Merchant Marines (1944 – 1946)
by Dana Miller
Lyle was born in 1926, so when the United States entered World War II following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, he was nearing his 16th birthday and was a sophomore at South Cache High School in Hyrum.
The entire country, sensing the genuine threat to the United States’ freedom, interests abroad and the country itself, was incredibly supportive of the war effort. Virtually all healthy young men and many young women voluntarily enlisted in one of the branches of service: Army, Army Air Force, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard or Merchant Marines. It was not uncommon for a young man to enlist at the youngest age possible, as soon as he turned 18.
A few days after turning 18 on January 31, 1944, Lyle enlisted in the Merchant Marines. Despite being just halfway through his senior year, the school district awarded him a high school diploma, a common practice at the time.
It is important to keep in mind what else was going on in Lyle’s life in early 1944. He and Joyce had been dating for some time…probably a year or so. Joyce’s older brother Edward was killed in a B-17 crash during a training mission on July 10, 1943 in Texas. Lyle undoubtedly helped Joyce, who had a long history of acute anxiety about death, get through this very difficult time for the Reynolds family. The Reynolds family felt that Lyle “came along at just the right time”, helping fill a void left by Ed’s death. Can you imagine Joyce’s concern for Lyle when, just six months later, he also joined the war effort?
I vaguely remember Lyle telling me that, at the time, it didn’t much matter which branch of service a young man chose for voluntarily enlistment. I suspect that the Navy and Merchant Marines seemed a bit more exotic than the Army as Lyle had never seen the ocean or been on a big ship. According to his sister Merlynn, “he remembered being young, dumb and scared” (from life sketch at Lyle’s funeral, October 5, 1998).
Given the service records and artifacts Lyle and Joyce preserved, it is possible to reconstruct several details of Lyle’s Merchant Marines service.
According to his “Release from Active Duty” certificate from the United States Maritime Service, he enlisted on February 8, 1944 (nine days after turning 18) in Salt Lake City. Following three months of training in Seattle, Washington, Lyle was released as a “Steward’s Mate Second” to serve in the Merchant Marines on May 2, 1944. He would have received $54 per month at this rank. Steward’s Mate Second Class was the second step on the seven-step enlisted man rank ladder (Steward’s Mate Third Class – lowest and Chief Petty Officer – highest).
If I correctly understand how the Merchant Marines coordinated with the United States Maritime Service, when finished with their basic training, young men immediately transferred from the US Maritime Service to the Merchant Marines to complete their term of enlistment. Dad did share a few details about his basic training: He learned to swim in burning oil; and he was trained to work in the steam ships’ engine room.
As a Merchant Marine, Lyle primarily sailed on a class of ships known as “victory ships”. The Merchant Marines purpose was to support the war effort by transporting supplies. It was natural, therefore, for the Japanese to make the small, vulnerable ships priority targets because sinking one of the ships kept the critical supplies from reaching the United States airmen, sailors and troops in the Pacific theatre. I vaguely remember something about one of Dad’s ships being struck by a torpedo but I’ll need this confirmed by one of my siblings. Here is a link to information about these ships:
The following certificate of discharge was found among Lyle’s papers:
This is a “Certificate of Discharge” from the United States Coast Guard for service beginning on February 22, 1945 and ending on May 29, 1945. The certificate shows that Lyle was a “Fireman – Watertender” on the SS Myron T. Herrick. Apparently, members of the Merchant Marines had to enlist in the Coast Guard for short intervals to carry out some of their missions. Interestingly, the back of the certificate includes the following handwritten note along the left edge:
10 gallons of gasoline issued 6-5-45
Hyrum, Utah W.P.R. Bd #753-4
H.L. (initials underlined)
The author assumes that “W.P.R. Bd” means War Petroleum Ration Bond.
Lyle’s official ship duty was primarily as a “Fireman – Watertender” but he was also rated as a “Wiper” on one sailing. I recall Dad telling me that he worked in the engine room and that it was incredibly hot and noisy. Here is a link to web page that details the “Duties of Seamen in Ship’s Engine Department.” Lyle’s duties mostly fall under the “Unlicensed Qualified Members of the Crew” section. The page also includes a picture of a steam engine typically used in the Victory ships.
Lyle sailed on the W. W. Atterbury for five months between June 16, 1944 and November 6, 1944. This voyage began in Honolulu and ended in Seattle, Washington.
The following link takes the reader to a newspaper article about this class of ship and even includes a picture of the W. W. Atterbury.
Additional certificates of discharge were found as follows:
February 8, 1944 – May 2, 1944; Stewards Mate Second; discharged in Seattle, WA; no ship name given
July 21, 1945 – September 25, 1945; Fireman – Watertender; discharged in Los Angeles, CA; SS Columbia Victory
December 31, 1945 – January 29, 1946; Fireman – Watertender; discharged in New York, NY; SS Niagara Victory
Again, it is important to keep in mind what’s happening on the “home front” in Lyle’s life. Joyce’s was “Lyle’s girl”, and I’m sure, was very anxious about Lyle’s safety. Sadly, to my knowledge, none of their written correspondence from the war has been preserved. They were, however, married on June 2, 1945, two days before Joyce turned 16. Looking at the certificates of discharge above, it looks like Lyle sailed out of San Francisco on the SS Columbia Victory within a month after they were married.
We do know that Lyle and Joyce corresponded during the war and apparently they, like a lot of couples, devised a system whereby Joyce could get some idea of Lyle’s whereabouts in the vast Pacific Ocean war theatre. Naturally, his letters couldn’t openly detail his Merchant Marine travels as that information could be intercepted and potentially endanger the war effort. Instead, taking two huge maps of the Pacific Ocean region, one to be kept by each, Lyle and Joyce numbered more than 20 of the islands and countries that ships might visit. Subsequently, when Lyle wrote to Joyce, he would include the number corresponding to where he was at the time.
The map Lyle maintained is in Dana’s position and is very tattered, with each fold reinforced with aged, yellow “Scotch” tape on the back. The penciled writing is, however, clearly legible in Lyle’s hand. A few of the numbered islands have handwritten notes:
#1 – Hawaii –“Departed Seattle 8:10 PM May 12 (1944)” and “Arrived May 24 3:00 PM (1944)”
#2 – Marshall Islands – Majura Island “Stopped June 29, 1944”
#2 – Marshall Islands – Eniwetor Island “1350 ships anchored” and “left July 13, 1944”
# 4 – Philippine Islands “4AM – Manila Bay”
Among Dad’s personal effects were several postcards depicting scenes in the Philippines. I remember these fascinating me as a young boy, especially the more gruesome pictures that showed the Japanese dead and massive damage to buildings in Manila.
Based on the Certificates of Discharge among Lyle’s papers, he was probably discharged from the Merchant Marines in February of 1946. His final voyage was on the SS Niagara Victory leaving from San Francisco on December 31, 1945 and ending in New York on January 29, 1946. By this time, World War II had been over for five months.
As a closing note, it is interesting and unfortunate that those who served in the Merchant Marines were not awarded official “veteran” status until 1988, more than 40 years after the war’s end. The primary reason was that, after initial basic training, the seamen sailed on commercial, non-naval ships to provide maritime services, mostly carrying supplies to support the war. The Merchant Marines, however, had the distinction of matching the Marine Corps for the highest casualty rate among the various branches of service. Of approximately 90,000 Merchant Marines, 12,000 were wounded, and over 8,000 died or were taken prisoner. For those who are interested, here is a link to more information about the Merchant Marine’s World War II losses:
Joyce was proud to post the veteran flag on Lyle’s grave in the Hyrum Cemetery.