CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
World War II Oral History Interview
US Merchant Marines
Date: March 24, 2015
Interviewer: Carol Fowler
Summarizer: Eric Kahana
Editor: Professor Melissa Ziobro, Monmouth University
Irvin Solomon was born in New York City, New York in March, 1919. Solomon’s father passed away when he was very young, leaving his mother to take care of him. Over the course of his early life, Solomon’s family moved to various places in the tri-state area. As a child he worked to help provide for his family, yet he was still able to graduate from high school, and then attend the University of Alabama.
On December 7, 1941, during Solomon’s last year of college, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, initiating American participation in World War I. He completed his studies, graduating in 1942 with a degree in Secondary Education. Solomon returned to New York City where he joined the Merchant Marine, which was under the War Shipping Administration (WSA). Since he was Jewish, he saw participation in the war as his particular duty, stating in his interview, “I had to do it.”
The WSA sent Solomon and a few other candidates to Long Island to receive training as ships’ officers. On completion of the course, he was assigned to a collier, a Merchant Marine vessel transporting coal from Newport News, Virginia to New England. Solomon served as a paymaster for two voyages aboard the collier and then reported back to the War Shipping Administration to receive his next assignment, service on a cargo vessel sailing to Scotland.
Solomon’s ship traveled in a US Navy escorted convoy designed to protect transport ships from German U-boats prowling the North Atlantic. One drawback to the convoy system was that it could only travel collectively at the speed of its slowest vessel. The system worked, however, as the convoy arrived in Scotland without losing any ships. While on shore leave, Solomon and a couple of his buddies went to an American Red Cross facility to relax and get something to eat. Denied entry because Merchant Mariners were not then considered members of the military, they then visited a British Navy Club, where they were welcomed with open arms.
After dining, Solomon and his fellow sailors decided to take a walking tour of the British base, stopping and observing various activities, which attracted the attention of security guards who were suspicious that they might be German agents. The British were quickly disabused of that notion, and both parties laughed about it and went on their separate ways.
Solomon subsequently left Britain in a convoy headed to New York via Halifax, Nova Scotia. It proved an interesting journey. The convoy’s escort ships ran ahead of the cargo ships to drop depth charges on German U-boats reportedly waiting for them, and then the convoy was broken up by a storm. Solomon’s ship had to wait in Halifax for the ships and their escort to reorganize. When asked by the interviewer if he got seasick, he jokingly replied “I just got sick of the sea.”
Solomon was soon on the way back to Great Britain in a convoy transporting war material and soldiers, although this time he did not get any immediate shore leave, because, as a paymaster, he was kept busy paying the crew with military script “payment certificates” sent from the WSA headquarters in New York, which he issued at the exchange rate of the United States dollar.
While awaiting further orders, Solomon and several of his friends decided to do some exercise to keep themselves in physical shape, by sailing and rowing lifeboats around their ship. Needless to say, this exercise was only conducted during daylight hours while the vessel was in port, and only in the daytime so they could see where they were going.
Finally allowed ashore, Solomon got a chance to ride in a DUKW, a World War II amphibious vehicle colloquially called a “Duck.” The Duck crew he rode with was training for the forthcoming invasion of France, otherwise known as D-Day, which was originally scheduled for June 5, 1944 but postponed to the following day due to weather conditions.
Since Solomon was overseas most of the time he served in the Merchant Marine, he did not have a chance to see his family, and his letters home were reviewed and censored by military authorities to remove any details of where he was located or what he was doing. Sadly, he could not receive mail from home either, although he said he did not mind that.
On one of his voyages, Solomon’s ship transported Medical Corps personnel, and he and several other officers decided to relinquish their quarters to the nurses. The nurses did not like the fact that the door to the area was open most of the time, but were glad to have some privacy. Solomon and his mates slept in the officer’s mess.
Solomon’s cargo ship served as a troop transport during the D-Day invasion, and they put up a smoke screen to hide it from the view of German shore batteries. The method was not entirely successful, and some shells came dangerously close to hitting the vessel. One landing craft launched from his ship hit a mine on the way into Utah Beach and sank, with considerable casualties.
Solomon’s ship did have a deck gun manned by a Navy “armed guard” detachment, and he and several crew members supplied it with ammunition as it fired at the German lines on shore. The gun was firing so fast and was so loud, he thought some of the fire was incoming, and he became confused and dove behind some boxes. Fortunately it was not incoming fire, because they were ammunition boxes.
Solomon’s ship continued to land troops during the opening days of the Normandy Campaign that followed D-Day, and then returned to England to pick up more supplies. In the months after D-Day, the vessel went back and forth across the English Channel with supplies as the allies pushed inland, occasionally coming under German fire. The winter of 1944 – 1945 was a very cold and miserable one for both the Germans and the Allies, especially during the Battle of the Bulge in December, but Solomon and his crew fortunately had enough warm clothing.
As winter waned, Solomon’s ship was reassigned to a mission delivering cargo to Saudi Arabia, and traveled through the Suez Canal. Egyptians he initially met mispronounced his name, rendering it as “Salomon.” Solomon recalled that there was a good deal of anti-Semitism in Egypt, so he told the locals that his surname was Kelly, a ruse the rest of his crew went along with. The Egyptians were reportedly looking for a Jewish boy that the crew hid in the engine room. As Solomon’s ship docked in Saudi Arabia, he noticed signs stating “No Jews Allowed,” and he was amused and felt an odd sense of accomplishment that, when he landed, the Saudis, who did not know he was Jewish, saluted him.
After leaving Saudi Arabia, aboard Solomon’s ship a sailor contracted appendicitis and had to be hospitalized in Italy, where the crew had to wait for him to recover. While in Italy, Solomon met an old grammar school friend, and the two reminisced for a good period of time, but never met again.
Solomon received several wartime service awards, including the Merchant Marine Combat Bar, Atlantic War Zone Bar, and the Mediterranean Middle East War Zone Bar. After the war he married, but he never became a teacher, the profession he had trained for in college, remaining in the Merchant Marine Service as a career.