WHITEHALL — During World War II, the most dangerous service in the US military was not the Army, Navy, Marines or Coast Guard; it was the merchant navy. But for decades, Merchant Navy veterans like Reynolds Tomter, 105, of Pigeon Falls, haven’t enjoyed the same benefits and recognition as those who served in other branches.
Tomter Country made amends on Monday. Friends, family and military colleagues filled the 500-seat auditorium at Whitehall High School to near capacity as Tomter accepted his World War II Congressional Gold Medal from U.S. Representative Ron Kind.
“These awards never come too late,” a beaming Tomter said after the ceremony, which was moved from Pigeon Falls to accommodate the expected audience.
Merchant Navy members were denied veteran status until 1988, and it wasn’t until 2020 that the Congressional Gold Medal Act to honor their service was signed into law by the President Donald Trump. The lack of recognition persisted even as Tomter and his fellow sailors executed the largest sealift in US history.
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It was a dangerous duty. One in 26 sailors who served in the Merchant Navy was killed in World War II – the highest death rate of any branch of military service.
“They stepped in at a time when we needed them, and some gave their all,” said Tomter’s son Bud, who traveled from his home in Georgia and delivered the invocation.
Captain Chris Edyvean of the US Merchant Navy Veterans said the Merchant Navy played an indispensable role in transporting supplies and troops around the world to defeat Germany and Japan. He described the sailors and their ships as “sitting ducks”, especially in the Atlantic Ocean where German U-boats relentlessly stalked Allied shipping. More than 700 American freighters were sunk and more than 8,000 merchant marine service members lost their lives. In addition, more than 11,000 were injured and 600 were made prisoners of war.
But the Axis powers could not prevent America from supplying the war effort. During the last year of the war, merchant navy ships delivered 8,500 tons of cargo per hour.
“The Merchant Navy played a pivotal role in helping the Allies bounce back and ultimately win World War II,” Edyvean said.
Tomter joined the Merchant Navy on March 7, 1943. He flew six missions across the Atlantic to France and Italy. The voyages lasted more than two weeks, and it took another two weeks to unload the cargo. He was assigned to the ship’s mess, where his duties included baking up to three dozen loaves of bread a day – without the aid of a mixer.
“Everything had to be done by hand,” he said. “They let you know if the food was ok.”
Because Tomter was not a deckhand, he stayed “down” 90% of the time. He said he didn’t mind the duty downstairs, but enjoyed the sunshine and fresh air when the ship docked.
It was prepared for service on deck, if necessary.
“I was trained to be a gunner in case of a breakdown,” he said.
Tomter’s merchant marine service also prepared him for his post-military career, according to one of his friends.
“Reynolds thought maybe he could make some money, so he bought cigarettes in the United States, took them to Europe and sold them, and he made a little profit,” said retired Air Force Lt. Col. Roy Aanerud to the audience. “This small business got Reynolds interested in sales.”
Aanerud said it was no coincidence that Tomter owned and operated a general store in Pigeon Falls after returning from the war.
America wasn’t the only country to honor Tomter on Monday. Captain Egil Vasstrand came from the Norwegian Embassy in Washington, D.C. to present Tomter with the Norwegian Liberation Medal. The medal was created in 2020 on the 75th anniversary of Norway’s liberation from German occupation to honor veterans who helped Norway during the war.
Tomter also received the Convoy Cup, a joint Nova Scotia and Norwegian organization that strives to “keep the memory of the brave men and women alive” who sailed in World War II convoys.
Vasstrand said his country would always be grateful to those who risked their lives to deliver the soldiers and cargo that liberated Europe from Nazi rule.
“They were all tasked with the dangerous duties of ferrying supplies across the submarine-infested Atlantic, where torpedoing was notorious,” he said. “No medal can make up for the hardships, anguish and horrors that Merchant Navy sailors experienced during the war.”
Tomter, who left behind a wife and daughter in Wisconsin after joining the Merchant Navy, said he appreciated the honors and everyone who attended the ceremony.
“Not being recognized before 1988 hurts a bit – I can’t help but say it – but it’s never too late. I’m very happy,” he said.
La Crosse Tribune reporter Steve Rundio can be reached at [email protected]