North Port, Fla. man sailed Atlantic with Merchant Marines

John Baumer of Willow Creek Apartments in North Port, Fla. looks at a picture of the captured Italian ocean liner Saturno that was converted to a hospital ship he sailed on across the Atlantic four times during World War II. Sun photo by Don Moore

John Baumer went down to the recruiting office in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he grew up to enlist in the Army in 1942 and ended up in the Merchant Marines before he walked out.

“While I was there some officer came in and said to all of us who were about to join the Army, ‘We’ve got an emergency. The Merchant Marines are in desperate need of more men to take troops and supplies to the war zone. Anybody interested in joining the Merchant Marines please step forward.’

“About five of us stepped forward. That’s how I ended up in the Merchant Marines,” the 83-year-old North Port, Fla. man said.

Baumer went to boot camp at the Merchant Marine School at Sheepshead Bay, N.Y. He was trained to be a ship’s cook.

It was summer of 1943 when he made his first voyage to Europe as a cook aboard a liberty ship loaded with 1,000 soldiers.

“On that first voyage we were in a 150-ship convoy out of New York City headed for South Hampton, England. The sea was like glass going over. I don’t know how many times they announced on the ship’s intercom: ‘All lookouts, all lookouts submarine spotted in the area!'”

When that happened Baumer and the rest of the crew manned their battle stations. He was a hot shellman when the shooting started. He threw spent cannon shells overboard while wearing protective gloves.

When a German sub was spotted in the vicinity of the convoy, the accompanying destroyers would begin dropping depth charges to destroy the enemy submarines. As they ran at high speed near their slow-moving charges, trying to protect them from the submerged predator, the destroyers would blow their sirens — woop, woop, woop — which kept sounding as the ship sliced through the sea looking for prey.

“Not a single ship was sunk by the Germans on that first convoy,” he said.

Baumer’s most perilous crossing came while serving aboard the captured Italian luxury liner Saturno, which was converted to a troopship. It wasn’t the war, it was the weather that almost ended his service in the Merchant Marines.

“We had 5,000 troops aboard the liner when we hit a storm in the North Atlantic during the winter. We were two days out of New York headed for England when the storm hit at 2 a.m.,” he said. “The waves were so large they were crashing over the ship’s smokestacks. Everybody aboard thought the ship was going to tip over and sink.

“It came over the loudspeaker aboard ship during the height of the storm, ‘Everybody up, everybody up. Now here this: Everybody get to the other side of the ship as quick as possible!'”

The ship was listing so badly that those aboard the former ocean liner were walking on the bulkheads instead of the deck.

“Finally the ship began to right itself. Eventually it was back on a steady course again. Back to bed we went,” he said.

Baumer is the Merchant Mariner with the skull cap on at the far right in the second row. This was the winning crew in a sailboat race he was involved in at one point during the Second World War. Photo provided

When D-Day,  June 6, 1944, arrived Baumer was aboard a liberty ship off the coast of Normandy delivering troops to the invasion beaches.

All the while the sky was full of Allied air power.

“As we left South Hampton we started hearing our bombers flying over the fleet on their way to France. You couldn’t see the sky, and you couldn’t hear yourself talk because of all the bombers.

“There were thousands of ships in that invasion. We sailed out of South Hampton with 1,000 soldiers aboard our liberty ship,” he said. “British Spitfire (fighters) were flying cover for us on the trip across the English Channel. When we reached the French coast, we dropped boarding nets over the side of our ship, and the soldiers went down the side into landing crafts and headed for shore.”

Baumer made 10 complete trips across the North Atlantic to Europe and back to New York City. Four of those voyages were aboard the captured Italian liner that by that time had undergone a second metamorphosis from a troopship to a hospital ship called the USS Francis Slage, named after the first American nurse killed in World War II.

“We took wounded troops from the Battle of the Bulge from England back to the USA. I was assigned to the gangplank when the injured soldiers first came aboard,” he said. “They brought all of these soldiers aboard with one arm off or one leg off. Or in some cases they could have both their arms and legs off.

“Some of them were blind and others were shell-shocked. Some of the violent shell-shocked soldiers they led aboard ship with a noose around their necks on a long pole. That way, if they got violent they could restrain them.

“When the ship entered New York Harbor, I went up on deck. I could hear a woman saying, ‘Oh yes, we’re coming into port . There’s the Statue of Liberty. Now we’re going under the Brooklyn Bridge. Off in the distance are the big buildings in New York City.’

“I wondered what was going on, so I walked around the ship’s bulkhead to see for myself where the voice came from. There was one of the nurses with eight or 10 young teenage servicemen and they were all blind. She was explaining to them what she saw as the liberty ship came into port .

“I thought to myself, ‘What’s better? To come back blind or lose an arm or leg in the war?’ I decided I’d rather lose an arm or a leg than my sight,” he said. “It was so sad to see these 18 or 19-year-olds who would never see again.”

When the Germans surrendered in May 1945, Baumer was aboard a liberty ship loaded with soldiers in South Hampton when they received word that their convoy would sail for the Pacific Theater of Operations.

On their way to the Pacific, the troop ship had just passed through the Panama Canal when word was received that the Japanese had surrendered.

“I’ll never forget that day. It was my daughter, Carole’s, second birthday,” he said.

Their ship and the rest of the convoy was ordered to return to its home port. In his case it was New York City.

“You talk about a celebration aboard ship. You’ve never heard so much noise with everybody yelling and all the ships’ whistles blowing,” Baumer recalled. “When we arrived back in New York, the party started all over again. Tugboats were squirting water into the air, bands were playing and everything was happening. Anything went.”

U.S. Merchant Marine Anthem

Heave ho, my lads, heave ho

It’s a long, long pull with our hatches full,

fighting the treacherous foe.

Heave ho, my lads, heave ho,

Let the sea roll high or low,

We can cross any ocean, sail any river,

give us the goods, and we’ll deliver.

Damn the submarines,

we are the men of the Merchant Marines .

This story first appeared in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, Dec. 10, 2006 and is republished with permission.

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