To live a century is an impressive accomplishment. To live 100 years as Ed DeLong Sr. is the story of life lived to the fullest.
DeLong, a Tukwila resident who will be 101 Oct. 7, was a merchant marine who spent five decades sailing the seas of the world. From dodging subs in the North Atlantic to surviving a torpedo attack in the Indian Ocean, DeLong experienced the thrill and danger of battle during three wars – World War II, the Korean and Vietnam wars.
“I managed to live through them all,” DeLong said at his Tukwila home.
Along the road he found the secret of family life in a marriage of 59 years to his wife Mary.
DeLong said he and his wife moved to Tukwila from Portland in 1955. The couple raised their family of four children, three daughters, Rae, Rolfanne and Renee and a son Eddie in the same home he lives in today.
A life changer
DeLong was born in 1911 in Grafton, N.Y.
“We lived six miles from the Albany on the Hudson River,” DeLong said. “When I was 10 years old, my folks moved to Florida. Mother had trouble with the cold.”
In 1930 Delong joined the United States Merchant Marine. The nation was in the grip of the Great Depression.
“There were no good jobs,” he said.
His decision to join the Merchant Marine at 20 years old gave him much more than a good job. The merchant service opened up a seafarer’s world of adventure until he retired as a chief mate nearly 50 years later in October 1979.
DeLong was on the seas during a number of harrowing military supply voyages in the North Atlantic during World War II. One voyage he recalled in the early 1940s during the President Franklin Roosevelt-era lend-lease program brought DeLong face-to-face with Nazi submarines.
“We started out from Scotland and went to Reykjavik (Iceland),” DeLong said. “There were 30 ships in the convoy from Iceland.”
After one day sailing north the convoy turned back.
“Some of those wolf packs (German submarines) were out there waiting for us,” he said. “They (the submarines) were picking them off pretty good. That was true all over the North Atlantic.”
The first time DeLong was on a ship that was hit he was part of a convoy heading to Murmansk, Russia, around North Cape, Norway.
“It was darn cold off the Norwegian coast,” he said. “We saw it get 55 below.”
He said once it got up to 25 or 30 below, “it warmed up a bit.”
During the Murmansk run his ship was bombed off North Cape. DeLong said about half the crew went to the convoy command ship and they asked for volunteers to stand by the disabled ship. DeLong was one of those who stayed with the bombed ship.
“They took the last lifeboat we had,” DeLong said. “There we were with nothing but the ship floating. We were about three days out of Murmansk off the Norwegian coast. The next day the command ship was torpedoed. They had the tough time. They were picked up two days after they were torpedoed.”
DeLong went to visit his shipmates who went with the command ship that was torpedoed.
“Two of them lost both feet, one lost both hands and feet from frostbite in the lifeboat,” DeLong said. “Others just died in the lifeboat. The ones that made it into the hospital in Murmansk were in bad shape. Mostly lost feet and hands. It was pretty bad.”
Delong and the crew who stayed with the ship were able to repair the vessel well enough to get it into Murmansk harbor, and there he saw a sight he would never forget.
“We got into Murmansk and the whole harbor was ships sitting on the bottom,” he said. “The harbor was only about 30 feet of water, just the superstructure (bridge and upper deck of the ships) were showing.
The ships were hit by German Luftwaffe bombers.
“We finally got docked and a British ship right ahead of us was hit by a bomb and sunk at the dock,” DeLong said.
The Russian government gave the crew one month pay for all the ships that made the Murmansk port with supplies intact, DeLong said.
He said after unloading the war supplies for the British, the merchant ships headed back to New York, but trouble was still waiting.
“Getting out of Murmansk was quite a problem,” DeLong said. “A brand new British destroyer was escorting our convoy. We got around North Cape and that new destroyer was torpedoed. Two submarines attacked it. It took three torpedoes to sink it. We finally scuttled it. It had a $100 million of gold on board. It was torpedoed. Two submarines attacked it. It took three torpedoes to sink it. We finally scuttled it. It had a $100 million of gold on board. It was finally retrieved – and Britain got the gold. It was for the American payment the Russians were sending to America; it was British gold. It was dug out it 10 or 20 years later.”
The convoy was finally able to dodge the submarines by sailing next to the ice fields.
“We could gallop up into the ice fields and the submarines couldn’t maneuver in there,” he said.
After about 20 days the convoy made it safely back to New York.
He also ran into trouble with enemy submarines in the Indian Ocean during World War II. This time his ship was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine.
“I was on watch on the bridge,” DeLong said. “All I heard was boom, boom. One hit the stern and the other right in the engine room. That ship went down so fast. It took about two minutes and it was gone.”
DeLong said he ran down the flying bridge onto the boat deck.
“I started unhooking a lashing they had on the lifeboat,” he said. “The sea came over and hit me and I went down with the ship, and I came back up. All I remember was a bunch of bubbles all around me. It was pitch dark.”
He and some of the crew found a plank that was used to paint the ship.
At daylight 32 members of the crew found three lifeboats. About 31 other crew members were lost in the sinking.
“We were just floating around for three day out in the Indian Ocean off the coast of India,” DeLong said. “We were picked up by an old British Liberty ship.”
He said the one thing he was thankful for was the water was warmer. He said the hottest weather he ran into was in the Indian Ocean sailing to the Red Sea on course to the Mediterranean.
DeLong said he liked the Pacific best.
“The weather is much better,” he said. “Usually I was on a jungle run with the mail line. It was three months trip from Seattle to India. Calcutta was our station there. That was just three months so we always had a good paycheck.”
He sailed throughout the South Pacific including Hong Kong, Singapore, almost every port in Japan and Philippines.
“We used to make almost all the little islands in the Philippines,” DeLong said. “Some we didn’t have charts for. If there was some kind of pier where we could anchor we’d pick up copra.”
Copra is the dried kernel of the coconut used for extracting coconut oil and animal feed.
One of his favorite memories is the day he met his wife in 1943. He was attending a shipmate’s wedding in New York.
“At the reception I happen to be sitting next to this little short gal,” DeLong said. “When it was all over everyone got up to leave. She was just about the leave and I said ‘Stick around Shorty.’ Come across the street with us.”
They went to a cocktail lounge and DeLong said, “I talked to her into a date the next day.”
They married in “a little church around the corner,” and it lasted nearly 60 years. Mary DeLong died in 2003.
Today DeLong still enjoys shopping and working in the yard, although he said he doesn’t “mow the lawn anymore.”
About reaching 100 he said, “It kind of surprised me when I woke up and I had to say, ‘Wow, a hundred.’ How anyone lives that long I don’t know.”
So what’s the secret?
“Maybe it’s the good bourbon,” DeLong said. Or maybe it is a loving family, friends and a life well lived.