By Jennifer Martin - email
Bill Sistrunk was a student at LSU, when World War II began.
"I had contact with some of the merchant seamen, purser, pharmacist mates, who were operating at the marine hospital at New Orleans and found it very interesting. And in fact, when it became very apparent that I had to go somewhere to serve our country, I decided I would do the Merchant Marine and join the maritime service."
He took classes to become a Pharmacists Mate.
"My first ship was the SS Chrysler Field which was a tanker.
When we made the move into the European Theater, we were operating mainly to Sherberd, France, carrying of all things 100 octane gas."
The men took comfort in with their volatile cargo, because they knew if they were attacked, the ship would blow --and they never had to worry about going into the icy water.
"Some of the ones on the more outer edge of the convoy were in the more vulnerable positions, but even I've seen some of them in the inner ships on the inner side of it be hit.
One of the scariest moments, was we were close in on approaching England when we were attacked by aircraft. And we did have a gun crew onboard. And we did have some anti-aircraft guns that were used. But luckily, their practice came to bear here and they were able to turn off the attacking aircraft and consequently, we didn't suffer any damage."
The enemy wasn't the only threat. Mother nature was also a concern.
"Working the North Atlantic, actually you didn't think about being in a storm, you thought about getting out of one. I've seen many instances where we've gone across where it was very difficult to prepare a hot meal because the ship was rolling."
As the fighting in Europe drew to a close, Sistrunk took a leave from his tanker for a visit home and after, was reassigned.
"I was assigned to, of all things, a liberty ship. And when I went to go aboard, I noticed they were loading a tank, 5 gallon tanks --barrels-- into the cargo. So when I got settled in I went and found the chief mate and asked him what is it we're loading in those drums there."
It was 100 octane gas. Just like what he carried on the tanker.
They sailed for Australia and later, Japan. He made it safely through the end of WWII, but when Korea came along, he was pulled right back into the action.
"Of all things we had Howitzers on board and on the way over, what we thought was 500 miles south of a reported typhoon and ran right into the middle of it. Some of those Howitzers broke loose in the hold and all you could hear was as we'd roll over here "boom" and when we'd go back over here going against the side of the ship, BOOM."
He went on to work many years as a purser with Delta Steamship lines. He eventually moved back to Mississippi and now lives in Brookhaven.
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