The Forgotten Merchant Mariners of WWII
Story by Raina Clark, from the November 2010 edition of MarineNews
Don Horton of North Carolina started his career on barges during World War II at the age of 10. His father, mother, sister and brothers all worked on U.S. merchant marine coastwise tugs and barges during the war. In 1942 his eldest brother, William Lee Horton, Jr., was killed when a German U-boat attacked his tug, nine miles of the coast of Virginia.
The Merchant Mariners Act of 1988 granted veterans status to merchant mariners who served during WWII. However, the small group of merchant mariners who served on tugs and barges, like the Horton family, moving bulk materials for the war effort up and down the U.S. coast, have largely been prevented from being recognized as veterans. Records for coastwise mariners in many cases were either not issued or destroyed. Today, Don Horton is 78 years old and heading up an effort to get some 10,000 coastwise merchant seaman of WWII recognized for their service.
Horton’s story shows that coastal and inland mariners have been unsung heroes as far back as the last world war. “Those seamen who worked on coastwise barges were a small, dedicated and mostly unknown group who served in the U.S. Merchant Marine. They made little news but played a very important role during WWII. ... History has passed them by and carried their records along with it.”
“In 1988 I was thinking about my brother just before the anniversary of his death,” Horton said. “I wanted a picture of his tugboat, so I started scouring the web. That’s where I found out that I could apply for veterans’ status for my family for our services during WWII. I sent in five applications: one for my mother, one for my father, one each for my two brothers and myself. (I didn’t, at that time, send in one for my sister, which I regretted later. I didn’t think that she’d served enough time to be eligible.) In any case, all applications came back indicating no records were available to show we had any service. I knew that had to be wrong. My father served from 1939 to about 1953. At the time I applied, they didn’t even consider my brother, who was killed by a German sub, to be a veteran.”
After more research, Horton provided the Coast Guard with casualty reports for his deceased brother. “They accepted that,” he said, “but they wouldn’t accept the other members of my family. That’s when I decided to start doing some grass-roots efforts to get a bill forwarded to Congress to recognize these seamen who served on these tugs and barges.”
The Horton Family Tradition
“Collectively our family had about 153 months in the war zone [the waters off the East Coast of the U.S. during WWII],” Horton said. “I have firsthand knowledge of this because I was there. I’m 78 years old. I went on those barges at 10 years old. I was on the payroll at 12 and social security was taken out of my pay, as it was out of my mother’s and brother’s. This was the case with all the other families we knew on the barges at the time.” While waiting for their barge to be loaded or unloaded, Horton said, “sometimes we would tie upside along another barge and have some quality time visiting with other families. That’s when we recognized that there were quite a few families in the summer that served on these barges.”
“In my case there were six of us. My father was the Captain, my mother was the cook, my sister was assistant cook, and my brother and myself were deckhands. We started this right at the summer of 1942, just after we had lost one brother, the oldest, William Lee Horton, Jr. We called him Billy.”
Billy’s tug, the Menomonee, was shelled and sunk by a German submarine, U-boat #754, about nine miles off the Coast of Virginia, 50 miles north of Norfolk.
“That’s when my father decided to start taking us on the boats with him during the summer. We did this each and every summer as we went along. My sister only served one three-month trip, then she married her school sweetheart who immediately went into the Navy and off to war. She stayed home and looked after us during the school year while my mother went out with my father during several winter trips. After that, it was just my brother, me, my father and my mother during the summer. This continued on through every summer during the war.”
“The conditions were extremely primitive. There was no electricity aboard the barges. No toilet facilities as you know them. No running water. Illumination was by kerosene lamps only. Most seamen shied away from these vessels to go aboard the heavier sea-going vessels that had much more modern conveniences, much better pay and food.”
“Usually the older men were on there. I’ve seen them with one arm, one leg and one eye. I remember one man who used to stick a knife in his leg and try to mess with us kids. He was actually sticking it in his cork leg. But we thought he was just tough. That’s the type of crew you had on there.”
“In 1947 my other brother became the Captain of a barge, the Charles J. Hooker. That left me, my father and my mother on our barge. That continued on until 1950 when I graduated from High School, at which time I went full-time in service with my father and mother. But in December of 1950 I decided I wanted to join the Coast Guard. My mother stayed home from then on. My daddy continued on the barge until 1953.”
Horton stayed in the Coast Guard until 1953. He came home for a couple years, then went back to the Merchant Marine on tugs going up and down the coast. In 1959 he took a job with the federal government and finally retired in 1987.
The Missing Documents
The law grants veteran status to U.S. Merchant Marine Seamen of WWII, providing they can produce certain documents to prove eligibility. These documents are: Certificates of Discharge (Forms 718A), continuous discharge books (ship’s deck and engine logbooks) and company letters showing vessel names and dates of voyages. Horton believes that some 10,000 coastwise seagoing tug and barge merchant seamen have been or will be denied recognition upon application because government agencies have made it impossible for many to attain these documents.
First of all, Certificates of Discharge were given in accordance with the Merchant Marine Act of 1936, Horton said, which required the masters of vessels to give seaman a discharge document after each trip. “It’s much different from what the military does,” said Horton. “[Military sailors] only received a discharge after a complete tour of duty. But the merchant seaman received a shipping discharge document after each trip.” However, these discharge documents are largely unattainable for many coastwise merchant mariners of WWII because the Commandant USCG Order of 20 March, 1944 relieved masters of tugs, towboats and seagoing barges of the responsibility of submitting reports of seamen shipped or discharged on forms 718A.
“Shipping and discharge documents can mount up to hundreds for an individual who served over a period of time,” Horton said. “My family may have had more than 800 of these documents that should have been in their files. But none of them were there,” because, as of March 20, 1944, those documents were no longer issued for coastwise merchant seaman.
Continuous discharge books are also unattainable, Horton said, because after WWII the deck and engine logbooks of vessels operated by the War Shipping Administration were turned over to that agency by the ship owners and destroyed during the 1970s. While he searched for his family’s documents, Horton said he discovered that the government “destroyed the log books because they were too costly to maintain and burdensome to keep.”
“Part of my battle,” said Horton, “is trying to get support from the Coast Guard and having them own up that they did destroy these documents and something else needs to be used to replace them.”
Third, Horton said company letters showing vessel names and dates of voyages are unlikely to have ever existed due to the strict orders prohibiting even the discussion of ship movement during WWII. “I don’t believe they ever had those documents which showed that a ship moved from port A to port B,” he said. “You remember the old saying, ‘loose lips sink ships.’ I think it’s accepted now that probably those documents didn’t exist.”
Invisible Women Mariners of WWII
Women serving aboard merchant marine vessels during the war have even less of a chance of being recognized as veterans, Horton pointed out. The U.S. Government did not issue mariner credentials to females during WWII. No action has ever been taken to correct this and recognize those women who served without papers, Horton said.
“They had many documents on me and my two brothers,” showing that the Horton boys were out there working during WWII, even if they weren’t the documents the Coast Guard designates as official proof of service. However, Horton said, “there was no file whatsoever on my mother, even though she was given a Coast Guard ID card, in my presence, in 1942. The Captain of the port told her ‘we cannot give you your documents because we’re not allowed to.’”
“She went on anyhow.” Horton said his mother, Sadie Owney Horton, worked aboard their barge for a total of 36 months, making 90 round trips. “[The Coast Guard] told my sister that she didn’t need an ID card because she was under 16 and she and I could travel freely through the security gates as long as we were accompanied by a parent.”
“At the start of the war, women tried repeatedly to join the U.S. Merchant Marine,” Horton said. But the War Shipping Administrator (WSA), Adm. Emory S. Land, declared that there was no place in the Merchant Marine for women. By this order from the WSA, the U.S. Coast Guard refused to document women who served. “They served anyway and did what was asked of them and without any recognition for their work. They served on these barges as well as other merchant marine vessels, mostly as cooks and messmen and were paid salaries and had Social Security taxes withheld from their wages.”
The War Effort
In a document which Horton prepared to garner support for his effort to recognize coastwise merchant mariners from WWII he wrote: “The loss of shipping along our coastline during the first part of the war was so great that our own government had to step in and instruct public news outlets not to give out the number of ships lost for fear of having our seamen refrain from shipping out; thereby creating critical manpower shortages causing shipping delays and quite possibly placing our chances of winning that war in jeopardy. We were losing ships daily.”
“It was not uncommon to see twenty or thirty tugs and their barges moving cargo up and down the coast on any given day. As demand for commerce grew the barges began playing a larger role in the defense of our country. After all, no other mode of transportation could offer the benefits at lesser costs. They were by far the most economical means to move product around the country.”
“The German U-boats sank our ships faster than we could build them. Larger and faster ships were needed to keep our shipping lanes open and to keep our troops overseas supplied with badly needed materials and keep our shores free from the enemy. Every available means of moving war materials to our defense plants became a necessity, regardless of the risk.”
The Work & Working Conditions
The tugs and barges Horton describes from WWII were different animals than the coastal and inland vessels we know today. “In the beginning, if you go back around the turn of the 20th century, the barges had sails. The idea was that this would help propel the barges along with being towed. This was when there were maybe five or six or seven hundred barges out there. But soon the masts and sails were removed and the hulls were opened up for more cargo.”
These were wooden barges and already way past their prime when they were pressed back into service for the war effort. Horton said, when he was a boy, “Most of the barges were towed behind, either in brackets or in singular. In my case they were singular. They were strung out maybe 400 to 600 feet apart. A tug would tow maybe three or four barges behind.”
“This push stuff started in the Mississippi River, I believe, in the 50s or 60s. We just started to see push boats at the very end of my career.” Back in WWII, Horton said, “if you can imagine the tugs being about 165 feet long, then a 600-foot rope behind to the first barge, which was about 300-feet long, then another 600-foot rope, then another barge …. When you stretch that out you’ve got over a half-a-mile long tow, moving between two to four miles an hour when they’re loaded, sitting out there in a war area where all those U-boats were up and down the East Coast. No protection. No way to run, to get away from them if they attacked, except for a lifeboat. You were just at the mercy of them 24/7. You had no control of where you were going when you were on the barges. You had to follow the tug.”
These barges had to be steered while they were being towed and required a great deal of maintenance and manual operation, necessitating their own Captain and crew. “There was continuous work on the barges. The crew usually ran from four to five people: the Captain, someone in the boiler room, a couple deckhands and usually a cook.”
“A great deal of the barges had steam aboard to use the winches. That entailed keeping a boiler going all the time to keep the pressure up.” The crew had to keep the barges pumped out and also help load and unload cargo. According to Horton, the average adult seaman on these barges was in his or her 40s or late 30s. “Most of them were already past the age of draft.”
“The materials that these barges carried out there was mostly bulk war materials. It could be anything from sugar, salt, metals to coal. Coal was our major haul. If we hauled something other than coal it was a holiday to us. If you can imagine sitting down on a barge, and these large railroad cars full of coal being picked upside down and dumped in a large chute, and the coal rolling down into the barge — nothing but a solid dust cloud came up out of there, black soot coal. It went into every crevice and crack on the barge. You never got that off. After we left the docks we would first shovel as much of the coal back into the hull as we could. Then we would brush it down with a broom. Then we would cover these five or six hatches up, which would take a day or day and a half. First you put strongbacks on … then the whole thing would be covered over with a heavy-duty canvas. Then on top of the canvas you had to buckle down with another set of battens and you anchored them to the deck. Then all around the four sides of the hatch was another batten that was screwed down tight with a wrench. Then after that was done you would take a hose and wash the barge down from bow to stern and top to bottom. Once you’d removed all the soot and dust you could, then you covered the whole barge with salt after it dried. That was your living conditions.”
“The coal was used to fuel our defense plants. The bulk materials, iron and steel, was used for melting down and building armament and machinery.” These bulk materials were turned into the finished goods that were sent overseas by the larger sea-going merchant marine vessels. “Ninety-nine percent of the materials used in warfare in our three fronts overseas was carried by the Merchant Marine. They also carried our troops. Sixteen million of our trips went overseas by our merchant marine ships.”
“War in itself is three parts,” said Horton. “First would be the war efforts overseas, our troops fighting; the second effort would be our production people in the states building the equipment; and the third is our Merchant Marine which carried the result of that production to the troops overseas. Many have said that the war would never have been won had it not been for our Merchant Marine. We delivered the goods, so to speak.”
All this, Horton said, “is what prompted me to start working in North Carolina to get enough movement here to get a bill into Congress to provide alternative documents that will allow these people to be recognized. In terms of the women who served, they have never had an opportunity to be recognized. This issue has never been addressed. They served and they should be recognized.”
Horton started by inviting “each of our county commissioners, our political chair person for the county, the district chair person and even the state chair persons of the various political parties to send in resolutions or letters of support to our various congressional elements in Washington.”
“As of now I’ve been able to gain support from all of the 13 House Representatives from North Carolina. Congressman G.K. Butterfield has developed a bill, HR5829, short title ‘WWII Merchant Mariners Service Act,’ that would allow additional records to be used to replace those records that have been lost, destroyed or denied by the federal government.”
The WWII Merchant Mariners Service Act would allow the following alternative documentation to be used: casualty information; pay vouchers or stubs; Social Security Administration records; USCG identification cards; personal certified statements of individuals or next of kin attesting to service; personal letters revealing service, locations of service or vessels; reports of lost or found seaman’s documents.
Share Your Family’s Story
“Keep in mind these coastwise mariners were in their 30s, 40s and 50s during WWII,” Horton said. “They’re gone now. What’s left are mostly the children who served on the barges, like me and my brother. We got our seaman’s papers when we were old enough to get them. But we served long before that. … There’s very little information out there, but I’m still digging. And I’m asking people to tell me their stories every chance I get.”
“These people should be allowed to be recognized even after their death, if their service can be proved.”
Contact Don Horton: