War Memories: A Merchant Marine 50 Years Later

  • By Heather MacIntosh
  • Posted 1/01/1900
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 2314

George Lee Madden was born in San Jose, California in 1920, and moved to Seattle with his family in 1922. He has lived in the area ever since. George currently lives in Bow, Washington, and happens to be my [high school student Daniel Wayne's] grandfather. In an interview, we discussed his childhood, and what it was like during the Second World War.

Growing Up on Queen Anne

When he was a kid, he lived on Queen Anne Hill. At the time, Seattle was a completely different city. During the Depression, times were rough, and the city's economy suffered right alongside the rest of the country. In order to make ends meet, George's father went around to old junkyards, and would pull out the intertubes from inside car wheels. He then made rubber bands from the intertubes, and sold them to meat markets. Eventually his business grew, and he began selling other butcher supplies.

When George was young, he would take the streetcars all over the city, "There were three ways to get up Queen Anne Hill," he explained, "and all three involved street cars." One of these ways involved a streetcar on Queen Anne Avenue, which required a counter balance in order to make the steep climb. When the car went up the hill, the counter balance would go down. At the top of the hill were several coal yards, and the trolleys would take the coal up and down the hill.

One thing George and his friends used to do was take the streetcar downtown, to go to Pike Place Market. At this time, (the late twenties, early thirties) people went to the market to do their shopping, "Everybody went down to Pike Place on Saturdays, to do their shopping,"" George said. "All of the shopping was downtown back then." Nowadays, most of the people who go to Pike Place are tourists, and most people just go to grocery stores, but back then supermarkets were far and few between, and things like dairy products and eggs could be delivered to your house.

Later, when George was a little older, in the late 1930s, he attended Queen Anne High School, which is now an apartment building, and was a member of the Navy Reserve. In his last few summers during High School, he spent his time making summer cruises aboard the U.S.S Cincinnati. When his father passed away in 1940, George was forced to walk away from the Reserve, and during the war, an enemy torpedo sank the Cincinnati. "I'm not sure I would have been on board, because the Navy liked to move their personnel around quite a bit, but there certainly was that possibility." After his father's death, George took over the family business, until one fateful day came along, which would change the path of his life.

The News

On December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was bombed, where the United States had their Pacific Fleet stationed. On this day, eight American battleships were destroyed. The next day the U.S declared war on Japan. "It was a typical winter day in Seattle. I remember, I was out in the driveway of our house at 308 Newton Street washing the car, when I heard that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor."

George was not drafted, for the same reasons he was forced to leave the Navy, but instead joined the Merchant Marine. The Merchant Marine consisted of a group of Merchant ships that ferried troops and supplies during wars. However, at the time of World War II, the good ships were sent overseas to Europe, and the rusty hulks were used to transport weapons, munitions, and other supplies to Alaska.

The Merchant Marines

It was on these "junkers" that George served during the war. Japan wanted to take over Alaska, in addition to the South Pacific, so many trips were made to haul supplies up to the barracks and forts to both places, and to places like Anchorage and Cold Bay. Another thing that the Merchant Marines did was lay cable for communication with the British. As the ships would travel, they would trail the cable into the ocean. This cable gave the Allies their own communication line that the enemy could not intercept.

While George himself did not see any action during his time in the Merchant Marines, there were a few ships torpedoed up in Alaska. The bulk of the action seen by the Merchant Marines was from ships on the East Coast. Because they were not that far from Europe, ships from the Eastern Seaboard were sent to Russia and other countries to deliver supplies, and out of ten ships sent at a given time, maybe two would make it past the deadly U-boats.

Back in Seattle, people were terrified that the city would be bombed. The Seattle area was home to Boeing. Boeing was huge during the war, and was manufacturing a great number of the B-17 bombers being used in the effort. As a result, the plant was camouflaged with plywood, so that enemy planes flying over, hoping to blow up Boeing, would be unable to detect what it was.

In addition to this, residents of the city were forced to live in the dark during the nights, as blackouts were imposed. Even things such as smoking cigarettes, and driving with one's lights on at night were prohibited, and like in many cities, there were air raids to warn people in the event of an enemy attack. It was truly a different world back then, the whole country was living in fear.

One of the results of the war was that all supplies and resources were dedicated to the war effort, and prices were frozen. Production on things such as cars was stopped as the labor and materials were needed to make supplies. George's business had been shut down because the government needed the rubber.

Also, foodstuffs and other every day things became commodities, and were rationed. For example, people were limited to three to four gallons of gasoline per week, because the boys in blue needed all the resources they could get. World War II got the economy going again, however. Seattle started to grow; there were more jobs, and more work to be done. As for Boeing, the company became the largest airplane manufacturer in the world, and was responsible for putting Seattle on the map, even if it did make the city a target for Japan.

In 1945 the war ended, and life slowed down for George who returned to Seattle and became a salesman in Seattle's new and improved economy. He got married to my grandmother and raised six kids. They've been together for over 50 years.

By Daniel Wayne, Francine Watson's Honors Language Arts Class, Roosevelt High School, April 2000


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