Bill Balabanow was born February 17, 1926 in the little town of Blue Ridge Summit in southern Pennsylvania, though the family moved to Lancaster in 1931, and that is where he spent most of his childhood. Bill’s parents divorced when he was an infant, so his parental and family memories come mainly from his mother’s second marriage, and the many sisters that came with it. Bill’s stepfather was a miner and then a preacher, and the family was able to do well enough against the backdrop of the Great Depression. Bill recalls that he was not much of a student, and that he left school in Grade 10, just as the shadow of war was beginning to fall over the United States. Indeed, when the attack on Pearl Harbor happened, Bill and many friends rushed to join up, though Bill was denied a spot in the army because of medical reasons. The merchant navy did accept Bill though, and he joined up and went to Brooklyn, N.Y. for his training, followed by his first convoy, which went to Marseilles, France with military supplies. They returned to the US with damaged equipment, which was to be repaired and recycled for the war effort. Subsequent journeys saw Bill go through the Panama Canal en route to the Philippines; on the return trip he saw Okinawa and Ulithi – and learned about the atomic bombs and the end of the war. Bill ended up staying in the merchant marine after the war, making it his career. Early on he did a number of voyages related to the Marshall Plan, where he had the occasion to go to Germany and Poland, and later he completed trips in the Pacific. Bill decided to retire in 1979, and not long after that he began to speak of his early days in the merchant marine, in the process breaking down misconceptions and prejudices that had impacted the merchant marine during its postwar history. He also carried the mantle of remembrance, doing his best to have the wartime contributions of himself and his seamen brethren given official recognition; those efforts led to a congressional gold medal. Bill Balabanow was interviewed in person by Steven Sidebotham and over zoom by Scott Masters in the fall of 2023, and both interviews are combined here.
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