CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
Bertram Christensen was born in April, 1926 in Brooklyn, New York. His was a seafaring family, and his father was a Merchant Marine ship captain until 1948.
Christensen attended the Metropolitan Maritime Trades School in New York City, which prepared him for a career at sea, and he entered the Merchant Marine service in February, 1942. After a three month government training program he shipped out on a tanker carrying oil and gasoline along the east coast.
Due to German submarine activity, the ships Christensen sailed on were equipped with deck guns, and a detail of US navy sailors acting as an armed guard. A typical day at sea in 1942, Christensen recalled, consisted of security shifts, with four hours on watch and eight hours off per shift. The crew averaged forty-two to forty-eight men, with an additional twenty-four men in the navy armed guard.
Christensen’s initial job as an “able seaman” included painting, cleaning, sweeping and mopping decks. After duty on the east coast, he was assigned to a ship that left New York in a convoy that sailed south, and then through the Panama Canal to the Pacific Ocean and the west coast of South America. He recalled terrible storms rounding Cape Horn. He then served in another convoy that traveled to Cape Town, South Africa. On the way, the hull of his ship cracked, and it limped into port to deliver its cargo of locomotives. After the crack was repaired by welding a plate to it, the vessel took on another cargo and joined a convoy on its way to England.
Christensen’s ship was torpedoed off the coast of Africa. As it exploded into flames, he jumped overboard and was pulled out of the water by a passing British ship, which took him to Glasgow, Scotland. He remained in Scotland for a while, then returned to New York on leave and shipped out again on the John Erickson, transporting soldiers to England and North Africa. His ship was torpedoed again, and this time he floated around with other sailors on a life raft until they were picked up by a converted whaling ship, which took them to South Africa. He later served on the Liberty ship William Dunbar, delivering a cargo of linseed oil to Rio de Janeiro. In 1944 Christensen received his third mate’s license and a job with New Jersey based Standard Oil Corporation.
Christensen recalled that he had observed many ships sunk in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. His Pacific voyages were very calm by comparison, except for a typhoon off Okinawa. He enjoyed meeting a variety of people during the war, including British, Norwegian, Polish and Danish sailors and civilians. His shore leave was sporadic and depended on what kind of ship he was on and conditions ashore. Oil tanker crews always got less leave time than those of freighters. In Cape Town, merchant seamen on shore leave hung around a bar named Delmonico’s, but in the Pacific any shore leave was usually restricted to navy personnel. In active war zones, no one got shore leave. He remembered mail service as painfully slow, with letters from home taking up to three months to arrive, a situation that improved a bit with the institution of “V-mail.”
Christensen learned of the war’s end over a shortwave radio broadcast. He felt that his war service did not change him in any significant way, and once back home again, he continued to work for Standard Oil for almost forty years, rising to the rank of ship captain before retiring in 1982. He remarked that New Jersey merchant marine veterans fought for “veteran” status equivalent to those who served in military units, and succeeded in that effort. The Coast Guard also eventually recognized the legitimate veteran status of Merchant Marine sailors as well, and Christensen displayed a copy of his discharge, with time of service noted. He also displayed some photos of ships he had served on. Bertram Christensen earned medals for the Atlantic-Mediterranean-Middle East and Pacific Campaigns, including a combat bar with stars, and a World War II Victory Medal.