When it comes to recognizing those whose efforts and sacrifices helped bring about the Allied victory in World War II, Mike Natale of Elgin says there is one group that doesn't get the credit it deserves -- the Merchant Marine.
As one who served aboard one of the thousands of ships used to transport supplies, arms, and troops during the war, Natale has amassed an array of facts, figures, and photographs and proudly shares his story and that of the Merchant Marine.
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"I signed up for the Merchant Marine when I was only 15 years old," Natale said.
One of his neighbors in Chicago had joined and interested him in doing the same. Natale said he was able to get around the 16-year-old requirement by forging his father's name and getting a friend in a nearby business to notarize it.
In 1945, Natale left for sea on the ship Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
"This was one of over 2,700 Liberty Ships built during the war to haul men, ammunition, and other supplies. Liberty Ships were named for famous deceased Americans. The boats were even able to carry airplanes, tanks and locomotives," Natale said.
Natale was an "ordinary seaman" and the youngest and smallest on his ship. His duties included lookout from the crow's nest and securing the cargo.
The most dangerous part of their trips was when they were about four or five days out and could no longer be provided air cover, Natale explains.
"We did have Canadian Corvettes, small anti-submarine escort ships, though" he added.
"I was on lookout, it was dark, and I was scared the first time. I cried," he added. "We traveled at 10 knots and German submarines went 17 knots," Natale said. His ship had small armaments including 20 mm cannons and carried depth charges.
Copies of the ship's log obtained by Natale detail his first voyage when he traveled to England to deliver troops and cargo. His second trip was to Istanbul where they delivered cargo and picked up Turkish troops to transport to Sicily.
"You could tell guns and ammo by the way they were packed. We also carried troops who slept in bunks stacked five high. The ships traveled in convoys which were four or five miles long," Natale said.
"Sometimes we knew what we were transporting and sometimes we didn't. Some of our most important cargo included beer and cigarettes," he joked. "We were paid extra when we transported high explosives."
Natale's ship also served as a mini hospital and returned wounded soldiers. On another occasion it returned 12 "war brides" from Europe to the United States.
In addition to the Longfellow, Natale served on five other ships in the Merchant Marine. The last of these, the President Monroe, was used to film scenes for the movie "To the Ends of the Earth" which included actor Dick Powell -- someone Natale had the opportunity to meet.
After serving with the Merchant Marine for more than three years, Natale returned to Chicago in the summer of 1948. For much of his life he worked as a carpenter.
Natale, who moved to Elgin a few years ago, has been outspoken in advocating the contributions of the Merchant Marine.
"I was proud of what I did, but not everyone saw it that way."
"Even my father spoke negatively about the Merchant Marine when I returned," Natale said. "A few even called me a draft dodger. Heck, I wasn't even old enough to join the service," he said.
Similar attitudes are expressed by some members of the armed services who say those in the Merchant Marine were not veterans, explains Natale. But President Roosevelt was highly supportive of the Merchant Marine, he said.
"Had he lived, the Merchant Marine would have received many G.I. benefits similar to the other branches of the service many years ago."
Veteran status finally came to the Merchant Marine more than 20 year ago, Natale explained. He now has framed certificates from the Merchant Marine and Coast Guard -- under which the Merchant Marine operated -- hanging in his living room. But, making people aware of what the Merchant Marine did is an ongoing effort, he said.
"The new Veterans Memorial Park in Elgin includes a tribute to the Merchant Marine, but various others do not. I wear my Merchant Marine hat to make people aware.
"There are only seven or eight thousand of us left. We're running out of time to tell our story."