- Associated Press - Saturday, May 31, 2014

LANCASTER, Pa. (AP) - It was 70 years ago this coming June 6, that the Allies landed on the coast of Normandy. Thousands of men and machines, and millions of tons of supplies were hauled onto the beaches of France for what was the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany.

But amid all the hoopla surrounding the upcoming anniversary, one unanswered question bothers Clarence Newcomer.

“Everyone talks about the D-Day invasion, but no one asks how all that material got here,” says the 87-year-old Manheim man.

Newcomer knows the answer, because he was part of it. Most of the men and equipment was carried overseas on the ships of the U. S. Merchant Marines.

The Merchant Marines were the most under-appreciated and under-compensated branch of any service to see action in World War II. Over 200,000 men served from 1942 to 1945, and more than 9,000 died. That’s a 1 in 26 ratio, the highest of any branch during the war.

More than 1,500 merchant ships were struck by enemy fire, and 833 were sunk. Yet the men who manned these ships, braving enemy bombers and submarines, got almost nothing from the government they served. They received no extra combat pay, and had to buy their own clothes and gear. Their salary was slightly higher, but unlike the soldiers, they had to pay income tax. A serviceman could get a 30-day furlough, but, Newcomer says, “if we left for 30 days, our pay stopped.”

After the war, many of the 604 mariners held prisoner of war were left stranded by Uncle Sam.

“Merchant Marines held prisoner in Japan, after they were released, could not find their way home,” Newcomer said. “They had to persuade a ship captain to bring them home.”

After the war, they did not qualify for any G.I. Bill benefits such as for housing or education, nor did they receive any health benefits under the Veterans’ Administration.

Some of that would come in 1988.

Still, Newcomer is proud of his service, having made nine round trips to Europe and back between December 1944 and December 1945, on three different ships.

Newcomer entered the Merchant Marines in November 1944 at the urging of a friend, Eugene Rettew, who said they could aid the war effort without all the military rigmarole by enlisting in the Merchant Marines.

“I thought ‘what the heck are they?’ I’d never heard of them,” Newcomer said.

Next thing he knew, he was at the Merchant Marine training base at Sheepshead Bay, N.Y., and soon after that, he was at sea.

“I feel like I was shanghaied,” Newcomer chuckled. “At that time, the war was winding down and they needed so many supplies in Europe. Ships weren’t getting enough crewmen, so they would come to Sheepshead Bay, and it didn’t matter if we were finished with our training or not. They just took us.”

By mid-December 1944 Newcomer was en route to England aboard the S. S. Marine Robin as a ship’s steward, serving meals to Army officers. He was well equipped for this job, since his mother owned Sarah’s Restaurant on South Charlotte Street in Manheim.

It was on that trip when he first wondered why he was there, when a large, rogue wave struck the ship.

“This thing cracked and we all thought we were hit,” Newcomer said. “We waited to hear the warning bells going off.”

Outside, destroyers began dropping depth charges.

“That’s when I thought ‘what am I doing out here?’” he said.

Convoy duty was dangerous as sailors faced torpedoes, mines and the turbulent North Atlantic.

“It is not an easy trip in the winter time,” he recalled. “They talk about swells; entire ships would disappear between those swells. Then just as suddenly, your ship climbs to the top of a wave and you can see all the other ships.”

Although the war has long been over, Newcomer is still fighting for Merchant Marine recognition. As president of the Susquehanna Valley Mariners, he went to Harrisburg a few years ago to fight for a bonus for his comrades similar to the one the state gave its military veterans.

“I walked the halls,” he said. “I hit every representative’s office in Harrisburg,” he said. “I gave each one a letter asking them to please give us a bonus like they gave to the servicemen. I did that not once, but twice. We finally got a $200 bonus.”

A widower since the death of his wife, Mildred, in 2001, Newcomer bemoans the fact that the Merchant Marine’s lack any political muscle on the national level.

“We have no lobbying power,” he concluded.

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Online:

http://bit.ly/1pscSdL

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Information from: Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era , http://lancasteronline.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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