Monthly Archives: May 2013

Two Old Men and the Sea

Genealogy research can lead you to many fascinating stories and people, both living and dead, and Matthew “Matty” Loughran ranks among the most memorable for me.

I’ve always enjoyed a good sea story, and Matty served up a dandy one for me several years ago while helping me research the service record of my wife’s grand-uncle Valentine Vincent Baker, a WWII merchant seaman from Philadelphia who went down with his ship in 1942.

I met Matty on the Internet in 2006 after posting a query  about Uncle Val and his ship, the SS Muskogee, on a message board for folks seeking information about service records and veteran benefits for WWII-era merchant sailors. Matty was an old salt himself, having served in the Merchant Marine at age 17 near the end of the war after the Navy rejected him for having poor vision. After the war, he spent two years as an Army medic and later worked for the U.S. Postal Service until his retirement n 1982.

Matthew "Matty" Loughran from a Newsday profile published June 20, 2000. (Newsday photo by Kazuhiro Yokozeki)

Matthew “Matty” Loughran from a Newsday profile published June 20, 2000. (Newsday photo by Kazuhiro Yokozeki)

In his late 70s when I met him, Matty lived in Riverhead, N.Y., and was the historian for the North Atlantic Chapter of the American Merchant Marine Veterans and a counselor and advocate for the veteran rights of WWII-era merchant sailors and their families.  On my wife’s behalf, he cut through many months of red tape in obtaining service records for Uncle Val from the  U.S. Coast Guard as well as the Maritime Administration of the U.S. Department of Transportation. Those included photocopies of  Baker’s Continuous Service Discharge Book, which furnished personal information as well as  a photograph of  Val along with his signature and fingerprints and documentation of previous merchant sailings from as far back as 1938. Matty also sent reference book photos and notes about the SS Muskogee, including several mesmerizing images of the ship’s actual sinking obtained from declassified German war records through postwar research by George Betts, son of  Muskogee skipper William Wright Betts.

Photo of SS Muskogee crewman taken from the conning tower of the German U-123 submarine after the Muskogee's sinking in 1942. (George Betts Collection/Independence Seaport Museum Library)

Photo of SS Muskogee crewman taken from the conning tower of the German U-123 submarine after the Muskogee’s sinking in 1942. (George Betts Collection/Independence Seaport Museum Library)

A 36-year-old bachelor, Uncle Val had an Ordinary Seaman rating and was serving as a messman aboard the SS Muskogee, an oil tanker carrying crude oil from Venezuela to Halifax, Nova Scotia,  when it was torpedoed and sunk by the U-123 German submarine on March 22, 1942 , in a rough sea approximately 450 miles SE of Bermuda. The ship went down in less than 20 minutes and all hands were lost. Members of the U-123’s crew took photos of the sinking for  propaganda purposes, and they included images of two life rafts from the doomed ship and a closeup shot of one raft with seven recognizable Muskogee crewmen, none of which was Baker. That closeup photo later served as the inspiration for the  American Merchant Marine Memorial sculpture in Battery Park, NYC, which was dedicated n 1991.

Matty further provided online links to a compelling story about  a 1987 meeting between George Betts and U-123 commander Lt. Commander Reinhard Hardegen of Bremen, Germany. Turns out Hardegen remembered details of the Muskogee’s sinking from his log book and was able to substantiate the time, date and place of the encounter and explain the circumstances that prevented the submarine from picking up any of American survivors.

From the Coast Guard, Matty was able to obtain a Report of Casualty and a Certificate of Honorable Service, which entitled Baker to a memorial marker from the U.S. Veterans Administration. It also provided a list of medals, badges and citations authorized for Uncle Val and a copy of a Presidential Testimonial Letter from Harry Truman. I was then able to purchase replacement medals for Uncle Val through the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and put them in a shadow box display along with images from Baker’s discharge book.

Shadowbox display of Valentine Vincent Baker's medals and images from his Merchant Marine Continuous Service Discharge Book , (Keith Olson photo)

Shadow box display of Valentine Vincent Baker’s medals and images from his Merchant Marine Continuous Service Discharge Book , (Keith Olson photo)

One problem. The Coast Guard no longer had copies of the Mariner’s Medal, awarded to Merchant Marine sailors in lieu of a Purple Heart, as they were discontinued after WWII and only 6,600 of them were ever authorized. Mariner’s Medals were then going for hundreds of dollars when I checked them out on ebay. But Matty put me in touch with Patricia Thomas, a secretary for the Maritime Administration in Washington, D.C., who sent me a Mariner’s Medal for no charge, allowing me to put the finishing touch on Uncle Val’s shadow box display.

Thrilled with the result, I shared it with my wife and daughter and took a photo of the shadow box to send to Ms. Thomas, along with my appreciation for her help.  I also emailed the shadow box photo to Matty Loughran — perhaps the only  man in America who would appreciate the project as much as I — and phoned him to reiterate my sincere thanks for all his help. Alas, Matty was no longer available as his wife Johanna informed me that he had died.

The news hit me like a torpedo. All I could do was offer Johanna my thanks and condolences — and a parting promise to think of Matty whenever I  gaze at Uncle Val’s medals and images. Two old salts linked by circumstance and Ransom Man respect.

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Poppies for Pop

My dad died nearly 30 years ago, and while memories of him remain vivid and sweet, I don’t visit his grave as often as I used to.

Lloyd V. Olson, a proud WWII army veteran,  rests next to my mom, Vera, in the Camellia Garden at Floral Hills Cemetery in Alderwood, WA. I used to stop by randomly if I happened to be driving to or from the Alderwood Mall. But I rarely visit the mall anymore, and if I do drive past the cemetery, I’m usually in a hurry.

Poppies001Memorial Day Weekend is coming up, and I’m at Floral Hills to leave a small flag on Pop’s grave along with some clipped poppies, which I propagate in a bed next to my driveway just for this occasion. Some years, the poppies open early and fall apart by late May. Other years, the buds remain closed until June, leaving me to harvest rhododendron or peony blossoms instead.

The camellia trees at Floral Hills are early spring bloomers, so their pink blossoms are generally gone by the time I place my orange poppies, white peonies or purple rhodys.

In recent years, I’ve skipped this graveside ritual altogether if the poppies weren’t ready. Not this year. I have a fistful of poppies, enough to share between Lloyd and two of his best buddies, Cliff  and Ted, buried with their wives roughly 30 feet away on either side of the Olsons.

Pop’s headstone – supplied by the Veterans Administration – has no built-in flowerpot as many Floral Hills headstones do. So I have to bring my own plastic pot-on-a-stick to hold water and flowers.  Cemetery groundskeepers put a small flag on each veteran’s grave for Memorial Day, but I like to add a slightly larger version of Old Glory when I come.

Royal British Legion poppy

Royal British Legion poppy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My old man, who spent 36 months overseas as an army engineer in Europe and North Africa,  served 20 years as quartermaster of the VFW Gay Jones Post 921 in Snohomish while I was growing up and generally led the post’s poppy drive each spring, when members sold artificial lapel poppies as a fundraiser. Early on, Lloyd made 10-inch wood crosses on pedestals with holes drilled in the cross pieces to hold multiple poppies for business site displays.

I still have a newspaper clipping of Pop holding my niece Lisa in his lap in the mid-1970s as she offers a poppy to the mayor as that year’s designated Buddy Poppy Girl kicking off another drive.

Now, it’s poppy payback time.

The graveside thing doesn’t last very long. It doesn’t take more than a minute to fill the flowerpot from a nearby tap and leave my bouquet. I used to offer a short, silent prayer of thanks for my parents and give Pop a quick salute. But this time my prayer is aimed more for  the creator and sustainer whose neck I used to hug than to the one I’m supposed to worship.

I simply say, “Thanks for everything, Pop,” and head back into the world, leaving a flag and a few flowers to stay connected.

Sort of like church on Sundays, without sitting through a sermon.

(This was written as a Writers Kickstart prompt, 500 words or less on the topic “Here I Am Again.”)

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