A World War II Mariner Looks at the Iraq War

by Bruce Felknor

As the Iraq War winds down, the merchant mariners sailing the ships of the U.S. Ready Reserve Force have been coming home to heroes' welcomes and the award of the Merchant Marine Expeditionary Medal (shown at right). Merchant marine Expeditionary medal

This part of the story may stir envy in the old men who sailed the ships that won World War II.

But this year's big welcomes occur only in the ships' home ports, usually in modest shipboard ceremonies, and with media coverage -- if any -- limited to the port city's local press.

That part will be more familiar to the grizzled old salts whose homecomings in 1945 and 1946 were feted at home by wives and parents.

The world is different and war is different, and the perils of life at sea are different - no less real, but fewer, and vastly different.

The medals signify a major difference. It took the U.S. government forty years even to acknowledge World War II mariners as veterans, and the medals to go with war zone ribbons - Atlantic, Pacific, the Med - were not even created for decades after the war.

This time government was ready and waiting to honor the seafarers who made victory possible. Who carried 80 percent of the humvees and artillery and ammunition and food and fuel to Iraqi or adjacent ports.

One of the first ceremonies underlined a major difference between then and now. Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta presented medals to six symbolically selected recipients in Washington, DC, on National Maritime Day, May 22. They included the skipper of the MV Nicholas Christian, Captain Lisa Overby and an AB from MV Cape John, Karen Domerego.

In World War II, female crew members were occasionally glimpsed on Soviet merchant ships, and served on American passenger ships caught at sea by Pearl Harbor.

Five cadet midshipmen from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy who served at sea during the war also were awarded the Expeditionary Medal. In his remarks, Secretary Mineta stressed the fact that the Merchant Marine Academy is the only federal service academy that sends its students into conflict.

Merchant marine veterans from World War II will recall that this was already true in 1942, and many will remember heroic service in battle by those young men, right alongside their older or younger shipmates from the merchant crews and the Armed Guard.

The wartime perils of U.S. merchant ships in World War II were both more numerous and more catastrophic than encountered by today's seafarers. Most of this stemmed from the fact that control of the seas was very much in doubt.

In the first half-year of the war it could be argued that the German submarine fleet controlled the Atlantic coastline south of New York. Control was hotly contested in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, and in Drumbeat and Wolf Pack days every transatlantic crossing was endangered.

A burning tanker off the Atlantic coast during World War II
A burning tanker off the Atlantic Coast during World War II (at right)

The deadly Murmansk Run above the Arctic Circle to supply the Soviet Union subjected mariners to predation by torpedo bombers as well as U-boats and German surface warships. The Mediterranean was a hotbed of the same perils, lacking only the icy seas.

The South Atlantic for long months was alive with enemy Surface Raiders disguised as freighters, and both German and Japanese submarines patroled the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean.

Those who sail the modern wartime seas face none of those dangers: submarines, flights of  hostile bombers, surface raiders armed like destroyers - and for that matter, destroyers.

The perils of today's war against an evil despot like Saddam Hussein or an evil master of terror like Osama bin Laden arise from a different kind of threat. The damage to the USS Cole from a small craft laden with explosives is an example. The biological weapons so feared and so sought in the Iraq war are another. Gas masks, seen on World War II freighters only on a cargo manifest, were standard issue for crews in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Current emphasis on the dangers of U.S.-bound cargo containing hidden explosives or toxic substances reveals another danger the mariners of 1941-1946 did not face. My 1998 book, The U.S. Merchant Marine at War 1775-1945, pointed to these modern dangers, then not widely identified.

"[I]n the world of 2000-plus, the rogue micro-state, the free-lance terrorist country or religion, the renegade nuclear scientist or ex-Soviet general with plutonium to go is a constant threat.  In a world of super-tankers and super-freighters, the truck bomb or the suitcase nuclear bomb are as deadly as a torpedo, and can be placed and detonated for pennies instead of billions."

And it is a world of super-tankers and super-freighters. The Liberty ship or T-2 tanker operated with a crew (not counting navy armed guard) of 43 or so. The beloved old Lib was about 440 feet long, with a beam of 57 feet. She drew 27'7" fully loaded and displaced 14,250 long tons. With a following sea and a strong following wind she could make 11 knots.

USNS Brittin Roll-on roll-off shipHer modern successor is twice as long, twice as wide, rides 7 feet deeper, and can cruise at 24 knots. She displaces 62,000 long tons. Her superstructure is all aft over the engine room. Cargo booms? Forget it. This ship is roll-on, roll-off, or RO-RO. Other configurations - tankers and container ships - look more like the ships old-timers remember.

And these monsters carry a crew of 30 - men and women, with no Armed Guard.

Launching of USNS Brittin  (T-AKR 305) Large, Medium-Speed Roll-on/Roll-off Ship (at right)

The perils of the sea remain perils, if the perils of war have changed. Now U.S. inspectors will check cargoes leaving foreign ports for the United States to guard against the dangers predicted above, and a sharp-eyed watch will beware the explosive-laden "bum boat."

The men and women merchant mariners that "man" these vessels of the U.S. Military Sealift Command can take pride in the old sea-dogs that preceded them in a war that ended near 60 years ago. And the old-timers of my generation can be proud of these brave youngsters as they, merchant mariners, sail the seven seas to keep the world safe for free society.

But for all the changes in ship size and speed and crew and nature of risk, one thing remains the same. General public ignorance and apathy is unchanged.

Outside maritime and military circles, families and port cities, the news and entertainment media that inform the population have the same old answer to the question, "What is the merchant marine?"

It is: "I don't know, and I don't care."

Convoy: Merchant Sailors at War, 1939-1945
, Philip Kaplan and Jack Currie, U.S. Naval Institute Press, 1998
Military Sealift Command, Ship Inventory: http://www.msc.navy.mil/inventory/ships.asp?ship=brittin&type=LMSR

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