U.S. Merchant Marines


YouTube Preview Image


Ferocious! Energetic! Fantastic! These are some of the words that have been used to describe Celtae, one of Canada’s premiere Celtic bands. Celtae’s outstanding original songs and their unique approach to arranging traditional repertoire have set them apart from the pack. True to their East Coast roots Celtae is out to prove that Canada’s Celtic culture is alive and thriving 365 days a year. Their sound is simultaneously nostalgic and fresh, innovative and traditional. The soul of the Celts is alive and well in this music but there is a contemporary edge which crosses all boundaries to define the sound of this generation of Canadian Celts.

The 1940′s - World War II

AB’s were in high demand during World War II.

As with the other military services, the entry of the United States into the Second World War necessitated the immediate growth of the merchant marine and the Coast Guard.   The Maritime Commission spawned the War Shipping Administration in early February 1942. This new agency received a number of functions considered vital to the war effort, including maritime training. Several weeks after the creation of the new agency, however, the Maritime Service was transferred again to the Coast Guard.   The transfer allowed the War Shipping Administration to concentrate on organizing American merchant shipping, building new ships, and carrying cargoes where they were needed most.

The United States intended to meet this crisis with large numbers of mass-produced freighters and transports.   When World War II loomed, the Maritime Commission began a crash shipbuilding program utilizing every available resource.   The experienced shipyards built complicated vessels, such as warships.   New shipyards, which opened almost overnight around the country, generally built less sophisticated ships such as the emergency construction “Liberty ships.”  By 1945 the shipyards had completed more than 2,700 “Liberty” ships and hundreds of “Victory ships“, tankers and transports.

All of these new ships needed trained officers and crews to operate them.   The Coast Guard provided much of the advanced training for merchant marine personnel to augment the training of state merchant marine academies.   The Maritime Commission requested that the Coast Guard provide training in 1938 when the Maritime Service was created.   Merchant sailors from around the country trained at two large training stations.   On the East Coast the men trained at Fort Trumbull in New London, Connecticut, and Government Island in Alameda, California served the West Coast.  In 1940 Hoffman Island in New York Harbor became the third training station for the service.   After the start of the war other training stations were added in BostonPort Hueneme, California, and St. Petersburg, Florida.

Training ships manned by the Coast Guard included the Maritime Commission steamships American SeamanAmerican Mariner, and American Sailor.   One of these ships, the 7,000-gross-ton American Seaman, carried 250 trainees in addition to the regular crew of 18 officers and 100 enlisted men.   Four complete machine shops, various lifeboats and up-to-date navigational equipment comprised the special educational equipment.   In addition the Coast Guard manned the full-rigged sail training ships Tusitala and Joseph Conrad, as well as the auxiliary schooner Vema.  The 261-foot (80 m) Tusitala was built in Greenock, Scotland in 1883 and operated in merchant service before becoming a receiving ship in St. Petersburg in 1940.   The 165-foot (50 m) Joseph Conrad sailed from Jacksonville, Florida to train apprentice seamen. The training ships were important commands.   These steamships were the largest ships manned by the service prior to the Coast Guard joining the Navy in World War II.   CDR Alfred C. Richmond, who commanded the American Sailor, the first Maritime Service training ship, later became Commandant of the Coast Guard.

Licensed and unlicensed merchant marine personnel enrolled in the service.   The ranks, grades, and ratings for the Maritime Service were based on those of the Coast Guard. Training for experienced personnel lasted three months; while inexperienced personnel trained for six months.   Pay was based on the person’s highest certified position in merchant service.   New students received cadet wages.   American citizens at least 19 years old, with one year of service on American merchant vessels of more than 500 gross tons, were eligible for enrollment.   Coast Guard training of merchant mariners was vital to winning the war.   Thousands of the sailors who manned the new American merchant fleet trained under the watchful eyes of the Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard only continued the administration of the Maritime Service for ten months after the United States entered the war.   Merchant marine training and most aspects of merchant marine activity transferred to the newly created War Shipping Administration on September 1, 1942.   The transfer allowed the Coast Guard to take a more active role in the war and concentrated government administration of the merchant marine in one agency.   However, Just as the transfer removed the merchant marine training role from the Coast Guard, the service assumed the role of licensing seamen and inspecting merchant vessels.

The Atlantic Ocean was a major strategic battle zone during World War II (Second Battle of the Atlantic) and when Germany declared war on the US, the East Coast offered easy pickings for German U-Boats (referred to as the Second happy time). After a highly successful foray by five Type IX long-range U-boats, the offensive was maximized by the use of short-range Type VII U-boats, with increased fuel stores, replenished from supply U-boats or “Milchkuh“. In February to May, 1942, 348 ships were sunk, for the loss of 2 U-boats during April and May. U.S. naval commanders were reluctant to introduce the convoy system that had protected trans-Atlantic shipping and, without coastal blackouts, shipping was silhouetted against the bright lights of American towns and cities.

Several ships were torpedoed within sight of East Coast cities such as New York and Boston; indeed, some civilians sat on beaches and watched battles between U.S. and German ships

MS Pennsylvania Sun torpedoed in 1942.

Once convoys and air cover were introduced, sinking numbers were reduced and the U-boats shifted to attack shipping in the Gulf of Mexico, with 121 losses in June. In one instance, thetanker Virginia was torpedoed in the mouth of the Mississippi River by the German U-Boat U-507 on May 12, 1942, killing 26 crewmen. There were 14 survivors. Again, when defensive measures were introduced, ship sinkings decreased and U-boat sinkings increased.

The cumulative effect of this campaign was severe; a quarter of all wartime sinkings—3.1 million tons. There were several reasons for this. The naval commander, Admiral Ernest King, was averse to taking British recommendations to introduce convoys, U.S. Coast Guard and Navy patrols were predictable and could be avoided by U-boats, poor inter-service co-operation, and the U.S. Navy did not possess enough suitable escort vessels (British and Canadian warships were transferred to the U.S. east coast).

Wartime issues

During the Second World War, the merchant service sailed and took orders from naval officers. Some were uniformed, and some were trained to use a gun. However, they were formally considered volunteers and not members of the military. Walter Winchell, the famous newspaper columnist and radio commentator, and columnist Westbrook Pegler both described the National Maritime Union and the merchant seamen generally as draft dodgers, criminals, riffraff, Communists, and other derogatory names.

It came to a head in the middle of the war with the writing of a column in the New York World-Telegram by Pegler, who alleged that merchant seamen refused to work on Sundays per union rules, causing sick USMC servicemen to unload their own supplies in an incident off Guadalcanal. He went on to say that these seamen received “fabulous pay for sailors, including overtime bonuses, whereas the navy men draw only the modest pay for their ratings without extras.” This was a specific allegation, and in February, 1943, the National Maritime Union, representing seven other unions, filed suit for libel against Hearst Newspapers, publisher of the newspaper, and the Associated Press for its wide dissemination of what was claimed to be an untrue story. As part of their suit, they pointed out that Government allotments for families, low-rate premiums on insurance, hospitalization, dental care, pension, and civil service rating consideration tend to balance the pay of ordinary seamen in civilian service. But they denied the incident ever took place, and were backed by a report of Admiral William F. Halsey, commander of United States forces in the South Pacific, to the Navy Department in which Halsey praised the “co-operation, efficiency and courage” of the merchant seamen and asserted that “In no instance have merchant marine seamen refused to discharge cargo from their vessels or in any other way failed to co-operate with the United States forces ashore in that (South Pacific) area.” They won their suit, but the residual effect would last for decades.

US merchant mariners, World War II, North Atlantic

What was ignored, say the Seafarers’ International Union, was the fact that seamen are paid by the ship owner for their work, consequently they were paid only while the ships were in the water. A seaman torpedoed off his ship was off the payroll the minute he was injured, landed in a lifeboat or hit the water. Surviving seamen had to beg, borrow, plead or work their way back to the United States from places such as Murmansk, Russia, so they could be reassigned to another ship. Until that happened, they weren’t paid. And in addition they would be drafted if they didn’t find another ship within 30 days. Their wartime record reveals that their losses were among the highest of any group in the front lines. They died at a rate of 1 in 24. All told, 733 American cargo ships were lost and 8,651 of the 215,000 who served perished on troubled waters and off enemy shores.

An Allied tanker {“Dixie Arrow”} torpedoed in the Atlantic by a German U-boat.

The biggest supporter of the merchant men was President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was he who in 1936 urged the United States Congress to pass the Merchant Marine Act, which established a 10-year program for building ships that would be used for commerce during peace time and would be converted for use by the Navy during times of war or national emergency; and a training program for seamen that linked them to the military in wartime, specifically the Navy. It was this legislation that enabled the country to take on the axis powers a few years later, but not before extensive losses on the East coast, which was crawling with German submarines by the end of 1941. That year the Germans sank 1,232 Allied and neutral ships worldwide, including those manned by the Merchant Marine, and the following year was even worse. The Allies would lose 1,323 ships, while Germany’s submarine losses totaled just 87. More than 1,000 merchant seamen would die within sight of the East Coast, and it wasn’t uncommon for inhabitants of the seashore to find their bodies washed up on the sand.

Roosevelt, while the war was under way, proclaimed “Mariners have written one of its most brilliant chapters. They have delivered the goods when and where needed in every theater of operations and across every ocean in the biggest, the most difficult and dangerous job ever undertaken. As time goes on, there will be greater public understanding of our merchant’s fleet record during this war.”

But it wasn’t to be, for with Roosevelt’s death in 1945, the Merchant Marine lost its staunchest supporter and any chance to share in the accolades afforded others who served. The War Department, the same government branch that recruited them, opposed the Seaman’s Bill of Rights in 1947 (see below) and managed to kill the legislation in congressional committee, effectively ending any chance for seamen to reap the thanks of a nation. For 43 years, the U.S. government denied them benefits ranging from housing to health care until Congress awarded them veterans’ status in 1988, too late for 125,000 mariners, roughly half of those who had served.

“It’s one of the injustices of American history,” wrote Brian Herbert, author of “The Forgotten Heroes,” a book about the Merchant Marine of World War II. “These men were torpedoed by their own government after the war.” It was, finally, in 2005 that Congress had before it the H.R. 23 bill, the “Belated Thank You to the Merchant Mariners of World War II Act of 2005″, still waiting to be signed into law by George W. Bush. As a result, those mariners who served in WWII, or their survivors, will receive a benefit of $1,000 per month, and the right to be buried in a National Cemetery ”which honors veterans with final resting places in national shrines and with lasting tributes that commemorate their service to our nation.” Today there are shrine and memorial reminders of mariners’ heroism such as The American Merchant Marine Veterans Memorial in San Pedro, California, and the American Merchant Mariners’ Memorial at Battery Park in Lower Manhattan. The old Navy-Marine Memorial in Washington, D.C. honors those who died during World War I.

Since the First World War and World War II, many Merchant Marine officers have also held commissions in the United States Naval Reserve. Graduates of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy are commissioned into the USNR by default if they do not choose to be commissioned in another service of the armed forces. A special badge, known as the Naval Reserve Merchant Marine Badge, has existed since the early 1940s to recognize such Merchant Marine personnel who are called to active duty in the Navy. World War II USMM were eligible for the following decorations: Merchant Marine War Zone Bars for the Atlantic, Mediterranean-Middle East, Pacific; Mariner’s Medal Merchant Marine; Merchant Marine Combat Bar. There was also the Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal.

In the late 1940s, the Liberian open registry was formed as the brainchild of Edward Stettinius, who had been Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s Secretary of State during World War II.   Stettinius created a corporate structure that included The Liberia Corporation, a joint-venture with the government of Liberia.   The corporation was structured so that one-fourth of its revenue would go to the Liberian government, another 10% went to fund social programs in Liberia, and the remainder returned to Stettinius’ corporation.   The Liberian registry was created at a time when the Panama’s registry was becoming less attractive for several reasons including its unpopularity with the U.S. labor movement and European shipping concerns, political unrest in Panama, and increases in its fees and regulations.

On 11 March 1949, Greek shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos registered the first ship under the Liberian flag of convenience, the World Peace. When Stettinius died in 1950, ownership of the registry passed to the International Bank of Washington, led by General George Olmsted.   Within 18 years, Liberia grew to surpass the United Kingdom as the world’s largest register.

This entry was posted in The American Wars. Bookmark the permalink.