American Merchant Marine Veterans Group Visits Museum in New Orleans
A score of merchant marine veterans and their spouses gathered at the National World War II Museum last month to view an exhibit honoring the vital contributions made by seamen to the war effort. The museum visit culminated the American Merchant Marine Veterans (AMMV) 30th National Convention (SIU Secretary-Treasurer David Heindel was a featured speaker), conducted March 29 through April 2 in New Orleans, where the museum is also located.
It was an emotional experience for many of the attendees, who have too often received long-delayed recognition for their service – or none at all.
For most convention attendees, the event was their first opportunity to see the Ralph E. Crump U.S. Merchant Marine Gallery, which opened to the public in December 2015. However, according to AMMV President Chris Edyvean (a former SIU member), many members of the veteran organization had visited the museum before the exhibit debuted – and their reviews were not altogether positive.
“When I announced that we’d be visiting the World War II museum at our last meeting, I was nearly booed off the stage,” said Edyvean. “Some of the guys who had toured the museum before left in tears because the sacrifices made by the merchant marine weren’t fully acknowledged.”
As soon as the AMMV contingent (including a number of retired SIU members) began their tour of the facility April 1, it was clear that the museum and its staff had rectified any slighted feelings. Museum docents guided the veterans onto a stage in the museum lobby and introduced the group to onlookers waiting in line for tickets. Upon hearing that merchant seamen suffered a higher casualty rate in World War II than any other branch of service except the Marine Corps, the crowd offered a solemn, respectful round of applause for the veterans.
A museum spokesperson closed the remarks to museum-goers with a quote from General Douglas MacArthur: “[World War II seamen] brought us our lifeblood and they paid for it with some of their own.”
Once the conventioneers entered the exhibit hall, any remaining criticisms of the museum’s commitment to the merchant marine seemed to vanish. They were treated to a stirring, state-of-the art gallery complete with video displays and artifacts from World War II-era vessels. No expense was spared on the 940-square-foot exhibit space, built as part of a multi-year, $370 million capital expansion project.
Housed within a glass-walled corridor overlooking the museum courtyard, the gallery presented the wartime merchant marine experience with a decidedly modern edge. Kiosks detailed personal stories of particularly gallant merchant seamen such as OS Kyle Vaughn Johnson, who sailed aboard the SS Lafayette.
His convoy had set out on one of the infamous Murmansk runs, carrying supplies through the Arctic Ocean to Russia. To defend the convoy from a German ambush, Johnson manned an antiaircraft gun and downed three enemy planes. Narratives like Johnson’s highlighted the bravery of wartime sailors, as well as the dangers they faced.
Those dangers are part of SIU history: More than 1,200 SIU members lost their lives in World War II; approximately 7,000 U.S. mariners made the ultimate sacrifice.
For the AMMV members in attendance, such stories were not just matters of historical record but a part of an experience they all once shared. Memories of the war came flooding back to AMMV National Vice President Morris Harvey, who sailed with the SIU in the Mediterranean Theatre.
Harvey recalled joining the merchant marine after being medically disqualified for active military service. When faced with the decision to sail or go into civilian service stateside, he felt that going out to sea was his best option. “I wanted to go where the war was,” Harvey said. Before long, he was shipping out of Norfolk, Virginia, as an oiler and then, later, an OS.
An aspect of the exhibit that particularly resonated with the AMMV group was the acknowledgement that the important role merchant seamen played in the war has not always been properly or promptly recognized, especially regarding veteran status. It was not until 1988 that World War II mariners began receiving veteran benefits, a gratitude many believe came far too late. It took another decade before the cutoff date for veterans’ status for mariners was changed to match the one used for the armed services.
One exhibit display indicated that withholding veteran status was used as a strategy during the war to coerce seamen into joining the Navy and losing their union representation.
Beyond the merchant marine exhibit, the AMMV group was impressed with the level of care and detail present in the rest of the facility. The same capital expansion project that made the Crump Merchant Marine Gallery possible has allowed the museum to quadruple its original size, adding more exhibit space, restoration and conservation facilities, a 4-D movie theater, and restaurants.
Returning visitors were keen to note how far the museum had come since 2000, when it opened as the D-Day Museum.
The Crump Gallery is but the latest of several permanent exhibits housed in the National World War II Museum, including galleries dedicated to the European and Pacific Theatres, and collections of restored aircraft and vehicles. The facility has been designated by Congress as the United States’ official museum on the conflict, and the thoroughness of each exhibit demonstrates how seriously the museum takes this role. Its collection, including items in storage, exceeds 100,000 artifacts, in addition to archives rich with veteran memoirs and oral histories.
The merchant marine experience is now represented in the museum as comprehensively as other aspects of the war effort. The veterans touring the museum that day felt as if the mere presence of the exhibit made great progress toward spreading awareness of what these men lived through. “What impresses me most is that we’re here,” added Harvey. “Recognition is the biggest step.”
Want to Learn More?
The National World War II Museum is located at 945 Magazine Street in New Orleans, Louisiana. General admission starts at $24, with reduced admission for students, seniors and military visitors. All World War II veterans may enter the museum free of charge.