Harold Wise had no idea what he was getting himself into. Neither did the American people.

In the 1940s, World War II seemed distant, the danger far away across two oceans. Even now, scanning the Emerald Coast, one cannot imagine it ever being scarred by war — but it was.

National Geographic said more than 20 German submarines roamed the Gulf of Mexico during World War II. The American people weren’t told of the danger “for fear of spreading panic.”

Harold Wise definitely didn’t know.

Born in 1925, Wise received a letter from President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1943 that read, “Greetings.” It then told Wise where to report. He’d been drafted.

Wise was 18 at the time, but the letter surprised him. “Farmers had been exempt,” he said.

Wise grew up a sharecropper’s son, picking cotton during the Depression. They lived about an hour north of the Emerald Coast, working another’s land, exchanging part of their crop for seed, tools, food and a place to live. His family had nothing but a mule and a wagon.

As a result of Roosevelt’s greeting, Wise joined 227 men loaded onto two buses and sent for a medical exam.

“Mostly farmers,” he said, “And some idiots who didn’t know their names. They were rejected pretty quickly.”

After the exam, those who’d passed were told to go home and not marry because they could be called up at any time. In 1944, Wise decided not to wait. He traveled with a buddy to Mobile, Alabama, and joined the Merchant Marine.

Wise found out later that he’d chosen the most deadly job of the war.

He explained that the Germans were determined to keep fuel and equipment from reaching Great Britain. National Geographic reported that enemy subs in the Gulf were taking out ships “like a turkey shoot.” In fact, in 1942, just 25 miles off the coast of Louisiana, a Navy ship became one of 70 lost to the Germans in the Gulf.

The Atlantic side was worse. The Washington Post quotes author Ed Offley who claims German subs “rampaged … the East Coast sinking 226 Allied merchant ships.”

Those terrible casualties were kept secret until after the war. The Smithsonian said the Merchant Marine had the highest casualty rate of all the branches, mostly in 1942 when ships sailed without protection.

Wise first trained at St. Petersburg and remembers the day he was flown from Miami to the Panama Canal for his first trip to the South Pacific.

“April 12, 1945,” he said. “It was the day Roosevelt died.”

Obviously, avoiding detection was the name of the game for the Merchant tankers. The sharecropper’s son soon found himself headed toward the equator.

“We had to travel down there to avoid enemy subs,” he said. Then, once they reached the South Pacific, they’d move in a slow zigzag formation also to avoid being found by subs.

Wise made two trips across 6,000 miles of ocean. He traveled through the Panama Canal five times. It wasn’t until after World War II that the Merchant Marine retroactively became a full branch of service. Wise spoke of Eisenhower, who said if it hadn’t been for those who risked their lives to supply the fuel and tanks, the war would never have been won.

After hostilities ceased, Wise returned home and spotted a girl in his church. They’ve now been married over 70 years. He taught Sunday school and served as a deacon for 40 years. A favorite verse: “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’” Psalm 122:1

The son of a sharecropper was also elected to the state legislature and then as a probate judge.

Did the war change him?

“It made me grateful,” Wise said. “I saw a lot that I didn’t know was in the world — the way other people live. I feel lucky to be reared a Christian and to be living in the United States.”

This weekend we celebrate the Fourth with cookouts, baseball and fireworks. Hopefully, we’ll also remember the “rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air.” We’re the land of the free because of the brave.

Salute a veteran or service member. Do it today.

Copyright © 2019 R.A. Mathews The Rev. Mathews is an attorney, faith columnist and the author of “Reaching to God.” She is a part-time resident of Miramar Beach and can be reached at letters@RAMathews.com.