On March 13, 2020, the President of the United States and Congress did a good thing. A long-overdue thing. They awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to members of the United States Merchant Marines that proudly served, fought and died in World War II. While the war to many is a distant memory and now relegated to our history books, the lessons learned are still important today.
The Merchant Marines who were the unsung heroes of the war suffered the highest casualty rates of all the branches of service during the war. One out of every twenty-six mariners were killed. They sailed the ships that brought the needed men and supplies to carry on the war and they were mercilessly hunted by German and Japanese subs. At the beginning of the war, many of our merchant vessels had no way to protect themselves and were at the complete mercy of our enemies. During the war, a total of 1,554 merchant ships were sunk and thousands of lives lost. The tales of the Merchant Marines and what they endured has a personal side to it for me.
My dad, Joseph Monteiro was one of them.
On March 29, 1944, his ship the SS Richard Hovey was sunk by a Japanese sub designated as I-26 in the Arabian Sea. Known for its viciousness, the I-26 slammed torpedoes into the bow of the Hovey killing everyone in the forward engine room. The sub surfaced and Japanese sailors were observed using an 8mm camera to film the horror while they laughed. Not yet finished, they used their deck gun and machine-gunned the lifeboats and the men in the water. Still not through, they rammed at least one lifeboat before submerging and disappearing.
The survivors of the Hovey manned what lifeboats were still usable and found themselves over 800 miles from land. Under relentless heat and with little food and water they began to paddle and row for their lives. After 16 days at sea with many near death, my dad and his shipmates were finally rescued.
Why is this story so important today?
Because it represents the sacrifices of the men and women of the “Greatest Generation.” Many grew up during the difficult times of the Great Depression of the 1930’s and then fought and died in the 1940’s knowing only hardship and sacrifice.
On the “home front”, Americans gladly sacrificed all that they could to support our men and women on the front lines. Just about every commodity was rationed and Americans learned to do without.
They canvased their yards and basements and gladly turned over materials that could be helpful to the war effort. They pulled together what little funds many of them had to buy war bonds to support the efforts. Women stepped up and worked tirelessly in factories making airplanes, tanks, and other war supplies. They learned to live with just the necessities. And they did it willingly and without complaint. They did it for the greater good. They did it to bring the war to a close. And they did it to bring peace back to their lives.
The sacrifices in blood, sweat, tears, and toil of our parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles during World War II led them to be named the “Greatest Generation.”
And I agree.
Hopefully, as we find ourselves amid our own war in fighting the coronavirus pandemic, we can learn something from the greatest generation. We can reach out to our neighbors in need and buy only what we need. We can be mindful and helpful to the elderly and infirmed. We can do all we can to keep the disease from spreading, particularly to those most vulnerable. We can make the sacrifices that need to be made without complaint. We can look to the greater good and not ourselves.
And we can learn to live without.
My wish is that I could be half as good a person as the men and women of the greatest generation. But I know I have a long way to go….
So, thank you, Mr. President, and thank you Congress for this wonderful act of recognition for the men and women of the United States Merchant Marines who fought and died so that we can be free. And thank you to the men and women of the “Greatest Generation” that taught us what sacrifice is all about.
I hope we will not forget.
Stephen Phillip Monteiro is a law enforcement, security and intelligence consultant. He’s held senior leadership positions with consulting firms in Washington, DC and is a retired Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service. Visit his website thegoodamerica.com to leave your comments. You can follow him on Twitter: https://twitter.com/stevemonteiro10