Almost half a century ago, young Bobby Mertz boarded a train at the station on Front Street in Northumberland and went to war. Prior to this pivotal moment, he had spent most of his life on the Mertz family farm in Point Township, sweating in the fields and tending crops and livestock. Once he stepped on that train, however, he became part of the global cataclysm known as the Second World War. The young farmer would spend much of the war far from his country home, sailing the world's oceans as a member of the Naval Armed Guard Service. The Naval Armed Guard Service was a special force created by the United States Navy to protect merchant ships. The Navy stationed Armed Guard members, as well as weapons and equipment, on board these ships ~ guard against enemy attacks. During the Second World War, more than 144,900 Navy officers, gun crewmen, signalmen, and radiomen served in the Armed Guard. Enemy action claimed the lives of 1,810. The Germans and the Japanese sank 710 out of the 6,236 merchant ships carrying Armed Guard members. Amazingly, the casualty rate of the Armed Guard was second only to the US Marine Corps. The Armed Guard protected ships that delivered supplies to the embattled Soviet Union. Hundreds of ships braved German U-boats and dangerous ice in the north Atlantic to reach the vital Russian port of Murmansk. Supplies delivered to Murmansk then flowed to the Soviet forces fighting Hitler's armies on the eastern front. Many American sailors and ships sank forever beneath the icy waters on the infamous Murmansk run, but the supplies they delivered contributed immeasurably to the defeat of the Nazis. The Armed Guard also protected ships headed to destinations in the Pacific theater, and in western Europe. At one of these ports in Bari, Italy in 1943, a German bombing attack severely damaged several ships and killed or wounded hundreds of sailors. Bob Mertz' ship sailed out of Bari just before the attack and narrowly escaped the destruction. Back home on the farm, Bob's mother thought he had been killed in the Bari attack, and spent weeks mourning her oldest son. After the war, Bob Mertz returned to the farm in Point Township. He built a family, and a life. He and his fellow World War II veterans make up what Tom Brokaw calls "The Greatest Generation," Americans who saved the world from foreign tyranny, then came home to help our country expand and grow into a modern superpower. Sadly, this generation is slipping away from us all too rapidly. Even more sorrowful is the neglect of the story of the Armed Guard, and those Navy veterans like Bob Mertz who risked all they knew to get the job done. On October 17, 1998, the United States Congress took an important step in correcting this oversight by acknowledging that "the efforts of the members of the Navy who served in the Naval Armed Guard Service have been largely overlooked due to the rapid disbanding of the service after World War II, and a lack of adequate records." Congress voted to express its appreciation, and the appreciation of the American people, for the dedication and sacrifice of the Naval Armed Guard Service. I never knew much about the Armed Guard prior to writing this article. Whatever I knew, I learned from Bob Mertz. I listened to his stories about sailing on ships so packed with supplies that their decks neared the water level. I listened when he talked about taking cover behind a smokestack during an enemy attack, and about the awful destruction at Bari. I listened when he spoke of the homesickness, and the anxiety, that all soldiers and sailors felt at some point during their service. I listened, and I learned. On March 26, 1999, Bob Mertz celebrated his 75th birthday at the train station in Northumberland from which he had departed so long ago. Surrounded by family and friends, he opened his gifts. The gift I chose to give Bob - my stepfather - was a simple hat with the words, "US Navy Armed Guards" and the motto of those forgotten heroes: "We Deliver." I wanted him to know that I'd been listening.
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