The Bucket List: Mariner checks off four life goalsWASHINGTON — To Madison resident Wilt Gustafson, Washington, D.C., is hardly a novelty.
WASHINGTON — To Madison resident Wilt Gustafson, Washington, D.C., is hardly a novelty.
But his veteran status is.
Last weekend marked the ex-Merchant Marine’s 13th trip to the nation’s capital — though his first as an honored veteran. Merchant Marines were promised the same benefits as other branches of the military upon entering the service, but their status as veterans was not recognized by the Department of Defense until 1988.
“Now we can use veterans’ medical facilities, which we’re thankful for,” he said, adding: “We missed the GI Bill of Rights. When you’re in your 70s or 80s, you don’t care to make use of a GI education or a home loan.”
It’s no surprise, then, that Gustafson had his own agenda for the trip. He calls it his bucket list, inspired by the movie of the same name, and he was able to check off every last item during his whirlwind trip to the nation’s capital. He had his picture taken at the National Air and Space Museum next to the Enola Gay and Air France Concorde, at the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial and at the World War II Memorial next to the Merchant Marine monument.
Gustafson enlisted on Dec. 5, 1944. “I faced either being drafted or joining the action real quick. And to get in the action real quick I joined the Merchant Marines,” he recalled. “I was in the deck department, where you learn how to steer and paint the ship and splice the wire lines. And you come out of there as an ordinary seaman. Then after you sail so many hours, you’d become an able-bodied seaman.”
The men were tasked with carrying all necessary equipment, trucks, tanks and ammunition — “the cargo of war,” as Gustafson put it.
He spent some time aboard what he called a “Pineapple Ship,” hauling freight to Hawaii and sugar back to the U.S. Mainland. He’d also hauled cargo to Guam, Korea, Japan, Panama and the Philippines during his military service.
Gustafson had the chance to experience Victory over Japan Day Aug. 15, 1945. “I didn’t do much outside of trying to kiss all the girls; that seemed to be the popular thing to do,” he said with a chuckle.
Merchant Marines worked on a contract basis, taking on tasks as they arose to avoid the risk of deployment in the armed forces.
“If you stayed on shore more than 30 days, your draft would be activated,” Gustafson explained. “Whenever your job was over, your pay would stop. That was the unfortunate part about it; but that’s the way the war was won.”
Nearly a quarter-million people served in the Merchant Marines during the war, and mariners suffered higher casualty rates than any branch of the Armed Services except the Marine Corps.
With or without validation of his service by the government, Gustafson has developed a strong sense of pride in having aided the war effort.
“My bucket list is just about complete,” he confirmed as he surveyed the circular marble bench that bears the insignia of the Merchant Marines. “We’re very proud of the fact that we got recognition out here at the World War II Memorial.”