U.S. Navy Armed Guard Sailors Were Unknowns

After Navy boot camp in 1944, Art Stolt of Eugene [Oregon] asked for submarine duty. However, the need was for armed sailors to serve aboard merchant ships, so Stolt volunteered for a unit about which no one had heard: the Navy Armed Guard.

In October 1941, the U.S. Navy organized a group of sailors to provide gun crews for duty aboard the country's 1,375 merchant ships, just as it had done in World War I. The first members of the Navy's new Armed Guard were given their three weeks of training at Little Creek, Virginia. By November 1941, they were ready to sail when Congress repealed the Neutrality Act and placed guns aboard merchant ships.

The Armed Guard was a branch of the Navy that was responsible for defending U.S. and Allied merchant ships from attack by enemy aircraft, submarines and surface ships during World War II. These sailors served as gunners, signalmen and radio operators on cargo ships, tankers, troop ships and other merchant vessels.

Stolt would later serve aboard the fuel tanker SS CARIBBEAN. In less than two years of service, he survived eight missions across the Pacific, primarily with sailing routes that led from El Segundo, California to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

On the high seas, the CARIBBEAN cruised alone. It had to because tankers filled with gasoline and oil were seldom surrounded by a convoy due to potential collateral damage should the fuel carrying vessel explode. Stolt had a few close calls but he never had the ship he was aboard damaged or sunk. Tankers like the CARIBBEAN supplied 80 percent of the fuel used by bombers, tanks, jeeps and ships during the war.

"When you're full of fuel nobody wants to be in the same convoy with a tanker. You're like a big floating bomb," Stolt said. "The captain ordered us to float dead in the water most of one night when it was reported that a Japanese sub was in the area. After daylight, we proceeded onto Hawaii."

The typical Armed Guard complement for a merchant ship was 24 gunners and one junior officer, plus as many as three communication personnel for a total of 28 men. Ships carrying troops had larger Armed Guard detachments to man the increased numbers of guns installed on such vessels.

Stolt manned a 20-mm machine gun onboard ship. He remembers countless hours on watch as a look out watching "a whole lot of nothing." There were more than a few close calls. And he recalls how his ship's arrivals at Pearl Harbor were always a grim reminder of the attack on December 7, 1941.

"When we docked and unloaded our oil and gas we were directly across from the USS ARIZONA as she lay on the bottom. All you could see was the mast sticking up."

Stolt said a family friend, Jimmy London, was aboard the ARIZONA when it went down. "So that's the first thing that crossed my mind when we docked. He had 20 years in and was going to retire in 1942."

Naval personnel were outnumbered on these ships. They ate separately from the merchant marine crews, but there was camaraderie and friendships that developed.

"When we got together with regular Navy sailors most of them didn't know who we (Armed Guard) were or that our outfit existed. It wasn't until the past few years that hardly anyone knew about us."

Late in the war, many experienced Armed Guard sailors were reassigned from duty aboard merchant vessels to serve as gunners on warships of the U.S. fleet where their training and experience made them particularly valuable.

Soon after the Japanese surrendered, Stolt arrived in Tokyo Bay on a Liberty transport ship headed for home. With the end of the war, the Armed Guard was rapidly drawn down in size as men were discharged from service. By then, 144,900 Navy Armed Guard had served on more than 6,236 American and Allied ships. According to Armed Guard records compiled from various sources, about 2,085 died while serving, and at least 1,127 were wounded as a result of enemy action.

Disbanded in 1946, the Armed Guard is today little known or remembered by the general public, or even within the Navy. But, without the courage and sacrifice of the men of the Armed Guard, victory in World War II would have been much more difficult and taken much longer.

"I'm not one of those guys who talks about the things I'd rather forget about. I haven't mentioned much about the war to my family and it's best I don't remember some of the things I saw back then," Stolt said.

[Originally published by the Oregon Department of Veterans' Affairs in "Vets News," September/October 2010, by Mike Allegre. See www.oregon.gov/ODVA/INFO/docs/VETSNEWS/2010/VN_SeptOct-2010.pdf?ga=t.]

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