Horton first woman to earn veteran status as WWII merchant mariner

Sadie O. Horton served with family aboard coastwise barge during WWII

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Pictured from left are Jack Horton, Sadie O. Horton and Don Horton, of Camden. This photo was taken on Sadie O. Horton's 93rd birthday.


By Chris Day
Multimedia Editor

Monday, March 6, 2017

CAMDEN — Sadie O. Horton spent World War II working and raising a family aboard a coastwise U.S. Merchant Marine barge. Seventy-five years later, Horton has posthumously received official veteran’s status for her wartime service, becoming the only recorded female Merchant Marine veteran of the Second World War.

That's according to her son, Don Horton, a Camden resident who has fought for years to secure veteran’s status for all members of the Merchant Marine, particularly those who served as “coastwise” merchant marines during the Second World War.

Merchant mariners who served along the East Coast during World War II weren't eligible to seek veterans status until recently, thanks in large part to a decade's worth of advocacy by Horton. A bill signed into federal law in September 2016 provides more ways to verify a merchant mariner's service between 1941 and 1946. The Merchant Marine is the nation's fleet of government and private commercial vessels. The training and licensing of mariners is handled by the U.S. Coast Guard.

In February Don Horton received his mother's Honorable Discharge and DD214 service record from the Coast Guard. The documents officially designate her as a Merchant Marine veteran of World War II. Her discharge date is Dec. 31, 1946.

"It's closure to me," Horton said Friday, of his mother receiving the discharge document. "For me it's proof she served her country in time of war."

Horton, today 85, was 10 years old when he joined his family aboard a barge in June 1942. Through the months of June to August until the war's end that's how Horton spent his summers away from school. In his blog at www.usmmv.blogspot.com, Horton writes extensively about his World War II experiences, working alongside his mother, as well as his advocacy work for coastwise merchant mariners.

While satisfied for the moment, Horton says there is much more work to do on behalf of the many women, as well as children, who lived and worked aboard Merchant Marine vessels during World War II but haven't received veteran’s status.

"We have finally broken the glass ceiling that kept our women and schoolchildren from obtaining their due recognition for services to this nation during WWII," he writes in his blog. "We cannot stop now with just a single recognition. Hundreds of women and children, perhaps thousands served during WWII and have never been given their due recognition. Help us find these mariners or their descendants so they, too, can receive the recognition now 75 years late."

Joining Horton and his mother on the barge were his father, William L. Horton, who also was the captain, his brother Jack and his sister. They began their service about three months after Horton's oldest brother, William L. Horton Jr., also a merchant mariner, died from injuries following an attack by a German U-boat on the tug he was working aboard. According to Horton, the incident occurred in March 1942 about nine miles off the Virginia coast.

His brother’s death underscores the risk to coastwise merchant mariners during the war as they traveled from seaport to seaport along the coast hauling material for the war effort.

"We ran all the time unescorted and unarmed," Horton said. "Never had any support, on land or at sea."

Life aboard the barge meant everyone worked. While his mother's official role was the ship's cook, she did much more than manage the galley and take care of the children.

"You name it, that's what she could do," Horton said.

That included standing watch, working in the ship's wheelhouse, running the boiler and at times helping Horton stand his watch.

"I feel like that shows she had determination out there and willingness to do more than her job," Horton said.

His mother "never once complained that I know of," he said, remembering her fondly.

Horton says there are boxes upon boxes — about 15,000 cubic feet of hard copies — of Merchant Marine personnel records stored in national archives. He thinks these records should be sorted and made available to all for research purposes.

"We've got to get these 15,000 cubic feet of records automated and available to the public," he said, adding current privacy laws only allow the actual mariner or primary next of kin to access the records.

The problem is no particular agency has taken on the task of sorting these personnel records, he said.

According to historians, Horton said, an estimated 840,000 credentials were issued to merchant mariners during WWII. About 250,000 of them were in combat, and only about 91,000 of them have been issued DD214s.

“That again is an estimate that can’t be backed up,” Horton said.  

There are two key steps needed to prove veteran eligibility status for merchant mariners, Horton said. The first step is to obtain the Social Security records between the years 1942 and 1946 of the mariner. Second, a sworn statement on behalf of the mariner's service must be given. More information can be found online at the website for the National Martime Center at uscg.mil/nmc. Click on the link to "WWII Veterans."