Merchant seamen dedicate Vancouver memorial, recall WWII ordeals

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter


photo About 9,000 merchant seamen died during World War II.


Did you know?

The Merchant Marine is a civilian auxiliary of the U.S. Navy. It is not a uniformed service, except in time of war, when its sailors are considered military personnel. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill granting veteran status to Merchant Marine members who served in war.

Thirteen World War II merchant seamen gathered Wednesday to honor the thousands of sailors who have lost their lives on wartime waters.

One of them was a shipmate of Tauno Alanko.

The Vancouver veteran was a crewman on the Star of Oregon, built by the Kaiser shipyard in Portland and the first Liberty ship launched on the West Coast. After taking on cargo in South Africa -- including 1,600 pounds of gold dust -- the Star of Oregon was on a zigzag course in the Caribbean on Aug. 30, 1942.

It was a target-rich environment for the German "undersea boats" known as U-boats, and a bad neighborhood for an unescorted ship.

While scanning the horizon, "you could see smoke from other ships that had been hit," Alanko said, after the Merchant Seaman Memorial dedication on Vancouver's Veterans Affairs campus.

Alanko was on deck, at the end of his watch, when the captain called for more speed.

"There was a big flash, and I thought the boilers blew up" from the strain, he said.

It was a torpedo from the U-162, hitting the starboard side of the ship at the No. 4 hold. One crewman had been sleeping on

the hold's hatch cover, and the blast blew the cover into the ocean.

After abandoning ship, the 52 survivors were in four lifeboats when the U-boat surfaced. The German commander wanted to know if everybody had gotten off the sinking Star of Oregon, and asked a few more questions.

Then, Alanko recalled, the U-boat commander told the men in the lifeboats: "'Have a good voyage, boys.'"

The survivors looked for their missing shipmate, but couldn't find him. A plane spotted their lifeboats the next afternoon. A ship picked them up a few hours later and transported them to Trinidad.

The Star of Oregon sailor was one of at least 9,000 merchant seamen killed during an ocean conflict that almost brought WWII to America's beaches.

"People could stand on shore in New Jersey and watch U-boats sink our ships," said Bill Hughes of Vancouver, one of the featured speakers.

Bob Roberts, another featured speaker, heads an Oregon chapter of Merchant Marine veterans; he grew up in Vancouver.

"I would have been in Vancouver High School's Class of 1944," said Roberts. However, he went to work in 1942 at Kaiser's Vancouver shipyard, which turned out Liberty ships.

He wanted to enlist in the Navy but was too young. Roberts was able to join the Merchant Marine at 171/2, he said.

After serving on a seagoing tug, Roberts' next assignment was aboard a Liberty ship.

Roberts said he told himself: "I sure hope it's not one that I built."

While U-boats took a huge toll on ships and sailors, Lloyd Englert said his transport came under air attack after arriving at Okinawa. Japanese kamikaze pilots sank or damaged dozens of U.S. ships in that extended battle.

"We had to cover the hatches, and when the attack was over, we'd uncover the hatches and start unloading again," the Vancouver veteran said.

Englert's ship, by the way, was transporting 9,500 tons of ammunition.

"We didn't think about it," Englert said. "We were all invincible."

Roberts' Liberty ship also wound up at Okinawa, but his time there wasn't quite as dangerous.

"It was the end of the war, and nobody wanted our cargo," Roberts said. "We were anchored for 144 days."

Tom Vogt: 360-735-4558;;