Biography of Don Ellwood

Ablebodied Seaman, Merchant Marine, WWII

Senior Chief Quartermaster, United States Navy, Korea Vietnam Cold War

   I was 13 yrs old when I was sitting in my classroom of high school in Toledo, Ohio on the morning after Pearl Harbor was attacked and President Roosevelt's voice came on our speakers to announce that war was declared. Every boy that was 18 jumped up and yelled that they were going to enlist & ran out of school.

   So for the next 3 years, I volunteered to work on the farms to help out and even trained with the American Legion members to train us boys in military drills so that we knew what to do when we were old enough to enlist. When I was old enough to get a Social Security card, I got a job at the Chevrolet Parts Division as a part time machinist trainee drill press operator during the summer of 1944.

   It was in September of 1944 after becoming a senior in high school, that I saw an advertisement in the Toledo Blade newspaper that the U.S. Maritime Service was looking for boys 16 1/2 and 17 yrs of age to be trained as merchant marine seamen . My father, having served in the Naval Reserves and as a ordinary seaman on the Great Lakes when he was younger, didn't take too much persuasion on my part for me to enlist. So after passing my physical exam, I was sent by train in Detroit with other boys my age group to Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, N.Y. where for three months I was trained to stand lookout watches, steer a ship, learn the nominclature of the ship, shoot a 20mm cannon, and how to launch a lifeboat. I received my seaman's passport & documents in mid December 1944 and after reporting to the Sailors Union of the Pacific for a ship, I was assigned to the S.S. James Whitcomb Riley , a Liberty ship, for duty as an ordinary seaman.

   I was assigned to the 4 to 8 watch section that had two older professional seamen in it that didn't exactly like my wearing a "Navy" type of uniform when I went ashore on liberty. But after awhile, I was accepted as by January 1945 hundreds of ships were having young boys like me serving on ships that had been wearing Navy type of uniforms after reporting aboard. I guess that as long as we did our jobs and were not a hindrance, we were accepted. The thing is, if we were not filling out the vacancies ship board who else were they going to get?

   Our first voyage to Liverpool, England was in a convoy that was attacked by German submarines and we could hear & feel the explosions of the depth charges going off in the convoy. After 15 days, we arrived safely and my passport was stamped and I went into town to experience what war has done to a city. I met several girls and a boy my age who took me home to meet his parents. I always remembered those days. It was my first time having the famous "fish & chips" snack in a rolled up newspaper.

   It was sometime in this period that we heard that President Roosevelt died.

   After arriving back in New York, that I went home to visit my parents & 2 younger brothers. I felt so much older and I visited my high school and some of my teachers. When I arrived back aboard ship, I noticed that our #2 hatch was fitted out with troop type bunks and two large steam kettles, yet when we got underway for Swansea, Wales, we didn't take on any troops. Upon arriving in Swansea,Wales and off loaded some of our cargo, I went ashore and while in a small dept. store, I noted that there was a wireless station there that I could send a message back to my prents in Toledo. So I sent the message that I was alive & well.

   After getting underway for Cherboug, France, which by this time was not too long after the "D" Day invasion, we tied up at the former German submarine large reinforced concrete pens, and in a hour or so later, our soldiers marched 500 German POW's to our ship to be loaded aboard. This was the purpose of our #2 hatch bunks & steam kettles. But these prisoners were boys ages 12 & 13 and men old enough to be grandfathers. After having to leave everything in their possessions on the dock, they were taken aboard and we got underway with the Army soldiers as guards. This now meant that we had the entire ship's crew, the Navy's Armed Guard gunners unit, and now 500 prisoners & guards aboard.

   Instead of taking a northern route to return to New York City, we took a southern route that took us just north of the Azore Islands, which when we were there, we encountered a hurricane. It was my first experience to see how high the seas can get and with not much ballast to keep our hull in the water, we were like a cork bobbing around. Even with the shrieking high sound of the winds, I could hear the screams of terror from the prisoners that we had pad locked in the hold. There were not enough life boats & life rafts to accomodate the prisoners and our crew.

   Fortunately, after 5 days of riding the storm out in the "safe" western semi=circle , we came thru safely an entered N.Y. city harbor to off load the prisoners & guards.

   I had previously heard stories from the older mechant marine seamen aboard about the trips to Murmansk, Russia and how few ships made it to Russia & back, So when I saw, what I thought was cargo in the warehouses that had the stamps for Russia, I signed off and after spending a week ashore working in fast food restaurents for meals and pay, I signed on a tanker leaving for Texas and then the far Pacific. This time, there was no Navy ship escort going with us. We loaded AvGas in the holds of the ship and P-38's fighter aircraft anchored to our main deck superstructure. Then off we went to the Panama Canal and where I & my buddy went ashore in Panama City for a few hours. Next morning, we went thru the Canal and for the next 15 days, we had good weather when we arrived at Guam & unloaded our cargo & planes.

   About mid way back to the Panama Canal, our ship's radio heard the radio broadcast about atomic bombs being dropped on Nagasaki, Japan.

   And while transiting the Panama Canal a second bomb was dropped. It was when we were in the Gulf of Mexico that we heard the WWII was over and a few days later, we moored in Mobile, Alabama. I signed off the ship and decided to take train to Los Angeles to meet my Mother, my stepfather, and my half sister who lived there. It was there in Los Angeles, that I joined the Army Transport Service and was assigned as an ordinary seaman on a Army hospital ship, the USAH Shamrock.

   By this time our Government issued a plea to all merchant marine seamen to stay on the job because we had to bring home our troops and to continue to suppl ythe troops remaining overseas and our Allies. So I listened to our government's pleas and stayed on the job. (Boy, did we ever get shafted by our so called "Grateful" government by denying us veteran status.)

   So I reported aboard this Army hospital ship, the USAH Shamrock in San Pedro, California harbor. This ship was built in the early 1920's and when we deck hands were to chip the hull of its rust, I had to stop chipping in one area as I could have gone right thru the hull & sprung a leak. We were to off load all of the caskets and other items as the ship was going to be de-commissioned. After a few weeks, I was transferred to the Army hospital ship, the USAH Emily H.M. Weder also there in San Pedro. It too was off loading caskets but this time, the red cross was to be painted out and it was to be re-named as the Army troopship, USAT President Buchanan.

   While changing some halyard lines to the mast, one line had to be taken up by hand and put thru one of the signal blocks. A seaman could get up about half way on the mast easlly, but not the upper half, When none of us seamen were willing to risk the danger of falling off the mast, the second mate said he would. He was nearly at the top when he suddenly fell and bounced off the lower structure and then on to the main deck. He died there and I ran to tell the Captain. The body was sent ashore for examination and to be prepared for burial at sea after we got underway in a week.

   Since we are now a troopship, we took aboard troops that were discharged and dependents for the trip to Honolulu. When we got underway and were outside the 5 mile boundry, we topped the engines to hold a burial at sea ceremony for the second mate. As the body slipped over the side, there was a great many flash cameras of the passengers going off. I forgot to say that this ship also was a very old ship because two days off Honolulu the ship's fresh wter evaporators broke down and us seamen were told to collect all of the fresh water cans from the lifeboats to distribute to the passengers. The following day, the engines broke down and we had to radio for a tow from the Army in Hawaii.

   It was about a month later while we were tied up alongside the pier on April 1,1945 and we seamen were in the passageway waiting to pick up our pay when the ship lurched to one side. There was a tidal wave that hit Honolulu and all of the water in the harbor went out to the sea. We had to rush up on deck and put out new lines to moor with as all of the existing mooring lines snapped.

   I signed off that ship and had to work in a meat packing plant for a few days before a ship enroute to Long Beach, California needed a seaman to sign on, so that is how I got back to the States. I stayed with my Mother for a short while before signing on a Victory class ship going to Oregon to load large trimmed tree trunks for paper mill plants in California. Then for the next several months, I worked on 2 or 3 oil tankers on the West Coast until about late September 1946 when I left California on a train bound for Toledo.

   My brothers and parents were glad to see me as I them for it had been a long time. In early October 1946, two years after leaving high school to become a merchant marine seaman, I re-enrolled at Libbey High school to finish my senior year. To say that I was an "oddity" in my class rooms, is mild. One day I had to go to the Coast Guard headquarters in down town Toledo to up grade my seaman's ticket to "Able Bodied" seaman as I had enough time at sea to do so. The next morning, the Dean passed the word over the loudspeakers for me to report to his office. When I reported, he asked me if I was absent yesterday and if so, where was my excuse slip written by my parents? Needless to say I was dumbfounded. I told him that I was a veteran and that I had business to conduct with the Coast Guard, and I only came back to high school was to finish my education & didn't feel that I needed an excuse slip. He said he understood & would take care of the paperwork, I was now the same age as the rest of the seniors in school, and I re-applied at the Chevrolet Company for a job as a machinist trainee until I graduated in June 1947 when I took a Able seaman's position on one of the Great Lakes ore carriers, the S.S. James Thompson. But in August 1947, after learning that my younger brother enlisted in the Navy, I decided to do the same. I was the only recruit in my Company that wore Merchant Marine battle ribbons on my chest. Upon graduation, I served on one aircraft carrier & 6 destroyers in the nine years of active duty as a Quartermaster & Signalman during the Korean War. After one year being honorably discharged, I enlisted in the Naval Ready Reserves in January 1958, and served honorably for 25 yrs & retired as a Senior Chief Quartermaster all during & after the Vietnam war, which included duty on three Minesweeper vessels, a Amphibous Assault ship, a destoryer escort, a Frigate, and several Reserve units.

   This is the end of my story. I retired in May 1983 when the Navy decided that anyone having over 34 years of service, must retire. I have 9 gold hash marks on my dress uniform coat sleeve, each representing four years of good conduct. My service ribbons consist of the Merchant Marine Atlantic & Pacific War Zone & Victory ribbon, the Navy Good Conduct , Korean Service, United Nations, China Service, Korean Presidential ribbon, Europe Occupation, Naval Reserve ribbon. Combat Action, and the one that everyone got by being in the service.

----- Don Ellwood

Email Address: dandc2k AT

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