Willie Jay came to washed up on a beach, exhausted, aching and freezing. He couldn’t be sure where he was, which was a dangerous thing on the coast of Europe during World War II. He called for help but his voice was overwhelmed by the sound of the surf.
He’d watched the German torpedo heading straight for the ship. The explosion blew him into the water as the munitions in the hold tore the hull apart. He clung to some flotsam as the ship went down and waited for hours to be found and picked up. But no one saw him.
There was no way to tell exactly how long he’d been in the water. As time went on he expected to die. In his experience, no one who went over the rail into open ocean ever survived. If the abundant sharks didn’t get him, thirst and hypothermia would. Still, he didn’t give up. Now, here he was, alone on the beach, waiting to be rescued.
But no one came. Not a soul. Eventually, he stood up and did what he’d done; he rescued himself.
He climbed off the beach up a steep hill, found a road and started walking. A road sign he could read told him he was in England. He walked, cold, hungry, thirsty and exhausted, to the nearest town. People just looked at him as he walked on by. He made his way to the center of town where a Red Cross sign was the sweetest thing he’d ever seen.
He was furious! He survived a torpedoed ship, the open ocean and a long hike from the beach to be defeated by red tape. But there was nothing else to do but walk on.
The Salvation Army didn’t care who he was. When he walked up to their tent they took him in, gave him hot coffee, food and a cot. After he’d recovered, he found his way to a port, climbed aboard another ship and set sail only to be sunk again.
Later in the Pacific his ship was the target of a Japanese torpedo that skipped between two destroyers into the convoy. The ship went down like a rock but this time there was help. The entire crew was saved to a man, including the ship’s cat.
Willie Jay Wade, a farm boy from the middle of Mississippi, would go on to supply food and munitions to troops in the Korean and Vietnam wars. As navigator of an unarmed ship full of explosives, his life was constantly in danger from Atlantic submarines and mines to attack boats in the Mekong River. But he survived to die in his bed in Mississippi, accompanied only by his youngest daughter, whom I would marry six years later.
Suzie’s Mom didn’t like to talk about the years she’d waited, wondering if Willie Jay would come home. But I was curious and told her the story of my uncle who served on the U.S.S. Arizona and she felt compelled to tell me about her husband, Suzie’s Dad.
I grew up surrounded by heroes without ever realizing it. The stories eventually came out slowly and I began to understand as an adult. I doubt I will ever know what they really went through. But their stories helped me understand how to face the difficulties in my life with courage.
I had a template to use. If they could get through so much then I could too. I had it in me somewhere. They’d put it there, along with a plan: rescue yourself.
733 Merchant Marine vessels were sunk during World War II. 9,497 seamen and officers died or were declared missing. 581 were taken prisoner. Their death rate of 1 in 26 was the highest death rate among all the services during the war.
President Roosevelt promised the mariners veteran status and a Seaman’s Bill of Rights. After his death neither were enacted by Congress. They did not get G.I. Bill or home loan programs. Only in 1988, after a federal court ruling, were they given official discharge papers and allowed access to V.A. medical care, 17 years after W. J. Wade died.
They have never gotten the recognition and benefits Roosevelt promised and probably won’t.
Photo: One of the many ships he sailed on as navigator.
Read my Dad’s story here.