U.S. Merchant Marine and U.S. Naval Armed Guard

Bill and Sandra McGee commemorated the 50th Anniversary of D-Day on the Royal Viking Sun, New York to Paris.

Bill and Sandra McGee commemorated the 50th Anniversary of D-Day on the Royal Viking Sun, New York to Paris.

Today is the 70th Anniversary of D-Day and the invasion of Normandy. It’s hard to believe, but 20 years ago this week, Sandra and I were en route to Normandy, France for the 50th Anniversary of D-Day.

I was invited to steam over with other World War II veterans on the historic WWII Liberty ship, the S.S. Jeremiah O’Brien, which had taken part in the 6 June 1944 invasion of Normandy. She would be the only vessel to return to Normandy as part of the 50th anniversary celebration.

However, Sandra talked me into steaming over on a more luxurious ship, the Royal Viking Sun, which was offering a D-Day Anniversary Crossing from Montreal to Paris for WWII veterans.

On board, Captain Ernest Murdock and I led discussion groups about the roles played in the Landings by the U.S. Merchant Marine and Naval Armed Guard gun crews.

Many of the veterans on the cruise had stormed the beaches of Normandy on 6 June, but being from the generation who did not talk about themselves easily, these brave men were in a place where they could finally unburden themselves of some horrific memories. Sandra and I will never forget this voyage.

Author and WWII U.S. Navy Armed Guard veteran Bill McGee attending a Memorial Day Service, May 27, 2013.

Attending a Memorial Day Service, May 27, 2013.

Today I attended a Memorial Day Service in San Rafael, California and was reminded of this little-known fact: In World War II, 145,000 U.S. Navy Armed Guard served on thousands of merchant ships (freighters, tankers and troop transports), and protected and defended the ships from enemy air and submarine attacks. I served in the Naval Armed Guard and wrote about it in my memoir, Bluejacket Odyssey, 1942-1946: From Guadalcanal to Bikini, Naval Armed Guard in the Pacific. I’m always proud to wear my Naval Armed Guard ballcap and jacket–guaranteed to be a conversation starter.

“Little has been written about service in the Naval Armed Guard in which nearly 145,000 men served… William L. McGee remedies this with Bluejacket Odyssey, 1942-1946: From Guadalcanal to Bikini, Naval Armed Guard in the Pacifica book that has value for historians.” —Naval History Magazine

The Rev. Michael Gatton, Chaplain, USS LCI National Association, gave these remarks at the Association’s Nashville Reunion in 2011. Sandra and I liked them and asked for permission to excerpt from them.

EVERY GENERATION LEAVES A LEGACY OF LESSONS TO BE LEARNED. But, there may never have been a generation who taught more valuable lessons than the one born between 1914 and 1929. You were the folks who grew up during the Great Depression. You are the men who went off to fight in the Big One. And, you are the men who came home from that war and built a nation into an economic powerhouse. You knew the meaning of sacrifice, both in terms of material possessions and of real
blood, sweat, and tears. You were humble men who never bragged about what you had done or been through. You were loyal, patriotic, and level-headed. You were our Greatest Generation.

Tom Brokaw gave you that name; and while it’s a bold claim, it has been earned. You weren’t perfect by any means, of course, but as a whole you were a cut above the rest. In Brokaw’s book, The Greatest Generation, he remembers his mother telling him the story of the day Gordon Larsen came into the post office where she worked. Larsen was typically a cheerful and popular member of their community, but that day he had stopped in to complain about the rowdiness of the teenagers the night before, which had been Halloween. Brokaw’s mother was surprised at his tone and asked him good naturedly, “Oh Gordon, what were you doing when you were seventeen?” Gordon looked at her squarely in the eye and said, “I was landing at Guadalcanal.” He then turned and left the post office. You were men who were surely mature beyond your years. Maybe it’s time we remember the lessons you have taught us and embrace once again the values of the Greatest Generation.

Lesson # 1: Take Personal Responsibility for Your life. While today’s generation often shirks responsibility as too much work, you relished the chance to step up to the plate and test your mettle. One son of a WWII Medal of Honor winner remembers of his dad and his peers, “For them, responsibility was their juice. They loved responsibility. They took it head-on, and anytime they could get a task and be responsible, that was what really got em’ going.” And when the Greatest Generation accepted responsibility for something, you also accepted all the consequences of that decision, whether good or bad. You were not a generation of whiners or excuse makers. Unlike today when individuals and businesses reach for a bailout or an easy fix, you took pride in personal accountability.

Lesson #2: Be Frugal. Is your house stuffed with doodads and boxes of stuff? Do you have a sort of pack rat mentality? Could it be because you grew up in the Great Depression where the next canister of oats or pair of pants was not guaranteed? You learned to live on less and be grateful for the things you had, no matter how humble. It didn’t take a new Wii to brighten your Christmas morning; an orange at the bottom of a stocking was enough to knock your socks off. This was not the generation that purchased Corvettes to soothe their mid-life crisis, nor the generation that equated success with the purchase of a McMansion. This was the generation that was thrilled to move into small suburban houses of 750 square feet — not as big as some of today’s garages. One of the mottos of the Greatest Generation was “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”

Lesson #3: Be Humble. Typical of your generation is the story of a son or daughter who finds a war medal stashed in the attic after dad passes, he having never told them about it. Even if your exploits had been brave and heroic, you rarely talked about the war- maybe because of the difficulty in remembering such carnage, but also from the sense that you had simply been fulfilling your duty, and thus had no reason to brag. Brokaw observes: “The World War II generation did what was expected of them. But they never talked about it. It was part of the Code.”

Lesson #4: Love Loyally. You took your marriage vows seriously. Brokaw wrote, “It was the last generation in which, broadly speaking, marriage was a commitment and divorce was not an option.” Numbers bear Brokaw’s anecdotal evidence out: of all the new marriages in 1940, 1 in 6 ended in divorce. By the late 1990s, that number was 1 in 2. Yours was a time when there was no hanging out or “hooking up. Men asked women on real dates, and had serious intentions in doing so. When a particular gal caught a man’s heart, he proposed and they got hitched. And they were married for the next 60 years. Maybe things wouldn’t be so bad today, if we didn’t think there was an escape hatch, and we knew that whatever bumps in the road we hit, we had to work through them together.

Lesson #5: Work Hard. In war you learned to focus on the objective at hand and not give up until that objective and the mission as a whole was accomplished. When you got home, you carried that focus over to the world of work. They didn’t fall into the fallacy that you had to find “your passion” to be happy. You seemed to find happiness in any job you did, because you weren’t just working for personal, self-fulfillment· you labored for a bigger purpose: to give your families the financial security you hadn’t enjoyed growing up. As soon as they graduate college, many folks today want the things it took you 30 years to acquire. But, you knew that going into debt was not the way to get the things you wanted. You understood that the good things in life must be earned by honest work.

Lesson #6: Embrace Challenge. You weren’t the Greatest Generation despite the challenges you faced, but because of them. Today too many shirk challenge and difficult pursuits, believing that the easier life is, the happier they’ll be. But you knew better. You knew that one cannot have the bitter without the sweet, and that true happiness comes from overcoming the kind of challenges that build character and refine the soul. The challenges you experienced made your joy all the more sweet because it was tinged with the gratitude of knowing how easily it could all have been taken away.

And, Lesson #7: Dont Make Life So Dang Complicated. If there’s a common thread in these lessons, it’s having a common sense and a level-headed approach to life. While today, we obsess about finding ourselves, or the perfect mate, or our passion in life, your uncomplicated approach t0 life is refreshing. You didn’t go on a diet, you simply ate whole food; you didn’t exercise, you worked around the house; you didn’t obsess about your relationships, you just found a lady you loved and married her. You always looked sharp, but never fussed with fashion trends. You didn’t mull over which appliance better suited your personality and image, you just bought the machine that worked the best. You didn’t think about how to get things done, you just did them. Instead of spending time navel-gazing your life away you just got up and went. So simple!

Thanks, gentlemen (and the ladies who love you), for lessons taught. YOU are the GREATEST!

In honor of today, I’d like to share the following excerpt from Bluejacket Odyssey, 1942-1946:

“I remember December 7, 1941, as if it was yesterday. I had just turned sixteen and was living with Rev. Hawley and his family at the Vancouver Barracks east of Portland, Oregon. Rev. Hawley had gotten me a job at the Post Exchange (or “PX”). On this particular Sunday morning, my buddies and I were walking down Broadway in Portland checking out the movies. All of a sudden, someone opened a store door and shouted, “The radio says the Japanese just bombed the hell out of us, somewhere called Pearl Harbor.”

“My buddies and I were in a state of shock and disbelief.  Like most Americans, we had read about and listened to the ongoing debates regarding the threat of war with Japan.  But now the facts of the matter were quite different.  On that frightful morning, in what turned out to be a long-planned secret attack, Japanese warplanes appeared suddenly over the unsuspecting U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor and proceeded to bomb or aerial torpedo what was then the mightiest U.S. naval force in history.

“We forgot about the movies and headed home to listen to the radio. The next day, President Roosevelt indelibly described December 7, 1941 as “a date which will live in infamy” and declared war on the Japanese.

“I was gung-ho to join the Marines or Navy, but had just turned sixteen.  I checked in with both recruiting offices anyway thinking there might be an age exception now that there was a war on.  The bottom line: no way to enlist at 16; okay at 17, providing one parent sign a consent form; and okay at 18, period.

“I waited out the next ten months, eager to turn 17, working as a welder on ships at the newly-opened Kaiser Shipyard in Vancouver, Washington.  In September 1942, on my 17th birthday, my mother signed a consent form and I joined the U.S. Navy.”

–Excerpted from BLUEJACKET ODYSSEY, 1942-1946: Guadalcanal to Bikini, Naval Armed Guard in the Pacific by William L. McGee

The National World War II Museum in New Orleans will mount a new exhibit recognizing the U.S. Merchant Marine and Naval Armed Guard who fought in World War II. Read Paul Purpura’s story in The Times-PicayuneClick Here to Read

Celebration in the Pacific upon hearing news of Japanese surrender, 15 August 1945.

Flashback 66 years to 15 August 1945 (14 August 1945 in Washington, D.C.): I was a U.S. Navy Gunner’s Mate stationed in Subic Bay in the Philippines when I heard the news over the Air Force Radio Network, “JAPAN SURRENDERS!” I can still recall my feelings and those of millions of other Americans who experienced that climactic moment. Here is an excerpt from my memoir Bluejacket Odyssey, 1942-1946:

“In an instant, shouts of joy filled the morning air around the base and all across the Bay. Soon fog horns, sirens, and every other noisemaking device conceivable geared up. Work stopped everywhere as people hugged or shook hands. Sailors looked at each other and shouted, “Hey, do you know the war is over?” It was on everyone’s lips: “The war is over!” Sailors came out of the base buildings like they were on fire. They were different men from those who had gone in. They raced to the canteen to celebrate the end of the fighting with beer and laughter.

“Fire and salvage tugs began pumping hundreds of fountains of water up in the air. Other ships broke out fire pumps and portable “handy billies” to add more spray and mist to the scene. Soon, small craft, and some not so small ships, got underway and formed columns that cruised in figure eights around the Bay. The victory parade lasted several hours.

“Hidden cans of beer and bottles of bourbon suddenly appeared. As I stood by the Bay and watched the parade of ships and small craft, I suddenly remembered I still had over a year to go on my Regular Navy enlistment. What now, I wondered. I was also thankful I didn’t have Shore Patrol duty that day.

“Later that evening, hundreds of searchlights lit up the sky in sweeping crisscross patterns as star shells and very signals added brilliant colors to the dark canvas. Every pyrotechnic locker in the harbor was emptied that night. You could almost read by the light of the fireworks.

“There were also some very somber thoughts and discussions. Everyone was relieved that they made it through the war, but there were too many memories of shipmates who weren’t so lucky. Some of the reservists were already adding up their discharge points to see who would be the first to go home.”

-Excerpted from Chapter 15, The Imperial Sun Sets, BLUEJACKET ODYSSEY, 1942-1946: Guadalcanal to Bikini, Naval Armed Guard in the Pacific by William L. McGee

The National Museum of the Pacific War, Fredericksburg, Texas. (Photo courtesy of the Museum)

The following media release is from The National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas:

San Francisco, CA, July 18, 2011 –The National Museum of the Pacific War  (formerly The Admiral Nimitz Museum) in Fredericksburg, Texas has added the research and writing files of military history author William L. McGee to the Museum archives.

The Museum was selected by McGee for “dedication to perpetuating the memory of the Pacific Theater of WWII in order that the sacrifices of those who contributed to our victory may never be forgotten”.

The William L. McGee Research and Writing Files consist of archival materials collected by McGee over a twenty-year period as research material for four books on World War II military history in the Pacific.

The archival materials include ship deck logs, Action Reports, interviews and oral histories, documentation on the 1946 Bikini atomic bomb tests (McGee participated in these tests), rolls of microfilm and microfiche, and hundreds of photographs. There is also an extensive collection of WWII books.

Dennis Blocker reviews the McGee collection with Museum staff (left) Mike Lebens, Chief Curator of Collections, and (right) Robert Elder, Artifacts Registrar. (Photo courtesy of Dennis Blocker)

Dennis Blocker II, Pacific war historian for the USS LCI (Landing Craft, Infantry) National Association, created a detailed inventory of all the materials. “This project was an honor for me,” said Blocker. “William McGee’s materials are a treasure trove and will be a huge asset to The Pacific War Museum’s efforts to become a world-class WWII research facility.”

McGee is currently at work on his seventh (and final) book, “Lucky Me: A Memoir”. For more about books by William L. McGee, visit BMC Publications .


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