Brevard resident and World War II veteran Harold Wellington traveled to Baltimore for the 2020/21 U.S. Merchant Navy Veterans Convention and Congressional Gold Medal celebration. This year, the convention is notable as the U.S. government will recognize Merchant Marines who fought in the Battle of the Atlantic in WWII as veterans.
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In 2019, Congress passed the Merchant Mariner Act. Merchant Mariner sailors were officially recognized for shipping supplies to the Allies as they sailed defenseless against German submarines patrolling the Atlantic Ocean. President Donald J. Trump enacted the law in the spring of 2020. Surviving WWII Merchant Marines, like Harold Wellington, were to receive the Congressional Gold Medal at the 2020 convention. The COVID Pandemic -19 postponed the ceremony until the summer of 2020 and into November 2020. Finally, the Merchant Marine Association hosted this convention to honor these veterans with the Congressional Gold Medal to these deserving veterans.
Participants in the event visited the SS John W. Brown moored in Baltimore Harbor.
“Welcome aboard the John W. Brown, please pay attention,” said a guide to John Brown as 21 World War II veterans, including 11 over 100 years old, stepped onto the bridge and across. the past.
The SS John Brown is one of only two operational Liberty Ships to have participated in World War II. The tour brought back memories for 94-year-old Edward Pascal.
“Lots of memories of being up at night, all night standing by the guns. The submarines were there, and they were hunting, and we were chasing the submarines,” Pascal said.
These men faced an enemy hidden by the sea. They never knew when they were about to be ambushed. Some of these men served in the engine room, 40 feet below the waterline.
According to Harold Wellington, a resident of Brevard, if a ship was hit by a torpedo, water would spill over the men in the engine room and they would not come out. Standing in the boiler room of the John Brown, Wellington remembers his first time setting foot on a Liberty Ship. His supervisor took him down to the engine room and left him untrained there.
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âThey brought me here and said, ‘This is the boiler room where you got the first watch,’ then turned and left,â Wellington said. âI’ve never seen this thing before. What do I do now ?
Being a merchant navy was dangerous work in a war zone. The US government refused to recognize the Merchant Mariner as a veteran. WWII merchant seaman Lee Cox remembers how other servicemen treated him unfairly. Cox said other servicemen believed merchant seamen were civilians instead of people serving their county.
Cox said: “We got insulted a lot during the war by the guys in the military.” He went on to say the Navy guys would say, “Hey, stubborn drunks.”
Bill Balabanow also remembers his days in the merchant services during the war. He believes that the American public has not accorded the same recognition to merchant seamen as to other branches of the military.
âOur wastage rate was higher than in any other branch of the Service,â Balabanow said. “People don’t know we were there during the invasions of all of these Pacific Islands.”
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At a gala dinner on the last night of the convention, the US Maritime Administrator unveiled the secret design of the Merchant Navy Congressional Medal. Medal shortages caused by the COVID-19 pandemic prevented the maritime administrator from awarding the gold medal to veterans.
The US Mint will not publish the images on the medal until it has awarded the prizes. The convention attendees got a glimpse of the designs of the medal. The maritime administrator asked everyone in the room not to post photos of the design on social media and asked the press not to release any images on professional media.
Veterans like Charles A. Mills, 101, say it’s high time the government recognized their service in combat.
âNo army, navy, coast guard or marine corps can move without the US Merchant Navy because we are the supplier,â Mills said. “You cannot wage a war without a supplier.”