‘The forgotten service’: Brainerd man recounts time in Merchant Marine
Despite suffering more casualties per capita than any branch of the Armed Services, veterans of the United States Merchant Marine didn't receive veterans benefits until a court ruling in 1988.
Decades of hard farm labor have done little to diminish the towering frame of the World War II veteran who — at 92 years old — looks uncommonly spry, like he simply shrugged off the years much as he doggedly soldiered through the dangers of war, the loss of his first wife in 1987 and 40 years of injustice for his comrades in the United States Merchant Marine.
That’s why Carl Eschenbacher, the retired farmer and part-time mail carrier from the hinterlands south of Brainerd, stopped by the Dispatch Wednesday, Feb. 26 — the Merchant Marine. He’s subdued, a little wary of the camera while he sits in a chair, interlaces his large age-spotted hands and recounts his life in a calm, measured sort of way.
“When I went into it, I didn't really know what it was like,” Eschenbacher said. “I thought it was more like a Coast Guard. But, you know, we got to the employment service and this friend of mine, he joined and he asked me if I wanted to go. I was talking it over and I said ‘Sure,’ so I went home to the folks and told them I wanted to join. Well, mom, she just fell apart.”
Signing up at the tender age of 17, Eschenbacher would serve from 1944 through 1947, criss-crossing the Atlantic at the tail end of World War II and continuing to serve after its conclusion in places like the Panama Canal, Rotterdam, Spain, Germany and Italy.
As a mixture of the military and private sector support, the Merchant Marine played a low-key, if vital role for the armed services during World War II, functioning as auxiliary seamen to the U.S. Navy and manning the supply ships that served as the lifeblood for the United States and its allies in the transcontinental conflict.
Despite this, Merchant Marine veterans were not eligible for benefits until a court ruling in 1988 — more than 40 years after the end of World War II, which left about 2,500 remaining Merchant Marine veterans out of roughly 20,000 who took up the fight. Up until that time, Eschenbacher said, a small headstone next to a veterans cemetery was about as good as you could get as a Merchant Marine.
Still, Merchant Marines remain a “forgotten service,” said Eschenbacher, who pointed out that even at the Veteran’s Affairs Office in St. Cloud staffers are unfamiliar with the Merchant Marine and often lump them together with the U.S. Marine Corps.
“I still get the Legion magazine and once in a while you’ll see somebody who served with the Merchant Marine, but it’s very seldom,” Eschenbacher said. “People just don't remember the Merchant Marine.”
Eschenbacher suspects the unromantic role of the Merchant Marine as able-bodied seamen and suppliers is partially to blame for this lack of recognition, despite the inherent risk and danger of their work. Often vulnerable and unprotected on sluggish transport ships in the wide open ocean, hunted by German U-boats and Japanese bombers, more Merchant Marines died per capita than any branch of the armed forces, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.
“When the ship went down before they had convoys, there was nobody there to protect you,” Eschenbacher said. “Once in a while they’d save some, but most of the time it was the end for them. … There were a lot of ships sunk that we didn't know about until we got into the war. Such a waste, you know?”
On the other hand, World War II marked the end of an era, as the following decades saw the emergence of non-American ships being contracted to ship military supplies at a cheaper rate than the Merchant Marine. And, as the decades passed, he said, the “forgotten service” continued to become more and more obscure to the public consciousness.
But, now, with United States National Maritime Day coming up on May 22, Eschenbacher said he hopes more recognition can be given the United States Merchant Marine and the paltry few World War II veterans who remain of that service.
GABRIEL LAGARDE may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 218-855-5859. Follow at www.twitter.com/glbrddispatch .