By Jack Beritzhoff
(Editor’s note: Ninety-six-year-old U.S. Merchant Marine officer of WW II and author of Sail Away – Journeys of a Merchant Seaman, Jack Beritzhoff mailed this typed Memorial Day tribute to The Maritime Executive, which was just received. Jack served in the USMM from 1942 until the end of the Korean War. He began writing at the age of ninety-one, and his book is about his adventures and experiences as a merchant mariner. Please join us in honoring this very special man and his fellow merchant mariners who have served this nation since the American Revolution.)
One day in early January of 1944, while our ship, the U.S.A.T. Colorado, was preparing to sail from Sydney harbor to somewhere in the Southwest Pacific, I watched white crosses being loaded into one of the ship’s holds as part of our cargo. As I slowly strolled along the pier, my whole being suddenly changed from everyday normalcy to cheerless, heavy-hearted depression.
Why was fate so unjust - so kind to some and so cruel to those who were marked for our cargo?
To the lucky ones, the war was an ugly, tiresome interruption — a miracle play with a successful, happy ending. To others, a tragedy: a morality play tinged with suffering. And for those who had left life’s stage, the curtain call was death.
War’s theater encompassed many performers. Some were leading men, but the majority were cast in supporting roles - spear carriers, all steadily marching toward the end of the performance. For some, life dissolved into eternal rest so quickly after such a brief beginning.
Why should the death song be sung so prematurely? As my steps brought me back to the gangway, I wondered who were these men - those who had been driven into the long sleep that life’s end demands - those whose eager plans for the future would never come — those whose dreams for a life filled with blessings would never be realized?
Who were they - those who were destined to claim cargo lying in wait for them in the hold of my ship?
Time often claims remembrance of things past, but I need no Memorial Day to awaken the memory of those who remain so solemnly silent beneath those wooden symbols. The stillness of the vast green arena where they lie, so hushed and voiceless, is broken only by the brush of the rain or the whispering of the wind. In my mind’s eye, I can see them now - the white crosses and Stars of David standing toward the light and lifting their banners upward to an endless sky as if to shelter the valiant, who suffer no more and sleep in peace with eternity. – MarEx
In yonder island, not to rise,
Never to stir forth free,
Far from his folk a dead lad lies
That once was friends with me.
Lie you easy, dream you light,
And sleep you fast for aye;
And luckier may you find the night
Than ever you found the day.
- From A Shropshire Lad by A. E. Housman