The Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI) has worked with the American Merchant Marine Veterans (AMMV) association since its founding in 1984. Representing a tireless “Voice for the American Merchant Mariner” and advocating for just compensation and recognition for merchant mariner veterans of WWII and other wars, the the New York and New Jersey chapters of the AMMV has worked with SCI to host countless meetings and celebrations for decades. Sadly, SCI has also lent their services to memorial remembrances for chapter members who have passed away. It is with a heavy heart that SCI does so for Gabriel “Gabe” Frank, who passed away on January 29th.
Most are surprised to learn that the merchant marine had a higher casualty rate during World War II than any branch of the armed forces. Because of their essential role in supplying the Allied front abroad, they became primary targets for German and Japanese attacks by air and from submarine torpedoes. In total 8,300 civilian mariners were killed at sea during World War II, with some 12,000 wounded, 1,100 of whom died from their wounds. 663 were taken prisoner, 66 of whom died in prison camps. By the end of the war, one in 26 merchant mariners had died, meaning that you were more likely to die as a merchant mariner than if you had been drafted into the Army, Navy, or the Marine Corps. And yet, the federal government excluded merchant mariners from G.I. Bill benefits, granting them nominal veteran status only in 1988, some forty years after their service.
In 1944 a sixteen-year old orphaned Gabriel (Gabe) Frank heard a radio spot calling on young men to join the merchant marine. He and his brother Rueben, both orphans struggling to survive after being passed through a series of foster and group homes on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, gathered what few possessions they had and set out for the Sheepshead Bay Maritime Service Training Station in Brooklyn a few months after Gabe’s seventeenth birthday.
A scene from the production of The Sea is My Brother, a short-form documentary directed by Avishai Mekonen, opens with a close-up on the title of a large bronze plaque: “UNITED STATES MARITIME SERVICE TRAINING STATION / SHEEPSHEAD BAY, NEW YORK / WORLD WAR II,” then pans upward revealing three columns of names, listed alphabetically, perhaps 100 deep in each column. The header at the top of the plaque reads, “THESE—VOLUNTEERS ALL—ANSWERED THEIR COUNTRY’S CALL, SIGNED THE ARTICLES, AND SAILED—TO ETERNITY.”
The camera then cuts to Gabe, then 87-years-old, hunched over and clinging to a walker. He has on his standard wardrobe: a polo shirt with stray collar, thick tie loose around his neck, and a navy blue blazer that is sagging with the weight of dozens of pins, mostly flags from all of the countries he sailed to while he was a merchant mariner.
Dense rings of jangling bracelets cover his wrists. His hat reads “KOREA VETERAN,” a testament to his career at sea after WWII. He sharply addresses two passersby, young students at Kingsborough Community College, the City University of New York outpost that took over the campus on which the Sheepshead Bay Maritime Service Training Station had operated from 1943 to 1954. “Do you know what that means?” Gabe asks, gesturing towards the plaque. The students are bewildered. “I was here in World War II,” he goes on, undeterred. “These guys went on the ships, based--trained here. Never came home.”
Gabe reads part of the inscription on the plaque to the students (“They sailed on to eternity!”), then describes his training—“obstacle course, marching, parades…” He ignores the students’ silence and starts to list the places he’s visited as a seaman: Norway, India, Africa, Japan, Korea, Philippines, Vietnam… After learning that one of the students is from Puerto Rico, Gabe breaks into a smile and shifts into Spanish, listing Latin American ports: San Juan, Antigua, Colombia, Panama, Peru, Chile, Ecuador, Venezuela, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, El Salvador… He wishes the students luck (“Buena suerte!”), and smiles as he waves goodbye. One of the students salutes him.
The scene ends with Gabe alone, the students having gone on their way. He turns to the director, Avishai behind the camera and gestures again towards the plaque. “You see, Avish, they don’t know what that means!” “You told them. Now they know,” Avishai offers. But Gabe is angry now. “These guys, you know where they’re at now? They’re at the bottom of the ocean! They should tell them that in the classroom! They were at the bottom of the ocean! They were burned, swallowed oil, the ships exploded!” The shot cuts away and the scene ends with Gabe, in a hunch over his walker, shuffling away with his back to the camera.
Several years ago, Gabe took ill and required help back to his home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. After sending a concerned friend away for the night, Gabe walked out of his apartment building, hailed a cab, and checked himself into a hospital. He had suffered a series of strokes, and lost feeling and movement on the right side of his body. Despite his condition he managed to call me the following day, having memorized my phone number. (For years, Gabe would call me regularly, at all hours; just to check in, ask about my life, update me on the status of stagnant legislation, and air frustrations. Our conversations would always end with him asking about my family and with a promise to speak soon).
After several weeks in the hospital Gabe was transferred to a rehabilitation center. Shortly thereafter while on Twitter, I came across a surreptitious retweet from the American Merchant Marine Veterans’ account that let me know that Gabe was officially on the mend. A Twitter user had apparently been walking in the park across from the rehab facility when he stumbled upon an impromptu video shoot in progress:
It was Gabe, survivor of sixteen years as an orphan on the Lower East Side, months at sea during World War II, a career of hard labor on ships and on land, and a series of strokes that took away his mobility and slurred his speech. But he was not finished yet. There was more of his story that he wanted to tell, and there were people who were there to listen.
Gabe grants an interview to an unidentified film crew outside his rehab facility. (Image: Twitter).
Gabriel Frank died on January 29th, 2020. He was buried at Beth David Cemetery in Elmont, NY, a town on the border of Queens and Long Island. He was a scrappy kid from the Lower East Side, a sailor in times of war and peace, an unstoppable advocate for merchant mariners, and my friend since the moment we met. Thanks to the Seamen’s Church Institute of New York and New Jersey’s support of the American Merchant Marine Oral History Project, his voice lives on.
You can listen to Gabe’s oral history interview, conducted in 2010, here.
And, you can watch The Sea is My Brother and more from filmmaker Avishai Mekonen here.