The review that appears here was written by Tom Leonard, who sailed in the merchant marine from 1943 to 1952 and was a member of the National Maritime Union. Leonard is a longtime union activist and leader of the Socialist Workers Party, which he joined in 1950.
The Men Who Sailed The Liberty Ships attempts to portray the lives of the tens of thousands of merchant seamen who sailed aboard the "liberty ships" during World War II. But in the main the video really reflects the political thinking of the narrators, who don't always accurately convey the role of wartime seamen.
Their chronology of what happened to merchant seamen during the war contains a lot of truths: the great number of ships built and sunk; the disproportionately high casualties suffered by seamen; the bombings; and the torpedoing of ships in convoy.
The casualties among merchant seamen, of course, represent a small fraction of the millions of workers killed during the war in Europe and throughout Asia as a result of the imperialist powers' grab for land and resources - including Washington's atomic bombing of tens of thousands of Japanese workers at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The documentary doesn't mention these.
I have a far different assessment of what the war meant to seamen than that conveyed by the narrators.
Most of the narrators are former seamen, with the exception of a wartime naval gunnery officer who was assigned to merchant ships. His fake bravado about wartime service is different than my experience with the navy officers I sailed with.
The ones I knew were hostile and used their authority to do everything possible to prevent fraternization between navy gun crews and civilian crew members. For the most part they were successful.
Liberty ships were 410-foot-long, 10,000-ton cargo vessels constructed primarily for carrying war materials, although some were also converted into troop carriers. Nearly 3,000 such ships were built during the war, and most of them were either sunk or scrapped within a few years of the war's end.
What the video doesn't spend much time on is how shoddily built these ships were, due to horrendous round- the-clock speedup imposed on the labor movement to "support the war effort." Some of the ships were built in about 10 days; rushed welding encouraged by supervisors as well as poor design resulted in many of them breaking up and sinking in rough weather.
The seamen interviewed in the film were also members of maritime unions, including the National Maritime Union (NMU); Marine Firemen, Oilers, and Watertenders; and the Master Mates and Pilots. There is also mention of the Sailors Union of the Pacific.
At least two of the narrators were full-time union officials during some of the war years. One of them, Joe Stack, I recognized as the New York Port Agent for the NMU at the time I was a member of that union.
Stack narrates a segment on the red-baiting attacks against the union in 1943, and how the union responded with a picket line around the old World Telegram offices. I was at sea when that occurred, but I remember the attacks received wide publicity - including overseas - and created a lot of resentment among seamen against the witch- hunters.
That attack was a forerunner of the postwar witch-hunt, and was directed against the NMU and its Communist Party leadership. It is correctly reported in the video as being initiated by Walter Winchell, then one of the most widely syndicated news columnists.
Winchell accused the NMU of being Communist-led, which was true and publicly known at the time. But his added charges that union leaders were sabotaging the U.S. war effort had no foundation in the truth.
In connection with that smear, it's important to note that charges of sabotaging the war effort were often used to intimidate union militants during the war. The same accusation, for example, was leveled against the United Mine Workers when they struck in the early 1940s.
The Stalinists in general did not function as open members of the Communist Party, for fear of putting off the trade union officials and Democratic Party politicians they worked so closely with. Many leaders of the union, however, such as Stack, were well-known at the time as members or supporters of the CP.
Behind the patriotic fervor
This brings me back to the difference I have with some of the narrators, whose professions of patriotic loyalty convey the impression that all seamen shared those views.
Behind the patriotic fervor
The tens of thousands of young seamen who were recruited and trained to sail the liberty ships for example, had just begun to be aware of how bad fascism was before the war. They had very little understanding of this historically new anti-working-class political movement. Like most prewar workers they weren't too happy about being drafted and many chose the alternative of joining the merchant marine rather than military service.
In counterposition to the loyalty of the narrators, it's far more accurate to observe that the overwhelming majority of working people in the United States, including seamen, became patriotic only after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. And they remained patriotic, especially in the early years of the war, in the mistaken belief they were defending the country against the possibility of "foreign invaders."
The trade union bureaucracy, the Communist Party, and nearly every other current in the labor movement collaborated with the U.S. government to paint World War II as a "war for democracy," a fiction that remains common currency today. Immediately after World War II, after failing to keep the hot war going, the ruling classes of the United States and Great Britain jointly opened the cold war by equating the bloody crimes of fascism with communism. It was partly on that basis that the witch-hunt was able to register gains in the labor movement, including the seamen's unions, as early as 1946.
Another truth portrayed in the video is that despite services rendered to U.S. imperialism in World War II, the Communist Party took major blows in the postwar witch- hunt. As the film points out, in 1950 more than 2,000 seamen, many of them members of the Communist Party - but also members of the Socialist Workers Party and other union militants - lost their seamen's papers and right to sail at the hands of the U.S. Coast Guard, acting in the service of the employers and their government.
While important historical issues are raised, the theme of the film constantly returns to one of betrayed loyalty. The narrators succeed in projecting the message that while they did their utmost to support U.S. imperialism in the war, the government opened a witch-hunt against them. Now they want the recognition they feel they are entitled to.
Despite this, the film includes footage and some factual coverage about the life of seamen during the war that is not generally accessible. This makes The Men Who Sailed the Liberty Ships worth viewing. Young people in particular will be struck by the ruthless disregard for the lives of working people exhibited by the ruling class - especially during imperialist war.
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