November 08, 2006
The memories of World War II are vivid for Westhampton Beach resident Vincent Sweeney, 81. He served his days as a United States Merchant Marine during World War II, at the age of 18.
Many believe that members of the United States Merchant Marine, such as Sweeney, were the unsung heroes of World War II. Trained by the military, Merchant Marines served the nation with as much pride and valor as any drafted or enlisted member of the United States Armed forces. And, like their fellow servicemen, they died in the name of honor. But, for decades after the war ended, members of the Merchant Marine were denied benefits until Congress awarded them veterans' status in 1988.
Sweeney's brother-in-law, Donald, was a Merchant Marine killed in the line of duty. Because he had a slight stutter, he was turned away from an Army career. "He joined the Merchant Marine, and was dead within the year."
The young man was a victim of "wolf packs running wild," a group of U boats that would lie in wait and attack approaching convoys.
Later in the war, he said, the military was able to contain the wolf packs, protecting the convoys with escort ships.
According to the War Shipping Administration, the U.S. Merchant Marine suffered the highest rate of casualties of any branch of service in World War II. Officially, a total of 1554 ships were lost or sunk, including 733 ships or over 1000 gross tons.
But, even knowing his brother-in-law's fate, Sweeney signed on for his own stint in the Merchant Marine. "When you're young like I was in 1943, you have no fear. War didn't bother me."
Sweeney said he did not flinch, even when his ship headed into dangerous territory and he was forced to carry his life jacket with him in case the vessel was torpedoed. "I had a sense of adventure."
And he had pride. "The Merchant Marine was an extremely vital part of the war effort."
One of eight children, Sweeney was instilled with allegiance to the flag at an early age. "There was a feeling that it was our duty to protect the country."
In fact, Sweeney followed in his siblings' footsteps: His brother Alfie served in the U.S. Army — he was awarded the bronze star after his artillery unit of 155 mm guns, mounted on Sherman tanks, battled German Panzer tanks in the streets of Aschen. Sweeney's brother, Robbie, and sister, Peggy, served in the U.S. Army Air Force, and his brother, Johnny, was a U.S. Navy man.
As a Merchant Marine, Sweeney lived a vital chapter of world history. "The blackout was on in London and at night, we could hear the bombing occurring and the German planes coming over; the searchlights were going." Fortunately, his ship was never hit, and Sweeney was never injured.
After the war ended, Sweeney traveled between Australia and the Persian Gulf on a tanker, the S.S. Lost Hills, transporting gasoline. Later, Sweeney passed the Coast Guard test for pilots in New York harbor, to handle ships of unlimited tonnage, and got a job as a pilot of a fireboat.
In 1966, Sweeney began "moonlighting" with the military sealift command as a relief officer. After working as a pilot with the fire department until his retirement in 1979, Sweeney went full-time with the military sealift command on their ocean-going ships.
In 1991 Sweeney heard the siren song of another war calling him into service. The time was right — his two children, Patricia and Vincent, were grown, and his first wife, Mary, had died. He shipped off to the Persian Gulf and served as a Merchant Marine during Desert Storm; he eventually returned home and retired at the age of 65.
The current war in Iraq brings the importance of Veterans Day into greater focus for those who are serving and have served. Sweeney believes the extensions of this war, namely the recent verdict sentencing Saddam Hussein to death for war crimes, will exacerbate the situation.
"I think they should hide him away and give him life imprisonment," he offered. Should Hussein be killed, Sweeney predicted severe repercussions and civil unrest from irate Sunnis.
On Veterans Day, Sweeney and his current wife Alice, will say a prayer for troops stationed overseas.
Remembering his own war experiences, Sweeney said, "I would do it all over again — absolutely."