World War II veteran Clarence Newcomer made nine trips crossing the dangerous Atlantic Ocean as a crew member of three merchant ships carrying troops, tanks, airplanes and supplies to the European war. He considers himself a very lucky man in view of the high casualty rate for merchant ship crew members.
More than two years prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which drew the United States into the war on two fronts, the SS City of Flint was captured in October 1939 by a German warship. By the attack on Pearl Harbor (Dec. 7, 1941) 243 mariners had been lost. During WWII, one in 26 mariners were killed, compared to one in 34 Marines, one in 48 Army combat troops and one in 114 Navy.
“Danger at Sea, How Lucky Can You Be” is the title of Newcomer’s recollection of his experience. Newcomer is among fewer than 5,000 veterans still with us of the 250,000 recruited by the U.S. Maritime Service in WWII. Newcomer’s trans-Atlantic trips were on the SS Marine Robin, SS Helen Hunt Jackson and SS Cornelius Harnett. He served from November 1944 to January 1947 and after the war founded and was president of a Pennsylvania chapter of the American Merchant Marine Veterans.
He was a snowbird before moving to the area and helped John T. “Jack” Schmidt of Murrells Inlet start the S.C. Palmetto Mariners chapter. Schmidt died in 2014 and his son John T. “Tom” Schmidt Jr. of Zebulon, N.C., became president of the chapter. Membership in the AMMV is open to descendants of mariners. “It was a passion of his,” Tom Schmidt says of his dad’s work to gain recognition and benefits for merchant marine crew members.
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“He didn’t talk much” about surviving the sinking of a ship in the South Pacific; “he talked a lot about working for merchant marines.” They were not covered by the 1944 G.I. Bill and were denied education and other benefits until 1988 after three mariners successfully sued the federal government. It’s another shocking injustice of treatment of combat veterans and the battle for recognition continues.
After WWII, Merchant Marines were considered civilians and had to make their own way home. An estimated 9,300 mariners lost their lives during WWII, and 12,000 wounded. In all, 1,500 merchant ships were lost. After his ship sank, Jack Schmidt was in a hospital in Australia. After the war, he managed an estate in New Jersey “and he has never forgotten his fellow mariners,” his son says.
U.S. merchant marines date to colonial times. They run the ships and in war, assist an armed guard of Navy personnel on lightly armed merchant ships. The young Jack Schmidt, joining in 1944, was first a deck hand, then a cook.
Merchant marines now are honored at many memorials including the World War II Memorial in Washington. Daughters of the American Revolution in the Florence area constructed a memorial that was dedicated in 2014.
While Tom Schmidt is rightly proud that his dad’s name is on the monument, “This unveiling is not about dad; it’s really about honoring all merchant marine veterans. The granite marker is on its own path and pad in Warbird Park on the fomer Myrtle Beach Air Force Base.
Former mariner Newcomer approves. “It’s a beautiful monument.”
Merchant Marine Monument unveiling April 8
What | Unveiling of U.S. Merchant Marine Monument
Where | Warbird Park, Farrow Parkway, Myrtle Beach
When | April 8, 10:30 a.m. - 11:30 a.m.
Details | Parking in area adjacent to Warbird Park; drop off passengers on Warbird drive; or park and walk a few yards to monument area. Public seating is limited; those attending are encouraged to bring lawn chairs. U.S. Rep. Tom Rice is the speaker for the ceremony.
The John T. Schmidt South Carolina Palmetto Mariners (American Merchant Marine Veterans) is accepting contributions to help cover the cost of the U.S. Merchant Marine Monument in Warbird Park, Myrtle Beach. Checks, payable to JTSSCPM, may be mailed to: Art Pollari, treasurer; 6001 Kings Highway, Unit 45; Myrtle Beach, SC 29575