52 Ancestors: At The Library

One of my goals this year is to learn more about my ancestors’ everyday lives. I began with my grandfather William Gordon McCallum, who served in the Merchant Marines from 1929 to 1951. My mom said he didn’t talk much about his time, so I wanted to try to figure out what life would have been like.


Photo of Captain William Gordon McCallum, from his Merchant Marine file.


I saw on Twitter the recommendation for a book, “The Mathews Men,” which I checked out from the library. It has helped me to better read his records from his time


The main thing I have discovered is the duties of the officers on board. My grandfather was primarily a second officer, which meant he charted the course using a sextant. Each man would sign up for a single ship, so in one journey my grandpa would be chief mate, and the next third mate. Photos of his sextant below:

Another thing, Merchant mariners are only paid when they are on the ship. If the ship was hit and they were forced to abandon, once the men hit the water they were off the clock. Incredible for men who were risking their lives.

One in 26 merchant mariners were killed during World War II. The bulk of those were killed in the Atlantic Ocean. My grandpa sailed out of Eastern ports many times, even in 1942. This map from the book shows the shipping lanes from 1942:


I am still working through this book, but it has been so enlightening. It is one of those eye-opening things: even though he never physically engaged in combat, my grandpa was in danger all the time.

There is current legislation to recognize the service of Merchant Marines during World War II. If you are so inclined, there is a form to contact your legislators and encourage them to move the bills along, which you can find here: LINK

I wrote a little more about my grandpa’s service for a post last year, which you can find HERE.

Buy the book on Amazon (or read more about it) HERE.

Follow the American Merchant Marines Veterans on Twitter HERE.