The U.S. Merchant Marine played a vital role in the Allied victory of World War II. They moved great quantities of war matériel from their principle source of supply across as many as 6,000 miles of ocean to the battlefronts of the Far East.
They held to high standards and contributed countless accomplishments in every war throughout history, participating in landing operations in cooperation with the U.S. Marine Corps, from Guadalcanal to Iwo Jima.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt realized that winning the war would require many ships to carry much-needed supplies to the war front. He ordered the mass production of Liberty Ships and established the U.S. Maritime Service (USMS), in early 1938.
The U.S. Merchant Marine Corps was officially founded on March 15, 1938, chaired by Joseph P. Kennedy (father of President John F. Kennedy). Cadet training was initially given aboard the government’s subsidized ships.
Desperate for mariners at the onset of World War II, the U.S. Maritime Service officially accepted youngsters who were as young as 16 years old. Some who were physically impaired or unfit for the regular service went into the Merchant Marine.
The prewar total of 55,000 mariners suddenly increased to 215,000 by virtue of the U.S. Maritime Service Program`s massive recruiting efforts. They also brought in retired seamen capable of shipping out immediately on the Liberty ships.
In February 1942, the training was turned over to the U.S. Coast Guard, then soon afterward transferred to the War Shipping Administration, in July.
Cadets went to sea after eight weeks of preliminary shore training. Cadets were paid $50 per month, but were still required to pay for textbooks and uniforms.
Upon the third year of service the cadets were allowed to return to shore and work in the shipyards, and by the fourth year they were returned to sea again at $70 per month.
The Merchant Marine Academy’s campus was dedicated by President Roosevelt on September 30, 1943, and is the only federal academy to display a battle standard, by virtue of its war dead. Graduation was as honorable and significant as graduation from West Point, Annapolis, or the Coast Guard Academy.
At sea, the men’s lives depended highly on the rapidity of an individual’s response in a state of emergency. Drills were taken seriously as the Maritime Service strived to develop highly efficient emergency procedures.
The individual seaman had within himself the power to save lives, his ship, and cargo if he acted quickly and intelligently. Living through the training under severe conditions unfortunately proved to be fatal for some of the men.
On the front lines, the moment the ships left the U.S. ports, they were subject to attack by battleships, submarines, bombers, Kamikazes, sea mines, and land-based artillery.
The cadets (still in training) took their books with them to sea. They were required to write reports immediately following incidents, describe the enemy craft, damages, their lifeboat voyages, and acts of heroism. Their harrowing reports included the endless attacks on 250 different vessels of which 220 sank.
“All’s clear, secure" was the the mariner`s announcement before launching, yet never quite prepared for the attacks or the near misses. Standing regular watches, handling winches and cargo gear, cooking meals, checking engine room equipment, and manning the guns, was the life of a merchant marine.
"Abandon Ship!" was not the cry they wanted to hear, but often did. Having ships blasted out from under them, hearing the anguished cries of their comrades upon attack, and witnessing drownings, were too many of the lessons learned the hard way at sea.
During World War II, each fighting force was dependent upon the other. The Merchant Marine was no exception and was virtually responsible for putting armies and equipment on enemy territory.
Transporting the nation’s cargoes in times of peace and prosperity, and in times of war and grave danger, were thousands of young men who volunteered for maritime service. They delivered troops, allied infantry, ammunition, food, tanks, bombs, airplanes, and fuel.
“We Deliver the Goods" was their motto for the duration of the war. President Roosevelt, along with many military leaders, praised the role of the U.S. Merchant Marine, deeming them the "Fourth Arm of defense."
Convoys using U-Boats (unterseeboot) were highly successful during wartime. The downside were the delays in waiting to assemble, taking a common, but more often longer route, reducing speed to match that of the slowest ship, and unloading because of congestion.
Safety in numbers did not always apply; however, the convoys cut cargo-carrying capacity by one third. The U-Boat convoys were often referred too as "wolf packs."
One of the most dramatic acts of heroism occurred in the South Atlantic on the Liberty Ship [SS Stephen Hopkins] on September 27, 1942.
The Hopkins engaged with the heavily armed German raider Stier and fought back valiantly. An engine cadet fired the last five shots available; the Stier blew up and sank.
The young cadet was killed by shrapnel and went down with his ship, along with 40 others. The 19 survivors set off on a 2,000-mile voyage to Brazil in a lifeboat, with only 15 arriving 31 days later.
A high caliber of efficiency and courage marked the entire war campaign in the Southwest Pacific area. On land and sea the merchant mariners were fully involved in their duties including rescuing soldiers, and placing themselves in imminent danger, with constant exposure to the elements.
Fully subject to government control, the critical role of merchant shipping determined what the allies could or could not do militarily. The war would have inevitably been prolonged for many months, if not years, had the ships and crewmen not participated to their highest capabilities.
The U.S. escort ships were credited with the sinking of 48 German, two Italian, and 68 Japanese submarines.
Proving to be critical logistically in support of the war effort, was the final assessment of the huge U.S. merchant fleet. Providing the greatest sealift in history between the production army at home, and the numerous fighting forces scattered around the globe was the merchant marine; constituting one of the most significant contributions made to the eventual winning of the Second World War.
General Douglas MacArthur said, “I hold no other branch in higher esteem than the Merchant Marine."
While fully understanding the tremendous risks, the merchant mariners willingly went into mined harbors, so that they could bring the American troops home to their families. They faced the real hazards of wartime hostile actions, and as the war ended they carried food and medicine to millions of the world’s starving people.
The Merchant Marine, motivated by their deep love of country and noted for valor, were mourned with the loss of 9,300 mariners killed at sea, 12,000 wounded, and 663 men and women taken prisoner.
Sadly, the mariners suffered the highest rate of casualties with one in 26 killed in World War II. More than 12,400 mariners were awarded the Merchant Marine Defense Bar; 143,000 mariners were awarded the Atlantic War Zone Bar; and 111,000 Pacific War Zone Bars, were distributed accordingly.
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U. S. Merchant Marine Cadet Corps Report 1945
... Papers November 20, 1945 Ninety-two percent of the 7,000 graduates off the U. S. Merchant Marine Cadet Corps and its Academy at Kings Point are serving as officers of ships. This is believed to exceed the record of any U. S. Merchant Marine Cadet Corps and its Academy at Kings Point are serving as officers of ships. This is believed to exceed the record of any other Federal sea ...
The success of the U.S. Merchant Marine during this crisis hammered home to critics the importance of maritime preparedness and the folly of efforts to scuttle the Merchant Marine fleet. In addition to delivering equipment toU.S. Merchant Marine during this crisis hammered home to critics the importance of maritime preparedness and the folly of efforts to scuttle the Merchant Marine fleet. In addition to delivering equipment to American forces ...
... Federal Maritime Commission in 1937 during which he laid the groundwork for the U.S. Merchant Marine. Kennedy became the United States Ambassador to Great Britain in 1938. Retired Admiral Emory Scott Land, USN, succeeded KenU.S. Merchant Marine. Kennedy became the United States Ambassador to Great Britain in 1938. Retired Admiral Emory Scott Land, USN, succeeded Kennedy as Chairman ...