In the Merchant Marines

Merchant Marine Service

Reflections on Merchant Marines


William Balabanow was born in February 1926 in Blue Ridge Summit, Pennsylvania. His stepfather was a miner. During the Great Depression [Annotator's Note: The Great Depression was a global economic depression that lasted from 1929 through 1939 in the United States], his family moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania after his stepfather lost his job. He found odd jobs in Lancaster. Balabanow grew up with two younger sisters. Although his parents had no money, he still enjoyed his childhood. He earned money by being a paperboy, and he attended Boy Scout [Annotator’s Note: The Boy Scouts of America; youth organization in the United States] meetings. Balabanow did not pay attention to the hostile uprising in Asia and Europe because he was too worried about what he was going to do in the afternoons with his friends. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor [Annotator's Note: The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on 7 December 1941], Balabanow was swept up in the patriotism of the day and was anxious to get into the military. He was classified as 4-F [Annotator's Note: Selective Service classification for individuals who are not fit for service in the Armed Forces] because of scoliosis. Determined to get into the armed services, Balabanow entered the U.S. Merchant Marine in February 1944. Upon entering, he assumed the Merchant Marine was as much a branch of the military as the Army and Navy. Balabanow remarked that the biggest change after the war broke out was the rationing of goods. When he joined the Merchant Marines, he was so happy to receive three meals a day, shoes, and clothing. Balabanow worked in a silk mill making parachutes for a short time before joining the Merchant Marine. He was sent to Sheepshead Bay, New York for training and enjoyed the whole experience. He loved marching and all the regimentation of training. After six months of training, he was sent to radio officers’ school for another six months. He boarded his first ship which was from 1917. All the equipment was very old too. His ship left in a convoy and headed to Europe. He recalled the destruction he saw in Marseille [Annotator’s Note: Marseille, France]. He served as radio officer aboard merchant ships during the war. He handled the communication through Morse code [Annotator’s Note: Morse code is a method used in telecommunication to encode text characters as standardized sequences of two different signal durations, called dots and dashes, or dits and dahs]. He was only allowed to receive messages and could not transmit messages for fear that the enemy would figure out their location. Balabanow went through the war without getting a scratch or seeing combat. On his ships, a Navy crew of 30 armed men secured the ship. His ships had no real guns, but fake guns for bluff. He interacted with the Navy men regularly and got along with most of them. When Balabanow reached Marseille, he was allowed some liberty [Annotator's Note: an authorized absence for a short period of time] to explore the city.


William Balabanow joined the Merchant Marines after World War 2 had broken out. He never encountered the Germans because his ship only supplied goods to the military. He believed that war was war, and the enemy treated the Allies the same as the Allied treated their enemy. He was bitter but sympathetic toward the enemy. After his ship left France with cargo of damaged equipment like jeeps and tanks, they headed to the Caribbean to pick up sugar and then continued to America. He changed ships and boarded a tanker and went down to the Caribbean again without an escort. His ship then went through the Panama Canal and crossed the Pacific Ocean to the Philippines where they dropped off airplanes. His ship then went to Okinawa [Annotator’s Note: Okinawa, Japan] and delivered gas. Then his ship stopped in Ulithi [Annotator’s Note: Ulithi Atoll, Caroline Islands] to deliver the remaining goods. As they headed back to America, he heard that the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan [Annotator's Note: nuclear weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, 6 and 9 August 1945]. While he was in the Philippines, he thought everything was terrible. The Filipinos feared them at first, but eventually they trusted the Merchant Marines. When Balabanow was at Okinawa, Marines would come aboard to escape island life. The Merchant Marines gave them food and enjoyed talking with the Marines. When the war ended, he was unsure about his future and was forced back into the Merchant Marine when he was unable to find a civilian job. He remained in the service until 1979. Balabanow did not understand why America was involved in the Korean War [Annotator's Note: Korean War, 25 June 1950 to 27 July 1953] and the Vietnam War [Annotator's Note: Vietnam War, or Second Indochina War, 1 November 1955 to 30 April 1975], but he still supplied goods to the combat servicemen. During the Vietnam War he was given a lot of liberty [Annotator's Note: an authorized absence for a short period of time] to go ashore. He was also disturbed at the Americans’ treatment of the local people.


William Balabanow has always felt stigma about his service in the Merchant Marine and the negative associations with the service long held by the American public. The government made the Merchant Marine conscripted into service during war. When war was declared in 1941, the Merchant Marines had already been in the war, and men were already killed by the enemy. Merchant Marines were not allowed to carry weapons, even though they were considered volunteers and contributed to the military branches. The military refused to recognize the Merchant Marines as a branch of the military service and were not considered veterans of World War 2 until 1988. Because Balabanow was not considered a veteran, he did not receive benefits such as the G.I. Bill [Annotator's Note: the G.I. Bill, or Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, was enacted by the United States Congress to aid United States veterans of World War 2 in transitioning back to civilian life and included financial aid for education, mortgages, business starts and unemployment] like those who served in other branches of the military. Balabanow is proud to have served and to wear the uniform for the Merchant Marines. His most memorable experience of World War 2 was graduation from bootcamp and radio operation school. He served because he wanted to do his part and felt compelled to do something. Joining the Merchant Marines changed his life significantly. He was always getting in trouble with the law as a juvenile, but the regimentation of boot camp changed his way of life. His service means that America is free and can be part of this oral history project. He believes that a large percentage of Americans do not appreciate the sacrifice of World War 2 veterans. Balabanow believes there should be institutions like the National WWII Museum [Annotator's Note: The National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana], and that we should continue to teach World War 2 to future generations.

All oral histories featured on this site are available to license. The videos will be delivered via mail as Hi Definition video on DVD/DVDs or via file transfer. You may receive the oral history in its entirety but will be free to use only the specific clips that you requested. Please contact the Museum at if you are interested in licensing this content. Please allow up to four weeks for file delivery or delivery of the DVD to your postal address.