My grandpa, Paul Helm Kula, played on Merchant Marine ships during World War II. He never talked about those years and quit playing music after the war. I discovered his military service when I researched on Ancestry.com his records and found his name on shipping manifests in Italy, Algiers Africa, France, the Panama Canal and other exotic ports. I also discovered that the highest casualty rate was among Merchant Marines which was covered up by the U.S. government until records were open in 1988.
He was a quiet man who drank beer everyday and drove a school bus. My grandmother showed me his entertainer pictures, the handsome swarthy man with the lei around his neck. He played the ukelele and upright bass with the Aloha Serenaders. They look like a glamorous group but I wonder if he was on board a Merchant Marine ship during the invasion of Italy.
A German air attack sank 17 Allied merchant ships with a loss of more than 1,000 lives. One of the ships, the SS John Harvey, was carrying a secret cargo of 100 tons of mustard gas bombs. That ship was hit and hundreds of mariners, navy sailors and civilians died from the effects of the mustard gas.
Grandpa was never heralded as a hero, didn’t receive one cent of veteran’s benefits which was denied them until 1988. He was never recognized for his job of lifting the morale of Merchant Mariners with his music. So today I want to pay tribute to Grandpa Paul and all of the service members – inactive and active – who were never told ‘thank you’ for leaving your friends and families and doing a job that no one wants to to do.
I recently helped put together a Military Appreciation event in Liberty, MO. where a USO show was re-enacted. Veterans who served in Korea, Vietnam, and during World War II wept during the show. The music and songs brought back memories of wartime friends now lost. I wished Grandpa would have played music for me while he was alive.
I don’t know the bloody battle scenes that he must have seen that caused him to put away his music. And I don’t know the bloody battle scenes those veterans at that celebration must have seen that they don’t want to talk about. War is ugly and bloody and leaves scars that no one wants to talk about.
For all of the unheralded heroes who no one ever said thank you, thank you. Thank you Grandpa Paul for serving our country with your songs and your music. Thank you Grandpa Paul for going where no one else wanted to go to do a job that no one else wanted to do. I remember you this day.