Reflecting upon his 12-and-a-half year career as a U.S. Merchant Marine, John Paul Nowak cited a quote from Gen. Douglas MacArthur as a badge of honor for his military unit:
“I hold no branch in higher esteem than the United States Merchant Marines.”
Born Nov. 9t 1927, Nowak was raised in Little Falls, Minn., the middle child of seven siblings, all boys – and all veterans themselves.
“When I graduated high school, I wanted to follow in the footsteps of my four older brothers,” Nowak said.
“They were all World War II veterans; three served in the army, and one (Clarence, or “Jack,” as he prefers) was in the Merchant Marines, enlisting in 1939.”
As for the remaining two siblings, “My two younger brothers followed in our footsteps as well. One joined the Air Force, and the other enlisted in the Navy.”
Only one of the brothers was injured during their respective tours, having been shot in the leg during a campaign in Italy. But all seven brothers returned home safely.
On the eve of his high school graduation in 1945, Nowak and the rest of America had no knowledge of the foreseeable end of World War II. And that was precisely why he wanted to serve.
“When I signed up, the war was still going on, and besides the mounting U.S. victories, there was no end in sight. I wanted to fight for my country, simple as that.”
Yet, when deciding which branch of the military he would like to serve with, Nowak observed his old brothers’ exploits and decided that the Merchant Marines was the right choice for him.
“I was initially undecided as to where exactly I wanted to serve,” said a smiling Nowak. “Frankly, I didn’t want to serve in the Army because I didn’t like the idea of sleeping in a foxhole. My brother, the Merchant Marine, got to sleep in a bed every night, barring his ship not being blown to bits of course. And that decided it.”
So, in August of 1945, as the main skirmishes of the war drew to a close, Nowak enlisted in the Maritime Service and was flown to Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, N.Y. From there, he underwent four months of training before being sent to Norfolk, Va. and this is where he began his tour of duty.
“I was in the engine room my entire career. Right away, our ship was loaded with 2,500 German POWs, and we returned them home on Jan. 1, 1946. This was my first trip.”
Nowak would make six different trips of a similar nature, departing Norfolk with German POWs and returning to Virginia with 2,500 American GIs each time. All told, he and his fellow Maritime comrades returned 15,000 American soldiers home from their respective missions.
But were the homebound GIs greeted with a hero’s welcome upon their return, like in the movies?
“No, none whatsoever…and we had true heroes on board, some who survived the building of the River Kwai bridge,” Nowak said. “No parades for the GIs or for the Merchant Marines. We just did our job.”
And his “job” was not without peril. “During my first trip overseas, the Atlantic waters were particularly rough. Not to mention we always had to remain wary of any remaining magnetic mines. My older brother Clarence, who served during the height of the war, had to tread particularly lightly. Mines would be submerged 20 or 30 feet down, and should one of our ships travel within proximity, they would latch themselves on, and it would be all she wrote.”
Fortunately, his ship eluded potential catastrophe, and during his first tour of duty he visited Germany, Belgium and France. Ironically enough, a U.S. government gaffe ended his first tenure at sea.
“I was actually drafted by the military while already serving as a Merchant Marine,” exclaimed Nowak with a laugh. “Of course, I was already serving, but I nonetheless had to leave my ship and return home to clean up the whole mess.”
He did indeed return home, but it didn’t last long. Nowak soon departed for the Army Transportation Service, where he served until his patriotic duty ended in 1958, advancing in rank numerous times.
“A year after starting, I was promoted to Junior Engineer. I kept advancing until I finally obtained my certified Engineering license.”
Nowak revealed that the most significant stretch of his career consisted of doing “milk runs” in which his ship would transport food items and goods to places such as Honolulu, Guam and war torn, post-war Okinawa, Japan.
“Japan was badly beat up when we ported there. Sunken ships and destroyed tanks littered the coast line, and it took a long while to clean that stuff up.”
Nowak returned home permanently in 1958, where he used his engineering skills and veteran experience to pursue numerous careers. But competing with other fellow veterans proved to be tough at times.
“Merchant Marines were considered ‘civilians’ by the U.S. military. Because of that, I was often passed up in job opportunities by ex-Army, Navy and Marine men. But through hard work and determination, I ended up doing just fine.”
These days, Mr. Nowak is enjoying the retired life, partaking in hobbies such as golf and tending to his expansive property. But most importantly, Nowak considers himself an “activist” and spends much of his time fighting for the rights of his fellow Merchant Marines.
“The Merchant Marines didn’t achieve veteran status until 1988,” an emotional Nowak revealed. “We can be buried in national cemeteries and receive military burials, but that’s it.”
“I just want our boys to be remembered for their contributions to the War…we deserve it, and my brother Clarence, who is 90 years old and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, deserves it. There aren’t too many of us left to help our cause.”
A recent Rotary club-sponsored “Honor Flight” trip to the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., did much to alleviate Nowak’s feelings regarding the Merchant Marines’ treatment.
“It was an unbelievable experience. For every three veterans we had a “Tour Guardian,” and ours was Larry Burgess. I want to put a plug in for him and personally thank him; he was outstanding and was really great to us.”
As Nowak and his tour group landed in Washington, the response and support they received was overwhelming.
“When we landed, there were two fire trucks spraying water over the airplane in honor of us. Walking through the gate, we were greeted by a mob of people 200 feet long waving American flags and cheering us on. I had tears in my eyes nearly the entire day.”
And that entire day was spent seeing the sites of Washington, including the Iwo Jima exhibit, the Washington Monument, and the Pentagon. However, the place where Nowak’s tour group spent the most time was the World War II Memorial – a sizable part of which was dedicated to the Merchant Marines.
When their day was finally over, Nowak and his group headed back to Charlotte. But their moment was not over yet.
“Landing back in Charlotte, a modest group of people greeted us at the gate,” said Mr. Nowak, before flashing a warm smile. “But when we made it past security, a mob of people, even bigger than the one in Washington, was there to celebrate our return.”
It appears that John Paul Nowak finally received the hero’s welcome that escaped him all those years ago.