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BR A N D AV E. ST U DIOS CON T EN T

ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH

No uniform, no benefits, no
recognition: But ocean-going merchant
mariners helped win the war
By Lori Rose, Brand Ave. Studios contributing writer

I

t was Christmas Eve 1944 on a
Liberty ship in the Persian Gulf.
Bill Laskowitz, in service with the U.S.
Merchant Marine, pulled out his ever-present harmonica and played “Silent
Night” while the men gathered around
and hummed along.
“I can still remember the sky was absolutely clear and filled with stars like diamonds,” Laskowitz, now 95, recalled.
“There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and it
was just beautiful. Can you imagine 60some people humming ‘Silent Night?’”
It was a small, peaceful moment in a
tour of duty filled with danger, rough
seas and hard work.

VOLUNTEERING TO SERVE

Joining the Merchant Marine had not
been Laskowitz’ first choice. At 18, the
young St. Louisan dreamed of joining
the Army Air Corps but failed the physical because, though he had never missed
it, he was born without a pectoral muscle.
On the streetcar home, he noticed an advertisement for the Merchant Marine.
The all-civilian service was desperate for
volunteers to man the hastily-built Liberty ships carrying vital supplies such as ammunition, K-rations, tanks and troops to
battlefields on the other side of the world.
After training in Florida, Laskowitz set
sail on the first of many such cargo ships,

the S.S. Juan de Fuca. His travels between
1943 and 1946 took him to Europe, Africa, Central America and many places in
between. “I’ve sailed in every ocean and
around the world twice,” he said.

DANGEROUS DUTY

Life aboard a Liberty ship during
World War II was dangerous. Rogue
waves could sweep a man overboard
while rough seas could make one sick.
Enemy U-boats and submarines were
constantly on the prowl while ships
were targeted by hostile forces on land
and in the sky.
Though the ships sailed in huge convoys,
those on the perimeter were the most
exposed. Laskowitz said the ships that
brought up the rear were said to be in
“coffin corner.”
The work was hard. If you were assigned
to the engine room, there was always the
fear of explosion. If on deck, you faced
all kinds of weather. One trip kept Laskowitz at sea for 13 months. “You never
slept right at night,” he said. “There was
always one alarm after another.”
Once when his ship was carrying two
locomotives and two coal cars on deck,
a large wave nearly knocked Laskowitz
overboard. The ship’s solid railing had
been removed to bring the equipment
onboard and had been replaced with
only a chain and stanchions.

“All of a sudden a wave
came over and took my
feet from under me,” he
said. “My feet were in the
water and I’m holding on
to this stanchion for dear
life. They tell you, if you
fall overboard in a convoy
[ship], there’s nobody to
pick you up.”

WARTIME
SERVICE BUT NO
RECOGNITION

PHOTO PROVIDED BY PATRICIA ELKO
BILL LASKOWITZ IN HIS MERCHANT MARINE UNIFORM, WHICH HE

PURCHASED HIMSELF AS THEY WERE NOT PROVIDED TO MEMBERS.
Mariners served alongside
Navy gun crews on Liberty
“People were torpedoed, lost at sea, any
ships, but they were not issued uniforms
number of things. Some were even prisor weapons. And unlike Navy personnel,
oners of war. Yet every Fourth of July,
mariners such as Laskowitz who served
it’s always Army, Navy, Marine Corps
honorably were denied a veteran’s benthis and that, and never any mention
efits — no GI Bill and no flag to drape
of Merchant Marine. And without the
your casket.
Merchant Marine, nobody would have
had any supplies over there.”
It wasn’t until 1988 that the Defense Department, under pressure from a federal
court ruling, granted veteran status to
WWII-era mariners. It was already too
Stories are told from the nominee’s point of view. This
content was produced by Brand Ave. Studios. The news
late for many of the wartime heroes.
and editorial departments had no role in its creation or

Laskowitz returned to St. Louis after
the war, married and raised five daughters where he enjoyed a long career as an
electrician. But the lack of recognition
for his wartime valor still bothers him.

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STORIES OF HONOR IS PRESENTED BY

“We had the highest mortality rate of
any of the services,” Laskowitz said.

VIEW ALL STORIES: STLtoday.com/StoriesOfHonor

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