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 Chesterfield 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 32–when 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 on a Merchant Marine boat that crisscrossed the Atlantic, carrying supplies.
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 important supplies from U.S. factories to battalions all over the world. The fleet was of such strategic importance that the German Army believed that if it could cut off these shipments it might be able to win the war.
The merchant marine boats used to sail across the Atlantic in haphazard patterns to avoid torpedo fire. German U-Boats were patrolling the waters off Long Island when my grandfather first left from New York harbor. He was lucky to have survived.
Newspapers reports would play down how often merchant marine boats were sunk to hide from the public, and the enemy, the scope of the supply effort. 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; 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 percentage of war casualties 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 was part of a massive U.S. program to recruit and train mariners. The number of mariners 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 would come home on leave, Meany would go to see him. 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.