John Arens served in the Merchant Marines, Rangers and Navy

John Arens is pictured in his Merchant Marine captain’s dress uniform in the 1970s when he was attached to the U.S. Navy. Note the Combat Infantryman’s Badge on his chest and his jump wings from his service in the Rangers during the Korean War. Photo provided by John Arens

John Arens served as a teenage Merchant Mariner in World War II, become an Airborne Ranger in the Korean War, graduated from diving school in the 1960s, spent 11 years as a Navy SCUBA diver in the Arctic before skippering a Navy spy ship during the Cold War and completed his 40-year military career as the captain of a fast transport ship during “Operation Desert Storm” in 1991.

Arens, who is 83, lived with his wife, Dorothy, at Sandhill Gardens Retirement Home in Port Charlotte, Fla. says he is still fit for his age.

“I can do more than 100 push ups at a time now that I’ve had my back operation,” he said. “When I was 79 I did 420 push ups all at once, waited a few minutes and did 100 more at a time until I got to 1,000.”

John Arens is a remarkable guy.

John Arens is pictured in the water in his wet suit off Tooley, Greenland in 1970 practicing diving under the ice with a buddy. Photo provided

Like when he went back to sea in 1965 after trying an unsuccessful venture as a small businessman.

“I was 39-years-old and went to work for the Military Sealift Command. They were looking for an Arctic SCUBA diver,” he said. “They asked me if I thought I could complete the Navy’s Diving School in Key West. I told them ‘Why wouldn’t I make it? I’m an Airborne Ranger.’

”At the diving school, Navy Seals were our teachers and they were unmerciful to us,” the old salt recalled 45 years later. “The lieutenant at the gate in Key West said, ‘Sir, you’re 39-years-old. You won’t last a week in this school.’

“A Class-A Navy Seal at the diving school take one look at me and screamed, eyeball-to-eyeball, ‘Sir, I have permission to drown you, sir!’

“He proceeded to try and drown me. He made a big mistake, because I could hold my breath longer than he could,” Arens recalled. After graduating, the Seal who had given me a bad time when I first showed up said, ‘You’re 39-years-old and you made fools out of all of us.’”

A polar bear stretches to get closer to a bunch of crewmen aboard a ship in the Arctic. Arens uses the picture to show school children when he talks to them about his time as a Navy diver in the Arctic. Photo provided

Arens, who was still technically in the Merchant Marines but attached to the Military Sealift Command, was assigned to a ship headed for the Arctic as a Navy SCUBA diver. He helped reopen ports every summer along the “Dew Line”—the string of satellite tracking stations across the top of the world protecting the U.S. from incoming enemy missiles.

“Our job was to hook-up all the buoys connected to the underwater fuel pipeline taken out during the winter by the ice. My whole career in the Arctic was making sure these fuel lines were ready to used when the ports reopened in the summer,” he said

“We resupplied the U.S. airbases with fuel from Goose Bay, Labrador all the way up to Tooley, Greenland above the Arctic Circle,” Arens explained. “When a tanker came into the harbor and anchored it pulled in the line attached to the buoy that was hooked to a flexible fuel line they connected to the ship and began pumping their cargo ashore.”

In 28-degree water it was cold, dangerous work. The divers had to keep an eye out for polar bears that might mistake them for seals, one of the carnivore’s favorite meals. There were also leopard seals and killer whales they had to watch out for, too.

On April 2, 1962 John Arens and a bunch of other recruits graduated from the Navy’s Diving School in Key West. He’s the guy behind the diving tanks on the right. Photo provided

Although they dove in less than 75 feet of water, most of the time, it could be treacherous. Visibility was a problem at times and Arens would train his divers on the deck of their ship with masks taped over so they couldn’t see what they were doing.

“The divers wore thick gloves when they were underwater. They had to learn to operate while wearing these gloves and inserting big bolts into a pipeline they were connecting in zero visibility,” he said.

While diving with a new recruit, Arens got trapped on the bottom in a tangle mass of discarded buoy cables. It was a scary situation.

“The guy who went down with me was on his first dive. I told him to stay 20-feet above me while I went down to check out the jumble of wires on the bottom,” he said. “I got underneath the jumble and all the wires fell on me. It took me 20-minutes to dig myself out with the knife we always carried strapped on our right leg.”

Diving in the Arctic was a summertime activity for Arens. During the winter he spent his time aboard a Navy spy ship searching for Russian submarines around the world. During the Cold War he and the spy ship, he ended up commanding, would pick up the sound of an enemy sub underwater hundreds of miles away. They could tell in an instant what ship it was from the distinctive sound its propeller made. He had little to say about these activities.

In 1987 Arens retired from the service. He was 59.

When “Operation Desert Storm” came along in 1991 the Navy called up a number of retired captains including Arens.

USNS Antares

“I got a call from Sealift Command, the voice on the other end asked me if I would skipper the largest ship used in Desert Storm—the 946-foot transport USNS Antares. It kicks up a rooster tail when running at full speed—32 knots,” the caller said. He added, “We need you now!”

“Wait a minute, I’ve got to ask my wife if I can go to sea again,” he recalled with a chuckle. He made one trip to Saudi Arabia with a ship full of Abram tanks and equipment and came home by way of Germany.

Capt. John Arens’  fighting days were over.

Part Two

John Arens joined the Merchant Marines at 17 at the end of World War II. He made a couple of voyages  in a freighter filled with thousands of gallons of high test aviation gasoline before the shooting stopped. That was the start of a military career that would span four decades and encompass three service branches.

“Everyone knew the German sub skippers were told to torpedo the tankers because they were carrying the fuel. We carried 150,000 barrels of aviation gasoline,” the 83-year-old Port Charlotte, Fla. resident explained. “They called us ‘Zippo Lighters’ because of what happened if a German torpedo struck our ship. We’d go up in a ball of flames just like a ‘Zippo.’

Sixty years after the incident, Arens is still sore about what happened to him when the Korean War broke out in the summer of 1950.

“By then I was third officer aboard a tanker when the captain called me into his office aboard ship and told me he had some good news and bad news for me,” he recalled. ‘Give me the good news, first I told him.

“’You get to go home. The bad news is you’ve been drafted into the Army,’ the captain said. In those days, serving in the Merchant Marines didn’t negate your military obligation.

“When I walked into my draft board back home the woman in charge said to me, in front of a bunch of other people, ‘So you’re the Draft Dodger we’ve been looking for!’” I tried to explain to her I had been aboard ship serving in the Merchant Marines when my draft notice arrived at home. She didn’t buy my explanation.

“In the Second World War, men who served in the Merchant Marines were considered draft dodgers by some. Even though percentage-wise those who served in the Merchant Marines during World War II suffered the highest casualty rate of any branch of the armed forces,” Arens explained. “You were still considered a draft dodger if you were in the Merchant Marines during the time of the Korean War, too.

“I had to present my records to the FBI to prove I wasn’t a draft dodger. They said my records showed I was at sea and everything was alright. The FBI told me to report back to my draft board and carry on,” he said.

Arens found himself in the Army a short while later. After graduation from boot camp he and two buddies were sent to a repo depot in Korea.

“I happened to see this wounded guy wearing a black beret while we were in Tokyo waiting to go to war. I walked up to him and said, ‘I didn’t know the French were fighting in Korea.’ He looked at me and said, with a Southern accent, ‘I’m not French I’m from Alabama.’

They struck up a conversation and found out the fellow with the beret was an Airborne Ranger. The injured warrior told the trio if they were willing to jump out of an airplane without any prior training he could probably get them into the Rangers. They agreed to give the elite airborne outfit a try.

“I figured we’d stay alive with the Rangers better than the regular Army. Furthermore, I wanted to get to the front lines and do a little fighting,” he said.

When they met their new Ranger company commander the captain asked the three soldiers, “What Airborne outfit are you men from in the States?’

“We’re not paratroopers. We don’t even know how to put a ‘chute on,” Arens replied.

“’Well what the hell are you doing here’ the captain replied.

At 83 John Arens’ blue blazer is covered with medals and ribbons from the wars and military adventures he’s been involved in during his 40 year military career. He is wearing his Airborne Rangers beret he received when he served in the Army during the Korean War. Sun photo by Don Moore

“I told him we might not know much about jumping out of an airplane, but we understood he needed men right now,” Arens observed. “We’ll jump without any training if you’ll give us a try.

“We were sent to a black Ranger outfit in Korea that was qualifying their men on the parachute jump. When we told the black troops we were gonna jump without any prior training they thought we were nuts,” he said.

Before the day was done Arens and his two buddies jumped three times from the open door of a C-46 transport plane and got their airborne wings. They were officially Rangers.

He was assigned to the 187th Airborne in Japan and became a sergeant. He went to war in Korea with the 187th which was an Army unit. After the war Arens returned to the Merchant Marines.

A decade later he got a call from Military Sealift Command. They were looking for a SCUBA diver who would agree to dive in the Arctic. Since Arens had some shallow water diving experience the Navy got in touch with him.

Even though he was 39-years-old, he finished the Navy’s Diving School in Key West in 1965 and spent the next 11 years as a Navy diver in the summer in the Arctic. In winter he served aboard a spy boat tracking Russian submarines with sophisticated sonar devices.

He retired the first time from the Navy in 1987 after more than 30 years. However, when “Operation Desert Storm” broke out he was called back at 64, to run a high speed transport ship that took tanks and other equipment to the war in Iraq. Before he could go to sea he checked with his wife.

After that he called it quits.

Arens and his wife, Dorothy, lived in Sandhill Gardens Retirement Home in Port Charlotte, Fla. until her death.


Arens’ File

Name: John Arens
D.O.B:  28 Dec 1926
Hometown: Toledo, Ohio
Current: Port Charlotte, Fla.
Entered Service: March 1944
Discharged: 1991
Rank: Captain
Unit: Military Sealift Command
Commendations: Atlantic War Zone Bar, World War II Victory Medal, Honorable Service Button, Presidential Testimonial Letter


All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be republished without permission. Links are encouraged.

This story first appeared in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, May 10 and Thursday, May 13, 2010 and is republished with  permission.

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Captain John Arens has done it all which is obvious from the emblems and ribbons on his chest. He wears the Combat Infantryman’s badge, Aviator’s Wings, Airborne Ranger’s insignia, Diver’s insignia, and ribbons that cover World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and Desert Storm. Photo by Don Moore/Punta Gorda Air Show March 25, 2012.

An animated 85 years young Captain Arens entertains Don Moore at the Florida International Air Show in Punta Gorda  March 25, 2012. Photo by Mary Auenson

Comments

  1. My husband and I met this gentleman yesterday at a local park in PGI. He is an amazing, interesting and very humble man. Our country is a better place for him being in it. It was a privlege to meet him.

  2. This man came aboard the S.S. American Victory Ship, where I work. He was very nice to talk to and had a lot of paperwork.

  3. I Loved when came to our house to see my mother his sister he made us laugh he had more jokes than anybody i ever knew he was a very loving and caring person very proud to be his niece

  4. Has anyone vetted this guy? Seen a DD214? His ribbons are WRONG… Wrong order, wrong attachments, just wrong all over, and blatantly so to ANY real veteran! there is no such badge as a set of jump wings with a “ranger” tab attached to it… And then to have done all this and not have a single bronze star, Army commendation medal, but has 4 Navy commendation medals with the wrong attachments… He says he is authorized a WW II victory medal but it’s not even in his ribbon rack! I smell a complete fraud! There are way too many holes in this story!

  5. The Ranger Jump wing is NOT official, but is in fact sold at Air Shows and etc. Someone needs to see his DD214 because I for one do not believe 98% of what he or this article says.

  6. Also, a military man with that much service time would know how the ribbons should be arranged. Even in the photo of him in his “merchant marine” uniform everything is wrong.

  7. This man is an out and out liar and poser. Nothing in his Uniform is right. He jumped without instructions, no way. I was a Paratrooper and no one jumped without prior training. It just didn’t happen!!!! No such thing as Jump Wings with a Ranger tab.

    • January 23, 2014

      It seems the story I wrote about Capt. John Arens of Port Charlotte, Fla. military service has stirred up a considerable amount of chatter among folks who pride themselves on being experts in U.S. military history and keeper of the keys when it comes to military imposters.

      During the past dozen or so years I have written almost nothing except stories about people who served in the military from WW I to date. Of those 1,000 plus articles possibly a handful—probably five or less—proved to be boogies. That’s a small percentage.

      Capt. Arens was not one of they phony ones. He’s who he says he is and he did what he said he did, as far as I can ascertain.

      His DD-214 notes he served in the United States Coast Guard in 1944 and 45 for 17 months and 17 days. For his service he received: Atlantic War Zone Bar, WW II Victor Medal, Honorable Service Button and Presidential Testimonial Letter.

      He has an Honorable Discharge from the United States Coast Guard dated 25 June 1945.

      His second DD-214 was during the Korean War when he served in the war zone as a U.S. Army Tech Sgt. Under “Decorations, Medals, Badges and Commendations” it notes: CIB, KSM W/3 BCS, UNSM, PRCHT BAD, AOM (JAP), Two O/S Bars.

      He has a certificate from: “U.S. Naval School, Underwater Swimmers, U.S. Naval Station, Key West, Florida.

      It reads: “This certifies that 3rd Off. J.W. Arens, MSTS has, on this 19th day of Mar 1965 satisfactorily completed the four (4) week course of instruction, employing self-contained underwater breathing apparatus, at this command and is qualified as a U.S. Navy SCUBA Diver.

      Signed: C.E. Provaznik, LT. USN Training Officer

      L. Burnham, LT USN, Commanding Officer”

      He has a “Certificate of Retirement from the MILITARY SEALIFT COMMAND, ATLANTIC Presented To: Captain John W. Arens in Appreciation of 26 years of loyal and devoted service, I take grate pleasure in presenting you with this certificate.

      Dated: 9 July 1987

      Signed: T. P. Mc Guire, Captain U.S. Navy
      Commander, Military Sealift Command, Atlantic

      He has a membership card noting: John Arens is a Life Member of:
      187th Airborne R.C.T. Assn.
      RAKKAJANS 95938

      He has another membership card saying he is a member of:

      Worldwide Army Rangers, Inc.
      Member: 20316

      The ribbons and commendations on his uniform include: Korean Service, National Defense Army, Atlantic War Zone, Republic of Korean Service, Korean Defense Service, United Nations Korean Service, Navy Expeditionary, Navy Meritorious Unit Commendation, Overseas Service, 50th Anniversary Korean War, Army Meritorious Service, Navy Arctic Service, Navy Antarctic Service, Coast Guard Arctic Service, Southwest Asia Service, Armed Forces Service and enchant Marine Expeditionary ribbon.

      In addition, his uniform has a Combat Infantryman’s Badge, Army Rangers Badge, Navy Parachute Badge, Navy Diving Officer, Presidential Unit Citation and Korean Presidential Citation.

      He received a letter with the Presidential Seal that reads:

      JOHN WILLIAM ARENS: To you who answered the call of your country and served in its Merchant Marines to bring about the total defeat of the enemy, I extend the heartfelt thanks of the Nation. You undertook a most severe task–one which called for courage and fortitude. Because you demonstrated the resourcefulness and calm judgement necessary to carry out that task, we now look to you for leadership and example in further serving our country in peace.

      Signed: Hough ?????
      THE WHITE HOUSE

      In conclusion he received a certificate from U.S. Senator Bill Nelson (D-Fla.). It reads:

      “Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition presented to John Arens In honor of your service and sacrifice to our great nation as a member of the United States Merchant Marines.

      “November 1, 2010
      Signed: Bill Nelson, United States Senator”

      The fact that Capt. Arens may have his commendations in the wrong order on his uniform or one commendation is not worn if you’re not in the Army but in the Navy might be attributed to the fact that he is 87 years old. There is little doubt in my mind he is who he says he is.

      I would hope the information helps clarify his service career.

      Sincerely,
      Don Moore
      Charlotte Sun
      War Tales

  8. Then he needs to link up with someone that knows how a uniform is supposed to look and get his stuff fixed. That is the damning “evidence”.

    • Captain Arens , in this picture, is in the uniform of the Military Sealift Command. I believe at that time this service was operated by the Department of Commerce or the Maritime Commission not the Navy. If they had any uniform rules they were probably not published and very loose. The awards he is wearing may be those issued by the maritime commission at the time.

      The merchant marine service during WWII lost a higher percentage of ships and men than any of the armed services did. They did this while serving as civilians in a war zone. The government repaid them by refusing to give them veterans status and by closing the Public Health Service hospitals that had given free care the members of the Merchant Marine. Cut this man some slack. He served his country honorably. Find a merchant sailor and ask them about a uniform. They’ll let you know quickly that doing the job is more important than any uniform.

      The merchant marine is not a military force. While the Military Sealift Command is now operated by the navy the U.S. merchant fleet is not. There are no uniform regulations for the merchant marine. Uniform decisions are made by each individual company. The masters and crew of merchant ships are licensed by the Coast Guard but are all civilians.

      There are no specific rules that the military can impose on former military/merchant seaman who choose to wear ribbons that were awarded to them. He is not in a military uniform but a merchant (read civilian) marine uniform and is afforded a wide latitude. If it were not for the men and women of the merchant fleet the armed forces would not have had the supplies that they needed in times of war. One of my uncles had three commercial ships torpedoed from under him during WWII. He tried to join the navy but was told to stay where he was because the country needed merchant sailors to sail the liberty ships in support of Great Britain and there were not enough licensed masters to run the commercial fleets.

      • Pat –
        You make some very valid points, but since Paul Harvey is gone, I will try to tell “the rest of the story”.

        The Merchant Marine performed a very valuable. critical, and danger laden role that contributed to the Allies ultimate victory.

        You wrote, “The merchant marine service during WWII lost a higher percentage of ships and men than any of the armed services did. They did this while serving as civilians in a war zone.” Well……my uncle served on a Merchant Marine ship, as an 18 year old navy gunner assigned to a liberty ship. He made Navy pay while assuming the exact same risks as his fellow MM deckies, that were earning three times his pay. TheMMs were UNION employees that only accepted voyages when they wanted to. They also earned a paid vacation day, for every day they were underway.
        Re-Cap: MM sailors earned six times as much as the Navy sailors on board, and the sailors that escorted and screened their ships.

        You wrote, “The merchant marine service during WWII lost a higher percentage of ships and men than any of the armed services did. They did this while serving as civilians in a war zone.” WW II started two years, and two months before Pearl Harbor. The United States created something called the “Lend-Lease Act” which supplied England and Russia with supplies. These were very dangerous routes for our MMs, that had very little protection against the German WolfPacks of submarines.
        I can’t verify that the MM suffered a higher rate of loss AFTER the U.S. entered the war.

        You wrote, ” The government repaid them by refusing to give them veterans status and by closing the Public Health Service hospitals that had given free care the members of the Merchant Marine.” Well…..Merchant Mariners were members of a highly paid UNION of professionals. Do we owe, for instance, the Electricians Union free health care? Or the Longshoreman Union, that got rich during the war?

        I know I’ve said a lot here, but I want to be clear that I respect the service of our MM’s very much, and we couldn’t have done it without them. Sorry if we disagree on some issues.

        ** I was a soldier and “sailed” home for 35 days from DS. Great people!

      • Thanks, Scott. These questions have been raised in many arenas, including congress in debating giving veteran’s status to Merchant Mariners from WWI and WWII. Below is a cut and paste from a usmm.org of an analysis done by Barron’s. The web address on which other data is listed is usmm.org/salary.html

        Truth About Salaries, the Draft, Unloading Ships, and Court Martials

        Comparison of Income After Taxes– Navy vs Merchant Marine
        Navy personnel were exempt from income taxes, while merchant mariners paid income taxes and “Victory” taxes. Every man serving aboard a merchant vessel, with the possible exception of the master and chief engineer, could earn more money ashore in a shipyard or defense plant without taking the chance of being killed by bombs or torpedoes.

        The following study was done in 1943 by the War Shipping Administration based on actual payrolls in answer to a letter from the American Legion.

        “Mr. Arren H. Atherton, National Commander of the American Legion,
        ‘Your cooperation in dispelling the misconception in regard to merchant seaman’s pay will be greatly appreciated.’
        Admiral Telfair Knight”

        Annual income after taxes (1943) Navy Mariner
        Seaman first class vs. Ordinary seaman $1,886 $1,897
        Petty officer second class vs. Able seaman 2,308 2,132

        Benefits Navy Mariner
        Permanent disability, merchant seaman, value $6,290
        Partial disability, Navy personnel, cash value $11,500
        Death benefit, merchant seaman 5,000
        Death benefit, Navy petty officer third class 468
        Cash value, merchant seaman widow’s pension 0
        Cash value, Navy widow’s pension 15,350-27,000

        The issue in most of the discussions about Capt. Arens isn’t the pay. These men could have made more money working in ship yards than on the open sea. Would you criticize the members of the military who served stateside behind desks? By the way MM’s during WWII were subject to courts of military justice. Even today U.S. merchant mariners are subject to legal prosecution for deserting a ship that they have signed on to serve. Persecutions are now fairly non-existent but are still legally possible.

        We have and the world economy has degraded the USMM to mostly a muddy water service on the rivers and near coastal waters in the oil industry. But I digress. The controversy here has always been about Capt. Arens’s service. He served his country with valor and enthusiasm. He deserves to be congratulated not criticized.

  9. That uniform is a travesty! He’s supposedly very proud of his “service”, however he has no inkling of order of precedence on his medals/ribbons. Nope, it just doesn’t compute.

  10. ANDREW J.MORRISON Punta Gorda Florida

    This man is a blatent phony. After meeting several times with him on visit’s to the Military Heritage Museum in Punta Gorda Florida it became obvious he is a prodigous liar.He even has a pathfinder badge on his uniform as well as Marine jump wings, but has no knowledge of their duties or any knowledge of parachutes or Ranger training. His age is his get out of jail free card,when asked about specifics he just can’t remember he say’s. The U.S. ARMY does not award parachute badges or Ranger tabs or Pathfinder badges to people who do not complete the training. The fact that the Mil;itary Heritage Museum treat’s him as a darling and use’s him as a front man for their attractions will surely come back to haunt them later on, and shame on them for profiting from his Stolen Valor.I believe he was in the Merchant Marine service, but the rest of his stories are all lie’s.

  11. I can tell you this. I was on the USNS Antares with him and he was the Captain.

    There were about 19 merchant Marines, Capt Arens, a female Navy Reserve communications officer, and 100 U.S. Army Supercargo (of which I was one). I am still on Active Duty serving in the U.S. Army.

    The ship did break down not far off the U.S. Coast after leaving the port of Savannah. The ship had two engines that were comprised of glass tubes to make the steam that allowed it to go so fast. Every 10 years or so, the engines had to be “re-tubed”. Well, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, the Antares was on it’s way to be re-tubed. There were only 6 or 7 of these Algol class ships in the inventory, so the Navy took the risk of using it “one last time” to transport the DISCOM and aviation assets of the 24th Infantry Division to Saudi Arabia.

    Long story short, we would break down and the engineers would get the ship running again. This went on for about 5 days, until we finally broke down completely. I recall being told we were not really that far off the Coast of Virginia, but because of operational necessity, we would be towed to Europe … and that’s what happened. The ocean-going tug Apache arrived and towed us to Rota, Spain.

    In Spain, the Algol ship USNS Altaire met us and we offloaded all the cargo to her. It took about 5 days and we departed and completed our journey to the port of Damam/Dahrahn.

    I can’t remember if Capt Arens stayed with the Antares or came with us on the Altaire. Too long ago …

  12. It was a real pleasure meeting Capt Arens today with two of my granddaughters at the Military Museum in Punta Gorda. Although a veteran myself, I couldn’t hold a candle to all his dedicated accomplishments. Today’s generation needs to meet more service people like Capt Arens. They are why America is free today.

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