Howard Pfeifer had never heard of the Merchant Marines when a cousin in the Navy advised him to join in 1943. “You know you’re going to be drafted, and you’ll go wherever they need you,” he said. But, in the Merchant Marines, Howard could call his own shots. Eager for action, he lied about his experience and training and joined a crew shipping out to the Pacific. He ended up traveling to Iraq and Iran via Australia. His second ship left in a large convoy for England from New York. The first day out at sea, a tanker next to his exploded in a ball of fire from a U-Boat attack.
Howard received a mysterious assignment in England: to transfer one-ton bombs aboard a rusty old WWI-vintage destroyer. After dropping the bombs off in Liverpool, the ship was filled with dirt and sent across the English Channel to Omaha Beach after D-Day. The crew was ordered off and the ship was scuttled to serve as part of an artifical harbor, the famous “Mulberries.”
Howard’s final overseas journey was a “Murmansk Run” to supply the Soviet Union. The trip was actually to the frozen Russian port of Archangel, where Howard narrowly escaped arrest by Soviet police for trading on the black market.
On January 27, 2012, the Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh transmedia oral history project invited Howard Pfeifer to speak about his WW II experiences as a Quartermaster in the United States Merchant Marine Service. Mr. Pfeifer’s interview was conducted by historian Todd DePastino, and it was recorded in both audio and video formats at the Father Ryan Arts Center in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania.
Where the Action Was
When Howard Pfeifer joined the US Merchant Marine Service he had three choices: to work above deck managing the ship, to work below deck running the ship, or to serve food. He wanted to be on deck where the action was. As an Able Bodied (AB) Quartermaster, he stood on the ship’s bridge and steered the ship around the world in vulnerable convoys. He brought vital supplies, ammunition, and troops to the war fronts–including a trip to Iraq that resupplied the Soviet Red Army.
In My Own Words
Listen to Howard Pfeifer’s complete audio interview. An archival version of this interview is available upon request for research and educational purposes.