Friday, February 12, 2021

"Free" Passage


For the price of being plucked from a torpedoed ship in the midst of a World War, Michael Melnitchenko was awarded the chance to get "free" passage back to his port of origin in New York City. According to the requisite documentation upon his arrival there, classified as an alien in war times, his passage had been paid by the W. S. A.

That little detail wasn't freely evident on the document in which I had first found Michael after his harrowing wartime experience. It took some exploration of the pages surrounding his actual record to glean the context and locate his entire report. I've learned, over the years, to develop the knack of being nosy, and once I've found a person's records, to flip through the rest of the record set.

I learned, for instance, that the Liberty Ship S.S. John Rutledge was transporting not just one, but several seamen who had been involved in similar wartime scenarios. For several, the tag, "repatriated seaman" was included on their entry. In fact, Michael had, himself, been entered in the listing for the others from the torpedoed S.S. Richard Olney—until port officials realized Michael was not a United States citizen, at which point they lined out his name.

Even on the page where Michael's entry finally was completed—the Aliens' listing—it took a little more of that habit of nosy research to discover just who paid the passage for him. The first page of his entry revealed much of what we've already come to realize: that Michael was born in Russia—in "Necolaeff"—but when asked about his nationality, the entry indicated, "No National." Just as his wife and daughter had done in a later passenger list, he was likely claiming to be stateless.

The second page of Michael's entry in the Aliens' listing provided more clues about the episode in late 1943 which brought him back from the unlikely location of Bizerte in north Africa. While it was reassuring to see that he listed for "nearest relative" his wife Lydia, then living in Marseilles, France—at least assuring me we weren't dealing with a deceptive double—what caused me the most questions was the statement of who had paid for his voyage.

In response to the form's question, the answer was an abbreviation: W.S.A. I had to check that one out. In the process, I found the explanation for another phrase used for all the other seamen from the S.S. Richard Olney: "repatriated seaman."

A development in response to America's entry into the second World War, the War Shipping Administration was established by Executive Order on February 7, 1942, becoming the government's ship operating agency, tasked with the purchase and operation of the civilian shipping capacity the government needed to coordinate war efforts. 

In a press release issued by the W.S.A. about a year after Michael Melnitchenko's ordeal on the S.S. Richard Olney, the agency defined the term "repatriation."

Repatriation means the returning from foreign soil or waters, for any reason whatsoever, of any merchant seaman who is not performing the duties to which he had been assigned.

While that definition did have an ominous tinge to it, the press release went on to explain that 

Contrasted with the early months of the war when the majority of the repatriated men were "wet survivors"—men who had been torpedoed—the majority of the repatriates now are men who have been injured, become sick, or who participated in special missions with the armed forces and are returning to join other ships.

It is likely that Michael would have been classified as one of those repatriated seamen from "the early months of the war." It was apparent from his subsequent crew listings that he did, indeed, return to New York to "join other ships." But that strange jaunt to Pennsylvania before this incident makes it very tempting for me to wonder about that last phrase in the W.S.A.'s definition: "participated in special missions." Why that strange detour to the West Hickory Tanning Company?

The second page of Michael's entry in the "Aliens" listing on the S.S. John Rutledge included a multitude of questions of the type fired at immigrants attempting to come to America: whether he was a polygamist, or an anarchist, or deformed or crippled. The little details I could glean from that page were the most helpful, painting a picture of his usual accommodations in New York City.

As I had noticed from Michael's many other crew listings, his entry upon arriving in New York City had often had a stamp emphatically declaring that he could have no more than 29 days leave to go ashore at any one time—clearly an attempt to restrict aliens from "disappearing" into the country as an immigrant. Such was the case, again, with this entry.

Despite that, the form also alerted me that, at least according to his report, Michael had last been in the United States at the date of his departure on the ill-fated S.S. Richard Olney on August 5, 1943, and that, before that point, he had been in New York for fourteen months. Note that the report declared his presence in New York, not Pennsylvania, when it was fairly clear that the duplicate information on the Pennsylvania draft registration was not the handiwork of an evil twin, but Michael himself—a story we'll likely never uncover.

And while his final destination was listed as New York, in asking Michael about his intentions after that point, he denied any intention to return to his native land, nor to become a citizen of the United States. The only other detail we can glean from this form was that upon arrival in New York, Michael was to report to the city's office of the War Shipping Administration on Broadway—and that someone had entered the instructions, "reship."

Finding those other details helped confirm the right identity of this Michael Melnitchenko—husband of Lydia in Marseilles—and assured us that his city of birth, no matter how it was spelled, was indeed the city for the right Michael Melnitchenko. Flipping through the pages surrounding his record turned out to produce some useful information on Michael, even though we are still left with mysteries surrounding that odd Pennsylvania draft registration.

As it turns out, flipping a few pages for entries found on Michael's wife also proved a productive exercise in being a nosy researcher. We'll return to Lydia's side of the story on Monday.

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