Black Diamond man recalls time spent with Merchant Marines

By Dennis Box

The Maple Valley Reporter

A group of courageous men and women served their country in the U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II. Their service was crucial and thousands lost their lives, but the story of these mariners is seldom told.

The battles fought in the South Pacific and on the European continent were supplied by merchant mariners serving aboard ships in extremely hazardous conditions.

About 250,000 served as merchant mariners during World War II and 9,497 died – that’s 3.9 percent, the highest ratio of all the services according to the American Merchant Marine at War Web site.

Of the quarter-million, about 3,400 came from Washington state.

While the numbers of merchant mariners who served during the war are dwindling, there is still a group around the area who are able to tell their stories.

Gomer Evans, 82, from Black Diamond served in the Merchant Marine, and Marvin Perrault, 84, who lives near Covington did as well.

Perrault gathered together a group men and their wives at the Covington Library in August to give the men an opportunity to tell the story of the war years.

The group included Hank Harrision, 83, and Brian Kirkpatrick, 84, who were both members of U.S. Navy Armed Guard, serving on the Merchant Marine vessels manning the few weapons on the ships.

Peter Chelemedos, 87, a Seattle resident, was already serving in the Merchant Marine when the war broke out. In 1944 he received his captain’s license.

Evans couldn’t make the gathering at the Covington Library, but he told his story later at his home in Black Diamond.

In the first months of the war the Merchant Marine ships had no weapons. Kirkpatrick, who lives in Burien, said crews put telephone poles on the ships “to look like guns.”

Eventually the ships were rigged with 20 millimeter machine guns, most had eight and 5-inch-38 anti-aircraft weapons in the stern and 3-inch-50 in the bow. The ships were still not armed like a war ship, but Kirkpatrick said it was “a lot better than a telephone pole.”

In the early years of the war, hundreds of Merchant Marine ships were torpedoed by German submarines within a few miles of America’s coastline.

According to information from A.J. Wichita, president of the American Merchant Marine Veterans, the average length of service for Merchant Marine Liberty ships was four trips. More than 2,700 Liberty ships were built to transport supplies for the battles during the war. The ships could carry about 10,000 tons of cargo. Many were sunk on the first trip.

Wichita said in the first 10 to 11 months after Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941, 356 Merchant Marine ships were sunk off the East Coast of the United States by German submarines.

“The Germans started sinking every vessel in sight of the East Coast,” Wichita said. “People would go down to the beach and watch the fires and listen for the explosions. One sub went inside the New York harbor and sunk a tanker. It was really a horrible thing.”

Perrault described how the mariners would watch for submarines at sea. He said all that could be seen at night was a “periscope sticking up that would leave a phosphorous trail in the water. At night time they would come up in the middle of a convoy and start firing.”

Chelemedos was on a Merchant Marine ship carrying the first troops to the war in the South Pacific. He was aboard two ships that were sunk.

The Cape Decision was struck by a torpedo from a German U-boat crossing the Atlantic Jan. 27, 1943. Chelemedos spent 10 days in a lifeboat with 42 other men from the ship before getting rescued.

Chelemedos said his girlfriend thought he had died. Once she found out he was alive she decided it was time they get married. She went from Washington D.C. to New Orleans to tie the knot. Kay and Peter have been married for 66 years.

She knew he was committed when he called her and spent $23 on a long-distance phone call.

“My mother kept saying it was ‘too expensive, you better bring the conversation to an end,’ but he kept talking,” Kay Chelemedos said.

Peter Chelemedos was aboard the SS John A. Johnson when it was hit by a torpedo between San Francisco and Honolulu at about 9 p.m. Oct. 29, 1944.

“I had a bad cold and the skipper told me to drink three fingers of whiskey and go to bed,” Chelemedos said. “We got torpedoed that night and I didn’t have a cold for five years after that.”

The ship broke in half and burst into flames, Chelemedos said, which became the saving grace for the survivors when the crew aboard a Pan American passenger plane spotted the flames and radioed for help.

Chelemedos and the other surviving crew members were rescued the next day.

Many who served in the Merchant Marine had already tried to join one of the four branches of the military, but were turned down.

“Anyone who said they knew how to hang a rope they (Merchant Marine) hired,” Wichita said. “Legally they could go into a town and hire 16-year -olds. There was a lot of esprit de corps in those days. We all just had to get into it.”

Perrault said he, “went to enlist in the Navy, but I had a slow heart rate and they wouldn’t take me. The Merchant Marine took me.”

He served as an oiler in the engine room from 1942 through May 1945 aboard four vessels.

During the American invasion of the Philippine Island of Leyte, Perrault was aboard Escanaba Victory, which was carrying 10,000 tons of ammunition.

“They threw everything they had at us,” Perrault said. “The kamikazes started coming at us when we were anchored. We (the American forces) brought in P-38s (fighter aircraft) and that saved our bacon.”

Evans said he went to join the military when he was 17 while living in Black Diamond. He went with a buddy who was listed 4-F, not fit for military duty, so Evans decided to join the Merchant Marine with his friends.

“It was different atmosphere,” Evans said. “Everybody was gung-ho. They were taking our country away from us. That was the way it was then.”

He served for three years, going to Japan after the fighting had stopped.

“The war was over, but we knew what was out there,” Evans said. “Everybody carried a gun.”

Despite the dangerous conditions and courageous service of the merchant mariners, the men and women who served were not recognized as veterans by the government after the war. They could not get benefits from the G.I. Bill of Rights passed in 1944.

In 1988 President Reagan signed a bill recognizing the Merchant Marine World War II veterans and allowing some benefits, but the big ticket benefits of home loans and money for college had already passed by these men and women who were in their 60s.

U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., introduced bill S-663 titled “Belated Thank You to the Merchant Mariners of World War II Act of 2009.” It was co-sponsored by this state’s U.S. senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell.

If the measure passes it would provide a monthly cash payment of $1,000 to the Merchant Marine veterans and recognize their role in war.

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