain, Norway, and Brazil would fight against the warships, submarines, and aircraft of the German Navy (Kriegsmarine), the German Air Force (Luftwaffe), and the Italian Royal Navy. 

The most dangerous time during this campaign was from 1940 to the end of 1943 with resulting staggering losses of merchant vessels and other convoy ships.  

It was the longest military campaign of WWII.  

 

Ship Convoys.

The convoy system was intended to protect Allied merchant ships sailing during wartime.  Before the US entered WWII, convoys bound for British ports were escorted from convoy assembly points at Halifax and Sydney,  Nova Scotia, Canada, by the Royal Canadian Navy to a location in the mid-Atlantic Ocean where the British Royal Navy would meet and escort the convoy to its destination.  The US Navy provided convoy escorts after December 7, 1941. 

Merchant ships were grouped in the center of a convoy formation with warships, aircraft, and submarines surrounding and guarding the ships. During WWII there were over 300 convoy routes around the world.  Each convoy would have a two or three letter code indicating destination and convoy speed.  A convoy could only go as fast as the slowest ship in the convoy.  

 

The Arctic Convoys (August 1941 – May 1945). 

After Germany attacked Russia on June 22, 1941, the Soviet Union joined the Allies.  Joseph Stalin, the ruler of the Soviet Union, was in desperate need of military equipment and supplies to fight the Nazis.  The British began sending supplies and war materiel to the Soviet ports of Murmansk and Archangelsk.  The first convoy from England would arrive in Archangelsk on August 31, 1941.  Convoys to Russia would continue until the end of the war.

 

Allied Arctic Sea convoy routes WWII. Map dailymail.co.uk.

 

Three primary routes used to send supplies from the US to Russia in WWII. Map US Department of State November 28, 1945.

 

The shortest and fastest route for convoys to Russia was the Arctic Sea route.

 

Besides the dangers of Axis submarines, warships, and aircraft there were rough seas, frigid temperatures, icebergs, and ice sheets, and ice buildup on the ships. Ice buildup on ships could make the ships “top heavy” and prone to rolling over. Photograph dailymail.co.uk.

 

Also making the Arctic route dangerous was the German military occupation of Norway on April 9, 1940, which provided close proximity to Allied convoys in the Atlantic Ocean, Arctic Sea, and the Barents Sea.

 

Arctic Convoy PQ-17.

PQ-17 was the first combined Anglo-American naval operation of WWII under British command.

 

Convoy PQ-17 escort and merchant ships assembling at Hvalfjörður, Iceland. Photograph Naval History and Heritage Command.

 

Convoy PQ-17 under the command of British Commodore John Dowding set sail on June 27, 1942, from Hvalfjörður, Iceland, with a destination of Archangelsk, Russia.  

[One of the ships providing PQ-17 protection was an American destroyer the United States Ship (USS) Wichita.  Hollywood actor and US Navy Reserve Officer Douglas Fairbanks, Junior, was a member of the crew.]

 

A German Luftwaffe BV 138 reconnaissance plane photograph of PQ-17 on or about July 1, 1942. Photograph Naval History and Heritage Command.

 

A German submarine U-456 sighted and would follow convoy PQ-17 shortly after it left Iceland on June 27, 1942.

The first merchant ship, the Liberty ship Steamship (SS) Christopher Newport, was sunk on the morning of July 4 by a German torpedo bomber Heinkel HE 115.  On that same day, a US destroyer the USS Wainwright, part of the covering force for PQ-17, repulsed an attack on the convoy by German torpedo bombers.  On July 4 German torpedo bombers also sank the Liberty ship SS William Hooper.  

Back in London, England, on July 4, a decision was made that would decide the fate of PQ-17.

The First Sea Lord and Admiral of the Fleet Sir Alfred Dudley Pound was notified by Swedish intelligence that German ships including the battleship Tirpitz had left Norway to intercept Convoy PQ-17.  He consulted with Lieutenant Commander Norman Denning, an intelligence analyst with the Operational Intelligence Center for the Royal Navy, who did not detect any German ship movements at that time nor did he find any radio traffic, messages from the Norwegian Resistance, or any other threat to support the rumor of the sailing of the Tirpitz.  

Despite conflicting information about the Tirpitz, Admiral Pound ordered PQ-17 protection  ships to withdraw at high speed westward (to repulse the German ships?) and ordered the remaining ships in the convoy to “scatter” and make their own way to Russian ports.

Convoy PQ-17 was abandoned when the close and distant Allied convoy protection ships were ordered to detach from the convoy.  The merchant ships were left to plan their individual routes to Russia with ship compasses that were sometimes inaccurate in that part of the world.  It was summer in the Arctic; there was no place to “hide in the dark” because there was no darkness at that time of the year. And the ships had limited defensive capabilities.

The Germans, surprised at what happened, took advantage of every opportunity to sink the merchant vessels.  The Tirpitz did leave Norway on July 5 to intercept PQ-17 but returned to port that same day because German bombers and submarines had already been very successful in destroying the convoy.

 

PQ-17 ship losses. Map forum.worldofwarships.com.

 

Of the 35 merchant ships that left Iceland, only 11 would eventually reach a port in Russia.  One hundred and fifty-three merchant mariners were lost.

In addition to men and ships, it was reported that war materiel, equipment, and supplies lost included 200 aircraft, 3,300 trucks, 435 tanks, and other war supplies that could equip 50,000 men.  

Stalin was said to be angry and unable to understand how such a disaster could happen and questioned why convoy protection was removed.  This incident would drive a wedge of distrust between the Soviet Union and the Allies.

The Arctic supply route was halted temporarily as convoy plans were studied.  On September 2, 1942, Convoy PQ-18 left Loch Ewe, Scotland, and sailed with additional escort ships to provide protection.

 

Story of WWII Merchant Mariner Frank E. Scott. 

Frank Edward Scott.  Oral History Interview for the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas, on October 25, 2010. He was interviewed in San Antonio, Texas.

 

Merchant mariner Frank E. Scott, circa 1943. Photograph courtesy  of the Frank Scott family.

 

Frank Scott was born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, on May 9, 1925. He had two brothers, Dale and Quincy.  In 1936 his family moved to San Antonio, Texas.  He was playing touch football on December 7, 1941, when he heard about the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  

After graduating from Brackenridge High School in San Antonio in 1943 Frank went to the Merchant Marine Recruiting Office in the city to volunteer for service.  

Frank travelled to a Maritime Service base in St. Petersburg, Florida, for basic merchant seaman training in August 1943.  The training staff at the base found out he had taught swimming in San Antonio and asked him to stay on and teach survival swimming to recruits.  There was no pool at the school at the time so Frank taught new recruits survival skills in the Gulf of Mexico.  Two of the survival skills he taught were how to make a life jacket from trousers and how to jump off a tower into the water which simulated jumping from a ship.

January 3, 1944, the SS Washita.  Frank’s first assignment at sea was on the oil tanker SS Washita.  The tanker travelled in a convoy of about 200 ships to Swansea in Wales, England.  The convoy was not attacked, but at that time in the war the Atlantic route was less threatened by German submarines.  The Washita travelled back to the US, and Frank was discharged on February 2, 1944, upon fulfillment of his contract.      

[At this period of time in WWII troops and supplies were being stockpiled in England in preparation for the closely guarded secret of the Normandy, France, invasion planned for June of 1944.]

[The Merchant Marine being a non-military organization had different requirements regarding its crews.  A merchant seaman signed a contract to serve on a specific ship which may make one or more trips to various destinations.  Upon completion of the contract he had the choice to sign  another contact.  If he did not sign another contract within 30 days, he became eligible for the military draft.]

April 20, 1944, the Liberty ship SS Samuel Mcintyre.  After a visit with his family in San Antonio, Frank signed his second contract and sailed on a cargo ship the Liberty ship SS Samuel Mcintyre.  He would serve almost 9 months on this ship. The ship’s captain who Frank estimated to be around 65 years old was from Scotland and had been called back into service out of retirement. 

Job responsibilities and life aboard a merchant ship.

In his interview Frank spoke of his job and duties on a ship.

–  A  seaman’s duties included deck work, painting, standing watch, steering the ship, among other responsibilities.

–  Schedules for standing watch were midnight to 4 am, 4 am – 8 am, 8 am – 12 noon, and so forth.  One third of the crew would be on watch at any one time; a watch schedule was four hours on and eight hours off.  It was difficult to sleep between standing watch duties when traveling in the Northern Atlantic because of the long periods of daylight.

–  Tankers took about three days to unload, and cargo ships could take two to four weeks to unload.  When unloading in port, they may work for 24 hours straight. 

–  Weather was always a factor.  Storms could reek havoc on ships and convoys.

–  Crews could average around 40 – 50 merchant mariners and about 35 Navy Armed Guard.

–  Typical gun placements on merchant ships were five inch guns on the bow, eight inch long range guns on the stern, and a dozen or so anti-aircraft guns.  

–  Barrage balloons were sometimes used to deter German aircraft from attacking a ship.

–  When leaving the US the crew didn’t always know the ship’s destination.  If the destination was the Arctic or Northern Atlantic, cold weather gear and clothing was handed out after about 24 hours at sea.

–  If ships in a convoy were sunk, destroyers or dedicated rescue ships would pick up survivors, if possible.

Frank’s experiences on the SS Samuel Mcintyre.

Frank would sometimes take over steering the ship when a particular seaman got shaky or nervous in rough seas.  That seaman had survived the sinking of five ships.

On a voyage to Cardiff, England, the ship had a closely guarded P-51 Mustang fighter plane on the deck, along with tanks, and in preparation for the invasion of Normandy hundreds of full five gallon gas cans cabled to the deck.  

After the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, the Samuel Mcintyre did “shuttle runs” from Cardiff to Omaha Beach with needed supplies and equipment.  

From July 15 – August 31, 1944, the Samuel Mcintyre was anchored off Omaha Beach with a loaded ship awaiting the Allied capture of Cherbourg, France. 

[As the Allies advanced towards Germany additional ports and supply lines were needed.  The focus was on the port of Antwerp, Belgium, and the Scheldt River.  Antwerp was captured by the British on September 4, 1944.  The West and East Scheldt Estuary were still held by the Germans.  The Battle of the Scheldt (October – November 1944) fought by Canadian, Polish, and British units resulted in an Allied victory on November 8.

 

Battle of the Scheldt October – November 1944. Map US Army.

 

After the Scheldt was swept for mines, the first convoy carrying Allied supplies unloaded in Antwerp on November 29, 1944.]

The SS Samuel McIntyre was one of the first ships to arrive in Antwerp.  Frank said it took about four weeks to unload the ship. While on watch he would sometimes see flares from German artillery being fired into Antwerp as the Germans were still in the area.

[Cine Rex, De Keyserlei 15, Antwerp, Belgium.  On December 16, 1944, (the first day of the Battle of the Bulge) a V-2 rocket was fired from the German SS Werfer Battery in Hellendoorn, The Netherlands. The rocket landed on the roof of the Cine Rex movie theater at 3:20 pm. Of the over 1,000 people inside, 567 people including 296 Allied servicemen were killed in the explosion.  It was the highest death toll in WWII from a single rocket.

The American movie The Plainsman was playing at the theater that day.]

The Samuel McIntyre left Antwerp and sailed back to the US in late December.  Frank was discharged January 11, 1945.

The Scott family Christmas card for 1944 celebrated the military service of the three Scott brothers and Quincy’s wife, Dottie.  They would all return home after WWII.

 

Left to right: Dale Scott, Frank Scott, and Quincy Scott with Dottie Scott in the foreground. Photograph courtesy of the Frank Scott family.

 

March 6, 1945, the SS Emile N. Vidal, one of the concrete ships of WWII.  Frank signed on the SS Emile N. Vidal in New Orleans, Louisiana.  He would have back-to-back sailings on this ship.  The ship would sail in the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico to ports which included Cuba and Puerto Rico.  One of the supplies transported on this ship was sugar.

[The US government in WWII contracted with McCloskey and Company of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to construct 24 self-propelled concrete ships at a time when steel resources for shipbuilding were scarce.  The ships were built in Tampa, Florida, starting in July 1943 at the Hookers Point shipyard at a rate of one per month.  They were named after pioneers in the development and science of concrete.  

The government also contracted the building of concrete barges with companies in California.  The barges lacked engines to propel them and had to be towed.]

Merchant mariner Alfred “Al” G. Booth, a good friend of Frank’s from San Antonio, Texas, was also a crew member on this voyage. 

 

Merchant mariner Alfred G. Booth, circa 1943. Al had a twin brother, Walter, who was in the US Navy in WWII. Photograph courtesy of the Al Booth family.
Frank, on left, with Al Booth. When back in San Antonio between contracts Frank and Al would meet and exchange stories. Photograph courtesy of the Al Booth family.

 

Frank was discharged on April 9, 1945.

April 10, 1945, the SS Emile N. Vidal.  Frank and Al would sail a second time on this ship and were discharged May 21, 1945.

July 21,1945, the Liberty ship SS Beckley Seam.  Frank, Al, and another fellow San Antonio native, merchant mariner William McCollough, were members of the crew.

The Beckley Seam delivered coal to Savona, Italy, and was still in the Mediterranean Sea when it was announced that WWII had ended.

During Frank’s interview with the National Museum of the Pacific War he proudly showed me a photograph he had taken of the American flag on the SS Beckley Seam

 

Frank Scott’s photograph caption: STARS AND STRIPES ON THE US MERCHANT VESSEL “BECKLEY SEAM” SOMEWHERE IN THE MEDITERRANEAN SEA, AUGUST 1945.  We three were there.  Al Booth, Bill McCollough, and Frank Scott. Photograph courtesy of Frank Scott.

 

 

The US Merchant Marine did not have a centralized record-keeping system in WWII, and because of that, the estimates of merchant seamen losses vary significantly.  During WWII there were about 250,000 civilian merchant mariners.  A total estimate of merchant seamen and officers that went missing or were killed varies from 5,662 to over 9,000.  An estimated 12,000 men were wounded, and over 600 became prisoners of war.  

A total of 1,554 merchant ships were sunk in WWII according to the War Shipping Administration.  

Merchant seamen were not included in the postwar Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, also known as the GI Bill, nor did they qualify to receive other military benefits due to their civilian status. It wasn’t until 1988 that WWII merchant seamen were recognized officially as veterans.

 

 

 

Frank Scott commented during his interview that the 1943 movie Action in the Atlantic was close to his actual wartime experiences.

Frank Scott’s brother, Quincy, came home from WWII with his own war story while assigned to the US Navy destroyer USS Borie in the Atlantic.  On November 1, 1943, the Borie rammed German submarine U-405, which had surfaced.  The two ships were locked together with the bow of the Borie resting on the foredeck of the submarine.  Until the two ships were able to separate, the Borie and U-405 exchanged small arms fire at close range.  Both the Borie and U-405 would be lost in this incident.  Survivors of the Borie were rescued by the escort carrier USS Card.

Four WWII merchant mariners that went into acting after the war were James Garner, Peter Falk, Carroll O’Connor, and Jack Lord.

A very special thank you to Frank Scott’s wife, Helen, and to Al Booth’s wife, Maureen, for providing photographs and documents related to this story.

Thank you to the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas, and museum archivist Chris McDougal for providing information related to this story.  The oral history interview of Frank Scott is in the museum archive.

The “British Schindler”: The WWII Story of Sir Nicholas Winton

Nicholas Winton holding Hansi Beck on January 12, 1939, before the first evacuation by air of 20 children from Prague, Czechoslovakia, to London, England.  Photograph www.dailymail.co.uk.

 

“If it’s not impossible, there must be a way to do it.”  Nicholas Winton

 

In December 1938 twenty-nine year old British stockbroker Nicholas Winton was planning a holiday skiing trip to Switzerland when he received a phone call from friend Martin Blake who was working with the British Committee for Refugees in Czechoslovakia (BCRC).  Instead of Switzerland Nicholas travelled to Prague.  [In January 1993 Czechoslovakia in a peaceful dissolution would be split into the two sovereign states of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.]

What was the political climate in Europe in the 1930s?  Adolph Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933.  In violation of the WWI Versailles Treaty Germany began rebuilding its military.  In violation of the Treaty of Versailles Germany reoccupied the Rhineland in March 1936.  In violation of the Treaty of Versailles Germany absorbed Austria in March 1938.  In September 1938 England and France (without consulting the government of Czechoslovakia) and as part of the Munich Pact allowed Hitler to occupy the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia which had been incorporated into the country as part of the Treaty of Versailles.

It was at this time in history that Nicholas Winton would arrive in Prague on New Year’s Eve 1938.  He would check into the Grand Hotel Šroubek (later renamed the Grand Hotel Europa) on Wenceslas Square.  A hotel restaurant table would become his office as he met with families and helped plan for Czech refugee children to be taken to England for the duration of the soon expected outbreak of war in Europe.  

[Germany occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939.  With the invasion of Poland in September 1939 England and France declared war on Germany.]

In addition to working with the BCRC in Prague Nicholas would provide logistical support for two Kindertransport (children’s transport) flights sponsored by the Barbican Mission on January 12, 1939, which brought 20 children to England and a Sweden Red Cross flight that transported 30 children to Sweden on January 16 or 17, 1939.

Having exhausted his vacation time Nicholas returned to England and his stockbroker job on January 21, 1939.  But his work to rescue the children continued.

Nicholas’ job was not insurmountable, but he put into practice his motto, “If it’s not impossible, there must be a way to do it.”  He needed to raise money for the transportation of the children.  He needed permission of the Immigration Section of the British Home Office to bring them into the country and was required to provide guarantor monies for them.  The Netherlands had closed its borders in November 1938 after Kristallnacht.  He negotiated with the government of The Netherlands to allow the train to pass through the country.  And he needed to find foster families, hostels, or other organizations to care for the children.

In Prague Nicholas’ colleagues working with the BCRC were hurriedly gathering documents, photographs, adding names of children to the list of refugees, and dealing with the Nazis’ requirements to allow trains of mostly Jewish children to leave Czechoslovakia.

 

The identity document of nine year old Eveline Prager needed for the Czech Kindertransport.  Photograph www.dailymail.co.uk.

 

Kindertransport trains would leave Prague, travel through Germany, pass through The Netherlands to the Hook of Holland, children would sail by ferry to England, and arrive by train at the Liverpool Street Station in London.  The foster families would be waiting at the station to meet their new family member.

 

Winton Kindertransport train route 1939. Map stephenliddell.co.uk.

 

The first Kindertransport train left Prague on March 14, 1939.  Seven Kindertransports were to follow.  The ninth train with 250 children was scheduled to leave in September 1939.  After Poland was attacked by Germany on September 1, 1939, the Germans cancelled the ninth train.  According to Nicholas’ daughter, Barbara, who wrote the book If it’s Not Impossible… about her father’s life,  no further information about the children scheduled to leave on the ninth train was found and that many of them most likely died at Auschwitz Concentration Camp.

The Czech Kindertransport rescue lasted nine months.

With the start of WWII and the Kindertransports ending,  Nicholas Winton joined the British war effort as an ambulance driver and then became a member of the Royal Air Force until the end of the war.

After the war ended, Nicholas Winton would work for the London-based International Committee for Refugees which would be integrated into the International Refugee Organization of the newly formed United Nations.  In 1948 he accepted a job with the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development in Paris, France.  It was in Paris that he met a Danish girl, Grete Gjelstrup.  They were married in October 1948.  

Grete did not know about the Czech Kindertransport until she found a scrapbook in their attic in Maidenhead, England, in the late 1980s.  The scrapbook she found would make the story public.

Nicholas Winton and the group of rescuers working together on the Czech Kindertransport over the nine months of its existence saved the lives of 669 children.

The Scrapbook.  At the end of the Kindertransport operation in 1939,  a volunteer in the organization, Mr. W. M. Loewinsohn, presented a scrapbook to Winton that included correspondence, data, photos, and other information gathered during the BCRC effort to rescue the children.  At the back of the scrapbook was a list of the rescued children and the names and addresses of the  families who agreed to foster them.  

 

The cover page of the Nicholas Winton scrapbook.  Photograph www.cbsnews.com.

 

In 1988 Nicholas was invited to be a member of the audience in a BBC television program called That’s Life!  The host of the show, Esther Rantzen, would tell the story of the 1939 Czech Kindertransport and show the scrapbook to the audience.  At a point in the show the host spoke of a rescued child, now an adult, named Vera (Diamant) Gissing.  Unbeknownst to Nicholas, Vera was sitting next to him.  Vera gave him an embrace and said “thank you, thank you.”

 

Nicholas Winton and Vera (Diamant) Gissing meet on February 27, 1988, on BBC television program That’s Life!  Photograph www.storypick.com.

 

In a follow-on episode of That’s Life! the next week, the host asked if there was anyone in the audience who owed their life to Nicholas Winton.  Almost five rows of “Nicky’s children” stood up.

 

Nicholas Winton, in the front row with his back to the camera, looks at the people who were rescued as children on the Czech Kindertransport.  The woman sitting in the front row is Nicholas’ wife, Grete.  Photograph people.com.

 

The “children” contacted by the BBC did not know how they were saved or who had saved them until then.

On March 11, 2003,  Nicholas Winton was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II of England.

A documentary Nicky’s Family was released in 2011.  It was narrated by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation journalist, foreign correspondent, and author Joe Schlesinger.  Joe was one of “Nicky’s children.”  

 

Sir Nicholas Winton with Joe Schlesinger (right).  Photograph www.theglobeandmail.com.

 

Sir Nicholas Winton died in his sleep on July 1, 2015.  He was 106 years old.

Prague Post article on July 4, 2015, stated, “The first candles on the platform from which trains with Czechoslovak children of Jewish origin were leaving appeared a few hours after Winton’s death was announced.”

 

A statue created by Flor Kent of Sir Nicholas Winton with two children was unveiled on September 1, 2009, at the Prague Main Railway Station.  Photograph Prague Post July 4, 2015.

 

A “Rosie” at Willow Run: The WWII Story of Katherine Sakalay Brown

Katherine Sakalay.   

 

“Rosie the Riveter” became a cultural icon in WWII history.  But not all “Rosies” used rivet guns.  During WWII women went to work in factories, shipyards, and munitions plants.  They made war supplies and did industrial work when the men went off to war.  This story is about a “Rosie” named Katherine (Kay) Sakalay who worked (without a rivet gun) at Willow Run in Ypsilanti, Michigan, where Consolidated  B-24 Liberator heavy bombers were produced during WWII.

 

In 1942 artist  J. Howard Miller was commissioned by the Westinghouse Company War Production Coordination Committee to make posters for the war effort.  This is one of his posters.  The poster itself was not known as “Rosie the Riveter” until after WWII.  Canada had a similar poster called “Ronnie, the Bren Gun Girl.”

 

Consolidated B-24 Liberator.

 

Willow Run is remembered as one of the major manufacturers of the WWII Consolidated B-24 Liberator heavy bomber.  The first B-24 rolled off the assembly line in September 1942.  By the end of WWII, 8,685 B-24s were produced at the Willow Run location.

 

In 2013 Kay wrote of her working life at Willow Run during WWII.  

 

March 9, 2013

I am Katherine Sakaly Brown.  I will be 90 years old this August and now live in San Antonio, Texas.

My parents George and Eva Sakaly immigrated from Greece, my father from Bergama (then Greece, not Turkey) in late 1910 and my mother from the island of Lesbos in the early 1920s, both coming through Ellis Island on a quota.  They met and married in 1921, and I was born in 1923 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where the stadium for the University of Michigan is now located.  They [the State of Michigan] declared my parents’ property eminent domain, and they had to move.  I was told I was born on the 40 yard line.

My parents moved to Petersburg, Michigan, about 60 miles north of Ann Arbor, built a home and grocery store with a gas station.  I went to school in Petersburg from 1st grade to high school graduation in 1941.

I was hired for my first job at Willow Run (Ypsilanti, Michigan) I believe in February 1942.  This plant was to build the B-24 bomber known as the Liberator.  At the time I started working only part of the structure was built, only the tool and dye shop was completed, and the remainder of the plant was wide open with construction.  We were given uniforms in about a year, and our name badges designated the area which you were supposed to be working.  The plant worked 3 shifts a day non-stop until 1945.  I believe it numbered something like 40,000 employees, trains were sent to the south to hire people to staff the factory, most of them never returned to their hometown.  All employees had to punch a time clock, in and out, and if you were a minute late you were docked 15 minutes of time.

Henry Ford was instrumental in building the factory, staffing, and producing the B-24 Bomber.  I remember seeing him walking through the plant at various times with a couple of his staff.  He was reported to be a stern, non-smoking, non-drinking, non-union individual.  There was no smoking in the factory at any time.  He did not live to see the final plane leave the plant, however, Henry Ford II was there when it was towed from the plant to the hangar.  There was a picture of this event, and I was seen in it, my rear view that is.

I first worked at a crib, which was a small station within the factory, keeping inventory of parts used and parts to be ordered.  From there I became something like a runner, taking small parts where they were needed.  Our lunch period was 15 minutes, and they would bring in caterers in portable chuck wagon types of structures.  You ate wherever you were standing or sitting.  The food was typical GI food in the military, served on metal trays; it was this or bring your own meals.  We had lockers on the second floor; these were located around the sides of the plant also the laboratories, etc. were on the balconies.

The parking lots were a nightmare.  You had to remember where your car was and which side of the plant you had parked or you would be there for hours looking for your transportation.  Car pooling was a must.  I had a 1940 Buick that we used when it was my turn to drive.  We changed cars, each passenger taking their turn, and we paid the driver when we were passengers.  I don’t remember how much we paid.  We had gas rationing; when you worked for a defense plant you had ample gas for your trips.  The coupons were a must for us.  During the first 2-3 years, most employees had to work all 3 shifts when their turn came.  Later on, when I was transferred out to the hangars, my shift remained on the day shift.

I wish I could remember when the first plane was finished and taken out to the hangar, but it was a great day for all of us.  The plant itself was a mile long in size, not counting the hangars and the administration building which were separate buildings.  From the parking lots one had to climb a very tall staircase to cross over to the factory itself, you could not walk in from the parking lot to the plant.  Your ID was checked when you got to the inside of the plant.  Badges were part of your anatomy, pictures, and IDs as to which part of the plant you had to access.

Underneath the balcony were offices for different officers to conduct their operations.  I wound up in one of them for quite some time.  There were offices up on the balconies also as well as a cafeteria later on.  If you did not have the proper identification you could not walk through the plant to look around.  You stayed in the area where you were assigned to work.  I never had anything to do with putting the airplane together;  I was always in a clerical type of job.  I never got inside of the B-24 until I was assigned to the hangar areas and then only to stow the confidential information aboard and get off.

There was an altitude chamber in the hangar which dropped the oxygen, temperature, etc. ranging from the ground level to several thousand feet in a very short time.  I got in it when it went up to 12,500 feet, and it was a light-headed feeling.  You were told to talk a bit when you were in various stages of rising altitude.  It was rather large, capable of holding several people at one time.

There was a huge mound on the grounds where they practiced shooting all the [B-24] guns.

When the planes were finished a factory pilot had to pre-flight the plane to make sure it was good enough to pass on to the United States Army Air Force.  When the weather was bad, this was Michigan, and we had a lot of nasty weather, the planes would stack up on the aprons until weather cleared up for a pre-flight.  When the planes were OK’ed by the crew, etc. they were turned over to the military that came in to ferry the aircraft where they were designated to go.  The pre-flight crew consisted of four men: a pilot, co-pilot, radio man, and flight engineer.  When they completed their check, then the plane was turned over to military pilots.  [Willow Run had 1,300 cots for military crews to sleep while they waited for their assigned B-24 to roll off the assembly line.]

 

B-24 Liberator Check List.

 

When it was no longer necessary for them to manufacture the B-24, the plant was shut down.  Their goal was to make a B-24 every hour.  I don’t know if that goal was ever reached by the end of WWII, I am sure it was.  [At its peak in 1944 a B-24 rolled off the Willow Run assembly line every 63 minutes.]

Over 8,600 aircraft were manufactured and an equal amount of parts manufactured for planes already in service.

 

In one of Kay’s great stories about Willow Run she tells of attending a meeting there with B-24 pilot James Stewart who was visiting the plant.  She said Hollywood actor Jimmy Stewart was a friendly, down-to-earth man who was very tall. 

In the late 1940s Kay accepted a job with the United States (US) State Department and worked for a time in post WWII Germany.  From Germany she relocated to Paris, France, and worked on special assignment to the US Ambassador.  For her entire life Kay had a special place in her heart for Paris.

In the 1950s Kay moved to Texas and became an assistant to then US Senator and future President of the US Lyndon B. Johnson.  

Kay married Harold Brown, a Texas businessman, in 1965 and spent the rest of her life in Texas.

Kay Sakaly Brown died on July 24, 2017, in San Antonio, Texas.  In August of that year she would have been 94 years old.

 

 

I knew Kay to be a wise and spirited lady.  She was a woman ahead of her time and a wonderful friend.

 

Certificate American Rosie the Riveter Association.

 

The Yankee Air Museum located in Belleville, Michigan, at the Willow Run Airport tells the story of the WWII Willow Run B-24 Bomber Plant.  The museum’s collections span the history of aviation from WWI to present day.  For more information about the Yankee Air Museum see http://yankeeairmuseum.org/.

The G.I. Bill of Rights: A New Chapter for Those Who Came Home from WWII

The University of Cincinnati 1946 yearbook. Text bottom right reads, “The war with its hard fought battles and lonely hours is over. Those who left McMicken’s halls to help fight those battles and to share those lonely hours have come back—not only to take up where they left off, but to carry out the dreams and plans they made while they were gone.” “McMicken” refers to McMicken Hall on the University of Cincinnati, Ohio, campus and was a nickname for students used in the 1940s.

 

The Dedication in the 1946 yearbook was as follows:  “As McMicken’s sons come back from the far-flung battle-fronts … North Africa … Anzio Beachhead … Normandy … the Bulge … Bataan … Coral Sea … Guadalcanal … New Guinea … Iwo Jima … Guam … they remember their classmates who will never again return to classes, to parties, and to the way of life they knew and loved. We will not and must not forget them and what they have done for us.”

 

Members of the University of Cincinnati Veterans Association in 1946.  Row 1 — Kemeny, J.; Rodgers, J.; Niedenthal, R.; Kelly, R.; Ritter, B.; Armandroff, T.  Row 2 — Hannon, J.; Faunteleroy, T.; Cleary, R.; Gordon, R.; Hill, R.; two unidentified members.  Row 3 — Vance, E.; Williams, H.; Murphy, J.; Williams, T.; Bentley, E.; Feltrup, A.  Robert Kelly was president of the organization. The purpose of the Veterans Association was to promote fellowship among veterans as they entered college life.  

 

Before WWII ended the United States (US) Congress passed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 which provided a range of benefits for returning veterans.  The legislation is more commonly known still today as the G.I. Bill of Rights.  

The educational benefits in the G.I. Bill included tuition and living expenses for veterans returning to school.  The University of Cincinnati was one of many universities, colleges, trade schools, and training programs that welcomed WWII veterans wanting to continue their post-war education. G.I. Bill enrollments at the University of Cincinnati began in the fall of 1945.  At its peak there were 8,000 veterans enrolled there. In 1949 two-thirds of the university graduates were WWII veterans.

The G.I. Bill was a defining document in 20th century US history.  The positive effects on the US economy that started with the passing of the G.I. Bill are still evident today.

 

 

The genesis of this story began when I found the 1946 University of Cincinnati yearbook in a used bookstore in San Antonio, Texas.  The tone and sentiment in the yearbook reflects the 1940s US society and the educational institutions that welcomed WWII veterans back from a long war and sought to help them readapt to civilian life.  

Thank you to University of Cincinnati Archivist Kevin Grace for his help in researching this story.

Photographs in the story are courtesy of the University of Cincinnati Archives.

Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery (Part 2): And the Prisoners Of War Who Never Went Home

 

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Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery, San Antonio, Texas. WWII Prisoner of War burials Section ZA.

 

They may be far from their homeland but have not been forgotten.

 

After WWII when Prisoner of War (POW) camps closed in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma, the POWs who died in captivity were reinterred at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio, Texas. One hundred thirty-two Germans, five Italians, three Japanese, and one Austrian are buried there. If the families of the deceased POWs survived the war and could be located, they would have been given the opportunity to repatriate the remains back to their home country.

Story One. Johnny Barrientez, Lead Cemetery Representative at the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery, has worked there for 38 years. About 25 years ago (early 1990s) he noticed a gentleman in the POW section and walked over to see if he could be of assistance. The gentleman, a German, had travelled from Germany to Texas to visit his brother’s grave. He knew his brother had been a POW and buried in the United States (US), but it had taken him some time to locate his resting place. The German talked about his brother and showed Johnny pictures of himself and his brother in their German uniforms. Another cemetery employee, an American WWII veteran, also walked over, and the two men exchanged thoughts about the war and fighting for their countries. In the end, after seeing the cemetery and the care given to all the graves there, the German man decided he would leave his brother buried in the US.

Story Two. Corporal Hugo Krauss was born in Germany in 1920. Hugo, his mother, and sister joined his father, Heinrich, in New York City, New York, in 1929. Heinrich had immigrated to the US in 1928. In 1939 Hugo travelled back to Germany to visit relatives and was there when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Trapped in Germany, at some point Hugo became a member of the German Army (Wehrmacht). He was captured during the North African Campaign and was sent to a POW camp (Camp Hearne) in Texas. With his fluency in English and German he became an interpreter. As the story is told, some of his fellow German prisoners thought he had become too friendly with the Americans. On the evening of December 17, 1943, he was severely beaten by Nazi POWs and died on December 23, 1943.

 

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While visiting Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery I found three pennies and a dime on the tombstone of Hugo Krauss. According to some military traditions leaving coins can be a symbol of remembrance of the person. A penny signifies that a grave had been visited. A dime signifies that the visitor had served with the deceased in some capacity.

 

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An Italian grave.

 

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A Japanese grave.

 

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Two of the German tombstones depict the person had been awarded the Iron Cross. The legend at the bottom of the tombstone translates to: “He died far (from) Home for Leader, People, and Fatherland.”

 

 

 

Story One as told to me by Johnny Barrientez.  I want to thank him for his help in the research for this story.

Thank you to G. L. Lamborn for assistance in the German translation on the tombstone.

 

In Memory Of … Sara Elizabeth Clarke Anderson

 

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Sara Elizabeth Clarke Anderson

 

Sara Elizabeth Clarke Anderson, known to family and friends as Betty, was 22 years old when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941.

Betty was working as a photographer’s model for a modeling agency in Chicago, Illinois, and was featured in advertisements for companies such as Sears, Roebuck, and Company and Folgers Coffee. She posed for the cover of several detective magazines of the day and for one cover she told of being photographed in the Chicago River pretending she was about to drown. She was also involved in radio and television broadcast media in Chicago. Betty worked at radio station WAAF which broadcast from the top floor of the Palmer House. On Mondays at 2 pm she had her own radio show and sang songs. Her beauty and talent opened the door for her early television work at Zenith Experimental Studios. She appeared in various television productions.

During WWII new product development was limited, and rationing affected product availability. When the use of advertising and broadcast media temporarily changed its focus during wartime, Betty moved to Arkansas and was employed at the Arkansas Ordnance Plant (AOP) as an Inspector. Her starting salary was 56 cents an hour.

The AOP was located in Jacksonville, Arkansas. In 1942 the contract to build and operate the plant was awarded to Ford, Bacon, and Davis of New York. The plant was one of the first of its kind in the United States (US). It assembled military munitions fuses, boosters, detonators, and primers. The first assembly line was completed in March of 1942 and approximately 75% of the employees were women.

Betty worked in the Percussion Element Division and made relay and delay fuses for bombs. Components of the fuses included the potentially unstable elements of lead azide and mercury fulminate. She told of assembly line workers taking extra precautions as fuses were moved within the AOP as it was thought even human body heat may cause a fuse to explode.

The AOP shut down production in August of 1945 a few weeks after the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. WWII was over.

After WWII, those on the Homefront and veterans returning home from the war started a new chapter in their life. Betty married “the love of her life” E. M. (Tex) Anderson and raised six children. She had a lifelong interest in broadcast media. Betty became a television personality for San Antonio, Texas, public television station KLRN and was elected to the Alamo Public Telecommunications Council. 

Betty passed away on January 16, 2016, at the age of 96. Her love for her family and her contribution to her country, her community, and her work in broadcasting will be remembered.

 

 

Betty’s son, Jeffrey, found this AOP employee award card among her belongings after her death.

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Meritorious Work Award Card and Pin
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A Message from US President Franklin D. Roosevelt on back of Meritorious Work Award Card

 

In  November 2010 I did an oral history interview with Betty for the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas. She was representative of the citizens on the Homefront during WWII who wanted to “do their bit” and were themselves sometimes placed in potentially dangerous jobs.

I knew Betty for over 20 years. She was a “classy lady.”  I will miss her friendship. 

Photographs for this story are used with the permission of the Anderson family.