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Carson City, Reno merchant marines delivered cargo in perilous conditions

Mariners faced one of highest death rates during World War II

By Steve Ranson Nevada News Group

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 and Nagasaki.

“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 graduation.

“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.