periscopeThe Most Dangerous Positions for Mariners during WWII

"Torpedo los," the U-boat commander called out as he looked through the periscope. The Allied ship was centered in the cross-hairs. The torpedo headed for the ship, it's wake straight and true as it nears.

The unsuspecting crew of the ship is following its routine at sea: the Master paces on the bridge; an Able-Bodied Seaman is at the wheel; a Mate is at the chart table; one member of the "black gang" glances at dials; the Navy gun crew peers into the darkness from their gun tub; the cooks are making bread; the bosun snores in his bunk.

The U-boat commander was accurate in his calculation of the direction, speed, and draft of the Allied ship. The torpedo hit the center of the ship, right in the engine room!

sinking merchant shipWorld War II mariners believed the engine room the most dangerous place aboard ship. U-boat commanders aimed their torpedoes at the center. The engine room was far below the water line and criss-crossed with steam lines that could rupture from the force of the explosion. It was a perilous climb to safety -- up steep metal ladders from the depths of the engine room -- water swirling around your feet -- steam hissing -- total darkness -- the ship listing and lurching.

Do the statistics of merchant mariners killed during World War II bear out this belief? Our database shows 8,388 mariners killed, with positions known for 7,319 of the casualties. The following tables show casualties for each position. About 2,000 Navy Armed Guard were also killed aboard these ships. Their quarters and messroom were above the water line.

Administrative Dept. Number Killed

Master 230
Radio Officer 192
Purser 65
Cadet (during training) 6
Clerk 3
Doctor/Surgeon 5
Printer 1
Total Administrative Dept. 502

Engine Department Number Killed

Chief Engineer 190
1st Engineer 194
2nd Engineer 200
3rd Engineer 228
Jr. Engineer 35
Fireman/Watertender 647
Fire Watchman 7
Oiler 621
Wiper 337
Night Engineer 3
Machinist 14
Engine Maintenance 2
Engineer 7
Engine Cadet 64
Pumpman 62
Donkeyman 6
Electrician 27
Refrigeration Engineer 17
Coal Passer 34
Coal Trimmer 4
Total Engine Dept. 2,644

Deck Department Number Killed

Chief Mate 172
2nd Mate 179
3rd Mate 187
Able-Bodied Seaman 981
Quartermaster 15
Ordinary Seaman 504
Bosun 142
Carpenter 55
Deck Engineer 67
Deck Maintenance 50
Deck Watchman 3
Deck Cadet 73
Repatriated Seaman 1
Winchman 2
Workaway 5
Total Deck Dept. 2,436

Steward's Department Number Killed

Cook 416
Baker 16
Steward 256
Messman 630
Utility 229
Galleyman 32
Waiter 54
Storekeeper  27
Stewardess 2
Porter 3
Barber 1
Butcher 8
Linenkeeper 5
Laundryman 1
Saloonman 2
Total Steward's Dept. 1,682


Department No. aboard % aboard No. killed % killed
Total Administrative 3 7% 502 7%
Total Engine 14 33% 2,699 37%
Total Deck 15 35% 2,436 33%
Total Stewards 11 26% 1,682 23%
Known positions 43   7,319  

These figures are based on a Liberty ship with a crew of 42 to 44 men [plus up to 27 Navy Armed Guard]. These statistics show the Engine department was slightly more dangerous than other departments, with engine crew constituting 33% of those aboard, and 37% of those killed.

Illustration Source:
Jordan, David. Wolfpack: The U-Boat War and the Allied Counter-Attack 1939-1945. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2002

Residence of Merchant Marine Casualties

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