Editor's note: This is the second of a series. Part one began on Oct. 27.
Making the choice
When one of Albert M. Olmstead's employers passed away, Olmstead had to make a choice. The farms were getting smaller, and deferments were getting more and more rare. The Merchant Marines became an appealing option. Being in the Merchant Marines meant good pay with benefits, seeing the world and helping troops in need. Choosing the Merchant Marines over the Army was a no-brainer for Olmstead; however, he knew nothing of the dangers of sailing the Atlantic when the world was at war.
Albert M. Olmstead, Merchant Marine
Because of his life of working and playing outdoors, Olmstead passed the physical fitness tests with flying colors. He also scored high on the seamanship tests. With visions of sailing the world on one of the Merchant Marines' new ships, Olmstead was soon off to eight weeks of training in Sheepshead Bay.
When he'd completed his training, Olmstead held in his hand his Merchant Marines license. This document allowed him to travel to Los Angeles, Boston or Philadelphia, or to stay in New York, and put his name on a board. Once a Merchant Marine's name was selected, he would be assigned to a ship and told his departure date. However, no information was shared about the ship's cargo, travel route or destination. These things were kept secret to help ensure safe deliveries of supplies to troops. The enemy would love nothing more than to get ahold of those ships' plans and sink them, leaving Allied troops without things like food, clothing and ammunition.
Before signing onto his first mission, Olmstead was told to head west because many merchant ships were gathering for large convoys. He had earned a 10-day leave, so he went home for a quick visit before taking a five-day bus ride to Los Angeles. He had never seen that much of the country before, and he loved meeting new people at every bus stop, hearing their stories.
Olmstead reported to the Merchant Marines docks in the Los Angeles Newport area. He counted 100 ships being loaded, repaired, serviced or setting sail for the Pacific. After Olmstead had handed over his paperwork, a clerk wrote down a dock number on a slip of paper, passed it to Olmstead and told him to report to the captain of the ship that was tied to that dock. No ship's name, captain's name or ship's color was revealed.
He did as he was told, and found that he was assigned to the MV Cape Henry, a diesel-powered ship. The captain told him that he and the rest of the crew would be informed of their cargo and destination once they were safely out at sea. The next morning, the MV Cape Henry set off for Bremerton, Wash., to pick up an Army support group to defend the ship if need be. On the deck sat a 105mm Howitzer and a set of twin 40s. Out in open water, the Merchant Marines watched the soldiers target practice with wooden targets they pulled behind the ship.
The crew was advised that they were headed for Okinawa, Japan. It had been taken by the U.S. Marines at a very high cost. Almost 12,000 men had lost their lives. The island had been a crucial win because of its airstrips. Large bombers could land there, which would help the Allies invade Japan's mainland.
After unloading at Okinawa, Olmstead and his fellow Merchant Marines sailed again and docked at Honolulu, Hawaii. The deck was cleared, then loaded with half tracks, 6x6s and ammunition, food and mail. No destination was given, as usual. The next day, at sea, the men learned that they were headed for Enewetak in the Marshall Islands. After that, the remaining cargo was unloaded at Ulithi.
On June 18, 1945, the Cape Henry was to meet up with the largest convoy being formed. It consisted of Merchant Marines ships and Navy vessels. The ships would be loaded with supplies and ammunition to stock troops so that the Allies could invade Japan's mainland. The Cape Henry arrived at Okinawa, her crew ready to do their part in an invasion that would decide the war's end.
The sun shown brightly on the morning Olmstead learned the United States had dropped a bomb like no other on Hiroshima. This new type of bomb was so devastating that it wiped out the entire Japanese city. Civilians were evaporated where they stood, and for miles the bomb's fallout coated the city and its suburbs in a heavy death blanket. A few days later, another atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Radiation poisoning killed thousands more people for years to come. The dropping of these bombs remains a controversial topic to this day, but at the time, U.S. President Harry Truman made that choice to end the war that brought our boys home in body bags every day, leaving mothers without sons and making sad widows of young wives.
With the world finally at a hard-won peace, Olmstead headed for San Francisco. It was Nov. 20, 1945, and he was on leave. He was 19 years old, he had seen much of the world, and he was glad to have his feet back on U.S. soil. He celebrated Christmas in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and from there went to Chicago. He made it home and then spent the next 10 days telling stories of his life at sea and of islands in the Pacific that no one in Chautauqua had ever heard of.
Soon, a call came and Olmstead learned what his next duty station would be. He went to New Jersey and a shell tanker, the S.S. Mammoth. That ship was longer and wider than any military ship Olmstead had ever seen. She was a super tanker, carrying various fuels, and she was on her way to Houston, Texas. On the way there and back, the ship stopped at various distributors, and Olmstead was happy to see more of the United States. He spent his last few trips on smaller ships, and finished his career sailing from Cleveland to Buffalo. Even though he wasn't out on the Ocean or headed for the Pacific Islands, Olmstead had some memorable trips on the waters of Lake Erie.
Next week: Part three.