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Frank Wonsik: A Tolland Merchant Marine

Wonsik gives a glimpse into the life of a merchant marine, serving during WWII.

Tolland resident and Hartford native Frank Wonsik honorably served his country in WWII, but in a branch that is perhaps less well-known than services like the Army, Navy or Air Force.

Wonsik dropped out of school at the age of 17 to enlist in the Merchant Marines, a group that provided essential supplies and support to troops in WWII and beyond.

"Without our supplies, they couldn't keep the war going," he said of the crucial role of the Merchant Marines.

"I wanted to be a sailor," Wonsik said of his decision to enlist in 1944. "All my buddies were gone. I was the only one left around, and I wanted to enlist before the end of the war."

Although Wonsik said he hoped to avoid endless marching with his service on the seas, he ended up in boot camp at Sheepshead Bay, Long Island with his peers, participating in physical training and taking part in classes teaching the enlisted men the essentials of life on the sea.

"I didn't know one end of a lifeboat from another," he joked of his inexperience before completing boot camp.

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There would be no end to new experiences for Wonsik. During his service, which ended in 1952, Wonsik travelled to England, North and South Korea, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, Brazil, Uruguay, Canada, Germany and France, just to name a few of the countries he explored in port.

And while the ships Wonsik served on were not attacked directly, he skirted danger several times throughout his career.

For example, Wonsik explained that the Merchant Marine ships would travel up and down the coast of the U.S. to gather all of the necessary military supplies before making the two-week long trek across the Atlantic to the troops. But even while traveling in American waters, the merchant marines were on the look out for wolfpack German submarines, which would lie in wait outside of the harbors of Boston or New York.

"A lot of ships would get torpedoed in American waters," Wonsik said. The crew would black out the ship and were able to sneak out of Boston and into Halifax unharmed, he said.

Submarines also threatened Wonsik's ships when the merchant marines traveled to the Caribbean and to the Gulf of Mexico to pick up fuel and gasoline for American forces from the refineries of Aruba and the southern U.S. states.

He said that the subs notoriously lingered in the mouth of the Mississippi River, looking for the slow-moving, fully-loaded tankers filled to the brim with gasoline supplies.

"I saw them torpedo a few, but they missed our ship. We were lucky," Wonsik said.

Wonsik's luck ran out during a vicious South Atlantic storm, which caused his ship to lose its propellor, setting the crew adrift for weeks before another boat came to tug the ship to Brazil.

"That was the only time I got scared," Wonsik said. The ship listed so badly as it waited for assistance, that water would come onto the decks, he added.

Despite the danger, Wonsik said that his eight years in the Merchant Marines were more than a worthwhile experience for him. 

"If they called me back tomorrow, I'd go," Wonsik said.

Once he left the service, he worked for 32 years at CT Transit and moved to Tolland in 1964. He still lives in Tolland with his wife, Barbara.

For more information on the Merchant Marines and its history, visit this website detailing the service's role in various wars.  being added to the memorial on Tolland Green this year.

Charles Fields August 20, 2012 at 12:37 PM
A personal "Thank you" to Frank. The men and women of the Merchant Marine are truly unsung heros. Blessing to all of you! Charles Fields USMMA 1970
Irene August 20, 2012 at 01:23 PM
My father-in-law was a Merchant Marine radio operator, and often regaled us with tales of his voyages.The Merchant Marines were an integral service during wartime, and are often overlooked and unrecognized. Kudos to Tolland for adding them to the Memorial-and thank you Mr. Wonsik, for your service!
Claire Hughes August 22, 2012 at 11:05 AM
My father and husband's father both served in the Merchant Marines during WWII. My husband and I were fortunate enough to take a day cruise out of Portland, ME. on the refurbished John Brown Liberty Ship. It was truly an awesome experience. Mr. Wonsik would be surprised to see how many people would be interested in hearing his experiences in a schedule talk. Keep us posted if there ever is such an event. Thank you for your service Mr. Wonsik!

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