In the war years, I served my country as a merchant marine. By the time I was 19 years old I had traveled around the world three times, It was a great adventure for a young man, but life as a merchant seaman was very rough, and I had to learn to be tough to survive.
New men went through initiations called "smokers." This is where you either sank or swam as a merchant marine. I found myself in a small boxing ring fighting the toughest man on board. I was knocked down time and time again, but I kept getting up, and each time I pulled myself to my feet, I got a little better and a little more confident.
Though I never knocked the big guy down, I learned one of the best lessons of my life: to never give up and just keep trying.
My efforts proved to be the right thing because everyone came over and patted me on the back and gave me a big hug. Even the biggest and toughest guy on board became a fast friend who always looked after me from then on. These were the men with whom I would share so many amazing experiences. Though many of my memories have become grayed with the passing of the years, there are a few that still stand out as vivid as if they just happened. Let me preface this Christmas experience with the fact that even at my young age, I had faced death before.
There was the time we were in the Indian Ocean on a tanker carrying war supplies to the troops. The year was 1944, and we had all been on alert for the entire week having heard several ships had been sunk by U-boats. The Germans were relentless and usually traveled in "wolf packs," making it most difficult to avoid being torpedoed.
The moon was bright that night, and I could see very clearly. I was on watch on the bow of the ship with binoculars in hand. I surveyed the horizon keeping myself sharp and alert for my task. My older brother was on board with me and was down in the galley having his coffee. I had been on watch for several hours and was getting a little cold and hungry.
The sea was a fluorescent green, which made every white cap and fish glow. As I scanned the horizon I suddenly noticed two fluorescent streaks in the distance. I blinked my eyes just to make sure of what I was seeing. Yes, it was two torpedoes coming straight for the bow of our ship. I quickly grabbed the phone to warn the bridge, but it just rang and rang without anyone answering.
Later they told me they saw the torpedoes as I rang and didn't think we had a chance. I didn't think we had a chance either, but as the ship rose on the swell of the next wave, the torpedo on our starboard side missed us completely. The one on our port side was invisible and I was invisible, and I wrapped my arms tightly around myself and closed my eyes as though I could protect myself from the impending explosion.
I waited frozen in that moment of time with my shipmates as we heard the torpedo skim down the ship, clanging as it went. It banged into us four or five times, and then silence. By some miracle the torpedo's warhead never came in contact with the ship, and we were saved.
Several months later on Christmas Eve, I had just celebrated my 20th birthday on Dec. 21. We were on our way home from the Mediterranean approaching the Straits of Gibraltar on our way to the North Atlantic. We were happily bound for the East Coast of the good old USA. It was a stormy night that Christmas Eve, and I was once again on watch at the bow of the ship.
The sea was covered in white caps, which make it almost impossible to see "turkey feathers," a term we used to describe the white plume that flows behind a submarine's periscope when it is close to the surface. Understandably all of our thoughts were of home and of Christmas and of hopes of soon being with our families.
The past days had been unremarkable, and the sights, sounds and smell of the ocean lulled me into a sense of well-being. Then it all seemed to happen in an instant. I saw the plume of a periscope appear off the port side of our ship. It couldn't have been more than 100 yards away. I had no chance to ring the bridge this time. They must have seen the periscope at the same time I did because the ship was suddenly alive with alarms and shouts of men scurrying to their battle stations.
But there was no time to ready ourselves for a fight. There was no time to protect ourselves in any way. The submarine was already on us, rising up out of that choppy sea. The enemy had us dead to rights. I'll never forget what happened next.
There was a flashing. Dash dash, dot dot dash dot. I mouthed the letters as I saw the German submarine blinking its Morse code message. I couldn't believe what was I was seeing. M-E-R. Could I be reading it correctly? Another "R" and then, dash dot dash dash, a "Y." It was happening so fast as the second word flashed to us in the darkness. C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S. Then it was over. As fast as the U-boat had appeared it sank back into the blackness of the sea and was gone.
We all stood transfixed. No one moved for several seconds as we recovered from our shock and surprise. We had escaped death before by a twist of fate or maybe luck.
But on this Christmas Eve we had been given a gift. As the reality of what had just transpired and the words "Merry Christmas" took hold in our minds and then our hearts, we unitedly sent up a cheer. A cheer of relief, and of joy and true celebration.
I have had many wonderful Christmases since that Christmas Eve in 1944. I was able to marry and spend 56 years with my lovely wife and help to raise our three children.Each consecutive Christmas has been surrounded by grandchildren and now, great-grandchildren. None of these memories would have ever been possible if it wasn't for that fortuitous night when the "enemy" gave a ship full of men the gift of peace and one of their best Christmas memories possible.
About today's author
Lee Wayne Maloy, South Jordan, was born and reared in California. He served in the Merchant Marine until after he was married. He has three children, seven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. After leaving the Merchant Marine, he returned to California and was a factory worker. He later started his own swimming pool business and had many celebrity clients, including Rosaline Russell and Pat O'Brien. He was a pallbearer at Russell's funeral. After retiring at age 68, he, along with his wife, Grace, moved to Utah to be near their children and grandchildren. His wife of 56 years recently passed away.