Merchant Marine Tells WWII Tales Of Survival
Thinking he must have been “crazy” at the time for wanting so badly to join, the World War II veteran reflects he still had “a lot of good times” during his time in the Merchant Marines and Army, travelling around the world, taking in the sights and serving his country.
Born the eldest of nine children to Preston and Elva Hawbaker, James was a sophomore at Lemasters High School when he answered the call of duty in 1943. Even though he was about three months shy of turning 18, the minimum age to join the military, the Merchant Marines was renowned for taking any volunteer into their charge whether 16 or 78 years old and regardless of physical disabilities.
In fact, history indicates, the number of seaman grew from 55,000 to 250,000 during World War II, even though Mariners were denied such benefits such as unemployment, education, loans and medical care for disabilities. Their promised benefits in the end was a lapel pin and a thank-you letter signed by then-President Harry Truman, which Hawbaker still covets to this day among his various military acknowledgements and awards. True recognition for Merchant Marines never came until 1988 when President Ronald Reagan confirmed the organization as an official branch of the United States military.
While the Merchant Marines were never involved in hand-to-hand combat, Hawbaker said they were “always in battle” as they travelled from one port to the next, shuttling important goods and items necessary for military survival overseas. Known as the “Suicide Squad,” their ships were often targeted and sunk in harbors.
In order to become a Mariner, Hawbaker said recruits had to enroll in boot camp offered through the United States Coast Guard at Sheepshead Bay, N.Y. Crucial to passing the required testing was a swim test involving a 35-foot plunge from a tower into fire-covered water.
Unable to handle chlorine in his eyes, Hawbaker eventually enlisted the aid of a fellow recruit, who took his test under the cover of darkness while wearing Hawbaker’s clothing and identification.
“They didn’t know him from John Hancock,” exclaimed Hawbaker, 86, who to this very day cannot swim a lick. “He passed that test with flying colors.”
Moving onto the Merchant Marines, where his first assignment was cooking and baking, Hawbaker said his first trip was a short ride to Havana, Cuba. Mariners, he said, were always required to volunteer for assignments and never forced into trips. His enthusiasm, which later gained him the titles of second steward and storekeeper, would take him around the world to the Mediterranean Sea, South Pacific, North Africa, Belgium, Holland, England and eventually New Guinea for an eightmonth layover, which coincided with a visit by General McArthur.
“I would get off one ship and get right on another,” he stated. Not having to help unload and load the ship’s freight, Hawbaker said he and his shipmates always remained cautious about being in a combat zone. Over a period of three years, Hawbaker served as a crewmember on nine different ships, including the SS Mexican, Caleb Strong, Sherman O. Houghton, James W. Nesmith, Wooster Victory, Rensselaer, Pine Bluff, Baylor and Ira Nelson Morris.
“You’re under a constant fear of getting killed at any moment. It’s like being in the middle of a lake with no one around – You didn’t have to worry about the planes bombing you until you got close to shore,” Hawbaker said.
However, while out to sea, the Merchant Marines were always on the lookout for Japanese battleships that would roam the ocean looking for lone ships that were not travelling in a convoy. Hawbaker recalls having the opportunity to outrun one of those battleships on a trip to New Guinea. In the event they had been attacked, the Japanese would have circled around to finish off and machine gun any survivors who may have taken to the water in lifeboats.
Although fearful for their lives, downtime often resulted in moments of boredom and in turn mischievousness for crew members. Hawbaker stated on one instance in Milne Bay, the crew was put to the task of painting the exterior of the ship with red lead paint. Instructed never to give out their nationality by flying a flag or divulging the name of their ship, crew members painted the name “U.S. Hungry” on the side of the boat. Unfortunately, the ship was sent back to port before their deed could be corrected and was soon spotted by a passing battleship. Even though Hawbaker said they were a “comical bunch,” the captain of the ship didn’t show as much delight in their antics.
Possibly the most horrific memory of World War II was April 7, 1945, while aboard the James W. Nesmith. Considered to be in the “coffin’s corner” of the convoy of ships travelling from New York through the North Atlantic en route to Liverpool, England, the ship was struck by a torpedo blast from a German Uboat. Fortunately for the crew, the strike just off Anglesey Island, Wales, was spotted by rescuers from the British Navy.
One of the last to depart the slowly sinking ship, which suffered flooding in two of the holds, Hawbaker valiantly stayed with the captain in spite of shouts from his crewmates to literally “jump” ship. All 84 crew members, including Hawbaker, were rescued and taken to Holly Head, a fishing port. During their twoday stay, the crew slept on the floor of a church and was supplied with food and blankets by the townspeople.
Having been promised by the Merchant Marines he could not be recruited into further military service, that promise fell short as Hawbaker was drafted into the Army in 1949. Hawbaker started out as a private first class and eventually departed as a sergeant E8 after five years of additional service. Enjoying both his time and his duties, he stayed on in the Army Reserves until April 1978 as a command maintenance management inspector, leading a team around the world ensuring troops were combat ready. He logged a total of 36 years in the military, witnessing a variety of horrors such as a typhoon in Japan and a barracks fire, which destroyed both his Seaman’s papers and valuable passport.
“If I had to go back I would do it all over again as long as I knew things would turn out like they did,” Hawbaker told the “News.”
A resident of Fulton County since 1945, Hawbaker was able to make good use of military leave and found love with the late Doris Morton, who passed away from cancer after 42 years of blissful marriage. In 1991, Hawbaker and his current wife, Eunice, were married and still call East Wood Street in McConnellsburg their home. Lucky to have found two good women to share his life, Hawbaker was also fortunate enough to have found another love in the military.