Friday, May 25, 2012

“Damn the Torpedoes!”

Helen Lawrenson (1907–1982)
From Reporting World War II: American Journalism 1938–1944

Courtesy Camden, NJ, World War II
Merchant Marine Memorial.
During the first year of World War II, American citizens working the largely unarmed commercial ships carrying cargo and passengers across the Atlantic experienced many casualties, especially from attacks by German submarines. Sailors in the Merchant Marine were employees of private companies and they were largely free to quit their jobs after a voyage, but the work was just as dangerous as military combat (and often more so). Upwards of 250,000 civilians worked on these ships during the war, and various counts place the number of those killed between 6,000 and 9,000—at least twice the fatality rate among military personnel. Torpedoes, bombs, kamikazes, and other attacks sunk over 700 ocean-faring ships, and hundreds of smaller vessels were lost near the shore. Prior to the Normandy invasion, General Dwight Eisenhower acknowledged, “When final victory is ours, there is no organization that will share its credit more deservedly than the Merchant Marine.”

Yet, after the war, the service of these veterans was largely forgotten and none of them qualified for benefits. It wasn’t until a federal ruling in 1988, following a decade-long court battle, when some finally qualified for limited services from Department of Veterans Affairs. Still, nearly seven decades later, a good number of the estimated 10,000 remaining survivors have never possessed the onerous documentation required to receive these belated benefits.

The New York journalist Helen Brown was well placed to record the heroism of these seafarers; her second husband, Jack Lawrenson, whom she married in 1939, had shipped from Ireland as a merchant seaman and upon his arrival in New York in 1937 he became a cofounder and leader of the National Maritime Union. When the couple met, Helen had already established her credentials as a writer, serving as an editor of Vanity Fair before becoming Esquire’s first woman contributor. The year of her and Jack’s marriage she collected some of her journalism in the provocatively titled The Hussy’s Handbook. Almost exactly seventy years ago, during the first year of American participation in the war, she wrote her account of the Merchant Marine based on information and anecdotes gleaned from her husband’s associates.

Jack Lawrenson was eventually forced out of the NMU in 1949, during a period of violent political upheavals and intense red-baiting within the union, and he died in 1957. His wife lived for another quarter century and enjoyed a brief period of notoriety in the mid-1970s (as noted by a profile in People) when she published Stranger at the Party, a memoir of her bohemian life in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village during the 1930s, and revealed details of her four-year affair with Condé Montrose Nast, her former boss and the founder and publisher of Vanity Fair.

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A group of sailors are drinking beer at a bar called George’s in Greenwich Village. The juke box is playing “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” and every time it stops someone puts another nickel in and it starts up again. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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