The Unknown Sailors

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

Even then, his survival was in question. At the rescue ship, he was unable to climb up a net thrown over the side because his hands and feet were frozen. He was hauled aboard with a rope, and a sailor cut the clothing off his body. Naked, he was taken to the engine room and laid on a grate where warm air was rising.

He was suffering from severe hypothermia and "there was no medical help," he recalls. "You either lived or you died. I thought I was dreaming as I laid there watching the guys below. I thought, 'This isn't really happening, and when I wake up, everything will be fine.'"

At last he began to come out of his stupor. He found an old oily gunnysack to wrap himself in and made his way to the ship's mess hall. He was taken to a shower to clean the oil off and given some old clothes.

"It was about then I came out of shock and realized what I had been through," Flenthrope says. He looks down, and when he looks up again, his eyes are wet. "We never heard what happened to the Russian sailors. I don't think any of them made it. Twenty-three out of 41 merchant marines died. Seven of the 29 Armed Guard...We had been together since the Mediterranean; they were my friends, and I'll never forget them."

The U.S. Naval Armed Guard served on 6,236 merchant ships; more than 700 of those were sunk. Over 1,800 servicemen died while on duty with the Armed Guard; more would give their lives after they'd been transferred to landing craft and other Navy ships as the war dragged on in the Pacific.

When it was over, men like Jones, Larson and Flenthrope came home to a nation well aware of the heroics of the Marines on Okinawa, the "real" Navy at the Battle of Midway and the GIs who stormed the beaches of Normandy. Monuments were erected, best-selling books written, movies made. But except for a few military historians and the men who actually served in it, no one knew anything about the Armed Guard.

Because their records were kept on board, the battle records of regular Navy personnel were carefully noted. Armed Guard records, however, remained at bases in the States, and it was up to the officers to remember to file the paperwork once they returned. Some forgot, and many more forgot the details. A fire at a records depository in St. Louis erased still more of the past. As a result, many guardsmen never received credit for their part in the war.

For instance, Larson never received the Purple Heart he was due after the attack on his ship.

Larson went on to serve on landing craft for the invasion of the Philippines, and he stayed in the Navy for a time even after the war. (That's when he lost three fingers in an accident.) "I got out in San Francisco and was going to Chicago to see if I could get in the merchant marines, when I stopped in Denver," he recalls. "That's where I met my wife... which pretty much ended my seagoing career."

Instead, he became a successful contractor in his hometown. Life has been good, and Larson isn't bitter that he didn't receive his Purple Heart. Many of his friends from the old neighborhood never made it back from the Marine Corps.

"I don't need it," he says of the medal, as he looks at the rows of headstones in the cemetery. "I only care about being buried here...I got a lot of friends here."

When the war ended, Flenthrope was on board a ship off Brazil. He came back and married Aileen, a cousin of the boy with whom he'd joined the Navy, and worked for the U.S. Geological Survey until his retirement. He and Aileen had three children, a girl and twin boys who both served in the Navy in Vietnam.

"I still have to sleep with socks on, because my feet never quite recovered," Flenthrope says of his war ordeal. He pulls out a small case. Inside is a medal, but the writing is Cyrillic.

"I just got this from the Russian government. They made 2,000 of them to acknowledge what we did for them on the Murmansk run," he says. "This is the only medal I ever received. I never even got an engagement star from my own country.

"We were proud of the job we were doing, even if nobody else knew. We were just boys, trying to do the best we could."

Ed Jones got home and went to work for Public Service Company; he never married. After his retirement he got involved with the U.S. Naval Armed Guard organizations that were trying to win belated recognition for their war service. "The guys got married and had families and were busy with their careers," he explains, "so nobody really had much time to worry about why we weren't acknowledged.

"We weren't alone in that--the merchant marines didn't get a lot of credit, either. They didn't get veteran status until six or seven years ago, by which time the only thing it was good for was burial here," he says, gesturing toward the rows of headstones at Fort Logan.

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