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The Merchant Marine

Discussion in 'Merchant Navy During WWII' started by Jim, Sep 8, 2010.

  1. Jim

    Jim New Member

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    The members of the U.S. Merchant Marine were civilians, paid by their civilian employers, and had their own union of seamen to negotiate for better wages, bonuses, and overtime pay, but they experienced the war much as did the combat troops, amid hardship and danger: In the early years they had to confront enemy submarines (U-boats) in unarmed vessels. They sailed in the old ships owned by the Merchant Marine when the war started, in ships scrounged from other owners, and the Liberty and Victory ships that other American workers turned out by the thousands. They ran the risk of death by high explosives, fire, drowning, freezing, and starving. They put U.S. armies and equipment on enemy territory and maintained them there; transporting across the seas the 7 to 15 tons of supplies it took to support one soldier for one year. On the run to Murmansk alone they supplied the USSR with 15,000 aircraft, 7,000 tanks, 350,000 tons of explosives, and 15 million pairs of boots. Moreover, the Merchant Marine participated in Allied invasions, both in the Atlantic and in the Pacific. In preparation for the Normandy landings, for instance, a thousand Merchant Marine volunteers sailed 22 obsolete merchant ships laden with explosives across the English Channel and under heavy fire set them in position for scuttling to form artificial harbors; on D day, 2,700 merchant ships landed troops and munitions under enemy fire on the beaches of Normandy. Thereafter during the battles for France and Germany, merchant ships shuttled 2.5 million troops, 17 million tons of munitions and supplies, and half a million trucks and tanks from England to France. During the war the numbers of merchant mariners swelled from 55,000 to 215,000, a growth enabled in part by the training programs of the U.S. Maritime Service. Among them were 24,000 African Americans, constituting almost 10 percent of the service, who laboured in every capacity aboard the ships. Still, prejudice beset blacks. Captain Hugh Mulzac, a black man born in the British West Indies who had become a naturalized American citizen in 1918, earned his captain’s rating that year, but prejudice denied him command except on a ship with an all-black crew. He refused to command a Jim-Crow ship. Finally, 22 years later, in World War II, he was put in command of the S.S. Booker T. Washington with an integrated crew of 18 nationalities. The ship made 22 round-trip voyages in five years, transporting 18,000 troops, but after the war Mulzac never again received a command. Attacks on merchant ships by submarines, armed raiders and destroyers, and aircraft combined with encounters with mines and storms killed almost 7,300 crew members at sea; wounded 12,000, of whom 1,100 died from their wounds; and made prisoners of 663 men and women. Sixty-six died in prison camps or aboard enemy ships. In the Atlantic in the early days of the war the unarmed or lightly armed merchant ships sailing without air cover were easy prey to enemy submarines, which often travelled in “wolf packs” and from 1940 until mid 1942 sank more ships than Americans built. Defense measures to protect them were too little and too late. In early 1942 navy gun crews designated as naval armed guards were assigned to merchant ships. In late spring of 1942 the War Shipping Administration began to organize convoys with fighting escort ships to protect the merchantmen from the submarines lined up about 15 miles apart across convoy routes. The convoys could move only at the speed of the slowest ship among them perhaps 7 knots, but U-boats averaged 17.5 knots on the surface and 7 knots submerged. Moreover, escort vessels could not simultaneously hunt submarines and pick up survivors. In June 1942 the government finally ordered a blackout of seacoast cities, so that at least the merchant ships would not be outlined against the lights, making them easier targets for submarines. In October 1942 when Allied bombing of enemy submarine pens began, the Germans had so heavily shielded them with reinforced concrete that not a single U-boat was damaged.

    In the Pacific, convoys were unnecessary except during invasions, because the Japanese did not target shipping. Although an occasional cargo ship was torpedoed, the heavy losses occurred during American attacks on Pacific beachheads. During those invasions kamikazes (suicide pilots who crashed their planes into targets), bombers, artillery, and torpedoes sank 44 merchant ships and damaged many others. In the battle for the Philippines in October 1944, merchant mariners delivered 300,000 troops and 500,000 tons of supplies to Leyte, shot down at least 107 enemy planes with the help of their naval armed guards, and helped army doctors with the wounded. Gen. Douglas MacArthur testified: “I have ordered them off their ships and into foxholes when their ships became untenable under attack.” After V-J day the Merchant Marine kept busy carrying surrendering Japanese back to their native land, returning American troops and dead to the United States, and transporting forces and supplies for the occupations of Germany and Japan operations during which 49 merchant ships were sunk or damaged. Despite their stellar record, only in 1988 after a long court battle did members of the Merchant Marine win a court decision for limited veteran status.
     

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