Old Salts share Merchant Marine experience
Editions of the North County Times Serving San Diego and Riverside Counties Saturday, February 16, 2008Old Salts share Merchant Marine experience
SUN CITY ---- When the Old Salts get together, they talk about things such as the T-2 Tanker, hurricanes weathered in the Bermuda Triangle, former shipmates they caught up with recently and how cruise ships don't rock.
The Old Salts is a local chapter of the Merchant Marine Veterans of World War II. They meet monthly in Sun City, for fellowship mostly. They also support lobbying efforts urging the government to extend benefits to sailors who worked for the Merchant Marine.
The term refers to a fleet of ships that carries imports and exports during peacetime and becomes a naval auxiliary during wartime to deliver troops and war materiel.
The Old Salts' commodore, Ray Gallagher of Sun City, said he joined the Merchant Marine after serving in the Navy during World War II.
He said he didn't like the discipline of the Navy, but the Merchant Marine allowed him to be out at sea, which he loved. Gallagher, 85, said he helped haul oil and other cargo used by the armed services.
Later, he worked on a ship used by researchers with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and would be gone for four months at a stretch, he said.
"It was such a different life, some people couldn't really relate to it," he said. "They'd ask what I do and I'd say I was a sailor and that I just got back from Yokohama. They would look at me like I was crazy."
Gallagher said he lived for years with a suitcase always packed, as ship owners would call with a job and he would have just three hours to get on board. He said he visited places such as Tonga, Tahiti, Samoa and many others.
"I just love the sea, and we had a lot of fun," he said. "It was quite an honor for me to get my merchant papers when I was about 18."
Fellowship is the quick answer C.L. "Burt" Burton gives when asked what brought him to Thursday's Old Salts meeting. The 79-year-old Menifee resident says he doesn't miss too many of their gatherings.
"There aren't that many of us left," he said.
The meeting drew former mariners from throughout the Menifee and Temecula valleys as well as from San Marcos, Cherry Valley and Riverside.
Burton hooked up with the Merchant Marine at age 15, he said, because he wanted to help fight World War II, but was too young to join the armed services. One year earlier, his family had been evacuated from Alaska because the Japanese had captured the Aleutian Islands.
He then lived on a farm in Mt. Vernon, Wash., and was told he could work as a merchant mariner if he got three months experience on a boat, so he got a job on a tug boat and a ferry boat.
But the glamour of the high seas was in short supply on his first Merchant Marine job, he said.
Burton laughs remembering how he used a wheel barrow to clean cow stalls on the farm and ended up behind one again in the Merchant Marine, after he was assigned to be a "coal passer," delivering coal to the engine room via a wheel barrow.
His "uniform" included a World War I-styled helmet, a life jacket made of cork and a gas mask. His first deep sea ship was a World War I-era ship called General Gorgas.
"It was awful," he said. "We always said the Japanese wouldn't waste a torpedo on it."
But things improved, he said, and he got to see most of the world during his six years as a merchant mariner, working aboard troop transport ships, tankers and freighters. He says he felt compelled to try to help the war effort, as his older brother and everyone he knew had joined up.
"To this day, I don't know how I did it," he said. "But I wouldn't trade it for all the tea in China."
Bill Jopes, of San Marcos, a former deck cadet with the Merchant Marine Academy, said he believes mariners deserve more credit for their service during World War II.
He said they had no health insurance or other benefits, and that if they were "torpedoed, they were on their own." Jopes should know, another member said, as he spent several days in a lifeboat after the ship he was on was blown up.
"The Merchant Marine delivered the whole war," he said. "They were at every invasion."
They got limited veterans status by the federal government in 1988, he said, but are hoping to see a pending bill pass that would provide $1,000 per month to World War II mariners or their widows. The Belated Thank You to the Merchant Mariners of World War II Act of 2007 is pending in the Senate as bill S961, he said.
Jopes went on to lighter subjects as some of the 30 or so members began to take their seats for a chapter meeting. Gallagher and he began to swap storm stories and talked about the joys of the T-2 Tanker.
Gallagher said he worked on the Mission Santa Ines, and recently saw the ship on a cable television show, rusting in a "bone yard" near Sausalito.
"I almost cried," he said. "They should torpedo it or something rather than just leaving it to sit there. They were good, tough ships."
Jopes knew of the "Calships" line of tankers, which were named after missions and made by a San Francisco Bay Area company. He nodded his head in agreement.
"I know what you mean," he said. "Everyone liked the T-2s."
For information on the Old Salts, call (951) 924-4188.