The Unknown Sailors

Over fifty years after these boys first set sail, their ship has finally come in.

Three men pause on a path that winds through Fort Logan National Cemetery. On the fresh-mowed lawn before them, row after row of uniform headstones rise like bone-white exclamation points, marching up and over the hill.

All three men have friends and former comrades-in-arms buried on these grounds. Someday two of them--Ed Jones and Carl Larson--will also lie here, beneath markers differentiated only by the names, dates and service affiliations inscribed on them. The third man, Harold Flenthrope, plans to spend eternity next to his wife, Aileen. But he will be remembered here, too.

Jones points to a barren spot above the path. "This is where our memorial will be," he says, then nods toward a chunk of knee-high pink granite on which is mounted a brass plaque dedicated to prisoners of war. "It'll look just like that--except it will say U.S. Naval Armed Guard."

The three peer at the POW memorial, then at the spot that soon will be filled by a tribute to their old unit. After fifty years, they are about to get some of the recognition they have so long deserved. They were boys, barely out of high school, when they left the plains and the mountains to go to sea, assigned by the Navy to protect the civilian merchant ships carrying war supplies to Europe, Africa and Asia.

Their own ships were torpedoed, bombed and strafed; more than 700 of them sank. Yet their counterparts aboard the warships derided the Armed Guard as not being "real" Navy. And the Navy Department's records of their service were so poorly kept that many of the men never received full credit for their actions.

These were the unknown sailors.

The U.S. Naval Armed Guard got its start in World War I thanks largely to a new weapon: the submarine. The German submarine force, commonly known as U-boats, had nearly choked off Great Britain from all supplies--until the merchant ships were armed and sent out in great convoys.

But after that war was won, the guard was deactivated. It wasn't called upon again until 1941, a few months before the U.S. officially entered World War II, when the Guard and some Navy warships were assigned to protect merchant ships loaded with supplies for England.

They were woefully ill-equipped for the task. The merchant ships were old and leaked like rusty buckets. The guns the guards were given were WWI vintage and often broken; even when they worked, they didn't have the firepower of the enemy's weapons. Sometimes the crews simply resorted to mounting large, creosoted poles on their ships to make it appear that they were armed with big guns--at least from a distance.

Soon U.S. shipyards began mass-producing Liberty ships for transporting supplies and troops, but these often weren't much of an improvement. The Liberty ships were slow and had been so hastily constructed that they sometimes split apart in heavy seas, earning them the nickname "floating coffins."

While the "regular" Navy officers and enlisted men were assigned to the warships, these boys were "volunteered" for the Armed Guard having never seen the ocean, much less been on a ship. More often than not, they'd joined up straight out of high school. Many came from the interior of the country--the farms of Iowa, the ranches of Colorado, and all of the towns in between. And some Guard crews--gunners, radio operators and signalmen--had nothing more than an older, slightly higher-ranking enlisted man as their "officer." But they all believed in the Guard motto: "We Aim to Deliver."

They took their inspiration from the Guard's directive: "You will engage the enemy until your guns can no longer be fired--until the decks are awash and the guns are going under..."

Although they did much the same job as the regular Navy sailors--who could draw their pay on board their ships--Guard members had to wait until they returned to base to get their pay. Meanwhile, they worked alongside unionized merchant marines, a group that comprised a variety of nationalities and demeanors and whose members not only were well-paid to start but got bonuses for overtime and going into war zones. The merchant marines gave the youngsters a hard time--until they witnessed the Guard's work during engagements with the enemy.

"I have to say, we ate better than the regular Navy," remembers Jones, still boyish at 73. "We ate what the merchant marines ate. We even got to sit at a table and be served."

Jones had graduated from high school in Colorado Springs and was looking for work when he decided to join the Navy in October 1941. "Times were tough because of the Depression, and I knew I couldn't afford college," he says. "I had just seen a movie about the Navy. These guys were out to see the world and all that..."

"And they always got the girl," interjects Larson.
The other men and Aileen Flenthrope, who has come with her husband to tour the cemetery, all laugh. "And we didn't want to go in the Army," adds the soft-spoken Flenthrope.

"Anyway, I signed up for six years in the regular Navy," Jones continues. "Thought maybe I'd make a career out of it."

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