Hawaii’s World

By A.A. Smyser

Thursday, December 5, 1996

A merchant mariner
in World War II

ON Dec. 7, 1941, Moray Epstein was a recently hired Star-Bulletin reporter quickly assigned to the Honolulu fire headquarters after the Japanese attack. Exactly a year later, he was a merchant seaman in port at Molotovsk, Russia, en route to Murmansk, one of the most frequently bombed cities of World War II.

His ship already had run a gauntlet of Nazi bombers and submarines to get there. More air attacks and nearby sinkings lay ahead.

Now he has written a book that describes the danger-filled, rumor-filled role the U.S. merchant marine played in moving essential cargo throughout the war.

Merchant seamen were important enough to get draft exemptions from the start. Nevertheless, it took until 1989 for the U.S. government, under court order, to give them the status of "veterans."

There was envy that they were better paid than regular servicemen and could live more comfortably. They lived more dangerously than many servicemen, you will feel sure, if you read "Ports in a Storm: The Voyage of a Merchant Seaman Through World War II." And the pay wasn't all that much better, either, with benefits considered.

The ship he was on, the John Walker, was one of five British and five merchant ships directed to sail single file, well apart from each other, rather than in convoy from Iceland to Murmansk in late 1942. They were testing a theory that proceeding alone might attract less German opposition than a juicy convoy target. Prior to departure all personnel were issued new-model cold-water survival suits that would give short-time protection.

Two ships were sunk. A third grounded. The John Walker got through but underwent a severe five-hour attack by four or five Norway-based German bombers.

Its anti-aircraft gunners showered the sky with shells while the captain maneuvered crazily to keep the planes away. The closest bomb dropped 30 feet from the Walker. At least one plane was hit.

Later, at Murmansk, attacks came nightly but were not always focused on the ships. One bomb hit so close to the Walker that an officer was fatally injured by shrapnel and two crewmen were slightly cut.

Epstein had been a third-year student at UCLA until he got the urge to go to sea to see the world in mid-1941. A minor injury put him ashore in Honolulu in September. He got a job with the Star-Bulletin until the Dec. 7 attack made up his mind to go back to being a merchant seaman.

He started as an assistant cook. He worked up to chef even though at one time he simply multiplied a bread-making recipe by 10 and ended with so much yeast the dough overflowed all available containers as it rose.

ON two stops in Plymouth, England, in 1944 he was able with the help of the Red Cross to meet his brother from an air base near Oxford, and then have his brother ferried back from the unit's new base in France to see him again. He also enjoyed hospitality and made friends in many ports, and courted, often by mail, his now-wife, Sylvia, who was in New Jersey.

The war was interspersed with these nice graces, but the sea was prowled by German submarines. Near land they held, German aircraft joined in attacking. Algiers was another air-sea hot spot.

"Ports in a Storm" is told mostly in diary form. It is privately published by Epstein. Mail will reach him in a retirement community to which he and Sylvia recently moved. The address is 8515 Costa Verde Blvd., Apt. 512, San Diego, CA 92122. Phone (619) 646-7823.

A.A. Smyser is the Star-Bulletin's contributing editor.
His column runs Tuesday and Thursday.

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