Merchant mariners were practically sitting ducks

By BRIAN FERRY

bferry@timesobserver.com

During World War II efforts in Europe and the Pacific required mountains of supplies from the United States.

From tanks, airplanes, and trucks, to ammunition, fuel, food, and boots, the United States Merchant Marine carried it.

At the age of 16, Tony Tomassoni of Warren joined that effort.

His three trips across the Atlantic from New York to England took about two weeks each. Sometimes his ship would continue on to ports in France or Russia.

Later in the war, Tomassoni was on a ship that headed to the Pacific Theater through the Panama Canal.

Shipping to ports in the Pacific took much longer – about two months, he said. Tomassoni made two of those runs, both to the Marshall Islands.

On the way out, the Liberty Ships and Victory Ships were loaded down with thousands of tons of materiel. “When you’re loaded, you could stand on the side of the ship and touch the water,” he said.

The holds were filled with anything from ammunition to food. On deck were tanks, trucks, planes, even ambulances.

One of Tomassoni’s ships had to carry valuable cargo on a memorable side trip. “We left the convoy, traveled for three days just to carry 100 cases of beer to the Marshall Islands,” he said.

The ships were much lighter as they returned – no one was shipping to the United States. “There was nothing to bring back,” Tomassoni said.

Convoys en route to Europe and Asia were high-priority targets for German and Japanese submarines.

No branch of the U.S. armed forces lost a higher percentage of its men than the Merchant Marine. A total of 733 U.S. merchant ships were sunk and about one in 24 merchant mariners – more than 8,600 – lost their lives in the war.

If there were “50 ships in a convoy, maybe 30 would make it across to England,” Tomassoni said.

The ships didn’t always travel together.

“My worst fear was going to Russia from Scotland all alone,” Tomassoni said. No escorts. No other cargo ships. Two weeks of just his ship full of ammunition for the Russian war effort.

U-boats, German submarines, could strike at any point in the trans-Atlantic journey, he said. “Ships were torpedoed one day out of New York.”

There were Navy escorts, perhaps one warship for every 10 cargo ships, for the convoys, but there was little the 50 to 100 men aboard each lightly-armed Merchant Marine ship could do but hope they were not attacked.

“How lucky I was, all the convoys we were on, we lost 50 percent of the ships,” he said. “You very seldom ever slept. You were always waiting for that torpedo to hit. It never did. Thank God.”

For the most part, his ships were located near the middle of the miles-wide formations of the convoys. The ships at the outsides of the formations were much more vulnerable to attack.

Sometimes the attacks came day after day. Sometimes Tomassoni spent an entire voyage without seeing an enemy.

Tomassoni found himself in the water or in a life raft three times during his years on the seas. Those times were brief and he was picked up by nearby ships – a Russian destroyer in one case.

When the alarm went off, the sailors’ training sent them running to their gun stations. There was another automatic response. “The first thing that came to your mind was your mother,” he said. “You would think about your mother – always your mother. When we were growing up, who did you go to? We went to mom.”

During attacks, Tomassoni’s was hot shellman at the ship’s 5-inch gun. One man loaded the shells. A Navy gunner assigned to the ship fired them. Tomassoni, wearing thick leather gloves that covered his hands and arms up to his shoulders, caught the hot, empty casings as they were ejected and tossed them over the side.

When the ships were not under attack, Tomassoni was on duty from 4 to 8 a.m. and 4 to 8 p.m. For two hours he was at the helm, steering the ship. For the other half of each shift, he was on deck watching the water.

During the war, the Merchant Marine was not a formal branch of the armed forces. In the U.S. Navy, someone with Tomassoni’s responsibilities would have been a boatswain’s mate – second class.

Steering the ship was an esteemed position, but one of Tomassoni’s best memories of the war came during the other part of his duties.

Early one morning in the North Atlantic, Tomassoni was on deck watching the seas.

“Deck to horizon was 11 miles,” he said. “Within that 11 miles, I saw two shadows.”

Two German U-boats surfaced – not to attack, but to surrender.

It was late in the war and things were going badly for Germany.

“They didn’t want to fight,” he said.

After the Navy made sure the subs were disarmed, sailors secured them to merchant vessels. They tied one of the subs to Tomassoni’s ship which towed it the rest of the trip to Europe. It was finally cut loose in Swansea, Wales.

Torpedoes and U-boats and fear were not Tomassoni’s greatest enemy during the war.

“There’s nothing worse than than being homesick,” he said.

Homesickness

He had plenty of time to think on the ship, between snatching whatever sleep he could, playing cards, and shifts that were only 12 hours apart.

At first he didn’t spend much time writing home.

That had some visible effects back home. “Nobody every told me to write home,” he said. “I came home six months later. My mother went from real black hair to gray. She didn’t hear from me for six months.”

In all, though, it was a good experience for Tomassoni. “I have good memories,” he said.

None better than “getting on a train in New York City knowing you were going home to Warren.”