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News / Life / Clark County Life

‘I would do it all again’: Vancouver WWII veteran of Merchant Marines invited to 80th anniversary of D-Day in France

Julian “Thorne” Hilts, now 95, signed up at 16 because because he was too young to join the Navy

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian staff writer
Published: May 23, 2024, 6:07am
7 Photos
World War II veteran Julian &ldquo;Thorne&rdquo; Hilts displays a photo of himself when he was a commissioned Navy officer.
World War II veteran Julian “Thorne” Hilts displays a photo of himself when he was a commissioned Navy officer. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Many fought hard on the front lines of World War II and paid the ultimate price.

Many also labored behind the scenes to keep those front-line soldiers alive, fed, supplied and fighting the good fight. Their job was less celebrated, less glamorous and supposedly less dangerous — but many of them paid the ultimate price too.

Of the 243,000 or so civilian Merchant Marines who sailed the world and worked for victory more or less invisibly during World War II, 9,521 died, according to the National World War II Museum. That makes the Merchant Marine the military branch with the highest casualty rate of the war, roughly 4 percent.

Julian “Thorne” Hilts knows that statistic all too well — and he teared up while explaining it to The Columbian recently.

“I don’t know if people know how hard we worked to keep things working,” Hilts said. “I would do it all again.”

Hilts said he signed up for duty as a 16-year-old Merchant Marine in 1944 because he was too young to join the U.S. Navy without lying about his age. He spent the rest of his working life building and engineering ships all over the world, both in war and in peacetime.

Now 95, Hilts has been invited to attend the 80th anniversary on June 6 of the pivotal D-Day landing on the north coast of France. He will travel with his companion Karen Hall, a fellow resident of Vancouver Pointe Assisted Living.

“I am humbled, and I am grateful to be invited,” Hilts said when The Columbian visited him a few weeks ago. “It means a great deal to me.”

Naval family

Six-year-old Hilts was adopted by his aunt and uncle after his mother died. He grew up on a farm west of Yakima in a community that was barely more than a wide spot in the road, he said.

When he was only 15, Hilt’s adopted older brother, who was graduating from Stanford University, enlisted in the U.S. Navy. The Navy was a family tradition, Hilts said.

“If he goes, I go,” is what Hilts thought. But no military service would take him at that age. Still, his father — who apparently had no compunction about sending his teenage son off into the unknown during wartime — facilitated his enlistment in the Merchant Marine.

“They needed personnel that bad,” Hilts said. “The same day that I signed up, I was on a ship.”

Starting as an engine room wiper and quickly rising to engineer, Hilts sailed on numerous vessels during wartime, including the tanker USAT George F. Downey, the repair ship SS William F. Fitch, the hospital ship Hope and the troop transports USS General LeRoy Eltinge and USNS General Hugh J. Gaffey.

The wartime job that sticks most in Hilts’ mind is raising a Japanese warship that sank in the middle of the main harbor of Manila, capital city of the Philippines. The sunken ship made the whole port virtually unusable, he said. It was the job of 109 Army and Navy technical experts, supported by 56 Merchant Marines like Hilts, to figure out how to move it.

It took about three weeks of resourceful jury-rigging to seal the sunken ship’s hull just enough so it would float when air was pumped inside of it. The ship was guided carefully upwards with cables, moved to the side and sunk again, he said.

That work was underway when Hilts and repair-ship colleagues first learned about the massive D-Day operation to invade German-occupied France. Since communication was slow in those days — and the D-Day invasion was, by design, a supremely well-kept secret — Hilts and his shipmates learned about the invasion just after it happened on June 6, 1944, he said. The news came by shipboard facsimile.

Hilts stayed in the Merchant Marine through 1954. Then he enlisted in the Army and also served as a commissioned officer in the Navy. He was honorably discharged in 1966. Then he pursued a long civilian career in shipbuilding and engineering for many different companies. He traveled all over the world for years — from Germany to China, from Sweden to Singapore — before settling with his wife, now deceased, in Vancouver.

He said it still thrills him to live so close to the Kaiser shipyards of Vancouver and Portland, massive military-industrial operations that helped win the war.

“If it hadn’t been for the shipyards right here Vancouver, who knows?” he said.

Proud veteran

Merchant Marines couldn’t properly call themselves “veterans” until a law changed that in 1987, Hilts said.

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“Roosevelt wanted that, but Truman didn’t sign the law,” he said. “Forty years had to go by. Finally, Merchant Marines veterans were able to get as much respect and honor as the military veterans.”

But it took more years and more legislation to extend full veteran benefits to Merchant Mariners, he said. Hilts received a Congressional Gold Medal in the mail in May 2022, fully 77 years after the end of World War II.

Hilts recently applied to join a donated American Airlines junket to France to attend the 80th anniversary of D-Day. He’ll be joining a group of veterans of all services, plus their companions.

“There will be 70 of us, and each one will have a guardian because of our advanced age,” he said with a grin.

The journey will begin with a welcoming banquet in Dallas. Then the group will take a chartered flight to Paris, where participants can spend two days visiting sites like the Louvre Museum and the Eiffel Tower. Then they’ll travel to Normandy for D-Day commemorative events. A ceremony at the Normandy American Cemetery, where more than 9,000 U.S. service members are buried, is set for June 6.

“When I signed up, I just thought it was the way to serve our country,” Hilts said. “I’m a patriotic person. I wanted to be a part of it.”