It was a warm, summer day in the California Central Valley in July 1942. Jess and his buddy were bored with their summer vacation, so they hitchhiked to San Francisco to see the merchant marine ships at the docks.
When they arrived, they wandered around the docks and checked out the ships. A lady approached them and asked what they were doing. When they told her they did not have a place to stay, she offered them food and housing if they would work odd jobs and run errands for her. They later learned that she ran a house of prostitution. The next day they returned to the docks and met the captain of the merchant marine ship SS Cedar Breaks. When he found out where they were staying, he told them that he didn't approve. He told them they could sleep on board his ship that night, and the next day he would send them home. That night he received orders to sail, and forgot the boys until it was too late.
Because the country was at war, the captain could not get them back to the mainland. He signed them on as workaways. Because the merchant marine ships were civilian ships, they often had young boys on board. Jess said most of the younger boys were from other countries. Jess celebrated his fifteenth birthday on the high seas of the South Pacific Ocean.
Since merchant ships were civilian ships. Jess could sign on for one trip at a time, and at the end of the trip, he would be discharged. But when the trip ended, he would more than likely be in another country. He could either sign on that same ship or look for another ship that happened to be in port. Those who were eighteen or older were eligible to be drafted into the armed services if they didn't sign up on a ship.
By the time he was eighteen, he had sailed around the world three times. For the most part, he sailed oil tankers, the most dangerous of all ships. They were even more dangerous when they were empty because they floated high in the water and provided an easy target. They also exploded easier when the tanks were filled only with fumes.
Merchant ships were the enemy's number one targets because they carried troops, tanks, airplanes, ammunition and supplies to every theater of the war. They landed on the beaches right along side of the marines. They participated in every U.S. Marine Corps landing operation all over the Pacific Ocean.
There were about 2700 merchant ships involved in the first wave of landing on the Pacific Islands. The SS Emidio was the first merchant ship sunk in World War II. A Japanese submarine, eighteen miles off Crescent City, California sank it on December 20, 1941. Merchant marine ships took part in every invasion, and many were torpedoed. Countless other ships were either damaged or sunk by Kamikaze pilots.
Jess' ships were no exceptions. They fought off numerous planes and evaded many enemy ships and submarines. They used zigzagging actions to evade torpedoes. When attacked by Kamikazes, they shot in patterns and prayed that the attacking planes would fly through the patterns. They shot down several planes in this way. One day one of the planes they hit blew apart, and a large piece of the plane landed on board the ship. The sailors salvaged the large red circle of the rising sun on the side of the plane. They cut it up, and each sailor brought home a piece of the rising sun.
It was quite a while before all of the merchant ships were armed. On November 17, 1941, Congress approved arming merchant ships. They also organized the Naval Armed Guard. But it took many months before guns and crews were put on board the thousands of merchant ships, and it was a long time before Navy crews were assigned to man the guns on board. The men on all the ships that Jess sailed on had to man their own guns. And many of the guns were of World War I vintage. .One day near the end of the war, Jess' ship was docked at Guadalcanal when a Japanese submarine snuck into the harbor and torpedoed the ship next to Jess. Painting ships is an ongoing job because the salt air rusts them. Jess was over the side of the ship painting, and the explosion blew him up into the air. When he came down, he hit the mooring line, and his body wrapped around it. He slid down to the edge of the water, and fortunately, came to a stop at the rat guard. The guard held his head out of the water. He could hear someone yelling, "Save the live ones. We'll pick up the dead ones later." Since he could not speak or move, they passed by him. Finally someone saw him blinking his eyes, and they pulled him out of the water. They took him to a hospital in Guadalcanal and then sent him to a hospital in San Francisco.
On June 21, 1945, when he had recovered from his injuries, he signed on to the SS Cedar Breaks in San Pedro and sailed for Saipan. He arrived there on July 15th. It was his birthday. He was just 18 years old.
On August 26, Jess signed on the SS Maidens Eye and sailed from Saipan to Tokyo Bay. They arrived there just before Japan and the Allied leaders, headed by General Douglas MacArthur, signed the surrender documents on the USS Missouri, so the mariners watched this historic event from a distance.
Shortly after, their captain gave them permission to go swimming off the side of the ship. After that, Jess' back began hurting again. It was then that he found out he had a fracture of the eighth vertebrae and a dorsal spine fracture. This had previously been missed. He was sent to a navy hospital. The hospital discharged him as "not able to work." On September 27, 1945, he was put aboard the SS Benjamin H. Bristow as a workaway, presumably to get him home. One November 28, 1945, he arrived in Norfolk, Virginia and was sent to a USPH hospital. It was then that he found he could no longer live the life he loved so much on the merchant ships.