When Americans think of World War II, they often remember its soldiers turned liberators and those who built the arsenal of democracy.
Now the ‘Liberty’s War’ exhibit at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point seeks to add the Merchant Marines and their fleet of Liberty ships to those memories, organizers said.
“They were an absolutely crucial link in the Allied supply chain that ultimately resulted in victory in 1945,” Joshua Smith, interim director of the American Merchant Marine Museum, wrote in the exhibit’s brochure. “Too often that story gets ignored, but in the American Merchant Marine Museum’s latest exhibit, ‘Liberty’s War,’ the story of these valiant little freighters is told through the eyes of a young man from Texas, Herman Melton.”
The U.S. Maritime Commission produced nearly 3,000 Liberty cargo ships between 1941 and 1945. The sturdy, quick to build ships saw use around the world, delivering cargo and troops where needed.
The exhibit draws from the book “Liberty’s War: An Engineer’s Memoir of the Merchant Marine, 1942 – 1945,” published by the U.S. Naval Institute Press. In it – and the exhibit –World War II is seen through the eyes of Herman Melton, an early graduate of the Merchant Marine Academy and a midshipman aboard Liberty cargo ships.
Herman’s son Will, who is 68, worked closely with his father to assemble the comprehensive history of his service on both the European and Pacific fronts.
He said the account is unique in that it told a war story from the perspective of an engineer.
“The story was so much richer than I knew and I decided we had to get it down on paper, so I started working to convince him to write his memoirs and he was 89 years old then,” Melton said. “But he had a memory like a steel trap.”
One can glimpse into the “Murmansk Run,” where allied cargo ships slogged through the Arctic to deliver supplies to the Russians to ward off the Nazi invasion. Liberty cargo ships endured nearly constant bombardment.
“They sailed through water that was filled not only with ice, but with U-boats and with Luftwaffe torpedo bombers flying trying to sink the convoy,” Melton said.
“He remembered Murmansk as the scariest place he ever went,” Melton added.
They could also see photos from the Philippines Campaign from 1944 to 1945, where Herman Melton survived his ship being hit by a torpedo and worked to repair ships damaged by kamikaze runs.
But it also tells a tale of his relationship with Helen Dunn, his junior college sweetheart, throughout the war. The two wed in a saber ceremony in the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy’s chapel.
“We wanted women to identify with the story and she was with him every step of the war,” Melton said. “It was a wartime romance.”
The work of Jim Rae, a Scottish marine and aviation artist, compliments the black and white photos with painted scenes of battle and small cresting waves. Some photos show the smoke of attack planes aflame, just before they crash into the icy waters.
Rae said he does not try to make his work too bloody. But, Rae said, he hopes patrons will remember and honor those who served through his work.
“Just remember,” Rae, a former British mariner, said. “People died and people lived and lived on. Their experiences helped to shape the world as it is today.”
Captain Hugh Stephens, an adjunct professor at SUNY Maritime and Liberty veteran, said the exhibit was really well done. The Liberty ship models brought him back to his days as a sailor hauling cargo and supplies to the warfront. Just looking at one of the models, he said, he could see the gun he was almost killed on.
Stephens said the impact of the 2,700 Liberty ships, as well as those who served aboard them, during the Second World War was nearly “impossible to grasp.” 142 merchant marines from Kings Point died too, he noted, and they were not recognized as veterans for decades – despite their contributions.
“One single type of ship played such an important part in winning the war,” Stephens said.
These 142 were also among the 9,521 merchant marines total who died, according to research from Captain Arthur Moore, author of “A Careless Word – A Needless Sinking,” which documents the losses of the U.S. Merchant Fleet in World War II. With approximately 243,000 having served in that capacity, this translates to a casualty rate of 3.9 percent – or 1 in 26.
This is the highest casualty rate among all the service branches.
The exhibit will be on display now until March 2019. The American Merchant Marine Museum is located on U.S. Merchant Marine Academy grounds in Kings Point. Admission is free and it is open to the public Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
“Its really important to the Merchant Marine, because it’s so little understood,” Melton said. “And if the book gets some attention, it will do a lot for Kings Point and for the memory of the people who served this way.”