NC man seeks recognition for WWII tug boat, barge crews

Don Horton of Camden believes the thousands of people who worked on tugs and barges carrying supplies between U.S. ports during World War II should get credit for serving their country

mquillin@newsobserver.comSeptember 7, 2012 

They didn’t cross the ocean; they didn’t get medals; they didn’t even get uniforms. But a North Carolina man believes the thousands of people who worked on tugs and barges carrying supplies between U.S. ports during World War II should also get credit for serving their country.

“No one’s ever recognized these people,” says Don Horton of Camden, who was a young boy when he was drafted to work on the barges, not by the government, but by his father, who captained a series of the vessels. Three of Horton’s siblings went, too, along with their mother, who served as cook, nurse and deck hand under difficult and sometimes dangerous conditions.

Once the United States entered the fight in 1941, the nation’s coastlines became busy thoroughfares, with ships hauling troops and equipment to and from theaters of war. To support the Naval fleet, the government called into service private vessels, whose civilian crews were exposed to the same risks as they crisscrossed the oceans in support of the war effort. Some 7,000 were killed when their ships wrecked or were sunk by enemy fire.

Those ocean-going members of the U.S. Merchant Marine and the U.S. Army Transport Service who were at sea during World War II were recognized as veterans in 1988 after a court battle, and were offered veterans benefits. Such mariners could prove their eligibility by presenting shipping and discharge forms, ships’ logbooks, or company letters showing vessel names and dates of voyages.

But at the same time those ships plied the oceans, smaller vessels were needed to run between U.S. ports picking up and delivering coal, metal, cotton, lumber and other supplies and raw materials.

Continuous trips

The tugs and barges put to work at this task included many that had been retired or left to rust on river banks, resurrected and then sometimes manned by people who were too old – or too young – for regular military service. Often, the crews consisted of families such as Horton’s, who lived and worked together on different barges for weeks at a time.

Horton was 10 years old, a fourth grader in Elizabeth City, when he first went to work on a barge in the summer of 1942 with his siblings and parents, Sadie and Capt. William Lee Horton. They ran between ports in North Carolina and went as far north as Maine, mostly carrying coal from Norfolk.

“We could usually make a round trip in a week, but the trips were continuous,” Horton recalls. “As fast as we could make one, there would be a tug waiting for us to go get another load.”

Living conditions on the barges were primitive, Horton says: no electricity, no plumbing, limited quarters.

Life on the tugs was only slightly better, he reckons, and yet hundreds of families worked on the tugs and barges – at least 10,000 people, according to his research. Sometimes, a couple of barges would tie up together while waiting for the next load, allowing the couples and their children to visit.

Horton’s older brother, William, was killed while working as a crew member on a tug boat after leaving the employ of their father. William was aboard the steam tug Menominee, which was pulling three barges when it was chased by a German U-boat and torpedoed near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay on March 31, 1942. In all, 16 of the tug’s 18 crew members died.

After the war, Horton continued working with his father during the summers between school years, and later went into the U.S. Coast Guard, so he already has veteran status.

But it bothers him that so many of those who worked as merchant seamen – many of them women – during World War II were never recognized for it, even after the 1988 ruling, because they didn’t have the paperwork the government required. In the hectic days of the war, most of them never got such papers, he says, and now the shipping companies they worked for are out of business, the log books lost or incomplete because of security issues during the war.

An overlooked subject

“It’s an interesting subject that’s been overlooked by historians,” said Raleigh author Kevin P. Duffus, who has researched and written about World War II maritime events. “And I think the desire to get some sort of recognition and thank-you from the government is valid.

“Having said that, there were lots of people – thousands – who served in various capacities as civilians and volunteers in the war effort who probably also deserve recognition.”

Horton is 80 years old. At this point, he figures fewer than 500 people are still living who crewed the barges and tugs that helped the Allies win the war. He wants to find as many as he can.

He has also asked Congress to relax the standard of proof for this segment of merchant mariners, accepting Social Security documents showing they were paid for this work during wartime, along with sworn statements that they performed the work honorably.

Democratic Congressman G. K. Butterfield of Wilson has sponsored a bill, H.R. 1288, that would make such a provision. It has more than 100 co-sponsors from the two parties, including Republican Walter Jones of Farmville.

For the current session, the bill appears to be stuck in a subcommittee, but Butterfield’s office said Friday that he will introduce it again next year if necessary.

Charles A. Lloyd of Rolesville, who served in the U.S. Navy Armed Guard during the war, has been trying to help Horton with his research, because he believes the work the tug and barge crews did was as essential as any other.

“They’re entitled to recognition as much as the rest of the Merchant Marines,” he said. “If it weren’t for the Merchant Marines, you couldn’t have got the troops overseas, you couldn’t have got the machines overseas, you couldn’t have got the supplies overseas.

“It was a combination of everything, of everybody working together.”

Quillin: 919-829-8989

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