In honor of Veteran’s Day, following is Part II of II of a newspaper article that appeared in the Liberty Herald. It is my small tribute to Eldon Brown and his desire to show respect to the thousands of Merchant Marines lost in World War II.
PART II of II
The most dangerous missions the Merchant Marines sailed were those carrying ammunition and fuel. The merchant ship on which Eldon spent six months sailing around the world was a gasoline tanker. The ship traveled down through the Canal Zone, into Japanese occupied Burma, carrying 150,000 gallons of gas and 12 fighter planes on deck. The government paid the seamen extra to ride with dangerous cargo.
“We were paid 15 percent above our wages for being on the ammunition ships,” he said.
However, it was the ammunition ships that were the prime targets for the Germans during the war.
Eldon considered the extra wages worth the dangers he faced. When he got back from the six-month voyage, he had $1,200 in his pocket. He stopped to visit Audrey in Connersville before he went home to show off his cash.
“I think that’s why Audrey married me,” Eldon said.
When asked if there was any truth to that statement, she didn’t deny it. Audrey smiled and said that after they were married, they used the money to purchase their first set of furniture. The Browns were married in 1946, the year after Eldon left the Merchant Marines. They have lived in Liberty since 1959 where they raised their three children.
Eldon grew up in Whitley County, Indiana, where his parents stressed the value of family, hard work and service to the country. He and his father shared a love of music. As a boy, Eldon sang and his father played violin. They played at grain halls and around the country until they became well known enough that the Fort Wayne radio station, WOWO, asked them to perform on the radio. Eldon said his dad refused, saying he would only play where he could see people enjoying the music in the audience. Eldon didn’t sing again until he was docked on a Merchant ship off the coast of Italy.
“People rowed canoes up to the ship and sold almonds to the sailors over the side. On one of the boats, a fella was playing the prettiest mandolin I ever saw.”
Eldon didn’t smoke so he had a stockpile of rationed cigarettes to trade. Four cartons later he had himself a mandolin that he played on the ship as the sailors sang along. He can still sing the old sailing songs today.
Communication with his family while he was away at war was difficult. Secrecy was key to a successful mission. Letters that Eldon sent back home to his mother were censored. Eldon said when the men boarded a ship, the destination was classified. It was imperative that the German’s not discover where the ships were headed. The motto of the Merchant Marines is Acto non Verba, or Deeds not Words. Unfortunately, the service the seamen provided was left largely unrecognized when the war ended. Their deeds remained unsaid, their service unrecognized.
World War II was the deadliest war in history. Over 12 million men and women in the United States served the war effort, and 413,000 paid the ultimate price. A statistic that is not as well-known is the sacrifice made by the Merchant Marines during the war. One of every 26 Merchant Marines died during World War II, causing them to have the highest casualty rate compared to all other military branches.
It wasn’t until 1988 that President Reagan signed a bill granting Merchant Marines who served the country during WW II veteran status. Prior to 1988, the brave men who served their country were not provided benefits. Eldon hopes that the government will one day erect a memorial to the 9,300 Merchant Marines lost at war.
“The thing that worries me, all those boys were just sunk on those ships, and there was no credit at all for those boys giving their lives,” he said. “There should be a remembrance of those who were lost at sea.”
As we celebrate the contributions made by our Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard, make sure to also think of the Merchant Marines. As we remember the lives lost in the ultimate sacrifice for our country, Eldon just hopes that the Merchant Marines will also be a part of that memory.