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.”