Harold Wise had no idea what he was getting himself into. Neither did the American people living along our coastlines.
In the 1940s, World War II seemed distant to both; the danger far away across two oceans. Even now, when you go to Destin or Jacksonville, Florida, and look out over the water, you can’t imagine either the Gulf or the Atlantic ever being scarred by war—but they were.
National Geographic said more than 20 German submarines roamed the Gulf of Mexico during World War II. The American people weren’t told of the danger “for fear of spreading panic.”
Harold Wise definitely didn’t know.
Born in 1925 in Alabama, Wise received a letter from President Roosevelt in 1943 that read, “Greetings.” It then told Wise where to report. He’d been drafted.
Wise was 18 at the time, but the letter surprised him. “Farmers had been exempt,” he said.
Wise grew up a sharecropper’s son, picking cotton during the Depression. His family lived for 13 years just south of Opp, Alabama, with nothing but a mule and a wagon. They worked another man’s land, exchanging part of their crop for seed, tools, food, and a place to live.
As a result of Roosevelt’s greeting, Wise joined 227 men who were loaded onto two buses at Opp and sent to Fort McClellan in northern Alabama for a medical exam.
“We were mostly farmers,” he said, “And some idiots who didn’t know their names. They were rejected pretty quickly.”
After the exam, those who’d passed were told to go home and not marry because they could be called up at any time. In 1944, Wise decided not to wait. He traveled with a buddy to Mobile, Alabama, and joined the Merchant Marine.
Wise would find out only later that he’d chosen the most deadly job in the war. He explained that the Germans were determined to keep fuel and equipment from reaching Great Britain and later Russia. National Geographic reported that enemy subs in the Gulf were taking out ships “like a turkey shoot.” Apparently, light from nearby towns would silhouette the ships making their efforts easy. In fact, in 1942, just 25 miles off the coast of Louisiana, the enemy sank a Navy ship. More than 70 ships and tankers would be lost to the Germans in the Gulf.
But the Atlantic side was far worse. The Washington Post quotes author Ed Offley who claims German subs “rampaged…the East Coast sinking 226 Allied merchant ships.”
Those terrible casualties were kept a secret until after the war. According to the Smithsonian, the Merchant Marine had the highest casualty rate of the war, mostly in 1942 when ships sailed without protection.
Wise first trained at St. Petersburg, Florida, and remembers the day he was flown from Miami to the Panama Canal for his first trip to the South Pacific.
“April 12, 1945,” he said. “It was the day Roosevelt died.”
Obviously, avoiding detection was the name of the game for the Merchant tankers. The sharecropper’s son soon found himself headed toward the equator.
“We had to travel down there to avoid enemy subs,” he said. Then, once they reached the South Pacific, they’d move in a slow zig-zag formation also to avoid being found by subs.
Wise made two trips across 6,000 miles of ocean. He traveled through the Panama Canal five times. It wasn’t until after World War II that the Merchant Marine retroactively became a full branch of the military. Wise spoke of Eisenhower, who said if it hadn’t been for those who risked their lives to supply the fuel and tanks, the war would never have been won.
After hostilities ceased, Wise returned home and spotted a girl in his church. They’ve now been married over 70 years. He taught Sunday school and served as a deacon for 40 years at Bethel Baptist near Kinston. His favorite verse: “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord’.” Psalm 122:1
The son of a sharecropper was also elected to the Alabama state legislature and as a Geneva County probate judge.
Did the war change him?
“It made me grateful,” Wise said. “I saw a lot that I didn’t know was in the world—the way other people live. I feel lucky to be reared a Christian and to be living in the United States.”
This weekend we celebrate the Fourth with cookouts, baseball, and fireworks. Hopefully, we’ll also remember wars fought and the flag that stood amidst the “rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air.”
We’re the land of the free because of the brave.
Salute a veteran or service member. Do it today.
Copyright © 2019 R.A. Mathews The Rev. Mathews is an attorney, faith columnist, and the author of “Reaching to God.” She can be reached at letters@RAMathews.com.