World War II could not have been won without the U.S. Merchant Marine. Crewed by civilian seamen in peacetime and carrying much of the nation's ocean-borne commerce, the Merchant Marine became the "fourth arm of defense" in wartime, providing vital support for beachheads in all theaters of operation. Twenty World War II Merchant Marine veterans are featured in this oral history. Most had at least one ship torpedoed, bombed, shelled or mined out from under them--some of them two. Some became prisoners of the Japanese for the duration of the war, working on the infamous River Kwai Bridge. Many spent time on lifeboats or flimsy rafts under harsh conditions; one--Donald Zubrod--endured 42 days in a lifeboat with several others before their eventual rescue, close to death. American merchant mariners suffered a casualty rate that was a close second to the Marine Corps during the war.
In 1888, a US Navy sailor begins writing letters to his niece. The letters tell her where he is and what ventures he has gotten himself into. His sailor letters are retrospective, written after things happen. He also must tell her how he got to the place in time he started writing. He is educated for the time, trained as a naval navigator, lighthouse repairman, and watch repairman. His language is as he would speak to his fellow crew—clipped, as sailors use few G sounds, and an apostrophe is used to indicate the word is shortened, as they do. He is honest and kind. He is well trained in sword fighting. His enlistment contract is not the standard form. His mother’s attorney wrote it. The fleet admiral approved it as he had served with the sailor’s uncle. His uncle was a noted ship navigator, shipmaster, an author of navy lore, and now provided ocean metrological data to the naval observatory. He has carried this on. His early experiences involve train travel to San Francisco. The ship charts the then Northwest Territory and the Alaskan coast. His group verifies charts of the Missouri River. Mostly, his ship supplies food provisions to navy frigates in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean.