Frequently Asked Questions about the Merchant Marine

Academy, Merchant Marine
African-American mariners
Assistance for low income veterans
Barrage balloons
Burial in National Cemetery
Court martial of mariners
Crossing the bar
Date of founding for services
Draft of Mariners in WW2
Flag, Merchant Marine
Funeral Honor Guard
Guns on U.S. ships in WW2
Headstone or grave marker
Hymn, Heave Ho!
Information Sheet Handout re WWII MM
Jobs, Merchant Marine
Maritime Service or Merchant Marine
Medals and decorations
Morse Code
National Cemetery Burial
Navy Armed Guard casualties
Pets aboard ships
Radio Officer, Merchant Marine
Records, Merchant Marine
Recruitment during WW2
Retirement Help for Seamen
Ship histories
Ships captured, WW2
Ships sunk/damaged WW2
VE and VJ Day, dangers after
Veteran status World War II
Veteran Status other wars
Women mariners

What is the Merchant Marine?
The Merchant Marine is the fleet of ships which carries imports and exports during peacetime and becomes a naval auxiliary during wartime to deliver troops and war materiel. According to the Merchant Marine Act of 1936: "It is necessary for the national defense... that the United States shall have a merchant marine of the best equipped and most suitable types of vessels sufficient to carry the greater portion of its commerce and serve as a naval or military auxiliary in time of war or national emergency..." During World War II the fleet was in effect nationalized, that is, the U.S. Government controlled the cargo and the destinations, contracted with private companies to operate the ships, put guns and Navy personnel (Armed Guard) on board. The Government trained the men to operate the ships and assist in manning the guns through the U.S. Maritime Service.

What do you call people who are in the Merchant Marine?
Mariners. Seamen. Seafarers. Sailors. Never marines! Mariners is the preferred designation, just like the Seattle professional baseball team. The term Merchant Marines is incorrect.

U.S. Maritime Service or U.S. Merchant Marine?
The United States Maritime Service was by law the official training organization for the U.S. Merchant Marine. It trained men for the U.S. Merchant Marine and U.S. Army Transport Service to transport supplies and personnel in the largest fleet of freighters, tankers, and transports in history to bases all over the world for U.S. and Allied forces. Men at the fronts depended on this important service for bombs, gasoline, shells, ammunition, food, guns, vehicles, planes, medicine, and other materials for warfare. When training ended the person was "released from active duty" in the Maritime Service and went to sea in the Merchant Marine. Today the Maritime Service exists only in the Maritime Academies.
U.S. Maritime Service history

What were Merchant Marine casualties in World War II?
Unfortunately, the U.S. Merchant Marine has no official historians and researchers, and statistics for WWII vary:

  • Mariners killed at sea "direct result of enemy action or as POW on American flag ships" Coast Guard: 5,662
  • Mariners killed at sea from war causes, compiled by Captain Arthur Moore: 6,847
  • Mariners died from various causes compiled by 8,397
  • Mariners buried or commemorated in American Battle Monuments Commission National Cemeteries overseas: 595
  • Mariners buried ABMC not found on other lists: 483
  • Prisoner of War [POW] Coast Guard: 610
  • POW compiled by Captain Arthur Moore: 663
  • POW compiled by 671
  • Died as POW Coast Guard: 37
  • Died as POW in prison camps or aboard Japanese ships while being transported to other camps, compiled by Captain Arthur Moore : 66
  • Died as POW compiled by 66
  • Wounded, testimony in Hearings before Congress: 12,000
  • Died from their wounds in Public Health Hospitals and Allied military hospitals abroad (Estimated --- records apparently destroyed): 1,100

How did the Merchant Marine casualty rate compare to other services?

 Service Number serving   War Dead  Percent   Ratio
 Merchant Marine 243,000* 9,497** 3.90% 1 in 26
 Marines  669,108  19,733  2.94%  1 in 34
 Army  11,268,000  234,874  2.08%  1 in 48
 Navy  4,183,466  36,958  0.88%  1 in 114
 Coast Guard  242,093  574  0.24%  1 in 421
 Total  16,576,667  295,790  1.78%  1 in 56

*Number varies by source and ranges from 215,000 to 285,000. War Shipping Administration Press Release 2514, January 1, 1946 states 243,000 mariners
**Total killed at sea, POW killed,buried in ABMC cemeteries, plus died from wounds ashore

Merchant Marine Casualties in WWII

Information Sheet Handout re WWII Merchant Marine
One page handout about World War II Merchant Marine: Download 72K pdf file to print on your computer. You may distribute in any manner. You may add your own contact information, but you may not modify in any other way without specific permission from

How many men served in the U. S. Navy Armed Guard? How many were killed or wounded?
According to some sources 144,900 men served on over 6,236 American and Allied ships. About 2,085 died in defense of their country, and at least 1,127 were wounded as a result of enemy action.
U.S. Naval Armed Guard Casualties During World War II

How many U.S. Merchant ships were sunk or damaged in World War II?
According to the War Shipping Administration, a total of 1,554 ships were sunk to due to war conditions, including 733 ships of over 1,000 gross tons. Hundreds of other ships were damaged by torpedoes, shelling, bombs, kamikazes, mines, etc. Foreign flag ships, especially those with Naval Armed Guard on board as well as ships belonging to U.S. territories such as the Philippines, are included in this list. Our present total is 1,768 ships sunk, damaged, captured or detained.
U.S. Merchant Ships Sunk or Damaged in World War II

Were any U.S. merchant ships captured by the enemy as a prize during World War II?
No. Navy instructions to American ship masters were to destroy his ship and its records:

"It is the policy of the U.S. government that no U.S. flag merchant ship be permitted to fall into enemy hands. The ship shall be defended by her armament, by maneuver, and by every available means as long as possible. When, in the judgment of the Master, capture is inevitable, provision should be made to open sea valves and to flood holds and compartments adjacent to machinery spaces, start numerous fires and employ any additional measures available to insure certain scuttling of the vessel." In the Philippines and other locations in the Pacific many ships were scuttled or grounded to create as much damage as possible. However, the SS City of Flint was captured by a Nazi pocket battleship in October 1939. She was eventually released.
See Gallant Ships of WW II Merchant Marine

Were Merchant Mariners "draft dodgers"?
Merchant mariners were subject to the draft if they took more than 30 days shore leave. Experienced mariners who had been drafted were released by the Army to serve in the Merchant Marine. Harold Harper "dodged" the draft by being torpedoed 6 times. Nick Hoogendam, who was too young for the Army or Navy, spent 83 days on a liferaft drinking rainwater and eating "sushi." John Stanizewski, a mariner in WWI and WWII, had 10 ships knocked out from under him. Michael Horodysky was classified 4F in the draft due to a bad heart and sailed the dangerous Murmansk run and took part in the North African invasion. The Chief Engineer of the SS Peter Kerr, sunk in Convoy PQ17, had a wooden leg. Harold "Bud" Schmidt joined the Merchant Marine as one-eyed 16-year-old kid.

Were Merchant Mariners subject to court martial?
Yes. Merchant Marine crews were subject to Articles of War and court martial during WWII. Six crewmen of a Liberty ship did hard labor for refusing to work in a dispute with shoreside stevedores over loading tanks for the invasion of Sicily. Ray Thompson, Brigadier General, USAF (Ret.) and a former mariner, compiled a list 81 mariners court martialled or arrested after August 15, 1945, mostly for assault, theft, or being AWOL.

During the War, gossip columnist Walter Winchell and others spread untrue stories about mariners refusing to unload at Guadalcanal, supposedly leaving the job to sick marines. Winchell and the newspapers that carried these stories lost the libel suits filed against them, and were forced by the court to apologize, print retractions, and to pay damages. Unfortunately, the myth that mariners refused to unload ships in Guadalcanal persists.

Was the Merchant Marine's job and dangers over with the Japanese surrender?
No. In September 1945 and May 1946 the War Shipping Administration made urgent calls for seamen :

"Demand For Seamen Still Acute. Men are still needed to man merchant ships in excess of those presently available and will be needed for some months to come. The job of the wartime Merchant Marine has not been completed. Millions of our armed forces must be brought home and supplies must be carried to the occupation forces throughout the world. Supplies must also be carried for the rehabilitation of devastated areas."

Which came first, the U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard, or U.S. Merchant Marine (in war service)?
The Merchant Marine was first. On June 12, 1775, a party of Maine mariners, armed with pitchforks and axes, inspired by the news of the recent victory at Lexington, Massachusetts, used an unarmed lumber schooner to surprise and capture a fully armed British warship, HMS Margaretta, off the coast of Machias, Maine. The men used the captured guns and ammunition from the ship to bring in additional British ships as prizes. American privateers soon disrupted British shipping all along the Atlantic coast.

The Revenue Cutter Service was founded on Aug. 4, 1790, by Alexander Hamilton as a fleet of cutters to prevent smuggling and that is the usual date used for the beginning of the United States Coast Guard. The Coast Guard is made up of several "component" services: the Revenue Cutter Service, the Lifesaving Service, and the Lighthouse Service. The name Coast Guard was not used until the 20th Century, when the components were combined. However, the other two components were around long before 1775, especially the Lighthouse Service.

The Continental Navy was founded in 1775, but ended operation at the end of the Revolutionary War. The last warship was sold in 1785 and the Navy disbanded. The launching of the United States in 1797 marked the birth of the United States Navy.

How do I apply to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy?
Find the United States Merchant Marine Academy at Contact your US Senators and Representative who make appointments to the Academy.

How can I find information about a relative who served in the Merchant Marine, U.S. Maritime Service, U.S. Army Transport Service, U.S. Military Sea Transportation Service, U.S. Military Sealift Command?
Service Records

How do I research the history of a World War II era ship?
Ship Records

Does the U.S. Maritime Service have veteran status?
No. Applications by the U.S. Maritime Service for veteran status were denied 4 times by the so-called Civilian Review Board run by the Air Force. The U.S. Maritime Service was an official, uniformed, armed service created by the Merchant Marine Act of 1936. Basic, advanced and Officer Candidate Schools were run by the U.S. Coast Guard initially, and later by the U.S. Navy. The U.S. Government operated 37 recruiting stations around the country. Many Navy and Coast Guard recruiters sent young men to the U.S. Maritime Service where the need was greater. All received gunnery training and many received commendations for bravery under fire. Maritime Service training included time at sea with danger from mines and enemy submarines.

When did the Merchant Marine get veteran status for WWII service?
Section 401 of Public Law 95-202, The GI Bill Improvement Act of 1977, authorized the Secretary of Defense to determine whether the service of members of civilian or contractual groups should be considered active duty for the purposes of all laws administered by VA. Several applications for veteran status for merchant marine service were denied by the Civilian Military Service Review Board set up by the Department of Defense to make such determinations. Mariners Schumacher, Willner, and Reid, sued the Secretary of the Air Force, Edward C. Aldridge, Jr. [665 F. Supp. 41 (D.D.C. 1987)]. The judge ordered the Board to reconsider their denial and the Board granted veteran status to most WWII mariners on January 19, 1988. Mariners who went to sea after August 15, 1945, serving in wartime in hazardous waters, got veteran status on November 11, 1998. Struggle for Veteran status.

How do I apply for veteran status for service in the Merchant Marine during World War II?
Veteran status

Do mariners have veteran status for service in hostile waters during Korean War, Vietnam War and Gulf Wars?
Not yet. However Public Law: 100-324 (05/30/1988), Merchant Marine Decorations and Medals Act (Biaggi bill), authorizes the Secretary of Transportation to issue without cost a U.S. flag and a grave marker to the family or personal representative of a deceased individual who served in the merchant marine in support of the armed forces in wars or national emergencies.

How do I find a Veteran Administration facility?

Can a Mariner have an Honor Guard for his funeral?
Where available, the U.S. Coast Guard, on request, will provide an Honor Guard at the funeral for a Merchant Mariner who has a DD214 (World War II mariners). It should be stressed that not everywhere in the country is the Coast Guard able to provide this service. Most likely restricted to the coastal areas or waterway areas where the Coast Guard maintains stations. Further, on request, the Coast Guard will deposit Veteran's ashes at sea.

How can I arrange for burial in a National Cemetery or order a headstone or marker for a deceased veteran?
To arrange for burials in a National Cemetery or receive a headstone or marker for an eligible veteran or service member, one must apply on a VA Form 1330. You may find information at or call 1-800-827-1000. For burial headstones/markers and perhaps an U.S. Flag call the VA at 1-800-697-6947. Many funeral homes also have blank VA-1330 forms that you can use to apply for a headstone. Merchant Seamen lost at sea during WW II may have a stone placed in a special area of National cemeteries . Family must provide proper documentation. Contact Veterans Administrator in your area.

How do I find out about medals and decorations due me or a relative?
Make a written request to

Deveeda E. Midgette
Maritime Administration
Mar-630, W25 -313
1200 New Jersey Ave., S.E.
Washington, DC 20590

Illustrations and information about Merchant Marine Medals

What do SS and USS stand for?
SS stands for Steam Ship, and is used for merchant ships. USS stands for United States Ship and refers to commissioned U.S. Navy vessels.

Did African-Americans serve in the WWII Merchant Marine?
African-Americans served in all positions, on integrated ships. They served in all capacities, unlike the Army and Navy, from the lowest levels in all departments to engineering and deck officers to master. An African-American named William Clinton trained as a radio operator. They were recruited into the U.S. Maritime Service and trained in an integrated environment. African-American mariners

During WWII, when were guns and gunners first put on U.S. ships?
In the Pacific, long before war was declared, some enterprising ship crews built plywood "guns," hoping their profile would fool enemy ships. On November 17, 1941 Congress approved arming of merchant ships and set up the Naval Armed Guard. It took many months for guns and crews to get aboard thousands of ships. Many of the initial guns were of World War I vintage. Mariners in the Merchant Marine were trained at U.S. Maritime Service Training Stations, and at gunnery schools in Great Britain, Australia, and elsewhere. And, of course, they received on-the-job training while under attack. Mariners assisted the Naval Armed Guard in passing ammunition, catching cannon hot shells after firing, and many were assigned anti-aircraft gun stations.

Did women serve in the WWII Merchant Marine?
Before the outbreak of WWII, women served as stewardesses, hairdressers and similar positions on passenger ships, but lost their jobs when the government took over the ships. In a letter to President Roosevelt, Betty Jackson said: "We are not afraid of the dangers." Her request was turned down, but official records show that 3 women were awarded the merchant marine combat bar after their ships were torpedoed and 4 women were POWs. Today women serve in all positions, including Master and Chief Engineer.
Women mariners in WWII

How were mariners recruited in WWII?
The pre-war merchant marine had about 55,000 active mariners. A big newspaper and radio campaign by the government brought out many who had left the sea, and attracted young recruits. Navy and Coast Guard recruiters sent thousands of young men to the 37 official U.S. Government Recruiting Offices of the U.S. Maritime Servicethe training organization set up by the government. The U.S. Maritime Service trained about a quarter of million men. The USMS staff (ship's company) and trainees were denied veteran status by the Secretary of the Air Force. [On the other hand, Women Air Service Pilots (WASPs) who never had any battle casualties or saw any action, their trainees who even flunked out were given veteran status.]

Where can I buy a Merchant Marine flag?

How does one join the Merchant Marine or so you want to go to sea?
The United States Coast Guard regulates and issues the necessary documents for the U.S. Merchant Marine. Contact the U.S. Coast Guard (U.S. Government Department of Transportation in your phone book) or write to Commandant, US Coast Guard, 2100 Second St. SW, Washington, DC 20593.

Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training and Education at the Seafarers Harry Lundeberg School of Seamanship operates an entry level training program for young people seeking careers in the US maritime industry. The course is about 12 weeks in school, and 12 weeks on board ship, then a follow up at the school. This Unlicensed Apprentice Program is free of charge and program graduates receive a US Merchant Mariners Document/Ordinary Seaman with Water Survival and Fire Fighting Endorsements. Veterans of the U.S. Navy or the U.S. Coast Guard who possess shipboard ratings may be eligible for participation in an abbreviated training program. PO Box 75 Piney Point, MD 20674, 1-877-235-3275, (301) 994-1659

The United States, a maritime country since its infancy, has allowed its merchant fleet to dwindle. Many U.S. ships have been reflagged under foreign flags --- Panama, Liberia, the Marianas, and others --- to escape U.S. regulations for vessel safety and operation.
Visit: Maritime links and Organizations or

How do I become a Merchant Marine Radio Officer?
The Merchant Marine Academy and the State Maritime Academies provide training only for Deck and Engineering. Merchant Marine Radio Officers needed to pass the FCC license exam. They came from the ranks of Amateur Radio Operators, who are largely self-trained in electronics or graduated from electronics schools. Some came from U.S. military services or from Radio Shore Stations. With the demise of Morse code, many ships no longer carry Radio Officers, because the requirement for radio officers on ships was phased out by international agreement.

Does the Merchant Marine have its own hymn?
The official song of the U.S. Maritime Service and U.S. Merchant Marine is "Heave Ho, My Lads!" There is also a "Maritime Hymn" composed in 1943 by Buddy Clarke and Ruby Melnik, and a "Song for the Unsung, The Men of the Merchant Marine" by Fred Waring and Jack Dolph.

What is a barrage balloon?
Barrage balloons or "Bulging Berthas" were inflatable shiny silver-painted balloons, made of rubber-coated fabric, and filled with hydrogen gas, which were attached on deck and floated above ships to prevent low level attacks by enemy aircraft. The balloons flew at 500 feet when the ship traveled in dangerous waters, but were raised to 2000 feet when under attack. At that height the 15 gauge flying wire could clip the wings off a plane. In winds greater than 25 miles per hour kites were used.

What is meant by "crossing the bar?"
"Crossing the bar" refers to the death of a mariner. The phrase has its origin in the fact that most rivers and bays develop a sandbar across their entrances, and "crossing the bar" meant leaving the safety of the harbor for the unknown. 
"Crossing the bar" a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson

Did mariners keep pets on board?
Although there was a rule against pets, most ships managed to keep dogs, cats, monkeys, parrots, or other pets on board during World War II.

Do ships still use Morse Code?
Morse code officially went out of use February 1, 1999 for ships in distress at sea.
Global Maritime Distress and Safety System

Is there financial aid for retired seamen?
Sailors' Snug Harbor is an operating foundation dedicated to assisting retired mariners wherever they live, who need financial assistance and meet the eligibility criteria. More than 15,000 mariners have been assisted since its inception in the early nineteenth century.

Eligible Mariners must meet the following criteria: a) 3650 days of deep sea time proven through discharge papers (50% on U.S. flagged ships) b) 65 years of age or older (exceptions may be made) c) A proven need for financial assistance

The Trustees of the Sailors' Snug Harbor in the City of New York
40 Exchange Place, Suite 1701
New York, New York 10005
212-513-0243 Fax

Government assistance for very low income World War II veterans?
The VA has a program to help very low income World War II veterans. VA offers a monthly pension for those who qualify and an additional Aid-and-Attendance benefit for those who are housebound and need in-home care. To qualify, veterans must have served in wartime and show financial need. Even if a veteran has died, a surviving spouse who hasn't remarried can still apply for the benefit. Contact local Veterans Service Officer or Department of Veterans Affairs: 800-827-1000
Veterans benefit

Spousal benefit


Other questions and comments: @

Created 03/28/98 Revised 09/29/14 ©1998-2013 You may quote material on this web page as long as you cite American Merchant Marine at War,, as the source. You may not use more than a few lines without permission. If you see substantial portions of this page on the Internet or in published material notify @