American Heroes: The Merchant Marine

Throughout 2008, newspaper headlines and top television stories read like Hollywood movie scripts. It seemed like day after day, we would hear about yet another attack on a merchant vessel. To date, more than 100 ships steaming through the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean have been attacked by Somali pirates. Forty-two of them were hijacked. Two-hundred and fifty mariners are still being held hostage. For these sea-faring men and women, braving hazardous conditions is nothing new.

During World War II, the United States Merchant Marine (USMM) played a crucial role in every theater. Without the bridge of merchant ships delivering weapons, troops, food, ammunition and fuel from the home front to the battle lines, there would have been no Allied victory. The numbers were staggering: 18 shipyards sprang up from Maine to Texas in order to build 2,700 Liberty ships that would be manned by 250,000 American volunteers. At war's end, nearly 80,000 Allied mariners had given their lives and 5,000 ships lay at the bottom of the sea.

Catch the 'War Stories Classic: Running the Gauntlet: The Merchant Marine,' Monday, May 17 at 3 a.m. ET

In January of 2003, I started reading about the history of the USMM for an episode of "War Stories with Oliver North" entitled "Running the Gauntlet." Like many people, I didn't realize what a treacherous job this was or what it meant to be a merchant mariner. By the time we finished production, I had a new-found appreciation for those who travel the high seas.

One veteran I met was Frank Trubisz from Long Island, New York. In April of 1942, he was a 23-year-old novice wiper aboard the Esso Baton Rouge. The tanker was hauling 89,000 barrels of heating oil from Texas to New Jersey when tragedy struck.

"A torpedo had hit in the bunkers in the engine room. There's nothing worse than to see a big ball of fire go up when a ship gets hit," he remembered.

At the time, Trubisz didn't know he was one of the latest victims of legendary German Admiral Karl Donitz, head of Adolf Hitler's Kriegsmarine or wartime navy. Donitz had launched "Operation Drumbeat" on December 23, 1941, as five U-boats left France for a trip across the Atlantic. Their mission was simple: Sink ships along America's East Coast. In the first six months of 1942, over 400 Allied ships were sunk by German submarines lurking off our coastlines, killing 5,000 seamen.

"It was a shooting gallery," said Pete Petersen, a veteran of the Unterseebotwaffe, Germany's World War II submarine force. "It was very easy to sink ships here, because they had no idea how to handle it… everything was brightly lit up. And that helped those skippers that were here at that time to identify their targets."

Those serving in the Pacific and Indian Oceans weren't spared. Sailing on the M.S. Sawokla, 3rd Mate Stanley Willner was 400 miles off the coast of Madagascar when his ship encountered a raider, one of Nazi Germany's secret weapons. Raiders were disguised as friendly or neutral ships, but were actually armed vessels that eventually sank or captured 138 Allied ships.

"The next thing I knew, I was in the water, hanging onto a piece of wreckage. I don't know how I got in the water. They said that our ship sunk in 10 or 15 minutes," said then 22-year-old Willner.

No one heard from the crew of the Sawokla until V-J Day in 1945. After spending three months as a prisoner of the Germans, Willner was handed over to the Japanese and was forced to start building the now-infamous "Death Railway."

"The Japanese give you the same treatment you'd give a cockroach that walked on the floor in your house. Step on you," said Willner, tears welling up in his eyes as he remembered the horrific ordeal.

The 258-mile railway connecting Thailand and Burma would ultimately claim the lives of 100,000 slave laborers. Stanley Willner was one of the "lucky" ones: he survived.

Imagine his shock when he finally came home, as a victor and as a hero, only to find out that he couldn't reap the benefits of the G.I. Bill, because merchant mariners weren't officially part of military.

It took 40 years of relentless lobbying by sailors like Bernard Flatow to finally right this wrong. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan gave these men their due and granted them veteran status.

"I love my country. I can't hate my country," said Flatow. "How could you say I'm not a veteran when I'm a veteran? I was there."

— Ayse Wieting is a producer for "War Stories With Oliver North"