“The Merchant Marine has the largest ratio of casualties of any branch of the services….” stares back at me from the page of a New York Times article dated June 10, 1944. “MERCHANT SEAMEN ARE D-DAY HEROES” reads the title. “Undaunted by the threat of air attacks, sea mines, surface fire, submarines or coastal battery…” I knew my Grandfather had gone to war, but did I really realize what that meant? I grew up hearing stories of his travels during WWII, but they were nothing like this. They were stories of catching octopus off the coast of Italy with a local boy, a shipmate bringing a donkey on board to the Captain’s dismay. Crewmates sliding off the ship and into the ocean for a swim, Grandpa clonking around the metal deck in wooden shoes on night watch, or getting dressed up and going to port with warm welcome from the locals. I envisioned a time of adventure, but what more was there that I didn’t know?
Unfortunately, there are many today who do not quite know exactly what the U.S. Merchant Marines did during the war – or maybe haven’t heard of them at all. These seamen carried personnel, supplies, and equipment needed by the Allies to ultimately defeat the Axis powers during WWII. It took 7 to 15 tons of supplies to support one soldier for one year – and with roughly 16 million U.S. troops alone serving in a war that lasted from 1939 to 1945 you can imagine this was a huge undertaking. From 1940 to mid 1942 the Germans sank more of our ships than were built – but that didn’t last long. The total of experienced Mariners at the war’s beginning went from 55,000 to over 215,000 at its peak, and the number of U.S. ships being built went from well under 200 to almost 2,000. There were United States Merchant Marines sailing all around the globe – from the North Atlantic, to the South Atlantic, Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean, and well into the Pacific. Without this aid and relief to troops the war could have been postponed months, if not years.
My Grandfather, William Alfred Bechill Jr., grew up in Detroit but moved to Chicago at the beginning of the war. My Great Grandfather worked for Chrysler and had been transferred because of wartime production. It was a cold December day in 1943 when my Grandpa, Bill Bechill, enlisted at the age of 17. He needed consent from his parents to leave, to which his mother had said, “He’ll find a way to go regardless” and so began his journey.
Eager to aid in the war effort and see the world he began training at Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, New York, and was aboard his first ship, the SS Charles W. Eliot, by April 8th, 1944. They arrived in Great Britain by months end, and from there headed to France. They arrived off the coast of Normandy on June 26th, discharged all of their troops and cargo on the 27th, and prepared to depart the following morning to join a convoy back to England. The Eliot had just begun to maneuver into convoy formation, five other vessels preceding her, when just as she straightened out about four miles from the harbor she struck a mine, which exploded with such force that the ship literally lifted out of the water. The crew had barely gotten to take a breath before the Eliot hit yet another mine, which exploded under the stern and simply put, just broke in two. A first aid boat soon arrived and took most of the seriously wounded ashore – while the remaining crew gathered into just three lifeboats as the others were destroyed. It took 10 minutes for the ship to sink, and what was left floating in the water was finished off later that afternoon by German bombers. The remaining crew was picked up later by British soldiers and taken back to Gosport, England – where my Grandpa was treated for wounds to the head, shoulders and hand. A day later he lost all of his personal belongings…and was soon headed back to the U.S. on an American ship called the SS Robin Locksley.
The second ship my Grandfather boarded in the U.S. was the SS Joseph Holt on September 24th, 1944. They were headed for Antwerp, Belgium, where more surprises lay ahead for the crew. While in port in Antwerp, a German Flying Bomb struck the Holt of the ship and Bill was blown to the Deck from just below the Flying Bridge. He was taken to a former German post turned U.S. Medical Aid Station on the outskirts of the city and was treated for lacerations among other things. He ultimately lost his sense of smell from this incident. Later while in the city he was blown to his side by a VII Rocket along with several other seamen and U.S. Army Personnel. This was the same rocket that landed and exploded on an Antwerp Opera house during a USO show, killing hundreds. This was during the Battle of the Bulge, and these were not the only two attacks he experienced.
He was later transferred to a ship called the SS Eufaula Victory, which he sailed on for quite sometime. After the war he continued to sail on the Eufaula and traveled to such locations as Africa, South America and the Caribbean. He completed his service December 20th, 1946…three years to the day from enlisting. He received awards such as the Atlantic War Zone Bar, Mediterranean-Middle East War Zone Bar, Combat Bar with 2 Stars, and of course the Merchant Marine Emblem.
If you haven’t guessed, the Merchant Marine uniform you see above, the artifact of which I am writing, was the actual uniform issued to my Grandpa, William Alfred Bechill Jr., during WWII. My Grandfather, the rest of my family, and I have decided to donate the original garment to the Grand Rapids Public Museum to educate future generations on who the U.S. Merchant Marines were and what they did to ultimately win WWII. Although I heard many stories from the war as a child as I previously mentioned, it wasn’t until a couple of years ago when I sat in the living room with my Grandma and Grandpa and flipped through the pages of a scrap book she had made for him filled with photos, IDs, telegrams, letters, articles, and any other items acquired during the war. When I got to the back of the book, on the last page, there were some rather disturbing images showing bodies in the streets of a European city. A sight my Grandfather, like so many other service men, had often seen. He said that he hated for us to be able to look at that. My Grandmother however, who herself worked for the Army Air Corps Material Command during the war as a Secretary, stated that she thought we should see it. We should know how many good men and women lost their lives. We should know this because it should never have to happen again. We should learn from the past so that history will never repeat itself.
If there is something that I hope you can take away from this article it is the importance of preserving history – the importance of museums. When our grandparents, our parents, or we ourselves are gone – who will tell our tale? Who will make sure to look to the past for wisdom for the future? What will there be to learn from if the things of today are not preserved for our children – and our children’s children’s children. I was lucky enough to have Grandparents who inspired me to learn, to explore, and to remember – but when years, and decades, and centuries have past, I know that I have done my part to tell the story of those people who will not be here to tell it themselves.
The Merchant Marine is currently not featured in the Grand Rapids Public Museum’s permanent Veterans Exhibit, and in fact this is the only Merchant Marine uniform in their collection that features dozens of other military uniforms. There are plans to redo this exhibit, and I am strongly advocating for this uniform to be featured on permanent display to bring awareness to this courageous branch of service, which has gone largely unsung.