John Andresen of Punta Gorda, Fla. served in the U.S. Merchant Marines during World War II. He is proud of his service to his country.
“The Merchant Marines had the highest casualty rate of any service in the Second World War, higher than the Marines,” the 83-year-old said. “The Marines lost one man for every 37 Leathernecks and the Merchant Marines lost one for every 26 men.”
Andresen was working as an engine wiper on a tugboat in New York Harbor shortly after graduating from high school in 1944. The tug docked at Staten Island, where he grew up.
“I didn’t want to go in the Army because I didn’t want to kill anybody. Because I had poor eyesight, I couldn’t get in the Navy, Air Force or Marines either. After working on the tug for a couple of weeks, I got a letter that got me into the Merchant Marines,” he explained.
“I went to sea aboard the Paul H. Harwood, a 600-foot tanker. Again, I was a wiper in the engine room. We sailed to Beaumont, Texas, and brought a load of crude oil back to a refinery in New Jersey.”
With money in his pocket from his first trip to sea, Andresen took his 1929 Indian motorcycle and went tooling around Staten Island until he had an accident. He had some minor injuries. The skipper of the Harwood wouldn’t let him sign up for another trip aboard the tanker.
“A week later I took off my bandages and put Band-Aids on my cuts and signed up aboard the E.T. Bedford, an old World War I tanker built by the Germans and confiscated by the Americans as reparation after (World War I),” he said. “On Aug. 29, 1944, we sailed the Bedford from Bayonne, N.J., to Aransas Pass, Texas, and back to Baltimore, Md., with a cargo of crude oil.
“When I returned to New Jersey there was the SS Paul H. Harwood in port. She had taken a torpedo in the engine room. I believe that was my personal miracle, because that is where I would have been working and I would have been dead,” he recalled.
On the next trip, Andresen and the Bedford were headed from New Jersey to Pearl Harbor with a ship full of No. 4 fuel oil. The crew thought the Navy would take possession of their ship when they arrived, but it wanted nothing to do with the old German WWI tanker, because all of the instruction on its gauges were in German.
“The U.S. Navy couldn’t figure out how to operate the ship. We had a Norwegian and a Swedish sailor aboard ship who could read German. After the oil was unloaded at Pearl, we were sent to Cartagena, Colombia, for another load of fuel oil that we took back to New York,” he said.
On the next trip aboard the Bedford, the German tanker was headed for Venezuela, but a 5-foot seam opened in the bottom under the engine. It took five bilge pumps to keep the ship from sinking until they could make it back to the Port of New York for repairs.
After reaching port, Andresen signed aboard the SS Chatterton Hill and headed for Oran, North Africa, with 20 P-51 Mustang and P-47 Thunderbolt fighter planes and 140,000 barrels of aviation gasoline aboard ship. It was February 1945.
“When we sailed into Oran, we saw the entire French Navy sunk in the harbor. Years later, I read that Prime Minister Winston Churchill had flown to Paris to plead with the French to send the French fleet to England,” he said. “They refused, and the English Navy in the Mediterranean sunk the French fleet.
“We tied up beside the great French battleship Joan of Arc. It was blasted to pieces and burnt,” Andresen said.
When they left the Port of Oran, the Chatterton was accompanied to the open sea by a destroyer escort. Just before they sailed, the ship’s captain was told they had sailed through a mine field at the mouth of the harbor coming into port.
“They took the planes off the ship in Oran and we were on our way to Alexandria, Egypt, and on to Chittagong, Burma, by way of Madras, India, where we unloaded half our aviation fuel so we could make it up the river to Chittagong,” Andresen said. “The fuel was destined for the Flying Tigers (Col. Claire Chennault and his three squadrons of American pilots flying P-40 fighters against the Japanese in WWII).”
The ship headed back to Madras to take on 7.7 million gallons of gas. The Chatterton was taking the place of another tanker that had been attacked by a sub and destroyed at sea, killing all 48 men aboard. On their way to Abadan, Iran, they also ran into an enemy sub and when general quarters was sounded, Andresen found himself setting the timers on the nose of the 5-inch shells they were firing at the submarine.
Andresen developed appendicitis aboard ship and wound up in a British hospital in Trincomalee, Ceylon, for two weeks recovering. When he went back to sea he signed aboard the tanker Cape Constantine in Colombo, Ceylon, that was en route to Cape Town.
“We were in the Indian Ocean headed for Cape Town when a big wave hit the Cape Constantine and cracked it in two,” Andresen said. “It was cracked all the way across the main deck, but it didn’t break in two. We pulled into Cape Town for repairs. We were there when V-J Day (Victory over Japan) happened.”
After the repairs were made, Andresen and the Constantine sailed back to the states, and he took the SS Evans Creek, another tanker, out of Los Angeles, Calif., for Yokosuka, Japan, on Dec. 8, 1945.
“We were in Sasebo, Japan, near Hiroshima. I got to see what was left of the city (after the atomic bomb was dropped). I didn’t believe what my eyes were telling me. There was nothing left and nobody was around. It was a ghost town,” Andresen said.
After he returned to New York, he got out of the Merchant Marines and went to work for the New York Port Authority.
“I was a foreman for the authority for 28 years. The authority owned and operated most of the bridges, tunnels, airports and New York Harbor,” he said. He and his wife, Elsie, moved to Punta Gorda in the 1990s after Andresen retired.
“I had 52 marvelous years with my wife, but she died in January 2004, the same year Hurricane Charley blew down my house. It was a bad year,” Andresen said. “However, we have four wonderful children with four happy marriages and 10 wonderful grandchildren, and they’re all happy, too.”
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2009 and is republished with permission.
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