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Flashback Friday: Salute the U.S. Merchant Marine & U.S. Navy Armed Guard

Monday, November 11 is Veterans Day. 

FreightWaves and American Shipper salute all the men and women who have served or are serving in all branches of the United States Armed Forces (U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Marines, U.S. Navy) in both war and peace.

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However, the focus of this article will be the largely forgotten service of those who were members of the U.S. Merchant Marine and the U.S. Navy Armed Guard during World War II.

According to, Veterans Day originated as “Armistice Day” on November 11, 1919, the first anniversary of the end of World War I. Congress passed a resolution in 1926 for an annual observance, and November 11 became a national holiday beginning in 1938. Unlike Memorial Day, Veterans Day pays tribute to all American veterans – living or dead – but especially gives thanks to living veterans who served their country honorably during war or peacetime. 

Veterans Day occurs on November 11 every year in the United States in honor of the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918 that signaled the end of World War I.

In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower officially changed the name of the holiday from Armistice Day to Veterans Day.

According to The  American Legion’s website, “veterans who served at least one day of active duty during wartime, or are serving now, are potentially eligible for membership in The American Legion. Members must have been honorably discharged/discharged under honorable conditions or are still serving honorably. Merchant Marines who served from December 7, 1941, to December 31, 1946, are also eligible.”

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U.S. Merchant Marine

According to, “the merchant marine is collectively those non-naval ships that carry cargo or passengers or provide maritime services, and the civilian crewmen and officers who sail those ships.”

During World War II, across the world’s oceans, the ships and men of the U.S. Merchant Marine transported the “vast quantities of war materiel, supplies, equipment and troops needed to fight and win that war.” The U.S. Merchant Marine was comprised of civilian volunteers. They died proportionally in numbers that rivaled or exceeded any branch of the uniformed military. Like the U.S. Navy’s Armed Guard – with whom they sailed – the largely unsung men of the U.S. Merchant Marine contributed greatly to the war effort and helped make possible the Allied victory in World War II.

According to the Oxford Companion to World War II, “One way to understand the Second World War is to appreciate the critical role of merchant shipping… the availability or non-availability of merchant shipping determined what the Allies could or could not do militarily…. when sinkings of Allied merchant vessels exceeded production, when slow turnarounds, convoy delays, roundabout routing, and long voyages taxed transport severely, or when the cross-Channel invasion planned for 1942 had to be postponed for many months for reasons which included insufficient shipping….

Had these ships not been produced, the war would have been in all likelihood prolonged many months, if not years. Some argue the Allies would have lost as there would not have existed the means to carry the personnel, supplies, and equipment needed by the combined Allies to defeat the Axis powers. [It took 7 to 15 tons of supplies to support one soldier for one year.] The U.S. wartime merchant fleet. . . constituted one of the most significant contributions made by any nation to the eventual winning of the Second World War….

In the final assessment, the huge US merchant fleet… provided critical logistical support to the war effort…”

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According to the National D-Day Museum, “Members of the Merchant Marine were an essential force for the Allied cause, often working together with U.S. Navy or U.S. Coast Guard vessels to protect their precious cargo. Crossing the Atlantic and Pacific, they sailed under deadly threat of Japanese destroyers and German U-boats, which attacked as near as the Gulf of Mexico.”

Prior to World War II there were about 55,000 civilian sailors employed in the U.S. Merchant Marine. By war’s end that number had swelled to approximately 250,000. The number of ships also increased. Before the war the merchant fleet numbered about 1,340 cargo ships and tankers. By the end of the war that number increased to over 4,200 U.S. merchant ships.

U.S. Merchant Marine casualties

Because the U.S. Merchant Marine was not a single organization and did not have a centralized record-keeping system or archives, the number of merchant mariners killed, wounded, missing and taken prisoner vary considerably.

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The estimates of the number of merchant mariners who died or went missing during the war vary – from at least 5,662 to more than 8,300 seamen and officers. As many as 12,000 were wounded, and more than 600 became prisoners of war. 

No matter what the actual numbers were, however, thousands of civilian merchant mariners bravely served the United States during World War II. Thousands of those sailors died in combat, without receiving the honor, recognition and respect of similar sacrifices made by the uniformed military services.

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U.S. Merchant Marine ship losses

According to the War Shipping Administration, 1,554 merchant ships were sunk during World War II due to war-related conditions. Other sources list the number above 1,700.In addition, hundreds of other ships were damaged, many beyond repair. Ships that were sunk were attacked by torpedoes, bombs, mines, kamikaze attack or other combat actions. Other ships were lost because of other maritime accidents (fires, explosions, groundings, collisions, overwhelmed by weather or sea) that were often caused or made worse by wartime conditions. 

U.S. Navy Armed Guard  

The U.S. Navy Armed Guard and the U.S. Merchant Marine were dependent upon each other – “they were literally in the same boat. One cannot tell the story of one without telling the story of the other.”

The U.S. Navy Armed Guard defended U.S. and Allied merchant ships from attack by enemy aircraft, submarines and surface ships during World War II. The men of the Armed Guard were primarily gunners, signal men and radio operators on cargo ships, tankers, troop ships and other merchant vessels. Unfortunately, the Armed Guard is not well-known or remembered by the general public, or even in the U.S. Navy. However, their courage and sacrifice contributed to the Allied victory.

LIFE magazine – February 23, 1942
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The U.S. Navy Armed Guard began in World War I, when nearly 400 U.S. merchant vessels carried guns and U.S. Navy personnel. This earlier version of the Armed Guard was disbanded following World War I and its modest scope hardly resembled that of the Armed Guard of World War II.

Almost 145,000 enlisted men and officers served in the U.S. Navy Armed Guard during World War II. They sailed on over 6,200 merchant ships (including Allied vessels). Of that number, more than 700 ships were sunk and hundreds more were damaged. U.S. Navy Armed Guard casualties numbered at least 1,810 killed or missing in action and many more wounded, a casualty rate that grimly rivals the casualty rate of the various branches of the U.S. Armed Forces. 

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Wartime assignments

Typically, the normal unit of Armed Guard for a merchant ship was 24 gunners and one officer, plus as many as three communication personnel for a total of 28 men. Troop ships had larger Armed Guard detachments in order to serve on the increased numbers of guns installed on such vessels. 

Early In the war, many merchant ships went out with fewer guns and smaller detachments of Armed Guard. While shortages of officers, men and armaments were increased over time, it wasn’t until early 1945 that the shortage in armaments was entirely solved. 

U.S. Navy Armed Guard crew of MV Cape Matapan. (Photo contributed by Rich Banks to

When the war ended, the U.S. Navy Armed Guard, like other military units, rapidly decreased in size as men were discharged. Small detachments of Armed Guard were kept aboard merchant vessels to maintain the guns until the weapons were removed from the ships and returned to the U.S. Navy. The disarming of merchant ships continued into 1946.

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U.S. Merchant Marine veteran status

President Franklin D. Roosevelt served as Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Navy from 1913 until 1920. He praised members of the U.S. Merchant Marine in speeches throughout the war. One such statement: “[Mariners] have written one of its 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 [World War II].”

President Franklin D. Roosevelt

His wife, Eleanor, credited them with “supreme courage” and suggested they be issued uniforms. The New York Times characterized merchant mariners as the war’s unsung heroes. The men of the U.S. Merchant Marine provided honorable, vital and heroic service in wartime. 

However, they were not accorded veteran status until decades following the end of World War II. It wasn’t until 1988 that merchant mariners who served in World War II officially recognized as veterans, and then only after being refused repeatedly in attempts to gain veteran status. It took a long and finally successful court battle for them to be recognized. Unfortunately, the men of the U.S. Maritime Service, the organization that trained those who served in the U.S. Merchant Marine, have never received veteran status.

The following is from and is a superb summary. “Most of the mariners who sailed against the U-boats are gone now. The few thousand who remain have come to regard Memorial Day as a celebration that has never fully included them. But it’s still not too late to remember, belatedly, how much we owe them.”


  • The American Legion
  • Project Liberty Ship
  • National D-Day Museum
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  1. My father was a Gunner’s Mate on an Armed Guard ship. His ship exploded after being hit by a U-boat off of Norfolk. He survived by SWIMMING back to Virginia Beach!

  2. One of my Uncle’s was on the famous Murmansk run during WWII. We saved the Russians rear end with tons of supplies and weapons. A lot of ships were sunk during the convoys and many sailors were lost at sea. When the ships docked in Murmansk, the Russians would not let the Canadian and American Merchant Sailors off of the ships and into the port. My Uncle never forgot the freezing cold or how the Russians treated our sailors.

  3. Thank you so much Scott Mall for this article. I manage two Facebook groups on the WWII US Merchant Marine and Liberty Ships of WWII. I am a volunteer for the WWII American Merchant Marine Veterans organization (AMMV) and we are raising awareness on the forgotten veterans of WWII. Mostly the USMM since they were denied veterans benefits until 1988. Now they are up for a Congressional Gold Medal in the 116th Congress. S.133 Congressional Gold Medal for the WWII USMM has 42 senators signed on and 67 are needed to vote on this bill. Please call your senators and let them know you want them to sponsor this bill. I am also running the AMMV Twitter page and in four years there are over 6700 followers. You would be amazed at how many sons and daughters are interested in finding out more about both of these forgotten veterans. Thanks again for posting this article as it helps educate the public on both of their roles in WWII. Thank you. Check us out on @AMMWWII on Twitter and our website

Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.