Action in The North Atlantic (1943) poster
'Work To Be Done' Poster from the U.S. Maritime Service
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt pins the very first Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal on Edwin Cheney, Quartermaster circa October 1942
The Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal
'You Bet I'm Going Back to Sea!' poster
'Be A Ship's Officer' recruitment poster
Independent station KSFO San Francisco was the first West Coast station to air Heroes of the Merchant Marine in 1945
McClatchy station KERN Bakersfield began airing Heroes of the Merchant Marine a month later
From Life Magazine's October 19, 1942 edition:
PRESIDENT HONORS FIRST MERCHANT MARINE HERO
"Last week Edwin F. Cheney of Yeadon, Pa., a shy, slim 25-year-old seaman, became the first publicly recognized merchant marine hero of this war. In a simple ceremony at the White House (see above), President Roosevelt pinned the newly created Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal on Seaman Cheney's lapel.
When Admiral Land, head of the Maritime Commission, told Cheney that the President wanted to pin a medal on him, the modest marine hero was "completely floored." Cheney said, "There are hundreds of American seamen more deserving of the award. I can't understand why I was picked. It seems that I'm always the guinea pig. I'd rather be sailing a tanker through U-boat-infested waters. . . ."
Seaman Cheney is no stranger to U-boat-infested waters. On March 12 a Nazi submarine sent a torpedo into the hull of the John D. Gill, a tanker on which Cheney was quartermaster. In a few minutes the oil-covered waters around the sinking ship became a blazing hell. Cheney released a life raft, dived overboard, and swimming under water maneuvered the raft clear of the leaping flames. Although he was badly burned, Cheney helped four crewmates to safety on the raft, and then again dived into the fiery sea to rescue two others who were injured and unable to help themselves.
On June 15 Cheney was aboard another torpedoed tanker, had a rib broken. As soon as possible, Hero Cheney is going right back to sea again on a tanker."
That first award of the Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal couldn't have been awarded to a more fitting recipient. Any of the able bodied seamen who served in the United States Merchant Marine during the earliest days of World War II couldn't have picked a worse profession. To a man, the Merchant Marine faced the most horrific duty imaginable throughout the World War II years, but in particular during those first three deadly years when Nazi Germany's wolfpacks roamed the Atlantic. The infamous and deadly German U-boats that silently traversed the Atlantic took a shocking toll on shipping lanes throughout the Atlantic seaboard.
Tankers, freighters, and ocean liners suffered equally between 1940 and 1943. In the North Atlantic, in particular, the loss of any vessels to U-boats was an almost certain death sentence for all souls onboard. The hulls of most pre-war civilian vessels weren't designed to survive any form of direct--or even glancing--hit from the deadly torpedoes of the Third Reich's wolfpacks. But that deadly toll simply couldn't be sustained. It was crippling the shipment of desparately needed supplies and equipment to Great Britain and the Allied Nations' other partners.
The amazing acts of heroism and bravery evinced by Edwin F. Cheney can only be fully understood after reading contemporaneous accounts of U-Boat 138's attack of March 12, 1942 against the S.S. John D. Gill--once the full details were finally released by the Government.
From the March 16, 1942 edition of The Charleston Gazette:
26 Survive Flaming
Sea as Tanker Sinks
Huge Ship Spouts Geyser
Of Oil When Torpedo
Saved by Raft
WILMINGTON, N. C., March 15.(AP)Oil-stained and flameseared,11 of the 26 survivors of a big United States tanker torpedoed off the Atlantic coast Thursday night spent nine hours on a tiny life raft before they were picked up by a coast guard cutter.
They were brought ashore Friday morning at Southport, a fishing village near here. The other 15 survivors were landed at Charleston,S. C., officials of the Sixth naval district announced.
The bodies of some of the men lost were brought to Wilmington. Navy officials said that an undislosed number of men had not been accounted for. The survivors told of swimming in a sea ablaze from thousands of gallons of oil loosed from the sinking ship.
"Buddy, it was just hell," said one young seaman, who reported seeing two of his comrades ground to pieces by the propeller of the ship as they tried to escape the flames.
He said a geyser of crude oil rocketed skyward and covered the sea for hundreds of yards a moment after the ship was torpedoed in the
The narrator, Herbert L. Gardner,jr., 22, of Nashville, Tenn., on his first sea voyage, said, "We were calm at first but it wasn't long before everybody got excited. I guess we couldn't help it with that kind of death staring us in the face."
He went to the forecastle, he said to get his life jacket and found the whole ship in flames. When he finally reached a life boat, he was told that it was full and to go hunt another. Making his way along the flaming walkway, he found a second boat but in the haste and confusion, it had nearly capsized and was in no condition to float.
Hanging to lines over the side of the ship, he tried to get back to the deck, after an attempt to right the lifeboat. Too weak to pull himself up the line, he hung there, hoping for rescue.
A Filipino mess boy, who had also tried to right the capsized life boat, was below him on the line, he said. "I tried to get him to grab my feet but he couldn't make it. After a few attempts, he just let go and fell into the water and disappeared."
"Finally, I jumped clear of the side and hit the water, and believe me, I just didn't expect to come away from that mess alive. I tried to swim clear of the ship, through that blazing oil. Three times I came up to the surface through the oil and felt my hair catch fire. I'd duck under and stay as long as I could, then come up again. After a while I came up in a spot that was clear of the fire, and began swimming away from the ship."
"I saw a buddy of mine about 50 feet away, and I began moving over toward him, intending to let him hang on to me if he didn't have a life jacket. He told me to stay away. I guess he thought I was after his jacket, and I don't blame him."
"I put my wool cap over my nose to keep out the gas fumes, but it didn't do much good. In a few minutes I heard a fellow yelling for me to come toward him, but I couldn't see him at first. He gave me directions on how to locate him on his life raft and I swam over. I had to be helped on board and after that I just laid there for about an hour and then got up and helped to row away."
"It was just plain hell. When I go back to sea, I'm going to do the hunting; not be the hunted." He said he intended to join the navy.
Ensign Robert B. Hutchins, U. S. N., commander of the gun crew was in his bunk reading when the torpedo struck.
"There was a terrific blast, he said, "and I ran from my room to join my gun crew. Everything was dark at first and I ran along
the catwalk . . ."
"When I got to the gun, we looked for the sub, but nothing could seen or heard. When the flames got on top of us we jumped over
the side. I saw two of my boys go into those flames, and heard them scream as they died."
Four of the gun crew of seven were lost.
Hutchins, 26, is a Chicago lawyer in civil life.
Quartermaster Edwin Cheney, 24, of Yedon, Pa., was at the wheel. He didn't have much to say about the ordeal, but his mates credited him with saving many lives.
Cheney, they said, swam to a life raft after jumping overboard and by calling directions and words of encouragement through the smoke and flames guided several men to the raft.
Cheney and a few others on the tiny life raft alternated during the night in making human oar-locks so that the others could pull the heavy oars to get away from the flames.
The 11 men were picked up early Friday.
"We surely lived our lifetimes out there," Ensign Hutchins said.
The survivors brought to Southport were rushed to the Arthur Doher Memorial hospital. Many were unrecognizable under their coat of crude oil and burns.
A little Filipino messboy, his eyes seared by the flames, pitifully held the belt of a companion. His face was puffed by blisters.
As was much later disclosed, that tanker ship was the S.S. John D. Gill. Its attacker was submarine U-158, ultimately destroyed with all hands on board on June 30, 1942 off the Bermuda coast.
The above account, though clearly one of the more dramatic, was nevertheless sadly typical throughout the era. It wasn't until the arrival of the more robustly designed, double-hulled--and triple-hulled--Liberty Ships of 1942 and 1943 that the survival rates in the Atlantic began to improve for the thousands of brave, selfless Merchant Marine seamen and their respective compliments of Navy Armed Guard personnel assigned to protect their respective vessels.
Equipped with torpedoes of their own, the Liberty Ships and other retrofitted vessels of the relentless Merchant Marine fleet, began to exact their own toll on the U-boat wolfpacks of The Axis.
The War Shipping Administration mounts a Radio tribute to America's unsung Heroes of The Merchant Marine
Shrouded in the highest secrecy, one of the great tragedies of the earliest years of World War II was the incredible sacrifice and bravery of the Allied Nations' respective Merchant Marine fleets. The hundreds of untold details behind these stories of heroic sacrifice and valor couldn't be told for years after these tragic incidents in the Atlantic and Pacific.
It was only after the War of The Shipping Lanes began to turn in the Allies' favor that the Government could final reveal the amazing sacrifice, bravery and heroism evinced by the Allied Nations' Merchant Marine fleets. Beginning with Men At Sea (1943), the War Shipping Administration finally permitted Radio broadcasts dramatizing the incredible valor and heroism of our fighting Merchant Marine. Men At Sea aired every Summer from 1943 through 1945.
With even more confidential files having been cleared for release, the War Shipping Administration, in response to the need for more active recruiting of Merchant Seamen, mounted Heroes of The Merchant Marine during the Winter of 1945. Initially airing over West Coast stations between November 1945 and February 1946, Heroes of The Merchant Marine highlighted at least fifteen extraordinary examples of Merchant Marine heroism and sacrifice with the intent of inspiring other young men of the era to help replenish the ranks of America's Merchant Marine.
The stories chronicled in Heroes of The Merchant Marine showcased at least fifteen Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal recipients. After each opening introduction, announcer Ray Lewis framed the dramatization of the heroic episode of the evening. Each program ended with a reading of the citation accompanying the award of the Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal to that episode's recipient.
|RadioGOLDINdex, Hickerson Guide.
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