Retiree ‘Speedy’ Landry Recalls WWII Voyages

 

September 2014

 

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Nearly 70 years have passed since Simon Landry completed his last voyage as a merchant mariner, but his memories of serving in World War II remain largely clear and unquestionably enlightening.

 

Landry, who goes by the nickname Speedy, was a senior in high school when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Though quite eager to join the war effort – “I was raring to go,” he recalls – he also was too young to join the military.

 

His thoughts turned to the U.S. Merchant Marine, but Landry had another consideration that briefly delayed his entry. “I had to wait until I was 18 because I didn’t want my parents signing me in,” he says. “If something happened to me, I didn’t want them to feel guilty.”

 

After a short stint working in a Louisiana shipyard, Landry – who turned 89 last month – headed to St. Petersburg, Florida, in the summer of 1942 for his mariner training. It marked the start of four years of sailing, during which time he belonged to the National Maritime Union (NMU), which would merge into the SIU decades later.

 

Age hasn’t hampered Landry’s ability to rattle off details of his more interesting voyages, and he also hasn’t lost sight of the big picture involving the U.S. Merchant Marine (USMM) of World War II. The mariners’ heroic sealift effort proved crucial to winning the war, and it earned them veterans’ status.

 

Despite what many have termed an unforgivable delay in officially recognizing World War II mariners as veterans, no one could question their sacrifice. Approximately 7,000 U.S. mariners died in the war (including more than 1,200 SIU members), and the USMM sustained a casualty rate second to only the U.S. Marine Corps.

 

Asked what stands out to him the most about that era, Landry points to what maritime historians readily acknowledge as a turning point – one that may leave young mariners of today incredulous. Specifically, U.S. shipyards essentially started producing vessels faster than the enemy could sink them.

 

“When we started building the merchant marine up with the Liberty ships, that’s when the Germans were sinking one, two, three, four a day,” Landry says. “Those ships did a terrific job carrying cargo to where it was needed.

 

“Overall, the experience satisfied me. I think for the mariners at that time, there was a lot of patriotism.”

 

Challenges at Sea

A lifelong Louisiana resident (he was born in Houma and now resides in Belle Chase), Landry primarily sailed in the engine department, though he took a few turns in the steward department, too. He’s an upbeat person and a man of faith, but he says with a chuckle that he mainly remembers the ships he “had trouble with.”

 

One such vessel was carrying 500- pound bombs and various U.S. Army trucks along the East Coast when it ran into a hurricane near Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.

 

“I boarded the ship in Braithwaite, Louisana,” he remembers. “We went down the Mississippi and swung around and were going to New York. We were doing okay but the rudder got jammed. When we were in the trough of the waves, it was rocking the ship so bad…

 

“We thought the cargo was going to break through the hull,” he continues. “Some volunteers went across the deck to the rudder room. They found out the Navy crew – we had a three-inch gun on the stern and a Navy crew to operate it – had stuffed their life vests around the rail in the room. The room got flooded, the life jackets started floating around, and they got into the gears. Anyway, the guys dug the life jackets out and the rudder operated normally then.”

 

On a voyage that was supposed to go from Baltimore to the Persian Gulf, Landry’s vessel got hit by another ship shortly after departure, a few miles from shore. They took on water but made it back to the port.

 

A few days after the D-Day invasion, in 1944, Landry was on another memorable mission – although this one, thankfully, didn’t involve collisions or hurricanes.

 

“When D-Day happened, we got the radio call that they were invading Normandy,” he says. “We were in the middle of the ocean, two days out from England, carrying stuff for the troops. We got there and tied up to wait for orders. When we left the port, we were crossing the English Channel in the middle of the night – no lights, no noise.”

 

They docked in Le Havre, France, and were warned not to go ashore alone.

 

“There was a fort up on the mountain right behind us,” Landry says. “Our troops had gone around it rather than trying to take it out…. I went ashore but I didn’t go far from the ship. I didn’t want any German blowing my brains out.”

 

He and his shipmates had no contact with any Germans during that stop, though Landry recalls local families “sending their children out at noontime to barrooms to get red wine. You’d see them carrying a pitcher of red wine back to the house.”

 

Landry’s vessels included the William Ford Nichols, James W. Cannon, Crown Reefer, William Mulholland, and Nathaniel Currier. He sailed for companies including Lykes Brothers, Mystic Steamship, and American-West African Line.

 

After the War

Landry came ashore after the war and enjoyed a long career at a Chevron plant, where he also was a union member for a while. He was a shift supervisor when he retired in 1979.

 

Although his wife passed away in 2003, Landry has no shortage of family members. He has four children, 13 grandkids and 14 great grandchildren.

 

Active in his church and in the Knights of Columbus, Landry still lives in the cinderblock house he built by hand in 1964. He exercises at a local YMCA and goodnaturedly describes his health as “pretty fair” before mentioning some ailments that often prove inevitable with age.

 

Recertified Bosun John Cain attends the same church as Landry and describes him as “a terrific person and a credit to the heritage of the U.S. Merchant Marine of World War II. Speedy is what you’d call a salt-of-the-earth guy and a pleasure to be around,” Cain says.

 

Cain adds, “When I learned about Speedy’s background, I thought it was very important that he be recognized in the Seafarers LOG, and that’s why I put him in touch with the LOG office. His story, and the story of our U.S. Merchant Marine of World War II, remains very important, and I also know the LOG staff is always very interested in mariners from that era.”

 

Although he only keeps loose tabs on the maritime industry these days, Landry knows enough about it to offer these words of advice to anyone thinking about joining: “I would tell them it’s a fine place to work and to me it was very good. Each person has to make their own decisions, but I’d tell them there’s nothing wrong with joining up with the union. They’ll keep you in a job, find the ships that need the men crews send you to them.”


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