In honor of Veteran’s Day I’m posting a newspaper story in two parts as a tribute to my friend, Eldon Brown. I’ve been working with him for a few months, every Friday, taking down the story of his experience as a Merchant Marine during World War II. Eldon is an amazing person with an important story to tell. For decades now, how his goal has been to convince the government to acknowledge the thousands of Merchant Marines who were lost at sea during the war, and to provide the respect the men who were lost at sea deserve. The following article appeared in the Liberty Herald. It is my small tribute to Eldon and his dream.
PART I of II
Eldon Brown graduated from high school in 1942, the year after Adolf Hitler declared war on the United States. His dream was to join the Air Force and fly planes for the war effort.
A heart murmur kept him from joining the Air Force, but led to his service as a Merchant Marine from 1943 to 1945. Eldon crossed the Atlantic 13 times, and spent six months on a voyage that took him around the world.
As a veteran of World War II, Eldon has spent many years telling the story of the men he served with who lost their lives, but who were never acknowledged by the US government. In 1990, Eldon and his wife Audrey traveled to Washington DC to meet with Dan Quayle in an effort to get the Merchant Marine story told. Since that day, the Browns have contacted over a dozen congress members in an effort to make the plight of the seamen known. Eldon wonders if part of the problem is that people do not understand the service that was provided during the war.
In peace times, the Merchant Marine transports people and cargo across the world, but the fleet can be commandeered during war time to serve as an auxiliary to the Navy, as it was during World War II. Thousands of merchant ships were involved in every invasion of the war. The invasion of Normandy alone required 2,700 vessels to transport troops and ammunition. The fleet transported US supplies, men and equipment and maintained them while on enemy soil.
Eldon was an able bodied seaman during the war, sailing in convoys that sometimes included more than 100 ships. The merchant ships carrying supplies to the Soviet Union and the allied countries were the primary targets for the German submarines, known as U-Boats. More than 2,800 merchant ships were lost at sea to the U-Boats. The slower vessels that brought up the rear of the convoy were easy targets. They only made about seven or eight knots, or four to five miles per hour. The fastest ships would lead the convoys, and Navy vessels would sail beside them to protect the fleet. Eldon explained that the older, slower ships would lag behind.
“The sailors called the end of the convoy the ‘coffin corner’ because that’s what the submarines picked off the easiest,” Eldon said.
On one such voyage, Eldon remembers hearing the PA system sounding the ‘general quarters’ warning.
“That signal meant we were in dangerous conditions and the submarines were close,” he said.
With that warning, the Navy gun crew and the Merchant Marines ran to their battle stations and watched in horror as the ship behind them was sunk by a German torpedo. All of the men on board were lost to sea. On deck, Eldon’s job was preparing the lifeboats to be released from the ship. Fortunately, the lifeboats on his ship were not needed that day, but the risk was always present.
Bad weather in the north Atlantic was another threat to the men at sea. While on board the ship The Horace Bushnell, Eldon faced the worst storm of his two years at sea.
“You have to keep the ship heading into the wind no matter how out of course you get,” he said.
He explained that if the ship gets turned sideways, in between the wave and the trough, the wave will roll the ship and sink it.
“We headed straight into the waves,” Eldon said. “When the ship came down off a 30-foot wave it sounded like an explosion. We knew it had cracked. We started taking on water bad.”
The force of the water broke the cement seal around the anchor housing, and water was rushing in. The captain told the men he didn’t have the heart to order someone on deck to patch the hole. Instead, he asked for volunteers to go on deck and make repairs. Eldon and another deck hand volunteered to make a run from the midship to the stern where the boat was compromised.
“The problem was, we had to time the run in between the swells when the ship was up out of the water,” he said.
If their timing was off, they would have been swept overboard by the next wave, facing sure death.
Both men timed the run and stuffed the hole with burlap, pounding it in around the massive anchor chain with mallets, hoping it would hold through the storm. After fixing the anchor hole, Eldon made it back to midship before the boat went back under water. He timed it right. The bosun mate, who ran the deck crew, wasn’t so fortunate.
“The wave washed him back against the wall when the water hit,” Eldon said.
He suffered broken bones, but the ship was getting tossed so roughly in the water that there was no safe place for him to recover.
“He got tied into his bunk with bed sheets until the storm passed,” Eldon said.
The Horace Bushnell was later destroyed by a torpedo from a German U-Boat that left a 30-foot hole in the side of the ship.