They never had to jump out of any planes, and the U.S. government didn’t pay them.
But the men who sailed commercial ships during World War II – Merchant Marines – were the lifeline for Allied soldiers in Europe.
One might call them the forgotten soldiers.
James Risk, a Cornelius resident, wanted to be in the U.S. Navy.
“I couldn’t, the Navy was out. I had a weak left eye, and under duress, I would not pass the stringent Navy tests,” he said.
Risk grew up sailing in Florida, and he knew that he wanted a life on the sea. He found a bulletin board at the post office advertising the Merchant Marines.
The Merchant Marines, Risk explained, are men who serve on commercial ships contracted by the Untied States. In World War II, those ships delivered supplies including ammunition, weapons, tanks, planes and soldiers to Europe. Some merchant ships were used during the landing on Normandy beach.
But before he could hit the seas, Risk had to be accepted.
“It was four years of course work if you were accepted, and they’d pay you a dollar a day. So I became a cadet in the Merchant Marines.”
Risk started sailing in early 1941, and on Dec. 7 of that year – the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor – all men in uniform were called to action. Cadets like Risk went up to New York to attend the Merchant Marine Academy.
After he graduated, Risk was assigned to the USS Omaha, which he sailed into Russia.
“Roosevelt and Churchill were anxious to keep Germany on the continent, rather than out on the islands (of Great Britain),” Risk said. Their plan, he said, was to get Stalin to join the war again, but Stalin was hesitant because Russia was running low on supplies.
“So Roosevelt said, ‘Oh, we’ll get you stuff.’ And that’s where we came in. They put all the stuff on our merchant ships,” Risk said, “and we formed convoys to go to north Russia to deliver the wartime materials.
“I had P-38 aircraft on my deck, and down in the hold we had ammunition and guns and tanks and everything else. Russia was very grateful for that, and it enabled them to open up the eastern front, which they eventually defeated the Germans on.”
When Russia came back into the game, the German forces were split, and they had to fight on the east and the west.
“They were frightful convoys. I had a ship that was just before me, and that was entirely destroyed by Germans.”
Life as a Merchant Marine was very dangerous.
“We had the greatest fatality of all the service, the Merchant Marine did, percentage wise,” Risk said.
“The closest I ever came, a submarine launched two torpedoes at my ship. I was standing on the bridge of my ship, and I looked down and here are the two torpedoes coming right straight for me. The first one went about 15 feet in front of the bow of the ship. The second was coming right straight at me, and all of a sudden it quit. It ran out of fuel, and it sank.”
After the war, Risk continued to sail for two years, finally moving landside in 1947. He lived and worked in Illinois and Florida, and then moved to the Charlotte in 1973. Risk, now 89, has two sons and six grandchildren, and he was married for 51 years before his wife died. He moved to Cornelius in 2005 to live closer to his son.