American Merchant Marine Page Hosted by Bruce Felknorphoto of Bruce Felknor

Bruce Felknor was a radioman in the merchant marine in World War II. After ten years in public relations, became an expert on election ethics as Executive Director of the Fair Campaign Practices Committee, and published the classic Dirty Politics. He spent many years as an Executive and Editor with Encyclopedia Britannica.

Bruce Felknor crossed the bar 09/27/08

Felknor edited the comprehensive The U.S. Merchant Marine at War, 1775-1945 published by Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 1998 Book Review

The Forgotten Heroes of World World War II

By Bruce L. Felknor

National Maritime Day is celebrated every year on May 22. In its 72 years it has become the nation's most ignored national day, memorializing its most forgotten great accomplishment, and honoring the most ignored vital element of its military capability, the U.S. Merchant Marine.

A joint resolution of Congress created it to celebrate the beginning of transocean transportation by steam instead of sail. On May 22, 1819, the American steamship Savannah left the port of Savannah, on the first successful transocean voyage by steamship.

The 73rd Congress adopted the resolution on May 20, 1933, and President Franklin Roosevelt, two months into his first term, proclaimed it that day. Over the remaining dozen years of that president's life, the focus of Maritime Day steadily shifted toward the coming "European War" and the building of a modern merchant marine with ships and men essential to winning it. Roosevelt signed his last (1945) proclamation less than a week before his death, and Harry Truman issued it.

Every succeeding president proclaimed it, and every succeeding generation ignored it: Victory was easy to remember, but the logistical miracle that enabled it was easy to forget.

The service that carried all the means of war -- men, machines, guns, gasoline and more -- was invisible. No unified national service, it consisted of privately owned shipping companies large and small, that had a handful of fast modern ships and a fleet of World War I or older freighters, plus oil companies and their tanker fleets of various ages.

The ship solution.
Although a fast modern freighter, the C2, had been designed and a few built, speed in delivering ships trumped speed in knots per hour, and the design of a virtual relic was adopted. C2s continued to be built (173 of them in 6 years).

The relic was a reliable old British tramp steamer being built in American shipyards for the British merchant fleet. Simple to build, reliable, capacious, but slow. Reborn as the Liberty ship, it became lovingly known as the ship that won the war.

It was slow but easy to run and maintain. And by building its hull in sections it could be welded together -- a conspicuous application of modern technology -- and turned out in 30 or 40 days; the record was four days. It was joked that they were built by the mile and chopped off by the yard.

Launching of SS Robert E. Peary
Launching of SS Robert E. Peary
built in 4 days, 15 hours, 29 minutes

Shipyards on all three coasts cranked them out -- 2,710 of them from September 1941 through the end of the war, the greatest number of oceangoing vessels built to a single design in all history. (That total was swelled by 60 of the same basic design for the British and more for Canada.)

An excellent modern tanker design had been adapted from new ships in the Mobil fleet and this became the Maritime Commission's fast, turbo-electric T2, carrying almost 6 million gallons of aviation gas (or any fluid) at nearly 16 knots. A few were launched in 1940, and 527 by war's end. It became the workhorse tanker, and many are in service today.

The manpower solution.
There was no draft of merchant seamen. The government’s modest merchant marine public relations effort concentrated on recruiting. Government training schools graduated more than 250,000 officers and unlicensed personnel (many from more than one program).

But there never was a mass of grass roots support. The eventual 13 million men and women of the army, navy, marines, and coast guard had professional cheerleaders in Washington and war correspondents embedded with them -- and 20-odd million voting parents. The eventual 250,000 merchant mariners had only mom and pop.

As the "Bridge of Ships" grew, new vessels were rushed into convoys carrying Lend-Lease war cargoes to embattled Britain. German submarines began attacking the bridge in earnest.

On May 21, 1941, U-69 in the south Atlantic sank the American freighter Robin Moor, giving her crew and passengers 20 minutes to abandon ship. This accelerated American preparations for war.

Immediately after Pearl Harbor, German Adm. Karl Dönitz, commander of the submarine force, sent five U-boats to the Atlantic off the American coast. These launched a virtual reign of terror on U.S. shipping that, in Winston Churchill's words, "almost brought us to the disaster of an indefinite prolongation of the war”. The challenge became to build ships faster than the U-boats sank them.

Congress had been reluctant to arm merchant ships, but as pressure grew to repeal the Neutrality Act, the navy prepared to arm ships. It organized an Armed Guard to provide gun crews for duty aboard the country's 1,375 merchant ships, as it had done in World War I. The first of the Armed Guard received their 3
weeks' training at Little Creek, Virginia and the first trainees and their officers were ready to sail in November 1941, when Congress repealed the act.Merchant marine officer cadets and seaman trainees were already receiving gunnery training, and served guns when needed throughout the war.

Seaman trainees get gunnery training
Seaman trainees get gunnery training

Roosevelt had to virtually coerce Fleet Adm. Ernest J. King (mid-1943) to convoy U.S. ships to the "MOMP" or Mid-Ocean Meeting Point where the Royal Navy would escort them the rest of the way. By then most American ships were armed.

At last the tide began to turn. Most ships had 5-inch guns aft and a 3-incher at the bow, with three 20-mm antiaircraft guns on each side. The bow gun was a versatile weapon against aircraft or surface targets. Gunners on merchant ships downed many enemy aircraft during the war.

But every man aboard a seagoing merchant ship in World War II was a target, gunner or not. The engine room was a bull's eye for the U-boat, and a direct hit there would make the place a furnace.

No one was immune from the consequences of a hit. A torpedo or bomb often wrecked the lifeboats. The sea was a lethal enemy, boats or not. Men were forced by fire to leap into the sea. A bomb or torpedo could make a ship a flaming pyre. Oil from ruptured tanks could blaze for hours around the sinking ship.

Expert swimmers, unwounded, could dive through the flames, swim underwater long enough to clear the burning fuel, and hope to find a raft or lifeboat. If not, drowning, or sharks. Unburned oil in the cold ocean congealed into a thick pad that made surface swimming impossible. Without protective clothing one can live in the ocean only until hypothermia claims him, and in the North Atlantic that span is measured in minutes.

SS Muskogee crew,
SS Muskogee crew, photographed by U-boat. None survived.

Not all deaths were slow and tortured. The fate of anyone torpedoed or bombed on an ammunition ship or tanker with aviation gasoline, was instant obliteration. Sailors in convoys where such cataclysms occurred are unanimous: the explosion is horrendous, there is a rising cloud of dust or vapor, and nothing falls to earth. The ship and its people have disappeared, been vaporized, disintegrated.

For 44 years after the war, merchant marine survivors were not even war veterans. As the GI Bill of Rights was being debated in Congress, a Seamen's Bill of Rights was proposed, strongly endorsed by President Roosevelt and a number of influential members of Congress.

But it was rigidly opposed by others, swayed by the leaders of the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, who had been persuaded by a series of lies and misunderstandings about the merchant marine circulated most effectively by newspaper columnists, Westbrook Pegler and Walter Winchell, who also had a national radio audience.

Only a few hundred of the 8,412 killed died a quick death when their tanker or ammunition ship was disintegrated by torpedo or bombs. The others died more slowly, drowning, burning, or as shark food. But every man and boy (16 was the minimum age) that went to sea in the wartime merchant marine knew he faced these specific perils every time he left port. And not one of them was drafted, each a volunteer.

The barrage of falsehood and disinformation killed the Seamen's Bill of Rights despite Roosevelt's, and later Truman's efforts to resurrect it. Military heroes -- MacArthur, Wainwright, Eisenhower, Nimitz, Vandegrift, and many others -- praised the valor and gallantry and selfless service of the merchant marine, but the truth never caught up with the fabrications.

Until, that is, a trio of merchant mariners who had survived the war took the government to court. (One of those, Stanley Willner, had been a Prisoner of War in the Japanese prison camp on the notorious River Kwai.) The Defense Department had assigned the Secretary of the Air Force to oversee veterans' group applications for recognition. He had repeatedly rejected the application of Edward Fitzgerald, Dennis Roland, and Stanley Willner, though in their judgment they met all the stated qualifications.

Those included having received military training, being subject to military justice, discipline, and control; lack of freedom to resign; susceptibility to assignment for duty in a combat zone; and whether it was reasonable to expect such service to be considered active military service.

The case came to trial in Federal District Court in Washington in 1987. The court found decisively and in pungent terms for the plaintiffs, and ordered further actions leading to legislation recognizing men with oceangoing merchant marine service in World War II as veterans.

This led to a cascade of rulings and regulations recognizing merchant marine veterans organizations, granting the old mariners access to Veterans' Hospitals and medical care, residence in Veterans Homes, burial in National Cemeteries -- and a flag for their coffins.

The truly major benefits of the GI Bill, college tuition and home loan guarantees, long since bypassed this dwindling cohort. A credible estimate is that of the 250,000 about 10,000 are left. Even the sixteen-year-olds of 1945 are in their late 70s now. The old salts of then who left retirement and patriotically went back to sea are long dead. The rest have outlived their life expectancies and, for many, their resources. For the latter, Veterans Home eligibility offers one hope.

(Note that upon the court decision the American Legion immediately complied and welcomed merchant mariners. VFW did not and does not.)

Bills are circulating in Congress, seeking cosponsors, that would grant the old salts $1,000 a month for the short remainder of their lives. One is H.R. 23, by Bob Filner (D.) of California, and at this writing it has nearly half the 435 members of the House signed on as cosponsors. A similar bill has at this writing just been introduced into the Senate -- S. 1272 -- by Sen. Benjamin Nelson (D) of Nebraska.

Major military leaders hail the old men of the sea; the new World War II memorial in Washington celebrates them along with the soldiers and sailors and airmen and marines whose guns and gas and bombs and fighter planes they delivered.

Only a small scattering of citizens today even know there is a merchant marine -- now with mammoth ships and smaller crews -- or that the supply ships and tankers and troopships of today's Military Sealift Command are sailed today as they were in both world wars and Korea and Vietnam and Desert Storm, by today's men, and now women, of the United States Merchant Marine.

The President's Proclamation calls for flags to be flown on all government buildings and for all U.S. ships at sea to dress ship, to honor that vital company of invisible heroes and their calling: down to the sea in ships.

Tomorrow when you see a flag, murmur a prayer of thanks for those unsung men and boys of 65 years ago, silent heroes who volunteered and risked all to deliver the goods.

The Merchant Marine in Peacetime and War

In today's merchant marine fewer companies operate fewer and much larger freighters and tankers. Cruise ships have supplanted ocean liners. The Military Sealift Command (MSC) handles logistics for all the armed forces on huge modern freighters and tankers crewed by civilian mariners.

Graduates of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (deck and engineering officers, men and women) can serve in any military branch or the merchant marine, and are in demand on foreign ships.

The major U.S. union, Seafarers International Union (SIU), operates training schools and hiring halls for men and women in unlicensed jobs (non-officers). New technologies made new seafaring jobs, e.g., electronics technicians, more electricians in the turbo-electric world. In war the biggest difference is that control of the sea is not an issue but cargo inspection is, and eternal vigilance (e.g., USS Cole) is essential. Career opportunities and job openings still exist.

This article originally appeared on page 1 of The Chicago Tribune’s Sunday Perspective section on National Maritime Day, May 22, 2005. It has been updated by the author.

"The Liberty ships of World War Two" published as a Special Edition of The Pointer, USN Armed Guard WWII Veterans, 115 Wall Creek Drive, Rolesville, NC 27571, August 1998
Off Soundings
. May 1943. Avalon, Santa Catalina Island California U. S. Maritime Service Training Station
Moore, Arthur R. A Careless Word - A Needless Sinking: A History of the Staggering Losses Suffered by the U.S. Merchant Marine, both in Ships and Personnel, during World War II. American Merchant Marine Museum, Kings Point, NY: 1998.

Other articles by Bruce Felknor:


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