Harold E. Flockhart

Merchant Marine

    I served in the Merchant Marine during World War Two. I, and a small group of men, ages from 19-20, left Omaha in early January, 1943, for Sheepshead Bay, New York. We were about to begin our training at a United States Maritime Training Station.  

     The next morning we filled out the usual forms, were fingerprinted, had a medical exam, and issued our standard allotment of clothing, which consisted of dungarees, dress blues, raincoat, underware,peacoat, shoes and a seabag. We then went to our barracks for instructions and information about what we had to do The barracks were Navy type, holding up to 1500 men. We had our meals in consolidated mess halls serving nearly a thousand men. The food was good and plentiful. The training began with 6 weeks of preliminary instructions where we learned basic military courtesy, marching and how to properly salute. This was just like regular Navy boot camp. After that, most of the training was directed toward things that were related to the sea.

     Sheepshead Bay had the largest boat training facilities in the United States, which were made up of five piers and more than 200 whaleboats. This was the most stressed subject in our training program, and carried through during all the time we were there. We had to pass a difficult Coast Guard test, which consisted of boat handling under oar and sail. Also included was abandon ship procedures. The rest of our training consisted of running a 600 yard obstacle course with 38 stations, physical fitness programs, Once all this was mastered, we also learned how to jump into pool from a high tower wearing lifejackets, and rubber survivor suits. We were taught how to save ourselves if we were caught in a sea of flaming oil. On top of that we were taught gunnery training on 20mm cannon and 3 and 5 inch deck guns.

     The courses intensified after that and we now began learning basic seamanship, subjects such as useing a compass, the use of anf tying knots, cargo handling and storage, the handling of heavy lift, 5 ton booms, and the winches, There was also another surprise waiting for us: work week.

     Work week was a solid seven days of serving in the mess hall. From 3 am to 8 pm we labored, Once the week was over that was all that we were required to do for the rest of our stay. Every new recruit did this, so no one had a complaint.

     Every Saturday morning we marched down to the parade field where we conducted a pass in review ceremony. This was quite impressive and many of the local residents watched from around the perimeter of the field. It made all of us very proud to march with the US flag leading our way.

     When the preliminary training was over we went on to special instruction in the field we chose. There was deck, engine, steward, purser, pharmacy, and radio communications. I chose the deck department because I wanted to be outside. After this phase was finished, it was time to go to the training ships. I was assigned to the American Mariner, a converted liberty. We sailed up the Hudson River for a week, where we actually used the skills we had already learned, such as steering, abandon ship drill, and gunnery. This was an exciting time for now we were getting the feel of living aboard a real ship.

     When we returned, after weeks of intensive training, it was now time to leave Sheepshead Bay. I remember standing on the beach many times and watching the heavily loaded merchant ships sailing past in the distance, going to join a convoy out in the Atlantic. I wondered when it would be my turn.

      When I finished my training at the USMS, Sheepshead Bay, N.Y. I was sent to Norfolk, Virginia, where I reported aboard another ship which was used for billeting men who were waiting for ship assignments. I was there for a short time, then one day as I was going on liberty, I heard my name called to report to the manning desk. I was then told to get my gear packed, that I was going to sea.  

      I was taken by launch to a convoy that was waiting at Hampton Roads.There were many heavily loaded ships at anchor, their decks covered with all kinds of military equipment. I was taken alongside one of these ships and climbed up the jacob ladder to the deck above. I was greeted by a ships officer who said they were waiting for me. I was taken to my quarters, then told to report for lookout duty on the bow. As I walked along the catwalk I could see all sorts of equipment below me. A short time later I heard the engines turn over, and the anchor being raised. I was finally going to war.

      For men of the Merchant Marine, the battlefield was not in some far off land, it was just off the coast of the United States, and we knew that German U-boats were waiting.

    My first trip was to Europe, and took three weeks to cross the Atlantic in a 60 ship convoy. We were contantly pushed south by reports of German U-boat packs and came up the coast of Africa into the Mediterrean. We unloaded some of our cargo, which consisted of heavy machinery, trucks, airplanes, We also carried 180 Army troops.

     We then moved eastward to Oran, Algeria, then to Tunisia, where we sufferred our first air attack by German bombers. We then moved north to Sicily, and waited for the invasion of Italy, When Naples fell we were the first ship to enter the harbor. and moved to a bombed out dock where we proceeded to unload our cargo, which consisted of 500 lb bombs, 155 mm artilery shells. The area next to the ship was piled high with these items. German snipers were still in the city, Unloading of cargo went on 24hrs a day, and was under lights at night. A German air attack came shortly after that and continued almost every night. When the warnings came we simply turned off the lights.

     When we left Naples two weeks later and moved west we were attacted again by German bombers just east of Gibralter. The war supples that were produced in the USA didn't just appear overseas, they sometimes cost many lives to get them there.

     America's industrial production was a marvel during WW2. Vast quantities of war supplies and equipment were shipped to every corner of the earth to feed, equip, clothe US service personnel who were stationed there. Virtually all of these supplies were carried by ships manned by the Merchant Marine. They were present at every invasion, and many of them were sunk by bombs and torpedoes, that is why there was such high casualty numbers.

     There were very few convoys in the Pacific Theater, because of the vast distances. The bulk of the convoys were in the North Atlantic, South Atlantic, Mediterranean, and the Northern route to Russia. Winston Churchill, said that he was confident of ultimate victory, in every battle except the one in the convoys routes in Battle of The Atlantic. If we loose that one, then the whole war is lost. There would not have been an invasion of Africa, Italy, or of Europe. The millions and millions of tons of war material, food, and oil delivered to those area was essential to victory. Yet, there was very little mentioned as to how those supplies, and the terrible price paid, to get them there. The men no one remembers, took them there.

     I was involved in many of these convoys. Most of them consisted of 60 to 80 ships lined up in columns. When we left the United States from the ports along the eastern seaboard, we were in a war zone. Escorts from the U.S. Navy, Canadians and English navies met us and formed a protective screen on the sides and front and rear of the convoy. You could see them patrolling, back and forth endlessly. All merchant ships were armed with defensive weapons, a 3 inch deck gun on the bow, a 5 inch gun on stern. These were manned by wonderful men of Navy Armed Guard.

     Convoys traveled at speed of slowest ship, and weather was just as dangerous as u-boats. Can you imagine trying to keep that many ships under control in a raging sea, under strict blackout conditions. I've seen escorts going up and down columns prepared to shoot out any visible light. Their orders were simple, "Put it out, or we will blow it out", and they meant it.

     The rules of the convoys were simple, if any mechanical problems arose, you dropped out and took your chances of survival. A rendezvous point was given, and you were there or not. No one waited for you. All lifeboats were swung out, and ready for use at all times. There was no time to swing them out. All crew members were issued life jackets, and in arctic waters, a rubber survival suit, which would keep you alive for 30 minutes if you had to use it.

     Merchant Marine crews were required to assist Navy in manning defensive guns, my station was 3 inch on bow as a loader. Most convoys kept ships loaded with gasoline, oil, and ammunition, stationed in outer columns, because if they were torpedoed, they would not harm other ships. Troop ships usually traveled alone, manned by Merchant Marine. . Navy escorts usually accompanied them. However, I have been on ships where we carried small contingents, up to 180 men.

     I was on one ship, a Liberty, where we carried an experimental, secret weapon. It consisted of 6" tubes filled with explosives, which were rolled up on either side of ship. These tubes would be deployed by means of a para vane, which carried them out along side ship. Navy had a special crew aboard which monitored tubes, and when an incoming torpedo was detected, they would blow up tubes and save ship. This device was called Mark 29. It must not have been successful, because I never heard of it again. I have talked to only one other person who knew about it.

     I was on one ship, again a Liberty, that sailed out of Norfolk, VA to join a waiting convoy, when it was discovered that we had a crack in side of hull. O course, we turned back to port, and when we arrived were greeted by an irate Naval Command, wanting to know what we doing there. We explained that there was a crack in hull. "Can your pumps handle it". Our Captain said that he thought we could. "Then get out of here" he said. When we arrived overseas, our pumps were going 24 hours a day.

     This was same ship that,when we entered a very violent storm, a sixty ton tank broke loose from cables that held it in place low decks, and began sliding back and forth, smashing into side of ship. There was no doubt that it had to stopped or it would have gone through the hull. After many hours of labor it was finally secured, with a substantial bulge in ship's side.

     There are many more things that happened during my time in convoys, which I cannot recall at this time, but war material that we carried got to it's destination. More than 600 American ships were sunk, many of them off shores of  US, to deliver supplies that were needed overseas. A lot of men were killed to get them there and they were and they were delivered by men that no remembers.

     Later, we were riding at anchor off the East coast of Okinawa waiting for sailing orders, having discharged our cargo of ammunition. Suddenly, we received emergency orders to leave at once, as a typhoon was headed our way. Since it is very dangerous to be close to land during a violent storm, we sailed at once, not bothering to prepare the ship for sea.

     It wasn't long before huge swells began to rock the ship, and we knew we were in store for a big one. Of course, we had to see that all the cargo holds were covered tightly and everything was secured.

    It wasn't long before we began rolling, and the wind increased, causing waves to crash over the ship, and tossing us in all directions. The plan was to outrun the storm by going in the opposite direction, but as the wind grew more intense, we knew that running away was not possible. The only alternative was to turn around, and head directly into the storm, which we did. That was all that could be done.

    The greatest danger in such a violent sea is to prevent the ship from slipping sideways so the waves hit the side, causing the vessel to turn over. As long as the bow is into the waves, you can survive.

      This was particularly vicious storm which leveled every standing building on Okinawa. It tore the bow off of a Navy cruiser, and sank several more Navy ships. My ship weathered the storm, but it took a quite a beating. I remember steering the ship through much of it, and the waves were crashing over the flying bridge, which was 60 feet above the water. I was cautioned not to let the ship get off course or we might roll to far to the starboard, or to the port and roll over. I was constantly turning the wheel from right to left in order to keep upright. The next day the sea was littered with debris, and there were massive swells. I had been through many storms over the three and a half years that I served, but nothing equaled that one.

     We did survive after a terrible ordeal.

     I had other experiences such as e-boat attacks, 60 ton tanks breaking away and nearly breaking through the side of the ship, and the time we were ordered to sail with a cracked hull as long as our pumps could handle the incoming water.

     Members of the Merchant Marine serving aboard U.S. Cargo ships and tankers had a greater percentage of war related deaths than did the armed forces: Army, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard.  One out of every thirty-two Merchant Marine men were killed during the war.

----- Harold E. Flockhart



Casualties, By Harold E. Flockhart

Liberty Ships, Harold E. Flockhart, Merchant Marine

Merchant Marine, Harold E. Flockhart, Merchant Marine

Typhoon, By Harold E. Flockhart (included above)

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