In his senior year at Salamanca High School in the early 1940s, Lawrence E. Haley hopped a freight train bound for Buffalo to check out the employment picture.
“I was on vacation from school and wanted to see what kind of jobs they had in Buffalo for when I graduated. I ran into some hobos at the end of Main Street and asked them, and they told me people were always needed for the lake freighters,” the 88-year-old Haley recalls.
So when he graduated, he followed the hobos’ advice and became a deck hand on the C.S. Robinson, which transported iron ore from Minnesota to the steel plants in Buffalo, Cleveland and Ashtabula, Ohio. It was quite an adventure for a 17-year-old.
But an even greater adventure awaited Haley – World War II.
“I heard that experienced deckhands were needed for the Coast Guard and the Merchant Marine. There were hundreds of Liberty ships that had been sunk. They were sinking them faster than they could build them,” Haley said. “I went to the Old Post Office in downtown Buffalo to enlist, and they told me I was needed in the Merchant Marine because of the high fatality rate.”
Then 18, Haley did not blink at the risk of possibility of ending up in a watery grave.
“I didn’t know fear at that age,” he said.
Haley was soon making trans-Atlantic runs from Boston to Europe, carrying “ammunition, all kinds of weapons, Jeeps, ration boxes, shoes,” he said. “When the troops saw us, they were a glad bunch of guys. Without the supplies, they knew they were beat.”
As Haley started returning safely from one cruise after another, word began to spread among other members of the Merchant Marine that he was one lucky guy.
“Any ship that I was on was never sunk,” he says. “Other guys wanted to start serving on my ships. They thought that I would be a good luck charm. I was proud of it.”
He explained that some of the success in his 15 trips across the ocean could be attributed to the cold-water shipping routes that his vessels traversed.
“The German submarines didn’t like the icebergs and the weather,” Haley says.
When the D-Day invasion of Normandy occurred June 6, 1944, Haley’s ship sailed from Southampton, England, across the English Channel to France.
“We were one of the first Merchant Marine ships to dock at Le Havre, where we unloaded supplies,” he says.
While on a brief leave there, Haley said he went ashore and started making inquiries about the location of his brother Don’s Army Ranger unit.
“They had started moving so fast across France that I didn’t get to see him,” Haley says.
He wishes he had.
“One week before the war ended in Europe, Don was killed by a sniper,” he says.
For Haley, there was little time to grieve. It was on to the war in the Pacific.
“The government put about 2,500 troops on our boat when the war ended in Europe, and they were so excited,” he says. “They thought they were coming home. They were tired of fighting. They thought they were headed to Boston to be discharged.
“When we went through the Panama Canal, they were a sad bunch of sacks. They knew where they were going.”
The ship was headed to Japan for the planned invasion.
“We waited about a week near the seaport of Nagoya, and then President Truman ordered the atom bombs dropped, and the war ended,” Haley remembers.
“The troops on our ship cheered and cheered and cheered. Our ship was directed back to San Diego, and they all went home – and me, too.”
And what a relief it was.
“Let me tell you,” he says, “nobody knows the tension of waiting 24 hours a day to get torpedoed unless you are a Merchant Marine or sailor. You’re worried every second.”
Back home, Haley worked construction for decades with Holmes & Murphy of Orchard Park. He married Jane Sullivan, and they raised a family of seven.
In all these years since the war, Haley says, he has not forgotten his older brother, Don.
“My parents had the choice of having Don’s body shipped home or having it buried in Europe. They decided that he should be buried with his buddies,” Haley says. “One of these days I am going to get over to the cemetery in Margraten, Holland, and visit his grave. My younger brother, Bill, has already been there.”
His younger brother visited Don’s grave soon after serving in the Korean War, Haley says: “Bill told me there are white crosses as far as you can see.”
Lawrence E. Haley, 88
• Hometown: Johnsonburg, Pa.
• Residence: Arcade
• Branch: Merchant Marine
• War zones: Atlantic and Pacific
• Years of service: 1944-46
• Rank: Able seaman
• Most prominent honors: Atlantic War Zone Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal
• Specialty: Deck maintenance