Saturday, June 16, 2012

A Day in a Life of a Merchant Marine- A Father's Day Tribute

My father, Lynwood "Lindy" M. Markham served as a Merchant Marine during WWII. On one tour, his ship was torpedoed and sunk in the Indian Ocean and my dad survived 5 days in a lifeboat  before being rescued.  My mother and sister and I only found this out from a fellow serviceman who attended my father's memorial service years later, telling us the story. Never ever sharing this tragedy with us, he kept this secret from even those he held dear.

 I wrote this story a few years back while thinking of my dad.  Though fictional, it's based on what happened to many merchant marines serving in the dangerous waters during WWII.  Merchant Marine ships took a very heavy toll, and recognition as true military finally came to light by  President Clinton in 1998. For further info please check out these sites.


Letter of recognition signed by Pres.Bill Clinton  

Medals of service


The pencil stub marks an x across yesterday in my Seaman log calendar page. Six weeks now I've kept these engines fired up.  Into this night by 5 hours now.  It is a brutal job, but I am hoping to see the world, even if it is during wartime.  The engine room is nothing but noise and even with my earplugs; I can barely hear the thoughts in my own head.
Lord, keep those German U-boats at a distance. Haven't seen any escort ships out there lately,  but stuck down here, I don't see much. Our mission is to get these supplies over to China via the "Burma Road", aiding our troops and allies as the fight for freedom, for human dignity battles on.  

I know I am not an "official" soldier, as a  Merchant Marine, but that is OK, I still feel like one and I know I am helping to do my part.  Next week, July 11th, 1944, will be my 24th birthday. We'll be sailing into port by then, and I can get a message home. 

Suddenly, above the noise of the ship's engine, a powerful explosion and vibration knocks me at least ten feet on my backside against the steam pipes. My skin sizzles and melts as the pipe burns through my uniform and skin. Losing control, I feel the ship and my body listing to the port side. I feel blood coming from my ear but I hear nothing else but very faint screams and alarms

 I gather myself up off the floor (or is it the floor?) and make my way up some stairs against gravity, climbing on my belly and pulling myself up the handrails with what upper body strength I can muster. The terror and fear sets in; an enemy torpedo probably hit my ship. Seawater is now dripping around me and the salt stings every inch of my burned and bruised skin. The feeling is gone now from the backside of me, but I can smell my burnt flesh. The crisp uniform I dressed in this morning is all but disintegrated. Can I make it to topside? Will there be anybody to help me? Will we sink before I....  My head feels like a pressure gauge ready to explode. 

Then, once again, that vibration and sound shocks and reverberates through my body; another hit.

“God, I must be brave.  Help us Lord!  Be with us God!"

Dawn lies in wait maybe an hour or so, but there are fires that light the deck.  Massive caves puncture the once smooth surface of the deck. I crawl on my belly towards some shipmates and squint into the shadows of fire, trying to maintain consciousness. Someone is lifting a  lifeboat and I am seeing him move his mouth, but my only sense that remains half functioning is the smell of death and fire. I look to the sea that calls me to surrender but I fight to stay here. 

Some lifeboats bob with the rush of waves in the ocean, but danger awaits them as well, sucked back into the gaping hole on the side of the ship. Toxic gases fill my lungs and the burning is now internal. An arm reaches and pulls me into the lifeboat as consciousness leaves me. 

Water at my lips and brow bring me back to a reality-- a reality I am not sure I want to know.  Along with five other crewmembers, we bob up and down on an oil-slicked surface, surviving the initial sinking and we wait here in the Indian Ocean. I'm still alive but for how much longer?  

The Nazi sub, a stealth-like demon destroyed everything but our souls.  Those belong to our Country and Our God. I can barely make out the face in front of me.  I can see his mouth move, but I hear no sound.  My head is peaceful; no engine noise, no sound of sirens, explosions or screams.

I can only hear my Momma's voice saying, "Memorize this verse, son.  Keep it close to you..."

 The Holy Spirit whispers those precious words of scripture to me.

Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.  He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters.  He restores my soul; He guides me in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake.  Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.  You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You have anointed my head with oil; My cup overflows.  Surely, goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

Note:  the United States Merchant Marines have served in all wars since the American Revolution.  In WWII, these sailors rendered the largest but uncelebrated function between our soldiers at stateside and the actual fighting troops.  These were the sailors of the Liberty Ships, the Victory ships, and the Tankers.  They supplied our troops and braved danger from every form of war weaponry.  It is estimated that during WWII, we lost over 8600 merchant marines at sea.  It has not been until just recently that these brave men were recognized officially by Congress to receive all the accolades and benefits as true members of our military. 

Ship unloading onto barge at Anzio, Italy, War Shipping Administration photo

[Midshipman Edwin J. O'Hara, loading the last shell on the SS Stephen Hopkins.
Painting by W.M. Wilson, reproduced by permission of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy]

The U.S. Merchant Marine falls under the U.S. Transportation Command, and specifically the Military Sealift Command, which is a component of the U.S. Navy. It is not one of the U.S. uniformed services. However, according to the Merchant Marine Act of 1936: "It is necessary for the national defense and development of its foreign and domestic commerce that the United States shall have a merchant marine ... capable of serving as a naval and military auxiliary in time of war or national emergency."

Indeed, some Merchant Marines who were active during WWII did receive U.S. veteran status. According to a section on the Coast Guard site (, "On Jan. 19, 1988, the Secretary of the Air Force, Edward C. Aldridge Jr., determined that the service of the 'American Merchant Marine in Oceangoing Service during the Period of Armed Conflict, Dec. 7, 1941, to Aug. 15, 1945,' shall be considered 'active duty' under the provisions of Public Law 95-202 for the purposes of laws administered by the Veterans Administration." This length of time was extended when, "On Veterans Day, 1998, President Clinton signed Public Law 105-368. A provision of this law states that service during the period, Aug. 16, 1945, to Dec. 31, 1946, shall be considered active duty for the purpose of eligibility for certain limited veterans benefits."

Happy Father's Day to all Dads and always a special shout out to our military Dads serving near and far.  ♥ God Blessings and safety. Thank you.