Thank You, Tom Hanks
Over his distinguished career, Tom Hanks has performed an invaluable service to those of us who served in World War II. From Saving Private Ryan to Band of Brothers to The Pacific, Mr. Hanks has chronicled the lives of average Americans who served as soldiers, sailors and Marines when America needed them most.
Mr. Hanks has also taken an interest in a less-heralded group of Americans, Merchant Mariners, without whom the nation could not have defeated the Axis Powers in World War II.
In his latest project, Greyhound, which is being released on Apple TV+ today, Mr. Hanks’ character Navy Commander Earnest Krause is protecting a convoy of merchant ships carrying supplies across the Atlantic for the ongoing Allied invasion of Europe.
Contrary to popular belief, Navy ships don’t transport most supplies, weapons and troops to war zones. By design, this is the job of the Merchant Marine.
Mr. Hanks’ Greyhound — which looks to be a great movie from the preview — brought back chilling memories.
Memories from WW II North Atlantic supply mission
Seventy-five years ago, I was manning a cargo ship — just like the ones Hanks’ character was protecting — somewhere in the North Atlantic. I was cold and scared, but my cargo was critical to the war effort. We were transporting tanks, ammunition, food, uniforms, and more to our troops who were slogging through Europe, beating back the Nazis.
Underneath us were enemies – U-boats – that could kill us before we ever saw them coming. Indeed, the U.S. Merchant Marines had a higher fatality rate of than any branch of the Armed Services during World War II.
I was one of the earliest graduates of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA), which had already seen 142 students killed while training at sea, and eager to be a part of a communal effort that America had not seen before or since. Every ounce of our country’s enormous industrial know-how – every hand, every brain, and every piece of machinery – had turned toward defeating the Axis. Out in the middle of the North Atlantic, my life literally depended on the protection of the U.S. Navy, good luck, and the mariner skills I learned at the Academy.
Merchant Mariners didn’t storm beaches, parachute in behind enemy lines or fly bombers over Berlin, but one in 26 of my fellow civilian mariners died in the line of duty.
History books have overlooked the Merchant Marines' contribution to the war effort because our service defies easy description. We were civilians; indeed many of us were too old to serve in the military. And, though the Merchant Marine has been around since the Revolutionary War, nobody makes movies about logistics — or stops us to thank us for our service.
Merchant Marines kept forces clothed and fed
But every WWII general, from Eisenhower to Patton to MacArthur, knew we had no chance to beat the Germans or Japanese without the greatest merchant fleet on the seas.
We commanded and crewed the ships that brought the war to the most lethal enemy America has ever faced. We literally kept American forces armed, clothed and fed for the entire war by executing the greatest sealift in human history. We were the number one target of Nazi U-boats.
Thanks to the Navy escorts like the one portrayed in Greyhound, we were less vulnerable, but at the beginning of the war, merchant ships were unaccompanied and sitting ducks; hundreds died terrible deaths as a result.
We also had to constantly look to the skies. My cousin was killed on a merchant ship outside the Philippines by a Japanese kamikaze plane. Even if a mariner survived a torpedo or kamikaze, he often found himself treading water in gale-force winds while dodging fires, sharks and enemy strafing from above.
More than 8,300 mariners were killed at sea during WWII. Another 12,000 were wounded and 1,100 of these died of their wounds. Six hundred and sixty-three were taken prisoner. More than 1,500 merchant ships were sunk by mines, torpedoes and bombs, including 733 of the largest vessels. Countless others were damaged.
Today, we have a professional class of merchant mariners, many of whom are trained at USMMA where all graduates commit to serve the nation for eight years. I pray these young men and women never see the horrors of war, but it is good to know they are ready to serve when called.
I am 96 years old and remain as proud as ever of my service to the nation. It does my old heart good to see younger Americans like Tom Hanks take an interest in what we mariners —whether we served in the Merchant Marine or the Navy — accomplished so long ago and share it with a new generation.