A merchant mariner’s life aboard a cargo ship during World
War II came with price.
No other group suffered a higher rate of casualties in crossing
the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in four years of war. The total number of civilian
mariners who died during from 1942-1945 topped 11,000 or one of every 26
mariners going down with the ship. Fighting men on the front lines, though,
depended on services and goods transported by the U.S Merchant Marine.
William Pinto of Reno and Charles Montanaro of Carson City
served on Victory ships, easily sitting targets for enemy submarines, planes or
mines especially during the first years of the war. More than 3.1 million tons
of cargo was lost along with thousands of ships sent to the ocean’s floor. On
many journeys across the ocean, most cargo ships sailed without escort.
“We were by ourselves,” Pinto recalled. “The only ships we
saw were in Pearl Harbor where when they were loading.”
Pinto joined the Merchant Marine in 1944 at the age of 16. He
remembers one important mission. His ship hauled ordnance to Saipan and Tinian
Island, both located in an archipelago in the western North Pacific Ocean and
the scene of major battles during the summer of 1944. After the 4th
Marine Division, with help from continuous naval bombardment, captured Tinian, the
island became a major staging area for B-29s on their bombing runs to the Philippines
and Japan and in August 1945 when two planes dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima
“We took a load of bombs to Saipan and Tinian,” Pinto said,
figuring at the time the islands were prime locations for the Army Air Force’s
offensive against the Japanese.
The heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis, though, delivered the
atomic bombs to Tinian not a Merchant Marine vessel.
Montanaro found irony in how he became a merchant mariner.
As a young man in early World War II, he wanted to fly.
“They wouldn’t let me fly because I was color blind,”
Montanaro said. “After the war I obtained a private pilot license.”
No one was drafted into the Merchant Marines although their
mission was just as important.
“We were all volunteers,” he said, adding by joining the
Merchant Marine, he wasn’t subject to the draft.
Approximately 215,000 mariners served during the war. Mariners,
though, weren’t considered veterans, however, until the Department of Defense
granted them that status in 1988 after four decades of pressure from military
service organizations and veterans’ groups. Mariners said their missions were
just as dangerous and harrowing as those conducted by the U.S. Navy in both
theaters of the war.
Both men were among 20 veterans who traveled Oahu as part of
the first Honor Flight Nevada to Hawaii. This year marks the 75th
anniversary of the end of World War II, May 8 in Europe and Sept. 2 in the
Pacific. They visited Pearl Harbor, the USS Missouri museum, veterans cemeteries
and Marine Corps base. They also attended a luau where Montanaro volunteered to
learn the Hawaiian dance with a group of other people.
Visiting Pearl Harbor and seeing the memorials on Battleship
Row, especially for the USS Arizona, also rekindled memories for the 99-yer-old
Montanaro, the oldest veteran on the trip. He joined the Merchant Marine
shortly after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. During his time in the Pacific,
Montanaro could relate to Pinto’s experience. Montanaro’s ship mostly carried
ammunition from island to island, a feeling he called unnerving. Near the end
of the war, his ship anchored near Okinawa, the designated staging area for
invading mainland Japan.
The call, though, to sail closer to the Japanese coast
during the summer of 1945 never came for Montanaro or Pinto and thousands of
other merchant mariners.
“We tried to sail again,” Pinto said, “but they weren’t
sending my ship.”
Within weeks, though, the United States and its allies
signed the formal surrender treaty with Japan aboard the battleship USS Missouri.
After the war, Pinto joined the California Army National
Guard, but he said the government drafted him into the Army because of the
fighting on the Korean peninsula. He attended officer candidate school at Fort
Benning, Ga., and assigned to a training division at Fort Ord, Calif., after
“I insisted I go with my unit. They went without me to
Korea, and my orders sent me to Germany for two years,” Pinto said, not
understanding the logic.
Pinto said the visit to the USS Arizona memorial affected him
because of his time on the ocean with the Merchant Marines.
“It brought back mixed memories, not knowing what happened
to them,” he said of the sailors who were entombed in the torpedoed battleship.
“They have eternal life. I get overwhelmed easily.”
Montanaro also reflected on the men and women who died
during World War II and in Korea. At the National Memorial Cemetery of the
Pacific located at the punchbowl crater is the Honolulu Memorial
According to its description on its website, “On either side
of the grand stairs leading to the memorial are eight courts of the missing on
which are inscribed the names of the 18,095 American World War II missing from
the Pacific, excluding those from the southwest Pacific, and 8,210 American
missing from the Korean War. These names were listed on the Korean War Courts
of the Missing at the time of the dedication in 1966. Two half courts have been
added at the foot of the staircase that contain the names of 2,504 Americans
missing from the Vietnam War.”
Eight years ago, the cemetery added two pavilions, one containing
an orientation map of the memorial and the other showing two mosaic battle maps
from the Vietnam War. Montanaro said he was impressed.
“History is in the walls at this cemetery,” he said.