Merchant Marine veteran was blockade runner in WWII

By Allison Marlow
Posted 6/28/17

At 16, Don Mulhern had already lost two uncles to German forces who sunk their ship 300 miles off the English shore. The men, both Merchant Marines, had volunteered to run the blockade and deliver …

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Merchant Marine veteran was blockade runner in WWII


At 16, Don Mulhern had already lost two uncles to German forces who sunk their ship 300 miles off the English shore. The men, both Merchant Marines, had volunteered to run the blockade and deliver supplies to the island nation.

So, Mulhern went to the Navy to enlist. And the Navy sent him home.

“They said come back in six months when I turned 17. I didn’t have six months. I thought the war was going to be over,” he said.

The Merchant Marines took the high schooler, along with 215,000 others who joined the Mariner program during World War II. About 8,300 were killed during the fighting. Another 12,000 were wounded, 1,100 of those mortally. Men and women, 663, were taken prisoner.

Historians credit the U.S. Merchant fleet as making one of the most significant contributions to the war effort, perhaps in fact, helping to win the war. Merchant Marine ships carried the personnel, supplies and equipment needed at the European front. Without their deliveries Allied forces were limited in movement and capability.

Merchant Marines have a long history of helping to win wars. When the 13 colonies declared their independence, privately owned merchant ships were outfitted as warships to bolster the tiny, new nation. By the end of the war, the Continental Navy had a total of only 64 ships. Another 1,697 private merchant ships fought alongside them.

Mulhern, of Fairhope, enlisted in 1943 at age 16. He passed away last week at age 90. He sat down with Gulf Coast Media just weeks before to talk about his wartime experiences, one of the greatest times of his life, he said.

At age 17, after 16 weeks of training in Sheepshead, N.Y., Mulhern was in charge of the fireroom on a liberty ship.

Liberty ships were an EC2 type ship, designed for emergency construction. Mass produced, the hulls were welded rather than riveted, made of iron rather than steel and built in just four days from pre-fabricated parts.

Each ship was designed to withstand just one trip to the front lines. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt referred to them as “ugly ducklings.”

“I thought they were beautiful,” Mulhern said.

Inside his ship, the teen was in charge of two super steam boilers, 30 feet high with five oil burners that could steam their way to 340 degrees.

“I could blow up the ship if I didn’t know what I was doing. And I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said. “I was scared to death.”

His first night on the ship, Mulhern reported for duty. The fire room watchman stayed with him for the next four hours to teach him the ropes.

“I learned more in those hours than in eight weeks of school,” he said.

In 1944, in Liverpool, England, Mulhern ran into a friend from home who was serving on a liberty ship that had been refitted for the U.S. Navy. Mulhern was anxious to see how the military had changed the hull to fit their needs.

“It was painted. There were no signs of rust. She glowed in the light,” he said. “We had 12 guns, the Navy ship had 36. And they were twice as large as ours.”

In the engine room there were 20 men per watch. Aboard the Merchant Marine ship, three men handled the same spectrum of duties.

“What I did alone, eight men did in the Navy,” Mulhern said. “I thought about how Uncle Sam really was getting his money’s worth from the Merchant Marines.”

On his trips back and forth across the Atlantic, Mulhern’s ship was attacked. He said submariners would dive under convoys of ships and rise between them, blowing up anything in their path.

One time an ammunition ship was torpedoed. “There were still pieces falling from the sky when we passed by an hour later,” he said.

Another time, his ship “tangled with a submarine.”

Did they win?

“I’m still here,” he said with a wink.

When Mulhern and his shipmates went to battle it wasn’t to win land or position. They fought to push the supplies through to Allied troops who needed them.

His was one of the first ships to reach Antwerp after Gen. George S. Patton Jr. opened up the port and seized the estuary. It took two months to secure the key waterway and Mulhern said his ship was hit with nightly air raids. They used the engine room to create mountains of smoke to help mask the ships from Axis pilots.

When they finally entered the city, Mulhern said it was beautiful and somber all at once. There was a carnival and the city was lavishly decorated. At the same time the cathedral was holding round-the-clock funerals for the civilians killed in the fighting.

Mulhern took to the sea for the last time in 1948, after staying with the service once the war ended. He had earned the Merchant Marine Combat Bar, the highest award a member of the civilian service could earn.

Mulhern will be honored by family and friends with a memorial service next month.