A Merchant Mariner’s Eventful Days

Raymond_&_WifeThis is a story told by Raymond C. Allard in the publication Maritime Tales of the Sea. He relates his experiences as a Merchant Marine seaman in World War II.

I joined the Merchant Marines on November 4, 1942, in New Haven, Connecticut. I went through training at Sheepshead Bay, New York. After finishing, I volunteered to go to Portland, Maine to install Torpedo nets on Liberty ships made at the Portland shipyard. I was then transferred to Boston, MA, then to Philadelphia, P A, and then was sent to Galveston, Texas, where I stayed from November 19, 1943 until March 5, 1944, installing nets.

On April 8, 1944, I was on a Liberty ship sailing to Naples, Italy. While sailing through the Mediterranean Sea, we were attacked by German Torpedo Bombers every night at dusk. One of the ships caught a torpedo in its net. The ship went into a port in North Africa to have it removed.

 torpedo netsThe port of Naples was heavily damaged, along with the city. There were sunken ships all over the area. We were about 1200 feet from a hospital ship. There was a steady stream of ambulances, day and night, delivering injured soldiers from Anzio Beach, where terrific battles were fought. We were in Naples about a week and the ambulances never ceased.

On our way home, as we were going through the Straits of Gibraltar, we received word of D-day, the invasion of France. Half of our convoy was sent to England to ferry supplies. On December 12, 1944, we sailed to Antwerp Belgium. We made it to Antwerp, and then the Battle of the Bulge started. A V 2 bomb exploded above our ship and there was damage from the concussion. It landed about a half mile from our ship. There was a piece of the bomb found with a date stamped 2 days prior to when it exploded. They were making and launching them as fast as they could.

We constantly heard V 2 and buzz bombs heading to England. If you heard the engine quit, you took cover, because it could land close by. There were gun stations along the coast that shot many of them down, but a lot got through to England causing great damage.

 Deck_GunOn March 15, 1945 I was on a Liberty ship docked at Baltimore, Maryland. Bombs, grenades, and all types of ammunition were loaded. As we were sailing to Ghent, Belgium, I was on the 8 to noon watch. At 11:30, I reported a small boat, dead ahead of the convoy. I was relieved at noon and went to the mess hall. About 12:30, all hell broke loose.

A Liberty ship, on our port side, was hit. As I ran out of the mess hall, I noticed the nose of the ship was sinking. One life boat got away. When I got to my station, which was the flying bridge at the starboard rear 20 mm gun tub, a British tanker, about 2 ship lengths off our starboard, was aflame. It had been hit in the engine room and was exploding tank by tank. Two men were running forward on the catwalk as the tanks were blowing, explosion after explosion, eventually engulfing the 2 men.

A lot of ammunition from the tanker’s ammunition locker was exploding and hitting our ship and our gun tub, as we huddled inside. The sides were only about 30″ high and we were sitting on a shipload of ammunition. I was sure we were going to blow sky high at any moment. All the ships were in disarray trying to keep out of each other’s space and we were getting closer to the burning tanker.

Everything finally straightened out and we continued sailing. We were drawing too much water, so we had to unload several tons of ammunition in order to navigate the shallow canals, to the port of Ghent, Belgium. It took about 2 weeks to unload most of our cargo and then V E day was here. We sat there for 2 weeks until it was decided what to do. We had to load everything back on the ship and take it back to Charleston, South Carolina. We sat on ammunition for a round trip. How nice! 

 I then set sail on a Victory ship to Liverpool. On our way back to the U.S., while I was at the wheel, our steering engine quit. On the 12-4 afternoon watch, there was quite a tangle of ships trying to avoid us in the convoy. We watched the whole convoy leave us. It was quite rough and we were rolling violently. I hung on to the wheel, but my feet would go out from under me.

I signed on another Liberty Ship near the end of October 1945, in New York City. We sailed to Murmansk Russia which should have been a 2 to 3 month trip, but ended up being 10 months. The shipping company outfitted us with a quarter inch thick, felt knee boots with rubber arctics, fur vests, and sheep lined jackets. We arrived in December and it was very cold, 25 to 30 degrees below zero.

MurmanskWe were leaving the port on December 30. I had just finished eating, got up to go relieve the wheelman, when there was an awful collision, midship, on the starboard side. A Russian ship hit us and put a gash all the way up to the officer’s quarters and way below to the engine room. We were still in the harbor and had to anchor there as they would not bring us back to the dock, for fear of sinking. We got 2×4’s from the Russians to build a frame and cover it with canvas. This would be used as a collision mat over the hole.

We worked day and night and it took a week to build. It was so cold you could only stay out about 20 minutes at a time. The rubber boots we had frozen solid, and it was like walking on wooden shoes. We all worked on sea watches, 4 hours on and 8 hours off. We had to pass a line under the anchor chain. We lowered a seaman down on a chain and wooden slat ladder. His hands froze to the ladder.

We finally figured a way to get under the anchor chain and drag a cable up the port side. We lowered the mat over the starboard side with the cable attached, in order to pull the mat to the hole. In the meantime, the pumps in the engine room had to continuously be repacked, as they were pumping water coming in through the hole, 24 hours steady.

Our steam on deck had to be on continuously or the pipes would freeze. That created a slippery mess on which to walk and work. We were left anchored 2 weeks. We were finally brought to a dock, when it was decided we weren’t going to sink. I never worked so hard on any ship. There were no other U. S. ships in the port.

We had completely run out of food. The Russians furnished us with fish and a deer carcass. We were given a barrel of flour that was rancid and full of flour bugs. The baker sifted all the bugs he could, out of the flour, but some slipped through. It had a rancid odor when baking, and to eat it, we had to toast it, and it stunk again. We ate Spam that we had in our store room, along with some dried fruit that was reconstituted. Many of the crew would get sick and run to the head or the side of the ship to vomit. I used to laugh at them, then, one day, it happened to me. It was very hard, not having proper food.

 Liberty ShipFinally, 6 months after the collision, we were brought to the shipyard. It was now June. We were there about 2 weeks. All that was done was weld a plate of steel over the hole. This did not please the crew, because we had a long way to go to get to the states and we were concerned about the patch holding. We left the dry dock around the end of June and instead of going south along the coast of Europe, the Captain decided to take a straight line to the states from the Arctic Circle.

We were in amongst the icebergs for about 5 days. There was no visibility and the fog horn was blowing twice a minute, day and night. Eventually we made it back to New York. That was the last trip I made.

My first job, when I quit sailing, was at a fertilizer manufacturing plant for about a year. My next job was collecting residential refuse on a sanitation truck, for a couple of years. I then worked at a plant, manufacturing chains for farm machinery until my wife (whom I married on March 9, 1944) and I moved to Long Beach, CA in March of 1952. I worked at Douglas aircraft, in Long Beach, as an aircraft assembler, for nine and a half years. In 1961, I went to work for Prudential Insurance Co.

I transferred to Bakersfield, CA in 1971 with my wife and 2 children. Our free time was spent flying in our 4 place Cessna airplane, camping, boating, water-skiing, and motorcycle riding. We traveled back and forth as a family to the East coast several times. In 1978, with our 2 children, we took an 11,000 mile trip to a Prudential convention in Quebec, Canada on our 2 motorcycles.

I rode an annual 3 Flags run, for 20 years. It covered many different routes, from Mexico to Canada, each year over the Labor Day weekend. On the 20th year, I collided with a bear going 70 MPH. The bear was being chased out of a campground. The bear was killed and I went over the windshield and handlebars. I was skinned up and broke 2 ribs. That was the last time I rode a motorcycle. 

My wife and I travel once in a while, and take a cruise now and then, but most of my time is spent reading and watching all types of automobile races, and ballgames on TV.

 Young_RaymondThank you Raymond Allard for your service to our country during those dangerous and uncertain years. I believe we all would agree that you have earned the right to relax with a book or in front of that TV. Thank you for sharing your story.