American Merchant Marine Heroes and their Gallant Ships in World War II

Merchant mariners were on the front lines the moment their ships left U.S. ports, and were subject to attack by bombers, kamikaze, battleships, submarines, mines, and land-based artillery. Old time mariners received their gunnery training at the nearest port when gunnery training became necessary. Robert Perez of San Jose, CA received his gunnery training in Australia. Maurice Breen, who shot down a German bomber, received British Merchant Navy gunnery training in Great Britain. The U.S. Maritime Service provided gunnery training for all its recruits.

Countless mariners performed acts of bravery and heroism beyond the call of duty. The Distinguished Service Medal, the Merchant Marine's highest honor, was awarded to 140 mariners, of whom 7 were cadets from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. Ten ships were recipients of the Gallant Ship Award.

Merchant Marine Medals Awarded in WWII

Distinguished Service Medal Service beyond the call of duty 144
Meritorious Service Medal Meritorious conduct or service 362
Mariner's Medal Dead or wounded 5,099
Combat bar Under enemy attack 103,052
War Zone bar Service in war zone 125,000


son of Patrick S. Mahoney  receives Mariner medalPosthumous Award
The tanker MS J. A. Moffett was torpedoed and shelled by U-571 on July 8, 1942 in the Florida Keys while en route from Baltimore to Port Arthur Texas. Captain Patrick S. Mahoney was killed while launching a life boat.

The illustration at right shows his son receiving the Mariner's Medal -- equivalent to the Purple Heart -- from Vice-Admiral A. P. Fairfield USN, while his mother Christine looks on. The ceremony took place in New York on Maritime Day, May 22, 1944. [Mast Magazine, 1944]

Merchant Marine Medals

Citations for Heroism

Gallant Ships

Jay G. Lopez, Radio Operator, Four Star Seaman (torpedoed 4 times)

Prisoners of War

663 men and women Mariners became Prisoners of War. Some, like Stan Willner and George Duffy were prisoners of both the Germans and the Japanese, including the notorious River Kwai Railroad camps. The first mariner POW's were the crew of the SS President Harrison who were captured by the Japanese on December 8, 1941.

SS President Harrison: Master's Report to American President Lines

Stories of POWs

Merchant Mariners at Milag Nord Prisoner of War Camp in Germany

Names and fates of mariner POWs

Walt Disney Merchant Marine EmblemWho Were the Mariners?

In 1940 the Merchant Marine numbered about 55,000. A massive recruiting effort brought in retired seafarers who were able to ship out immediately on the newly launched Libertys. Among them were 76 year-old James A. Logan who served as cook on the SS Joshua Hendy. Thomas Cavely, former master on the Brooklyn to Staten Island ferry, served as captain of a Liberty ship.

Young mariners trained at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, various state Maritime Academies, or the U.S. Maritime Service Training Stations. William Travers, 22, was captain of the SS James Ford Rhodes, while his 21 year old brother was first mate. The U.S. Maritime Service officially took youngsters who were 16 years-old. They took them with one eye, one leg, or heart problems. Many men who were too young or too old for the other services or who were physically unfit for the other services joined the Maritime Service and went in the Merchant Marine.

An informal survey of six WWII mariners about their reason for joining the Maritime Service or Merchant Marine before or during the war, elicited the following reasons (all were 16 to 18 years old at the time):

  • Saw the movie "Action on the North Atlantic" starring Humphrey Bogart.
  • Built Liberty Ships for 3 months, and wanted to sail in one.
  • Didn't pass the physical for Naval Academy or West Point, but was accepted by a state Maritime Academy.
  • Was in the Conservation Corps, which sent him to the newly formed U.S. Maritime Service.
  • Loved geography in school and wanted to see the world.
  • Sent to U.S. Maritime Service by a Navy recruiter, who said that was where his service was needed.

US Navy Armed Guard logoU.S. Naval Armed Guard

In October 1941, the U. S. Navy organized an Armed Guard 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 Armed Guard were given their 3 weeks of training at Little Creek, Virginia and the first trainees and their officers were ready to sail in November 1941, when Congress repealed the Neutrality Act. By war's end, Armed Guard training bases were located throughout the country, and over 144,900 men served on over 6,236 American and Allied ships. Nearly 2,000 of these men gave their lives in defense of their country.

According to Armed Guard veteran William Schofield in "Eastward the Convoys," Navy gun crews aboard merchant ships. . . won literally thousands of decorations and commendations for bravery. At a heavy cost of life, they had delivered to foreign shores the millions of tons of supplies and munitions without which the war against the Axis Powers could not have been won."

Schofield quotes from a voyage report to Murmansk, which gives a good picture of the hazards faced by Armed Guard and their shipmates:

"We passed through heavy ice fields. . . At 1235, the Convoy Commodore's ships was torpedoed and sank in less than one minute. We were next in column, and we passed a number of survivors in the water, about 30 of them. [Merchant ships were forbidden to stop in convoy for rescue.]. . . Early in the morning, the convoy was attacked by 4 torpedo planes, but no ships were hit. At about 1300 hours, enemy surface craft were sighted. Our 4 accompanying destroyers immediately laid a smoke screen on the side from which they were approaching, and all merchant ships equipped with smoke pots lit them off. There were 3 German destroyers in the enemy group and they made 5 attempts to destroy our convoy but were driven off each time. During the battle, one of our ships was hit and sunk. Later the convoy passed though a thick ice pack and escaped in a heavy snowstorm."

gun on SS Lane VictoryAnother voyage report from the Mediterranean:

"Our ship was part of the invasion force and went in close to the beach with the original landing. We were subjected to shelling from the enemy land positions. . . we had 27 actual bombings from enemy aircraft. The gun crew was on emergency watch for those 8 days, obtaining very little rest. . . several gunners were wounded. . . an enemy ME-109 came diving at our ship. The gunners filled her with 20-millimeter shells and the plane burst into flame, crashing into the ship's side and exploding. . . The ship took water rapidly. . . so we ran her onto the beach to avoid sinking. . . The Navy gun crew stayed at their battle stations, sleeping and eating there, so that the ship might be protected and the cargo that was so badly needed on the beach could be safely discharged."

[Photo shows gun on SS Lane Victory, courtesy SS Lane Victory]

In November 1942, near Trinidad, the SS Nathaniel Hawthorne was torpedoed, exploding and sinking within two minutes, taking 39 men down with her, among them Armed Guard officer Kenneth Muir. One of the 10 survivors saw Muir, his arm blown off at the shoulder, pushing 3 men to the stern and forcing them to jump off the blazing ship, then going back to rescue others.

Lt. Kenneth M. Willet, was the officer in charge of the Armed Guard unit on the SS Stephen Hopkins when she was attacked by the heavily armed German raiders Stier and Tannenfels.

Willet was hit several times by shrapnel as he commanded the gunners and helped man the 4-inch stern gun. The Stier was heavily damaged. Then the ammunition magazine exploded and Willet abandoned the gun to help release life rafts. The SS Stephen Hopkins sank stern first, taking Lt. Kenneth Willet with her. [Cadet Edwin O'Hara fired the last shells in the gun, sinking the Stier.]

U.S. Naval Armed Guard Casualties During World War II

For more about the Armed Guard, visit


Salary for Mariners Equivalent to Other Services


During World War II, some gossip columnists claimed that merchant mariners were getting rich on outrageous salaries. In a 1943 letter to the American Legion, Admiral Telfair Knight of the War Shipping Administration compared salaries for equivalent positions in Navy and Merchant Marine, and found salaries to be equivalent or even higher for Navy personnel. In addition, the Navy offered outstanding benefits, including paid leave, disability and death benefits, free medical care for personnel and dependents, free uniforms, and a generous retirement pension.

Mariners signed on for each voyage which lasted until they returned to a U.S. port, which could be one year or more. They had no paid leave, no vacation and no pension.
Salary Comparison Navy vs. Merchant Marine

Liberty Ships
Upon seeing the design for the Liberty ship which was based on a British ship first built in 1879, President Roosevelt named her "the ugly duckling."

The first of the 2,700 Liberty ships was the SS Patrick Henry, launched on Sept. 27, 1941, and built to a standardized, mass produced design. The 250,000 parts were pre-fabricated all over the country and the 250-ton sections, complete with portholes and mirrors, were miraculously welded together in as little as four and a half days. A Liberty cost under $2,000,000.

Photo of Liberty ship SS John W. Brown
[Photo of Liberty ship SS John W. Brown courtesy of Project Liberty Ship]

The Liberty (officially an EC2) was 441 feet long and 56 feet wide. Her three-cylinder, reciprocating steam engine, fed by two oil-burning boilers produced 2,500 hp and a speed of 11 knots. Her 5 holds could carry over 9,000 tons of cargo, plus airplanes, tanks, and locomotives lashed to its deck. A Liberty could carry 2,840 jeeps, 440 tanks, or 230 million rounds of rifle ammunition.

Libertys carried a crew of about 44 and 12 to 25 Naval Armed Guard. Liberty Ship Crew
Some were armed with:

  • One 4 inch stern gun
  • Two 37 mm bow guns
  • Six 20 mm machine guns

About 200 Libertys were lost to torpedoes, mines, explosions, kamikazes, etc. during WWII. Two Liberty ships, the SS Jeremiah O'Brien in San Francisco and the SS John W. Brown in Baltimore, survive as "museum ships" open to the public for tours and occasional cruises. [ Links ]

Story of the SS Robert E. Peary -- built in record time!

Liberty ships were named after prominent Americans, including 18 that were named for outstanding African Americans. African-Americans
Complete list of Liberty Ships (Alphabetical order)
List of Shipyards which built Liberty ships and list of Liberty ships built by each yard

SS United Victory being fitted outVictory Ships
The Liberty's maximum speed was 11 knots, making her easy prey for submarines, so early in 1942 designs for a 15 knot ship were begun. The first of 534 Victory ships, the SS United Victory, was launched on February 28 1944, and like the Libertys, used production line techniques. The next 34 Victory ships were named for each of the Allied nations; the subsequent 218 were named after American cities, the next 150 were named after educational institutions, and the rest received miscellaneous names. Attack Transports were named after Counties, except one named after President Roosevelt's personal Secretary, Marvin H. McIntyre.

[SS United Victory being fitted out, Mast Magazine, May 1944]

The Victory ship (officially VC2) was 455 feet long and 62 feet wide. Her cross-compound steam turbine with double reduction gears developed 6,000 (AP2 type) or 8,500 (AP3s type) horsepower. One diesel Victory, the Emory Victory (VC2-M-AP4) was built. The VC2-S-AP5 was the designation given to Attack Transports built for the Navy (Haskell class). The three AP7 type were Victorys laid as AP3 or AP5 which were cancelled after VJ Day, and completed as combined passenger/cargo ships for the Carribbean trade.

Typically, Victorys were armed with:

  • One 5 inch stern gun
  • One 3 inch bow gun
  • Eight 20 mm machine guns

Three Victory ships (Logan, Hobbs, and Canada) were sunk during World War II, all by kamikazes during the invasion of Okinawa. These Victorys carried a total of 24,000 tons of ammunition (54 million pounds or 24,000 metric tons), including the majority of 81 mm mortar available in the United States. This loss severely restricted combat during the invasion.

The SS Lane Victory in San Pedro, CA is open to the public for tours, occasional cruises, and can often be seen in movies and commercials. This floating museum was named after Isaac Lane who was born into slavery and later founded Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee [Alex Hailey, author of "Roots" is a famous alumnus]. The Red Oak Victory is being restored in Richmond, CA and the American Victory in Tampa, FL

A 61 minute, color video featuring the Hannibal Victory's maiden voyage filmed by U.S. Maritime Commission in 1945 shows the loading of railroad cars and locomotives on the ship, explains the various crew jobs, shows "routine" life on board a wartime ship during her voyage from San Francisco, and unloading in the Philippines. Available from: Amitor, 7055 SW 184th Ave, Aloha, OR 979997 ($18 incl S&H)

Complete list of Victory Ships

tanker SS Mission PurisimaTankers

Tankers were developed around the turn of the century to carry liquid cargo: gasoline, oil, or molasses. During World War II, American tankers made 6,500 voyages to carry 65 million tons of oil and gasoline from the U.S. and the Caribbean to the war zones and to our Allies. They supplied 80% of the fuel used by bombers, tanks, jeeps and ships during the War.

[SS Mission Purisima shown at right, from "The Last Mission Tanker" by Walter W. Jaffee]

The T-2 was the workhorse of the tanker fleet:

  • 523 feet long
  • 68 foot beam
  • 6,000 horsepower Turbo-Electric propulsion
  • Speed 16 knots

A typical tanker crew included 42 mariners and 17 Navy Armed Guard. Tankers carried between 90,000 and 140,000 barrel liquid capacity (4 to 6 million gallons). [42 gallons or 162 liters per barrel]

Skeleton deck carrying planes on tankerIn 1943, desperate for cargo capacity, "skeleton decks" about 7 or 8 feet above the deck (to keep the planes out of the waves and to make lashing simpler) were attached to many tankers to enable them to carry planes and PT boats.

[Skeleton deck carrying planes on tanker, Mast Magazine, April 1944]

Immediately after Pearl Harbor, when the U.S. declared war on Germany and Japan, the U-Boats arrived on our Atlantic Seaboard. They concentrated on the tanker fleet, knowing how essential fuel was to the war effort. Americans faced rationing of gasoline for their cars and heating oil for their homes, to spare fuel for the war.

The tanker SS Cedar Creek, was lend-leased to the USSR. O.M. 'Jac' Smith and two other Americans were asked to join the Soviet crew to bring the ship to the USSR. Because of a series of misunderstandings, the three shipmates found themselves in a Soviet labor camp. Jac Smith escaped from the camp located outside Archangel (Arkhanhelsk), and with the help of Laplanders who found him nearly unconscious in the snow and the Norwegian underground, traveled 900 miles to freedom. He traveled through German-occupied Norway and then by fishing boat to Great Britain. [see Books: Escape from Archangel]
Names of Esso Fleet Tankers, Mission series Tankers, T-2 Tankers


Ships built by U.S. Maritime Commission 1939 to 1947


graph of Ship types built by U.S. Maritime Commission 1939 to 1947

Starting with SS America, laid down in 1937, and ending with SS United States in 1952, the U.S. Maritime Commission built nearly 6,000 ships under the mandate of the 1936 Merchant Marine Act. Besides the Emergency-type Libertys and Victorys, they built "non-emergency" T-2 Tankers, C-2, C-3, C-4 freighters and P-type passenger vessels, as well as miscellaneous tugs, refrigerated, and concrete ships.

All 6,000 ships can be found at Lists of Ships

Mines and Degaussing

Hundreds of ships were sunk or badly damaged from mines planted by planes, minelayers, and submarines in the North Sea, English Channel, and Mediterranean Sea. German submarines also laid mines in the Delaware River, Chesapeake Bay, Boston, Charleston, Jacksonville and New York harbors. The Germans counted on the submarine to win the war at sea, with the mine an important "assist."

The Japanese heavily mined the waters of their homeland and their conquered territories throughout Asia. These mines did not distinguish between ships, nor did they recognize V-E or V-J Day as the end of war.

U.S. Merchant Ships Sunk or Damaged by Mines in World War II
[Includes a short history of mine warfare]

Mine Clearing Job to End Next Year, British Report (New York Times, March 30, 1946)
London. Northwest European waters will not be cleared of mines to make them completely safe for shipping until the summer of 1947, the Admiralty announced today. The British coast should be completely cleared by June or July of this year. Since the end of the war in Europe seventy-two merchantmen and fishing vessels of all nationalities have been sunk or damaged in European waters.

30,000 Japanese Mines Loose (New York Times, Aug. 25, 1946)
Tokyo. Pacific mariners were warned today that some 30,000 mines had broken loose from Japanese minefields and were floating in trade currents. The mines explode by magnetic or pressure influence and remain dangerous to shipping for five years.

Magnetic mine shown beachedThe magnetic mine was the most dangerous and destructive type. All steel ships have magnetism built into them. When a steel vessel passes over a magnetic mine, the magnetic forces in the ship trigger a mechanism in the mine that sets off an explosion under the hull.

[Contact mine, shown beached at left, from "Battle of the Atlantic," Time-Life]

To counteract these mines, some ships were degaussed. Thick bands of electrical wire, aligned with the main deck, were fastened around the length of the vessel. The wire was energized with an electric current that neutralized the ship's magnetism. This system saved countless numbers of ships from destruction.

SS Black Point -- Last U-boat Victim of the War on May 5, 1945 off Point Judith, Rhode Island

Port Chicago Disaster -- WWII Government Cover-up of explosion which killed mariners, Armed Guard and African-American ammunition loaders.

The Mystery of the SS Oklahoma and her unnamed dead. (Courtesy of The Atlanta-Journal Constitution)

Operation Pedestal and SS Ohio save Malta - the Convoy must get through at all costs

SS Richard Hovey: a Tale of Atrocities and Survival - Lifeboats machine-gunned by Japanese submarine

Sinking of the Esso Tanker T. C. McCobb

Top Secret Project Ivory Soap -- Aircraft Repair Ships

Standard List Of Medical Supplies Issued to U.S. Merchant Ships during WWII

Appeal to Danish Seamen to Remain Aboard their Requisitioned Vessels

Walt Disney Merchant Marine Emblem

General Quarters! All Hands to Battle Stations! Naval Armed Guard and Mariners worked as a team manning the guns during World War II

Ship poster prohibiting diaries or other communications

Citations for Heroism

Gallant Ships

Merchant Marine Medals

Jay G. Lopez, Radio Operator, Four Star Seaman (torpedoed 4 times)

Stories of POWs

Merchant Mariners at Milag Nord Prisoner of War Camp in Germany

Names and fates of mariner POWs

Merchant Marine Posters during both World Wars

Merchant Marine in Honolulu Dec 7-15, 1941

U.S Maritime Service Training of seamen


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