on May 26, 2013 - 7:21 PM
The eyes of the nation will be on James Van Splunder today as he lays a wreath at the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Van Splunder, a member of the Merchant Marine during World War II, usually marches in the local Memorial Day Parade along Main Street in Holland with other members of the Frank H. Brink Post 607, American Legion. After the march, they return to the hall for a somber ceremony to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice in defending the nation. Then there’s coffee and doughnuts.
But not today.
At 9 o’clock this morning, Van Splunder will be among the World War II veterans placing wreaths at the national memorial, each representing a different branch of wartime service.
“It is an honor and pleasure for me to place a wreath on the memorial. I think I’m the only Merchant Marine from Western New York to go down to Washington and do it,” Van Splunder said before leaving last week for Washington.
How the 91-year Westfield native came to receive this honor goes back to a class reunion that his son Timothy attended last September at Norwich University in Vermont. A classmate at Norwich, the oldest private military college in the nation, asked if his father would be interested in representing the Merchant Marine on Memorial Day.
“I said, ‘I’m pretty darn sure he would love to do it. Let me check,’ ” Timothy Van Splunder recalled.
After his dad agreed, the son decided to make it a truly special day.
“I coordinated with Washington, D.C., to see if he earned any medals while in the service,” Timothy said.
It turns out his father should have received five medals that his son believes are in recognition of different campaigns during the war.
So unbeknown to the Holland resident, his family worked behind the scenes to arrange for the presentation of the medals this morning at the memorial.
A dozen or more family members from all over the country will be there, including sons Timothy and James, both retired from the armed forces, who will escort him when he places the wreath.
And that’s not all.
Some 40 other veterans from the American Legion post in Holland, fellow Kiwanis Club members and others from the community left Saturday on a bus chartered by the Legion to be there for Van Splunder’s big moment.
Van Splunder’s journey into World War II began at 19 years of age in 1941 when he received a draft notice from the Army. He and his childhood friend Bill Bramer had other plans.
“We wanted to join the Merchant Marine, and a lawyer acquaintance of ours managed to arrange it that we could enlist in the Merchant Marine,” Van Splunder said.
At the time, they did not realize that they were volunteering for what would be extremely hazardous duty. Hundreds upon hundreds of Merchant Marine vessels were sunk by the enemy while transporting war cargo to Europe and elsewhere overseas.
“My friend and I were young, and like most young people, fearless. That’s why we wanted to be” in the Merchant Marine, Van Splunder said, adding that he had been required to enlist in the Navy Reserve and Coast Guard in order to receive military training to complement his seaworthiness.
For about two years, he worked at New York Harbor delivering fuel to docked ships. Then, in 1943, he was assigned to the Liberty ship R.C. Brennan.
The safety of shore duty was soon just a memory.
“We were in a convoy of Liberty ships, probably about 20, and we zigzagged all across the Atlantic Ocean, so it took about seven days with no lights on at night to cross,” he said. “When we got to the Strait of Gibraltar, the Germans ruled France, and they flew over us dropping flares so that they could spot us and bomb us.”
Van Splunder remembers seeing the flares land on the water, but only hearing German warplanes overhead because it was so dark.
“We were told at one point to stand by to abandon ship. But we were saved by the bell,” he said. “This electrical storm came and chased the Germans away. You wouldn’t believe how bad that storm was. Everything was all lit up by the lightning.”
The convoy headed to Algeria, where Van Splunder learned that his ship was loaded with a cargo of ammunition and blasting caps.
“If we had been hit by the Germans or the lightning, we would have been blown to pieces,” he said.
Van Splunder recalls yet another risky mission when the “cargo” was kept secret until they had crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Italy from Algeria.
“I saw Gen. Charles de Gaulle. He was surrounded by his bodyguards who were all ‘7 feet tall,’ and he was tall himself. He was in charge of the French Free Forces. Because the docks were all bombed out at Naples, he had to go ashore in a lifeboat,” Van Splunder said.
That night, the Germans shelled the R.C. Brennan, which was hit but remained afloat.
Van Splunder also remembers coming under fire when delivering supplies to England.
“When we docked in England, the Germans were sending over buzz bombs, and we were nearly hit,” he said. “You could hear the bombs coming, and then they would go silent as they dropped down. It was kind of scary.”
He served on a total of four Liberty ships, before his final assignment on a Victory ship, the Santa Clara, in the Pacific.
“I was out to sea on the Santa Clara when they dropped the atomic bombs on Japan, and that was the end of the war,” he said. “But some of the Japanese submarines didn’t know that, and we had to watch out for them.”
Fortunately, the Santa Clara had no encounters with the subs. His time on that ship, he said, provided him with an around-the-world cruise.
“We had started out of Hoboken, N.J., then through the Atlantic to the Caribbean Sea, then through the Panama Canal to Hawaii,” he said. “Then we went to the Philippines and over to China, and from China to India. From India, we went through the Suez Canal, then through the Mediterranean to the Atlantic and to Norfolk, Va.”
That took about six months, ending on Jan. 1, 1946.
“The war was ended, and I took a train back to Buffalo,” he said. “Everything was good.”
Van Splunder found work in construction. Later, he was hired by an electrical contractor and became an electrician, rising to position of general foreman before retiring in 1984. He and his wife, the former Ruth Lowe, raised five children.
If given the chance to speak today at the memorial, he says, he has prepared some words of gratitude for those who died defending the nation:
“It’s a great honor to lay this wreath for the veterans of World War II who gave their lives to protect our freedom, liberty and justice for all. God bless America. Let the sun shine bright on all of us. Happiness is ours forever. Thank you, veterans.”