Before he joined the U.S. Merchant Marine in April 1942, then 20-year-old Ken Duncan was working long hours in a factory that made cables used to operate the airplanes of that era.
“I just wanted to do something different,” Duncan said when asked why he enrolled in the Merchant Marine Academy. “And the Merchant Marine Academy was easier to get into than the Navy.”
The now 95-year-old Duncan, a New Britain native now living in Wallingford, was the featured speaker at a recent Veterans Coffee House series at the town’s Senior Center.
During World War II, Duncan served on a ship that was part of a regular convoy that sought to bring goods and military personnel safely across the Atlantic Ocean at a time when German submarines sought to sink the ships.
“Your seamanship had to be pretty incredible,” Duncan said. “You had no lights, no radar and ships that were only two lengths apart.”
Operating under those conditions and under constant threat of attack, even launching a lifeboat required a high skill level, he said.
“A lot of people don’t realize that even after a ship has been hit with a torpedo, it still has forward motion,” Duncan said. “That requires launching the lifeboats in a certain way.”
According to the usmm.org website, the U.S. Merchant Marine “provided the greatest sealift in history between the production army at home and the fighting forces scattered around the globe in World War II. The prewar total of 55,000 experienced mariners was increased to over 215,000 through U.S. Maritime Service training programs.”
“Had these ships not been produced, the war would have been in all likelihood prolonged many months, if not years. Some argue the Allies would have lost as there would not have existed the means to carry the personnel, supplies and equipment needed by the combined Allies to defeat the Axis power,” the website says.
For example, the site notes: “In March 1943, Convoys HX229 and SC122 with 88 merchant ships and 15 escorts, were bound for Europe from New York, via Halifax, on parallel courses. In mid-Atlantic, they were relentlessly attacked by 45 U-Boats operating individually and in ‘wolfpacks,’ who fired 90 torpedoes, sinking 22 ships, and resulting in 372 dead. Germany called it the ‘greatest convoy battle of all time.’”
Despite the risks that members of the Merchant Marine faced, the U.S. government didn’t treat them as well as those who served in the armed forces, Duncan said.
“If you were in the Merchant Marine, you got nothing in terms of benefits,” Duncan said. “No GI Bill, nothing.”
But people in England treated members of the Merchant Marine “as the top dog,” he said. Members of the Merchant Marine earned $60 per month, Duncan said, plus occasional bonus pay for having successfully navigated through rough seas.
“I’m not looking for the money,” Duncan said, his voice cracking and eyes welling up with tears after delivering his remarks to a group of about 30 veterans. “But I do think we should be recognized for what we did.”
After the war, Duncan went to work for Southern New England Telephone and served 20 years in the Naval Reserve.
The Veterans Coffee House series is sponsored by Assisted Living Inc., a Meriden-based company that provides elder care services and has offices in Clinton and Fairfield. Mark Halliday, the company’s community liaison, serves as master of ceremonies for the monthly meetings.
“I think it’s safe to say we are better people for having heard your story,” he told Duncan.
Halliday said later that the Veterans Coffee House series has some therapeutic value to those who attend.
“For the World War II veterans especially, many of them feel guilty because they got to come home and some of their buddies didn’t,” he said. “By sharing the stories, everyone benefits because it encourages others to talk and share how they are feeling.”
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