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BILL CHAMBERS SPENT THE war in the Merchant Marine, arguably the least appreciated of the American wartime services: it offered no military benefits and suffered the highest death rate. On his maiden voyage, Chambers reached Pearl Harbor only days after the Japanese attack; on his next trip, three ships that he was on sank. But now, at 92 and beset by dementia, he remembers none of this. Fortunately, in 2004 his daughter Kay (above) interviewed him for the Library of Congress Veterans History Project ( As the World War II generation fades, we at World War II magazine strongly urge readers to help veterans they know participate in this oral history program. Otherwise, remarkable tales like Chambers’s, here condensed from the original, will be lost.

How did you train for the work you did in the Merchant Marine?

I attended the Pennsylvania Nautical School from October 1939 to October 1941. Cadets trained on the school ship Annapolis, a combination sailing and steam vessel built in 1897 and quite cramped; cadets slept in hammocks. After graduating I became a deck officer. On December 7, 1941, I was at sea on the SS Steel Maker, en route from the East Coast via the Panama Canal to Honolulu.

What was that trip’s purpose?

We were on a commercial voyage. One morning the captain came into the officers’ saloon after receiving a radio mes sage from the navy: Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor a few hours earlier, and we were to follow sealed orders he had received in Panama. Arriving in Honolulu on December 15, we only heard rumors about what had happened. We were not allowed to see the damage or any other parts of the waterfront. The longshore men were Japanese, under military guard. We were allowed off the ship, but only on the pier and in the very near vicinity. We were not allowed to go into Honolulu. On December 30, we were shelled by a Japanese submarine in Kahului Harbor, Maui. Then we sailed to San Francisco in a convoy—the first convoy I experienced.

Where did your next convoy go?

Across the North Atlantic. The SS Steel Worker departed Philadelphia on March 26, 1942, for Murmansk, Russia, loaded with cargo, including 250 tons of explosives in the number five hatch at the stern. From May 25 to May 31 we were under continuous air attack. Eight ships were sunk; many were damaged from near hits. Three were hit and made port. The ship was armed with machine guns to be used by the merchant seamen; there was no U.S. Navy Armed Guard on board, as there would be later. Four enemy planes were destroyed, and many were damaged.

What happened at Murmansk?

We unloaded the explosives straight away. On June 3, 1942, on our way to discharge the remaining cargo at another berth in the Kola Inlet, a heavy explosion hit the number five hatch, where the explosives had been. The ship may have struck a mine. It sank in half an hour. We abandoned ship, and a British escort vessel picked us up and took us to the SS Alcoa Cadet. My first wristwatch, which I got when I was in high school, and my sea man’s papers went down with the ship. Russian divers were able to salvage much of the military cargo, because the ship sank in less than 100 feet of water.

Then the Alcoa Cadet sank.

On June 21, 1942. It had discharged its cargo and was waiting for orders. I was standing beside my desk in my cabin when the ship blew up. The British said it was a mine; the Russians said it was a torpedo. I was rescued from a life raft along with the ship’s captain by a Russian patrol craft and transferred to a Russian military barracks across the river from Murmansk.

Six days later, you set off for home.

Those of us who survived transferred to the SS American Press, sailing in a convoy to Hoboken, New Jersey, via Iceland. On July 5 at 9 p.m. off Iceland’s west coast, we were attacked by subs or hit a minefield, it’s not clear; six ships were sunk. The convoy scattered. One ship was hit but made Reykjavik. We turned and headed for Akureyri, in a fjord on Iceland’s north coast. Eventually we reached Reykjavik and joined a convoy to the United States.

What was your longest voyage?

On December 30, 1942, the SS Robin Sherwood sailed from New York for the Panama Canal and ultimately Iran. We were loaded with supplies to be trans shipped overland to southern Russia— the safest way for them to go. We took a circuitous route from the Canal Zone to Freemantle in western Australia; it took 28 days, with no land or any other ship ever sighted. To avoid the Japanese, we sailed an indirect route from Freemantle to the Persian Gulf. We discharged military supplies for Russia in three Iranian ports, then we sailed from the Persian Gulf south on the East Africa coast, stopping to load commercial cargo at Mombasa, Kenya; Dar es Salaam, Tanganyika [now Tanzania]; and Beira, Mozambique. We stopped at Durban and sailed around South Africa before we headed across the South Atlantic toward South America. When we got back to New York on July 23, 1943, we had sailed 36,000 miles.

Next you sailed on a Liberty ship.

The SS Charles J. Folger. The crew was flown in a DC-3 to New Orleans to join the vessel. We sailed to Cuba, where we loaded sugar, and headed for New York, where we joined a North Atlantic convoy to bring the sugar to Scotland and Wales. The early voyages along the coast were unescorted by navy vessels or airplanes, and were easy prey for U-boats; many ships were sunk. It was better after the U-boats were transferred to the North Atlantic to join wolf packs there.

When was your last voyage?

After the war was over in Europe, on the SS Thomas J. Walsh; I was Master of the vessel. We were not in a convoy. We left Charleston, South Carolina, on May 24, 1945; the journey lasted until January 18, 1946. We sailed to Gibraltar, then to ports in Italy and France. In Marseille, we loaded military vehicles and armored cars for the Far East and headed to the Panama Canal. While we were en route, the atomic bomb was dropped. We arrived in Japan in October 1945 and stayed in Yokohama Bay for a month, though we never unloaded our military supplies. Eventually we sailed back through the Panama Canal to Philadelphia, then to Norfolk, where the military supplies were unloaded.

Did you get any citations?

The Merchant Marine Emblem, the Atlantic War Zone Bar, the Pacific War Zone Bar, the Mediterranean Middle East War Zone Bar, the Victory Medal, the Combat Bar with two stars, the Honorable Service Button, and the Presidential Testimonial Letter by President Harry Truman. In 1995 I was awarded a Russian commemorative medal called the 50th Anniversary of the Victory in the Great Patriotic War.

After the war, you went to MIT. Did the GI Bill cover that?

No. Merchant Marine seamen were not included in the GI Bill. In 1988 a law was passed that finally gave us official discharge papers and access to Veterans Administration medical care.


Originally published in the April 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.