Hilltop resident recalls time as Merchant Marine in WWII
In July 1943, Joseph Vereb began his training as a U.S. Merchant Marine (USMM).
Trained under the Coast Guard, he acquired skills needed to work on ships and deliver supplies during World War II.
Vereb said he wanted to help his country. He tried to enlist with the Army Air Corps, Navy, Army and Marines, but was turned away because he was 17 years old.
Vereb considered enlisting in Canada when he learned of the USMM, which accepted individuals 17 to 65 years old.
The Merchant Marine Act of 1936 established the USMM as naval auxiliary during war time. It was administered by the Coast Guard and Navy. While they served an official role in the military, its members were released from the Coast Guard after training and sent to find their own work on military vessels.
“I went to the war as a civilian,” Vereb said. “We got paid like working in a factory. We had to buy our own clothes and our own gear.”
Vereb said he served in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. He said one time his ship transported men from the 442nd Infantry Regiment, a combat team consisting of soldiers of Japanese descent. Many of these soldiers had family in the internment camps that followed the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The USMM experienced greater percentage of war-related deaths than all other U.S. services, according to www.USMM.org. One in 26 mariners died in the line of duty, as result of submarines, armed raiders and aircraft attacks.
Vereb said submarines would go under the convoy to destroy the escort vessels. The mariners kept level heads though, Vereb said you were trained to do certain tasks and you performed your duty.
“People don’t understand. There was no air force over the Atlantic,” Vereb said. “I was very fortunate. I was in the war three years and didn’t get a scratch. I saw ships getting sunk.”
Vereb said he was trained to survive on a lifeboat, on flaming water and stormy weather. Once his ship came across 50-foot waves and they cut everything off the deck, including lifeboats so it would not capsize.
When the war ended in 1945, Vereb attempted to come home. Ship management did not grant his request though, but sent him on ships to South America to bring more troops and supplies back. He was almost 21 years old when he returned home and went back to school.
“I was at South High School, but all the students seemed like kids to me,” Vereb said, adding he had a hard time adapting and dropped out.
Vereb later continued his education through night school. He was 28 years old when he received his high school diploma. During that time, Vereb worked at a fertilizer factory.
According to the U.S. Maritime Administration, merchant mariners did not receive benefits like other military veterans until Jan. 18, 1988. They were also excluded from ceremonies like Veterans’ Day and Memorial Day.
It took years of court battles to recognize these veterans. They are now honored at national sites, including the U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C. and the National World War II Memorial.