A look a what is called the forgotten service the Merchant Marines.
Though the U.S. Merchant Marine is a civilian organization, it’s often called “the forgotten service” in the context of the Second World War, reflecting their tremendous contribution to the war effort and the great personal danger merchant mariners faced. One in every 24 merchant mariners died during the war, a higher rate of death than in any branch of the military. Today’s article is going to look at the relationship between this overlooked group and an even more obscure one: the U.S. Maritime Service.
The Maritime Service is often confused with the Merchant Marine but they’re actually two different organizations. The Merchant Marine has existed since the Revolutionary War but it seemed to hit a low point in the 1930s. Few new merchant vessels were being built, the existing ones were old and owners and several maritime unions were constantly at each other’s throats. Congress saw the need for a new organization that could both sort out these problems and guarantee an influx of new seamen who would be sorely needed in a potential war in the near future. This last issue was made all the more urgent by memories of the First World War, in which numerous civilian sailors were killed by German U-boats. Congress’ decision resulted in the creation of the U.S. Maritime Commission in 1936, which in turn established the Maritime Service in 1938.
The Maritime Service was a training program for merchant mariners. With an eye towards wartime service, participants were trained both by civilian Maritime Commission and uniformed Coast Guard instructors. At first, participants had to be at least 19 years of age with at least one year of service on a merchant vessel of at least 500 gross tons. Eventually, even boys as young as 16 were accepted.
In addition to learning the ins and outs of working on a merchant ship, Maritime Servicemen also received combat training. During the war the Navy provided merchant ships with an Armed Guard to man anti-air guns, but Servicemen had to be able to assist them or take over if the gunners were wounded or killed. The Service had its own uniforms, similar to Navy ones but with a unique set of shoulder boards and dress uniforms. Over the course of the war, the training program increased the manpower of the Merchant Marine from 55,000 to over 200,000.
Training in the Service was beset by danger, since the training ships could come under attack by U-boats prowling the American coastline or run into German mines laid near American ports. This danger persisted after a serviceman joined the Merchant Marine: more than 1,000 merchant seamen died within sight of the East Coast, and many more elsewhere in the Atlantic.
The courage of these sailors is well-represented by the actions of Cadet-Midshipman Francis Dales, who received the Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal, the service’s equivalent of the Medal of Honor. In May 1943 his freighter was transporting gasoline as part of a small British convoy en route to the besieged island of Malta. On the fourth day, two German torpedo boats attacked the freighter, igniting the high-octane gasoline with a torpedo hit. Two hours after the ship sank, Dale and his comrade were picked up by a destroyer that then took in tow a bombed and out-of-control fuel tanker. After several waves of dive-bombing attacks by the Luftwaffe, the towed tanker had to be abandoned. Its cargo, however, was vital to the defenders of Malta, so the destroyer teamed up with another one and the two ships were lashed to either side of the crippled vessel to drag it along. Though Dales just recently survived the loss of his own ship, he and four others volunteered to go aboard the tanker and man her guns. They remained there under heavy attack for the rest of the trip, even though a bomb blew out the bottom of the engine room and the tanker started taking on water until the deck was awash.
Hostile action wasn’t the only danger merchant mariners had to face. On the perilous Arctic convoys supplying the Soviet Union with war material weather itself could be as deadly as any German attack. Ships in northern waters rapidly got covered in ice and the crew had to constantly clear it from the superstructure with axes and steam hoses so that the top-heavy ships wouldn’t topple over from 30ft tall waves. Without triple gloves, touching a metal surface meant ripping off your skin when it froze. People would come off watch with bloody faces because when they rubbed their noses, their nose hairs, which were frozen solid, could puncture their flesh. Walking around on the ice-covered deck meant they had to secure themselves with ropes or risk sliding overboard and succumbing to the gelid water in seconds.
All this danger and sacrifice went unappreciated. Technically being civilians, merchant marines stopped receiving wages the moment their ships entered a port – or got torpedoed. Sailors who lost their ships on the Arctic route but made it to Russia had to beg or borrow money just to get home to the States, as they wouldn’t get paid before that. Not being members of the military, they were denied veteran status and any aid or services associated until 1988. One man spoke up for them but didn’t live long enough to support the cause of merchant mariners after the war. “Mariners have written one [the war’s] most brilliant chapters. They have delivered the goods when and where needed in every theater of operations and across every ocean in the biggest, the most difficult and dangerous job ever undertaken. As time goes on, there will be greater public understanding of our merchant’s fleet record during this war.” The declaration was made by President Roosevelt.