My grandfather, William Boner Thompson, will always be remembered for his avid consumption of World War II history books. On visits to his homes in Bronxville or Pasadena, we would invariably find him sitting forward on the living room sofa, engulfed in a Lucky Strike cloud, immersed in a tome. It turns out that most of these war books were about the United States’ merchant marine fleet. A local bookstore would automatically send him freshly published volumes.
Bill Thompson wasn’t young — he was about 34 — when in 1942 he went off to fight in World War II, leaving his wife behind with three young boys. Upset with reports about what the Nazis were doing to Jews in Europe, he first tried to enlist in the U.S. Navy but was told he was too old. Then, like many concerned citizens of his age, he tried to enlist in the Canadian Navy. At this point the U.S. Navy gave him a position as Officer in Charge of the Harbor Inspection Group, Degaussing Section, New York Harbor.
He later served two years as Commanding Officer, Armed Guard, aboard various merchant vessels in the North Atlantic, North Sea, and Mediterranean. Captain C.E. Peterson assumed command of the ship in March 1944. From April to August 1944, with Thompson as commanding officer, the ship made seven cross-channel operational trips to the Normandy beach heads Omaha and Utah. He made another voyage later that year to Antwerp.
Thompson’s command of the ship was so exemplary that Peterson called him out in a letter to the U.S. Naval Guard Center. “On each of these voyages, the conditions were somewhat trying, involving long periods of inactivity at anchorage, with infrequent opportunities for shore leave, ninety-three days straight on regular sea watches in one instance, together with frequent hazard from enemy action.
Peterson said the conduct of the Armed Guard complement was exemplary. “Their cooperation with the officers of this ship was excellent, and their relations with the merchant crews could not be improved upon, being entirely without friction or dissension. Under enemy fire they conducted themselves with coolness and restrain which I am sure is in conformity with the highest Navy traditions.”
The merchant marine fleet was absolutely critical to the Allied war effort. Many historians believe the war could not have been won without it. The boats carried all-important supplies from U.S. factories to battalions all over the world. The fleet was of so much strategic importance that the German Army believed that if it could cut off the shipments it might be able to win the war.
German U-Boats were patrolling the waters off Long Island when my grandfather first left from New York harbor. The merchant marine boats used to sail across the Atlantic in haphazard patterns to avoid torpedo fire. Sometimes the boat would get word that German planes were flying overhead. My grandfather, who was in charge of artillery on the boat, would fire the guns into the sky. “We never knew if we hit anyone,” he used to say.
The boats sailed pre-programmed patterns from which they couldn’t deviate, not even to pick up soldiers from boats that had been destroyed.
The U.S. government did its best to hide from the public, and the enemy, the huge scope of this effort. Newspapers reports would underplay how often merchant marine boats were sunk. They would run occasional reports that a couple medium-sized Allied ships had been sunk in the Atlantic, or something to that effect. The reality was that in 1942, the high-water mark for ship sinkings, at least 33 ships were sunk each week.
In the meantime, U.S. factories raced to produce merchant vessels faster than the Germans could sink them. Production rose from less than 100 boats in 1941, to 750 in 1942, to almost 2000 in 1943. The tide finally turned in 1943–that was the first year the U.S. produced more ships than the Germans sunk.
Casualties aboard these boats were much higher than in the U.S. military at large. By some estimates, one in 26 mariners serving aboard merchant ships in WWII died in the line of duty, a greater casualty percentage than all other U.S. services. All told, about 8,300 mariners were killed–by submarines, mines, aircraft, and the elements. Another 12,000 were wounded.
My grandfather, it turns out, was part of a massive government to recruit and train mariners. The force was increased from a pre-war total of 55,000 to more than 215,000 during the war.
Pop, it is clear, spent three years living on borrowed time. When he came home on shore leave, his wife, Meanie, would go see him, often in Norfolk, Va. They would drink in hotels and wonder whether they would ever see each other again.
Though Pop was allowed to write home to his family, he couldn’t give clues to his whereabouts. But it was pretty clear from one June 1944 letter that he watched from a boat off the coast of Normandy as the troops stormed the shore.
Later in life, William Boner Thompson became CEO of Vinnell Corporation, a California-based engineering and construction firm that built public works and military facilities throughout the world.