Old merchant mariner tells World War II story 'Unappreciated service' gets its due in novel

September 20, 1993|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

For more than 40 years, Ray Thompson carried his book around inside his head; it took a devastating illness to finally get it out.

His subjects are the unsung heroes of World War II, the officers and men of the merchant marine who ferried troops and materiel across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans to the fighting forces and paid a dreadful price.

In the prologue to "The Watery Hell," a roman a clef of his three wartime years at sea, Mr. Thompson, a former Evening Sun reporter, notes that the merchant service suffered a higher casualty rate -- 1 in 32 killed, or missing and presumed dead -- than all of the armed forces combined. And they were civilians.

Congress didn't recognize merchant mariners officially as veterans until 1988.

"It was the most unappreciated service, and the American people don't know about their sacrifice," said Mr. Thompson, 67, of Fallston.

He was 16 -- too young for the military -- when he signed up as an ordinary seaman in 1943. He made five voyages, three in the Pacific and two in the Atlantic. He sailed in Liberty ships, the workhorses of the wartime merchant fleet. The transports were stamped out like cookies, many in Baltimore shipyards.

The novel is dedicated to two shipmates killed in a Japanese kamikaze attack on their vessel, the S.S. Leonidas Merritt, on Nov. 12, 1944, after it had helped escort Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the recapture of the Philippines.

"We were told Leyte was secure and there would be no more raids. We weren't on alert or anything when the planes swooped in 6 feet off the water and struck us," Mr. Thompson recalled.

His narrative of the attack is the most dramatic part of the book, which focuses on the adventures of a father and two sons serving in the merchant marine during the war.

"It's fiction, but most of it actually happened," said Mr. Thompson, who joined The Evening Sun in 1946, left in 1950 to enlist in the Air Force for the Korean War, returned in 1953 and left again in 1956 to launch a career in public relations. He remained in the Air Force Reserve and rose to brigadier general before illness forced him to retire in 1983.

As a reporter, Mr. Thompson developed two specialties: the Baltimore Zoo and aviation.

He helped to found the Baltimore Zoological Society, now the Maryland Zoological Society, and covered the fledgling space program at Cape Canaveral, Fla., "where there were snakes all over the place, and missiles went up off the backs of trucks."

In 1958, he formed a public relations and advertising company, specializing in movie and theater publicity. That year, he beat six other agencies for the Maryland Veterinary Medical Association account, then became the association's executive director. Two years later, he won a similar appointment from Pennsylvania veterinarians.

"I was the first lay person appointed executive director of a state veterinary association, and they are the only two positions I have kept," he said.

Although "The Watery Hell" is his first novel, Mr. Thompson has published three histories of veterinary medicine.

His business career kept him occupied, but "for years I'd thought about writing a novel about the merchant marine," he said. "There has been a lot of nonfiction about the merchant marine but who reads it? I wanted to tell it as a story in hopes that more people would be interested."

Periodically, he did the necessary background research and about two years ago began fooling around with an opening chapter. Within months, however, his life was changed forever -- without pain and without warning -- Nov. 7, 1991.

Mr. Thompson, who had had four joint replacements in his left hip between 1983 and 1986, said he was sitting at his desk at home that day "when I felt something funny with my legs; I couldn't move them. There was no pain but I was paralyzed."

He told his wife, Nancy, that he couldn't move.

"She thought I was joking, but I wasn't," he said. "One minute I'm up, the next minute I can't stand up."

Rushed by ambulance to Sinai Hospital, he was diagnosed and told he'd had a spinal cord stroke, a condition so rare that many physicians have not heard of it. The cause is unknown. The only common factor that its victims share is a history of malaria, he said.

After a week at Sinai, he spent two months in rehabilitation at Good Samaritan Hospital. He remains paralyzed from just below his rib cage and must use a wheelchair.

During his recuperation, Mr. Thompson said, "I finally had the time to work on the book, so I was able to finish it."

He sent the manuscript to one publisher but before he got a reply the next blow landed; a severe bedsore or pressure sore on his left leg "went to the bone," requiring amputation at the knee.

Fearing the worst, Mr. Thompson said, "I want this book out before I die," so he made arrangements for its publication through his stepson, Charles Amas III, who is in the printing business.

"Maybe I should have waited to see if a major publisher would take it, but I just wasn't sure at that time," he said.

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