The life of Michael Chris Boosalis will be celebrated Sunday at a memorial service at St. Mary’s Greek Orthodox Church in Minneapolis. The date honors a tradition of gathering on the Sunday closest to the 40th day after a loved one’s death.
But anyone who knew “Big Boo,” who died in March, knows how tickled he’d be that his family will gather on what is also the eve of Memorial Day, a time to honor those who died in service to our country.
While Boosalis lived 88 rich years, I knew him as a man whose passion was his military service during World War II. That service began at age 16, when he snuck out of his house to enlist, before his “old man” yanked him out of line. Four months later, President Franklin Roosevelt legalized military service at age 16½, and Boosalis was back in line.
Now that he’s gone, I wonder who will tell the special, and still largely ignored, stories of the branch in which he served from 1944 to 1947: the Merchant Marine.
“They influenced my life forever,” he wrote in his self-penned obituary, titled “Duty, Honor, Country.”
“It was a privilege to get to meet, to know and to serve with selfless young men with guts.”
Approximately 240,000 men, and a handful of women, served in the Merchant Marine during World War II. They sailed the cargo ships that delivered supplies and personnel all over the world for U.S. and Allied forces —bombs and gasoline, guns and ammunition, food, planes, medicine and millions of barrels of oil.
More than 9,000 of their members died in battle. Another 12,000 were wounded. Despite these losses, detractors viewed them as “draft dodgers” or lesser fighters because some had health limitations, such as asthma or colorblindness, that prohibited them from serving in other branches.
Mariners didn’t receive military discharges with veterans benefits until 1988. They still wait for passage of an equity compensation fund in Congress, called the Belated Thank You to the Merchant Mariners of World War II Act. The act, held up by leadership in the House Veterans Affairs Committee, would grant $25,000 to each surviving member of the Merchant Marine, which “is like nickels,” said Elizabeth Odendahl, spokeswoman for Rep. Janice Hahn, D-Calif., a co-author of the bill.
She added, “And every day that we don’t do this, the bill gets cheaper and cheaper.”
Seven years ago, after another Memorial Day came and went with no acknowledgment of their contributions, Boosalis invited me to American Legion Post No. 435 in Richfield, to meet a dwindling number of Merchant Marine compatriots, most in their 80s.
The stories poured out about their seafaring adventures. And, they proudly noted, theirs were the only integrated ships.
“They did very dangerous work,” said Margie Boosalis, of Minneapolis, who didn’t know a thing about the Merchant Marine until she met her future father-in-law.
“So much of his identity was his service,” she said. “Those few years really changed him.”
(The nickname “Big Boo” came from the years when her father-in-law weighed upward of 350 pounds, she said, before he dropped to a healthier weight on his own.)
After the war, Boosalis returned home and joined a brother in the restaurant business. He married Stella Helen Siganos in 1948 and later worked as a union millwright. “Building America,” Boosalis said. “That was me.”
He and Stella raised four children — Karen, Chris Michael, Katina and Harry Michael — and enjoyed 14 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. Daughter Karen, who graduated from Minneapolis Central High School in 1968, remembers her father asking her if her homework was done. He wasn’t checking up on her, she said. He wanted to borrow her schoolbooks.
“I remember Dad reading our social studies books, our history books, because he wanted to be educated,” said Karen, of Stanton, Neb., who traveled to Minneapolis for Sunday’s service.
“He was not ashamed that he did not graduate from high school, because he went into the service so young. He wanted to learn.”
Later in life, Boosalis became the family historian.
“Anyone could call him if they wanted to know about relatives in Greece,” said Karen of her father-in-law, whom she called Papou, which is Greek for grandfather.
On this day, let’s begin our own history lesson to learn more about those who served in the Merchant Marine.
“Safe passage. Calm seas. Our port of call is near,” Boosalis wrote for his funeral service in March.
“With love and fond memories, Big Boo.”