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PortSide blogs about our WaterStories programs, urban waterways issues, the BLUEspace, development plans for the NYC waterfront, our ship MARY A. WHALEN and other historic vessels, boats and ships of all sizes.
Last Veteran's Day, we covered the subject of a class of largely-forgotten maritime veterans, the women, children, elderly and disabled mariners who served during WWII.
Below, we provide an update on the cause to finally get recognition for all of them, thanks to info provided by Don Horton who first brought this story, and cause, to our attention. Don Horton was one of those child mariners, serving on a barge with his mother, father and siblings.
Our post from Veteran's Day 2013
Our 9/15/14 interview with Don Horton during his visit to Red Hook, Brooklyn where we took him to various sites that were strongly stamped in his memory.
What you can do for this cause
You can write /call your respective US Senator and ask that they co-sponsor Senate Amendment Sa-3548. This is the amendment that can provide the avenue to allow for alternative methods of recognition for WW II coastwise mariners. It is a copy of S-1361, WW II Merchant Mariners Service Act. Background and Alternative Methods of Recognition, July 2014
The following info is from Don Horton
The bills before Congress
Both the House of Representatives and the Senate offered bills in in support of these veterans, HR 1288 and S-1361, WW II Merchant Mariners Service Act. HR 1288 was amended in to HR 4435, 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and this bill cleared the House with the amendment intact and is awaiting Senate action for comparison with the Senate NDAA S 2410.
S -1361 was introduced by Senator Chris Murphy, D-CT back in March, 2014.
In May of 2014, Chairman Senator Levin and Ranking Member Senator Inhofe of the the Senate Committee on Armed Forces selected a large block of amendments for possible inclusion in what is commonly referred to as a Manager’s package. This package includes certain Bills and amendments that are generally favored by specific groups or members of the Senate. S 1361 was not included within that group.
Shortly afterward in July, Senator Murphy introduced Senate Amendment Sa-3548. but after the offering of the ”Managers Package”.
We are awaiting the Senatorial debate on the floor to see if they will consider any more amendments or not. With this late bit of information, we immediately set about to reach out to all cosponsors of S 1361 (5) and request they come aboard Sa-3548 as cosponsors. Next we asked each member of the Senate Committee of Armed Forces to become Cosponsors and finally we are asking the remainder of the Senate to become cosponsors to Senator Murphy’s Amendment.
It is our hope to obtain sufficient co-sponsors to bring attention to the exhaustive efforts to have these mariners be given their promised recognition, by court order and many congressional speeches, proclaiming full and unequivocal support for our veterans.
I received an email from the Fleet Reserves that states the Senate version S 2410 of the NDAA may be brought to the floor and may allow debate and issuance of additional amendments. This is a departure from past Senate actions and good news for us. Congress is scheduled for convening on 12 November. I attempted to have this confirmed by Senate contacts but was unable. They neither confirmed nor denied.
How many mariners are we talking about?
No one knows either how many served or how many were lost. GAO asked the Coast Guard to identify how many served during WW II and they could only tell them how many credentials were issued during 1939 to 1946, about 840,000, but stated they had no idea how many served in enemy contested waters. Historians settled on about 250,000 serving who may be entitled to veteran recognition. To date about 91,000 have been recognized as veterans.
No one can state how many were lost and presumed dead. Numbers range from around 5200 to about 9500. We have documentation that demonstrates that New York lost about 1300 of the numbers of 5200. That is an eye opening figure for anyone to digest. I have provided names of those from New York who were lost and the very few who have been recognized as veterans.
Yesterday, Don Horton visited PortSide NewYork to give us some oral history. PortSide has been corresponding with Don Horton since October 2013, and the last time Don Horton visited Red Hook was 1950.
Starting in the 1940s, through the WWII period, he was working as a child in the merchant marine - a paid worker - so the company knew what was going on.
Yes, such a class of merchant mariner existed, and Don has dedicated his retirement years to getting their service recognized by the federal government, along with the women, elderly and disabled who worked in the wartime merchant marine. All of that being a startling case of "who knew?"
We wrote about his dogged efforts to reveal this hidden history in a prior blogpost.
Don knows conventional military service, what it is to be a vet.
He served in the Korean War, and he believes that the hundreds of thousands of merchant mariners who served during WWII deserve our nation’s acknowledgement of their service whether they were towing supplies to the European theater or moving cargo along our eastern shore where German U-boats came in close to sink their kind of vessels.
From age 10-18, Don Horton worked on barges, along with his two brothers, his sister, and his mother, all of them joining the father of the family throughout the summer.
One of their main jobs was hauling coal from Norfolk, Virginia up north. The two boys learned fast how to repair a steam boiler, and they painted the barge. Mama (Sadie Horton) was the cook. The sister married early in the story and got off the boats. Papa seems to have liked drink too much, and brother Billy got off the barges to get away from that and went to work on a tug. The third day on the tug, at age 17, Billy was killed when Germans shelled and sank his boat.
In comparison, Don’s memories of Red Hook are more associated with fun. A stop in New York meant good times. Don recalled a trip to 42nd Street and the treat of a hot dog. A trip to Coney Island netted a very big hot dog.
Yesterday, Don was in town to see some Senators on behalf of his cause which you can follow on Facebook and to contribute some oral history to PortSide's WaterStories cultural tourism effort. Here is a preliminary glimpse of some gems we got from Don today.
Carolina Salguero, John Weaver and Peter Rothenberg spent several hours interviewing Don and recording video and sound files. Don's tack-sharp memory and vivid story telling made for a great afternoon.
We started out talking over lunch in the galley of our Mary A. Whalen with Don and his darling wife Norita.
Ralston's WWII grocery, now the site of hip Baked
After lunch, we visited the site of Ralston's, a grocery store during WWII Red Hook: fruit under an awning out front, narrow aisles and a place where they preferred you give them a list of what you wanted instead of getting it from the shelf yourself, little shopping carts with wooden wheels.
Don said boats liked to provision at Ralston’s and explained the allure: the captain's were given free liquor in the back in a private bar which ensured they would frequent the joint and then spend grub money in the store.
Ralston’s address was 294 Van Brunt Street, now BAKED.
Don said that the soda Spur was their favorite and that he and his siblings fought over the precious bottles on the barge trip to the next port, the ice blocks from Ralston's being their only refrigeration until they got there.
Here is a 1943 ad for Spur, "a cola with a walnut taste," he remembered with a smile.
Next, we took Don Horton past two once-twin tenements, one of which is at 415 Van Brunt, to see if those were the kind of buildings that matched his "never would happen now" WWII memories of a Van Brunt Street where women on hands and knees scrubbed little porches with buckets of water, a scrub brush and a big bar of Octagon soap.
YES, those were the kinds of buildings he remembered!
Don then explained that "doing laundry" on the barge was scrubbing dungarees on the wide rail of the barge and leaving them to dry there.
From there, over to Sunny's Bar where we were thrilled to find Sunny himself lounging in bathrobe with friends at the end of lunch.
At age 80, Sunny is but 2 years younger than Don, and they shared many memories including swimming in the filthy water of the time which both cited as having lots of turds and Coney Island whitefish as Sunny called them, or rubbers in Don’s version.
Sunny cheekily got an old load off his conscience when he confessed that he'd "borrowed' someone's rowboat at one point, and on top of that lied to his Papa saying that he had not taken it, and apologized to Don who said they'd come back from Ralston's Grocery at times to find their boat gone.
The rowboats always came back, Don said, but delays were a big concern; because if they missed the tide, the current would be too strong to row against it in their little boat loaded with groceries.
Sunny shared memories of how, when he heard wartime air raid siren drills and knew that the war was being fought "overseas," thought that Staten Island (which was overseas for a little Red Hook boy) was under attack.
Here is what Don told us about shelling during the interview in the galley: When he first started on the barges and saw flashes of light when they were offshore and asked Papa what they were, Papa fibbed and didn’t say it was German’s shelling the American merchant marine, he said it was lighting.
Later on, “I knew what those lights were,” said Don, “and something I don’t often say, I wet myself with fear.” The barges were old boats, unarmored with no weapons, three miles behind the tug, he clarified.
We need to clarify what "barges" means here. These were the old, creaky hulls of wooden schooners, dismasted to turn them into barges.
Don said the vessels' intended life span was some 25 years and these were 50-60 years old and so frail that after being beat up in a storm, the caulk might be battered out. Then, they'd have to go to a shipyard for repairs.
The Red Hook Flats & Erie Basin
We walked out to the end of the Beard Street Pier so Don Horton could see the Red Hook flats and the entrance to Erie Basin. This prompted more memories.
Don had emailed us some great memories of the Red Hook flats last year which paint a picture of a harbor jammed with ships, tugs, barges, row boats and the "bum boat" or "speculator" a sort of scrap dealer and rag picker afloat who went from vessel to vessel buying what he could.
Yesterday, Don described how he and his brother scavenged whatever they could, lengths of tired rope, bits of metal they found or “liberated” from cargo on the occasions they were hauling metal.
Standing on the end of Greg O’Connell’s Beard Street Pier enabled Don to pin point geography in a way that looking at the map while seated in our galley had not, and he explained that the dinghy dock location was around the Erie Basin side of that pier. During WWII, tugboats were jammed into the place where the New York Water Taxi homeport dock is today.
Don said there were often up to 50 barges at anchor "on the Red Hook flats" as he called them, and that Erie Basin was so chock full of ships and barges that his family had to find channels underneath the bow and stern rakes of the barges to row their way through the fleet.
During the interview in the Mary A Whalen galley, Don described how his father bought a lot of whiskey when he was ashore, and his mother would dump it over the side once they got back to the barge on the Red Hook flats, to the point that she said the flats must be full of whiskey bottles. Hello, bottle collecting divers!
We were all surprised to learn that Don's mother did not know how to swim and was afraid of the water but still spent every summer working the coastwise barges with her husband and children during the war.
The whole endeavor required a lot of courage by everyone in the family, and PortSide NewYork is helping to get this aspect of history, that's national history and local history, better known.
[This and many other stories are also told in redhookwaterstories.org PortSide NewYork's e-museum and neighborhood website. ]
Request to Veterans affairs Committees of Senate and House regarding bills HR 2189 & S 1361
Women, children and disabled WWII merchant mariners
Friday, 10/18/13, out of the blue, PortSide received an email from Don Horton looking for help acknowledging the work of women, children, and elderly handicapped seamen who he says served on tugs and barges along the coast under threat of attacks by German U-boats. Don Horton, a retired Director of Occupational Safety & Health for the Department of Defense, is seeking urgent support for two bills before the US Congress which would recognize the service of these mariners. Recognition honors recipients and gives them the status of US veteran with benefits limited to medals and burial benefits.
The Senate is likely to vote on October 30th, and the House could vote at any time.
[see 10/29 and 10/30 updates about Congressional votes and 11/2/13 MoveOn.org petition at bottom]
He seeks letters of support to the congressmen
on the Veterans Affairs Committees. Horton says the seamen, whose records were destroyed by government order, are another category seeking recognition. Able-bodied, adult, male seamen were recognized in 1988. The Senate is likely to vote on October 30th, and the House could vote
at any time. The extraordinary story of these mariners also shines a
light on the waterfront history of Red Hook, of Brooklyn and of the port
of New York as a whole.
Horton was one of those children who served on tugs and barges along the coast under threat of attacks by German U-boats. Don Horton is originally from Pennsylvania and now lives in North Carolina. He began working on a coastwise barge as a ten-year-old alongside his family in 1942; and his mother was one of those women.
Read Don Horton's vivid WWII memories of anchoring off
Red Hook, Brooklyn and rowing into Erie Basin to shop on Van Brunt
Dear Fellow Mariners,
Once again I am reaching out to my fellow seafarers in hopes of finding some who may be interested in helping us find those few remaining mariners from WW II. Many of those mariners were women, some were schoolchildren that stood up for this country and also helped to lay the foundation for women seafarers around the world.
We now have a bill in both sides of congress. It has taken over 5 years and three sessions of congress and this may be our last chance to bring recognition to these few remaining mariners. The setup is rather complicated and far from me to truly understand.
If you recall we started out with a stand alone bill HR 1288 but during the process it was incorporated into another one 2086 headed up by Tina Titus of NV. Within a week it was incorporated into still another HR 2189 that deals with problems within the VA. This bill is headed up by Jeff Miller of FL who also is the Chair of the House Vets Committee and has cleared the subcommittee and is at the floor level waiting hearings. S-1361 is heading for hearing in the Committee late this month. Both bills have few cosponsors and I have no idea if that is good or not. I had 94 cosponsors on HR 1288 and was incorporated into 2086 that had only 12 and then into 2189 with only 4. I have added 4 more to 2189 but have hit a snag. Seems that most of our leaders in congress may say they reach out across party lines but when it get down to doing it the lines grow silent.
In any case we are farther along than ever before but need some help. As I recall in my email of last year I indicated we needed letters sent out to the various members of congress asking for their support either by cosponsoring these two bills or having the VSO write letters of support to the two committees saying the same. We need similar help and I am again reaching out to you for help in helping those that came before you. Will you help me? I have submitted some testimony to the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs that provides some light on how I see picture and asked it be submitted for the record. They have acknowledged receipt and mention they will review. I have attached it to share with you in hopes you can find enough info to assist in sending some good ole letters or make some calls.
Will you help us? The time is very short as the Senate meeting is scheduled for the last of this month. The House vote can be at any time. Please let me know if you can help. Thanking you in Advance.
Good luck at your meeting also at the end of the Month.
My very Best Regards,
J. Don Horton,
President WWII Coastwise Merchant Mariners
104 Riverview Ave, Camden, NC 27921
252 336 5553
Letters of support:
11/2/13 MoveOn.org petition
0/30 update from Don Horton
RESULTS FROM US SENATE VETERANS AFFAIRS COMMITTEE HEARING ON 30 OCT. 2013 for S-1361 "WW II Merchant Mariners Service Act"
Military Officers of America Association: Supports S 1361
Disabled American Veterans: DAV does not have a resolution on this issue and takes no position on 1361. Note NC DAV approved a state resolution but National turned it down, essentially turning its back on WW I merchant mariners.
Department of Veterans Affairs: VA defers to the Views of the DHS regarding Section 3 of this bill.
Vietnam Veterans of America: VVA has favored such legislation conferring full veteran status on these individuals for almost thirty years, and now urges swift passage of this measure before all of them of dead and gone.
Veteran of Foreign Wars: Did not make a statement on S-1361.
NEXT STEP IS UNKNOWN. WILL ADVISE ALL WHEN APPRISED.
October 29 update from Don Horton
Dear F/B fans. Yesterday we were successful in having the US House vote and pass HR 2189. This bill had an amendment within, HR 1288 “WW II Merchant Mariners Service Act. It received an overwhelming majority vote of 404 to 1 in favor and the bill is now on its way to the Senate.
The next step is: tomorrow the US Senate will conduct Hearings on S 1361 “WW II Merchant Mariners Service Act”, an identical bill to HR 1288 that was amended into HR 2189. It is scheduled for 2 PM and can be viewed on C-span if anyone desires to watch. We have come a long way to correct a travesty ongoing for over 70 years.
Many thanks to all the cosponsors of HR 1288 for staying the course and seeing this bill through the House and on to the Senate. I owe you a debt of gratitude.
Let’s keep our fingers crossed to see this one also hit out of the park. Thanks for all your help.