Robert Mertz

Robert K Mertz

Robert (Bobby) K. Mertz served aboard the SS Stephen A Douglas. He now resides in Northumberland, Pennsylvania.




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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