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World War II U.S. Navy Armed Guard
World War II U.S. Merchant Marine

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© 2009-2014 Dale E. Carlson

The U.S. Merchant Marine

The merchant marine is collectively those commercial, non-naval ships that carry cargo or passengers or provide maritime services, and the civilian crewmen and officers who sail those ships.

During World War II the ships and men of the United States merchant marine transported across the oceans of the world the vast quantities of war materiel, supplies, equipment and troops needed to fight and win that war. The men of the U.S. merchant marine were civilian volunteers who nonetheless died proportionally in numbers that rivaled or exceeded any branch of the uniformed military. Like the U.S. Navy Armed Guard with whom they sailed, the unsung men of the U.S. merchant marine made possible the Allied victory in World War II.

The Numbers

Prior to the beginning of World War II there about 55,000 civilian sailors employed in the U.S. merchant marine. This number increased to as many as 250,000 men who served in the U.S. merchant marine by the end of the war. A pre-war merchant fleet of 1,340 cargo ships and tankers expanded to at least 4,221 U.S. merchant ships by the end of World War II.


Various estimates state that a total of at least 5,662 to more than 8,300 merchant seamen and officers died or went missing during World War II, as many as 12,000 were wounded, and more than 600 became prisoners of war. Some sources place the number of merchant mariners killed in excess of 9,000, including those who eventually died from wartime injuries. However, because the merchant marine was not (and is not) a single discrete organization, because it did not have a centralized record-keeping system, and because it did not have any official historians, researchers or archives, the records of the numbers of merchant mariners killed, wounded, missing and taken prisoner vary considerably; a final, exact accounting of all casualties may never be known.

Depending upon the numbers one accepts, the proportional casualty rate for the U.S. merchant marine may have either exceeded that of any of the uniformed military services, or was only slightly less than that of the United States Marine Corps. More recent analyses, however, have called these long-standing estimates into question.

Whatever the actual numbers, however, the critical fact remains that many thousands of civilian merchant mariners bravely served the United States during World War II, and thousands of those sailors died in combat, without receiving the honor, recognition and respect of similar sacrifices made by the uniformed military services.

Ship Losses

According to the War Shipping Administration, a total of 1,554 merchant ships were sunk during World War II due to war-related conditions, including 733 ships of over 1,000 gross tons. Hundreds of other ships were damaged, many beyond repair. The ships lost included those that were victims of torpedoes, bombs, mines, kamikaze attack or other combat actions, as well as those lost due to other maritime accidents (fires, explosions, groundings, collisions, overwhelmed by weather or sea) that were often caused or exacerbated by wartime conditions. Some foreign-flag ships, especially those having U.S. Navy Armed Guard detachments, are included in these totals. Other sources place losses in excess of 1,700 merchant ships.

Prewar and Postwar Incidents

Even before World War II began for the United States, the U.S. merchant marine had already experienced the deadly impact of war. As early as November 1940, the U.S. merchant ship SS CITY OF RAYVILLE sank after either being torpedoed or striking a mine off the coast of Australia, with the loss on one crewman. In May 1941 an unarmed merchant ship, SS ROBIN MOORE, sank off the west coast of Africa after being torpedoed by a German submarine. In all 17 U.S. merchant vessels were sunk, and many others were damaged, detained or threatened, before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. More than 200 merchant mariners died in these pre-war attacks.

Nor did the dangers of war end with the surrender of the Axis powers. No fewer than 87 U.S. merchant ships were sunk or damaged between September 2, 1945, the date of the formal Japanese surrender aboard USS MISSOURI , and 1950, in most cases by striking mines. Of these 87 ships at least 42 sank or were damaged beyond repair. As late as August 8, 1950, SS AMERICAN PLANTER was damaged upon striking a mine in the northeast Atlantic. An unknown number of U.S. merchant seamen died in these various postwar mishaps.

Veteran Status

Despite their honorable, vital and heroic service in wartime, the men of the U.S. merchant marine were not accorded veteran status until decades following the end of World War II. Only in 1988 were merchant mariners who served in World War II officially recognized as veterans, and then only after a long court battle and after having been turned down repeatedly in earlier attempts to gain veteran status. The men of the U.S. Maritime Service, the organization that trained the men of the merchant marine, have never received veteran status.

A Merchant Marine Veteran Reflects

World War II merchant marine veteran Captain Donald P. Garrido speaks of the courage and fortitude of the U.S. merchant marine in World War II.

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