A neglected chapter of World War II has been recalled in Old Orchard Beach with the donation and prominent display of a flag honoring the memory of a U.S. Merchant Marine from Massachusetts.
As a boy growing up in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Old Orchard Beach resident Dave Twomey lived upstairs from his uncle and former U.S. Merchant Marine George Edmond Tourigny, who told him harrowing stories of his service in the North Atlantic in the early days of the war.
Tourigny was 24 and working as a lineman for the Gardner Electric Light Company in Massachusetts when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, leading to America’s entry into World War II. Soon thereafter, Tourigny visited the U.S. Navy Recruiting Station in Gardner to enlist, but the office was swamped with applicants. He was advised that he could eventually be drafted, but that there was another organization in dire need of immediate volunteers called the U.S. Merchant Marines.
He knew little of the Merchant Marines other than it was regarded as a civilian job and that he could be sent to sea, which is what he wanted. Tourigny signed up for the Merchant Marines and was sent to basic training at Sheepshead Bay, New York.
His two-week Merchant Marine training was run by the U.S. Coast Guard and consisted of learning the basic Merchant Marine ranks, protocol, how to abandon ship if needed, and how to row a lifeboat.
Training was given in how to extinguish a fire on board a ship and basic ship deck operations before he was assigned to the commercial vessel called Deer Lodge bound for Iceland. His ship was to be part of a convoy of commercial and hastily manufactured “Liberty” ships transporting tons of vital military supplies for the Allies’ war effort in Europe.
Even though Merchant Marine positions were classified as “non-military” in nature, it turned out to be the most dangerous and perilous service for Americans during World War II. Merchant Marine convoys and ships were often unarmed commercial vessels sailing without military escort and highly vulnerable to German U-boat and aircraft attacks. One in 26 U.S. Merchant Marine seamen died in these attacks, making it the highest fatality rate of any wartime duty for Americans.
Merchant Marines who survived ship sinkings were subjected to fires, explosions, exposure to icy waters, sharks, deadly oil slicks and longs hours in lifeboats waiting for rescue.
Although the Merchant Marines had no formal military training, they were a vital component in the supply chain to sustain the early days of the Allies’ war capabilities. Merchant Marine seamen such as Tourigny exhibited courage and did their utmost to complete their missions under the most hazardous conditions Americans would experience during the war.
Arriving in Iceland in May 1942, Tourigny’s Deer Lodge cargo ship was briefly in port for refueling and then became part of a convoy known as “The Murmansk Run” bound for the port of Murmansk in Russia. Two days out of Iceland on May 18, 1942, an enemy aircraft bombing severely damaged the vessel. No U.S. Merchant Marines died in that attack, but the Deer Lodge ship limped back to port in Iceland for repairs.
After being determined as seaworthy, the Deer Lodge set out again for Murmansk as part of an 11-ship convoy. It made it through to Murmansk, but on the voyage back to Iceland on May 27, 1942, another enemy aircraft bombed and strafed the Deer Lodge ship, with a bomb burning seven of the vessel’s 17 crewmen before the vessel somehow made it back to Iceland.
In early July 1942, Tourigny was reassigned to another freighter, the Olapana, as a deck hand. While on its way to Murmansk carrying fuel and tanks, the Olapana was shelled and then torpedoed, and sank. Tourigny spent 61 hours among other crew survivors in a lifeboat before rescue, and five of his fellow crew members died in that attack.
His next duty in the Merchant Marines came aboard a freighter called the John HB Latrobe that made six successful runs back and forth to Murmansk before being shelled and damaged in November 1942. Once again Tourigny survived the attack, but two of his shipmates were badly injured.
While home in Gardiner on leave over Christmas, Tourigny received notice that he had been drafted and was to report in January 1943 to Newport, Rhode Island for U.S. Navy boot camp. He trained as a cargo specialist and then entered Officer Candidate School while assigned to the Norfolk Naval Base for the duration of the war, rising to the rank of U.S. Navy Lieutenant.
Following his military service, Tourigny moved from Gardner to Lawrence, married his wife Rita and the couple raised seven children. He owned a construction company and died in 2001 at the age of 83.
Several years ago, Twomey was visiting the GFB Scottish Pub in Old Orchard Beach when he couldn’t help but notice an array of colorful military flags hanging from the ceiling there. One flag was missing though, that of the U.S. Merchant Marines, so Twomey asked the pub’s owners, Bob, and Kelly Greenlaw, if he could donate a Merchant Marine flag inscribed with Tourigny’s name and hang it alongside the others there.
The Greenlaws agreed and Twomey had the flag made and it is now part of the GFB Scottish Pub’s permanent display of flags.
“We support all military branches and consider the Merchant Marines to be a real part of our war effort in World War II and what they did showed courage and patriotism,” Bob Greenlaw said. “We’re very pleased that this flag will join other military flags now at the pub and we’re grateful to Dave Twomey for remembering his uncle and the contributions of the Merchant Marines through this project.”
Twomey said he was grateful to be able to donate the flag to honor the memory of Tourigny’s service in the U.S. Merchant Marines.
“If my uncle was here today, he would be very proud to see that flag hanging in the pub,” Twomey said. “It’s been quite a process to see this project through from start to finish but it’s been worth it to see the Merchant Marines’ bravery and courage during World War II recognized in this way. Their contributions have been largely forgotten and this flag certainly keeps the memory of my uncle and other Marchant Marines alive.” ◊