by Johnathan Thayer, Archivist
While most people overlook the contributions of the US Merchant Marine during World War II, the efforts of some unlikely mariners back home remain even more invisible—even to seasoned historians. As part of the American Merchant Marine Veterans Oral History Project, I sat down with J. Don Horton from North Carolina, who began working on a coastwise barge as a ten-year-old child alongside his family in the thick of war in 1942.
The increased demand for resources at power plants and defense factories along coastal manufacturing towns during the War led to the creation of a fleet of reclaimed barges, many of which, built during the mid-19th century, had sat inactive for decades. Companies fixed up the barges to get them seaworthy and hired crews, often comprised of entire families, including women and children.
“There were many barges out there that had families aboard them during the summertime,” Don recalls. “There were even babies on there … not that they were working. Somebody on that barge was the mother or father of that child. It was quite typical to see families out there with women and children working. They were doing exactly the same work as the credentialed seamen were. They were exposed to the same risk, getting the same pay and wages and paying the same taxes.”
Don estimates that anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 mariners worked on coastwise barges and tugboats during the war years, risking their lives on coastwise vessels just miles off the eastern seaboard. He says, “Most have gone unrecognized for their gallant service in defense of this country.”
Don recalls how his family traveled up the East Coast from Norfolk, VA to Maine under strict blackout to avoid announcing their presence to lurking submarines.
“Our worst problem traveling was the time we left Norfolk until we got to New York—that was the danger place for submarines. I can recall Daddy telling us—we were little, 10 or 11 years old—that that was just a storm out there. After we got a little older we knew what was happening. It wasn’t that uncommon to see [submarines].”
The threat of submarine attacks became very real for Don and his family on March 31, 1942, when a German U-boat sunk the tug Menominee off the coast of Virginia, killing Don’s seventeen-year-old brother, William Lee. Don has dedicated much time and effort to get both the casualties and survivors of Menominee the recognition they deserve. He also continues his fight for recognition on behalf of all the women and children coastwise mariners who worked at sea during WWII. Today, he actively rallies support behind HR 1288, a bill that would formally recognize these forgotten mariners as veterans.
To learn more, visit Don’s blog at http://jdon-ammvblogspotcom.blogspot.com/.