‘Everybody wanted to do something.’ 94-year-old World War II veteran reflects on time with Merchant Marines
A Merchant Marine veteran from Brick Township is expecting to soon receive a Congressional Gold Medal.
Ray Mombelardi, 94, reflected on his time with the Merchant Marines during World War II. In January 1942, German U-boats were lurking off the New Jersey coast sinking one American shop after another.
“When you left New York Harbor, you were in a war zone,” Mombelardi says. “That’s when they were sinking ships right off the Jersey coast."
Mombelardi was 15 years old at the time and living in Englewood. It was during that time that he signed up to enlist in the Merchant Marines.
“Well, I got my papers on the 20th. I was on the ship the 26th of January. The ship landed in Galveston, Texas. Getting off the ship, the guy says, ‘Let me see your draft card.’ I didn’t have a draft card because I was only 15 years old,” he says. “My [seaman’s] papers said I was 18…so, they put me in jail for a while in Galveston.”
Mombelardi spent the remainder of the war on ships carrying fuel and other supplies for the war effort, from the East Coast to ports around the world. He says that he had several close calls that still wake him up nearly 80 years later.
“The torpedo was coming at us. I guess we were zigging and we zagged and the torpedo missed us. If it would have hit us – with 108,000 barrels of high octane gasoline – that would have been the end of everything,” Mombelardi says.
His father was also a Merchant Marine and was killed when his own ship was hit by a torpedo in 1942.
“My father went to sea. That wasn’t why I went to sea. Everybody at that time in 1942 wanted to do something,” Mombelardi says.
Merchant Marines are called upon in times of war as an auxiliary to the United States Navy. And despite having a higher casualty rate than any other military branch – 1 in 26 were killed - it wasn’t until 1988 that Merchant Marines were recognized as war veterans.
And this past spring President Donald Trump signed a bill to make the Merchant Marine veterans eligible for the Congressional Gold Medal. The awarding of the medals has been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but Mombelardi says that he looks forward to having his soon.
“Part of the recognition that we should be getting to start with,” he says.
Veterans Day is Wednesday. The Seaman's Church Institute will hold a virtual ceremony honoring Merchant Marines and commemorating the Congressional Gold Medal status.