Merchant Mariners are civilian seamen, who work aboard cargo and passenger ships. Historically, during wartime, they have worked in cooperation with the military to transport troops and materiel. During World War II, these cargo ships were called Liberty Ships, for their mission was the liberation of war-torn Europe.
The first Liberty Ships were converted passenger liners. Luxurious accoutrements were removed or covered over, and the basics of shipping necessity were installed. Later, 18 shipbuilders constructed more than 2,700 dedicated Liberty Ships for British and American war efforts. Following the war, only some of the converted passenger liners returned to passenger service. Others continued to serve as cargo carriers. Today, only two of the dedicated Liberty Ships remain operational. They are the S.S.Jeremiah O'Brien, which is moored in San Francisco, and the S.S. John W. Brown, which is moored in Baltimore.
Here is an excellent article about Liberty Ships. It includes four pictures showing the different sections of a Liberty Ship and how each was used. To see each part, scroll down to the main picture; then, click on each number to see a close-up picture of that section. https://www.skylighters.org/troopships/libertyships.html
Today, merchant mariners may serve aboard US Navy ships, as well as merchant ships. Still, the mission is to help the military perform its duties at sea. They serve in the Military Sealift Command, aboard such support ships as hospital ships, oilers, and tankers. The names of these ships are prefaced with the initials "USNS," instead of "USS," which is used for war ships. Read more about the Military Sealift Command and see pictures of their ships: http://www.msc.navy.mil/pm5/.
The Merchant Marine finally have been recognized as a branch of military service. Those who served in World War II finally have been recognized for their vast sacrifices. Their academy in Kings Point, New York, is recognized as being as outstanding as West Point, Annapolis, and Colorado Springs.
A few notable merchant mariners include impressionist painter Paul Gauguin; musician Woody Guthrie; author Herman Melville; Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe; and actors James Garner, Peter Falk, and Carroll O'Connor. Perhaps, the most famous merchant mariner was Popeye, who later joined the US Coast Guard and then the US Navy.
Merchant Marine Song
"Heave Ho, My Lads, Heave Ho"
Merchant Marine Uniform
While in training with the Maritime Service, merchant mariners "wore uniforms that were basically indistinguishable from U.S. Navy uniforms, except for the slight differences in insignia and the distinguished USMS patch worn on the sleeve." (William Molner on Facebook)
Once merchant seamen graduated from the training service and were assigned to merchant ships, they "were not in the Maritime Service, but were civilians working for a steamship company. They did not have to wear a uniform on the ship, unless they were officers. Some did wear a uniform ashore, if they wanted to. Sometimes, in port, it was good to have a uniform." (Jack Post on Facebook)
American Merchant Marine at War
Here's a real fine web page with links to everything you possibly could want to know about the Merchant Marine in wartime. It is dedicated to the Mariners who died in service of their country during all Wars, including Revolutionary War, World War II, Korea, Vietnam; and their U.S. Naval Armed Guard shipmates. http://www.usmm.org/
American Merchant Marine in World War II
In addition to being torpedoed, they also were
taken captives as prisoners of war. http://www.usmm.org/men_ships.html
Merchant Seaman Salaries and Benefits During World War II
Source: And How is Life Aboard a Merchant Vessel? gCaptain. http://gcaptain.com/forum/professional-mariner-forum/3115-life-aboard-merchant-vessel.html
Here are two conflicting opinions of life in the Merchant Marine:
The first opinion was written by a merchant mariner who shows the down side. You will want to read the source page for a complete list.
To prepare yourself for a Merchant Marine life, try this:
1. Sleep on the shelf in your closet.
2. Replace the closet door with a curtain.
3. Four hours after you go to sleep, have your wife whip open the curtain, shine a flashlight in your eyes, and mumble, "Sorry, wrong rack."
4. Renovate your bathroom. Build a wall across the middle of your bathtub and move the shower head down to chest level.
5. Leave lawn mower running in your living room 24 hours a day for proper noise level.
+ 15 more
And, then, there’s the flip side:
Shipping in the Merchant Marine is not a job; it's a lifestyle. The normal routines that most people take for granted are gone (that 9-5 job, to name the most obvious). The lifestyle has advantages and disadvantages. As my mother in law so famously put it: "Nothing is ever as good as it seems, and nothing is ever as bad as it seems."
I personally enjoy it, but then I am a biased middle aged Connecticut Yankee ship captain: my dad shipped out, his dad shipped out, even my great great great grandfather shipped out (Captain Luke Buddington, New London, Connecticut 1700's). I like the 6 months off as it gives me time to pursue my other activities with a free rein: raising my 3 kiddos, family vacations, reading, enjoying my Manhattan lifestyle, endless tinkering around my apartment/house, etc. I also enjoy the 6 months away from home: the travel, meeting new people, being out in the elements, seeing things that the vast majority of humans will never see, learning new ways of doing jobs, honing my professional skills, etc.
As with anything in life, it is what you make of it. Professionalism, respect, and open mindedness will surely lead to monetary reward, a solid professional reputation, and a global network of friends and associates.
Other merchant mariners offer other opinions, but these two seem to sum them all up pretty well.
Acta non Verba
Deeds not Words
Although training for merchant mariners had been undertaken since President Ulysses S. Grant's administration, a coordinated effort among interested parties was lacking. A terrible fire aboard the passenger ship SS Marro Castle in 1934 drove home the need to establish a single training program for all merchant mariners operating on ships owned by American companies. In 1936, Congress passed the Merchant Marine Act, and in 1938, the US Merchant Marine Cadet Corps was established.
Initially, cadet training was held at the US Coast Guard's training facility at Fort Trumbull in New London, Connecticut. In 1942, the Merchant Marine Academy acquired land for the construction of a permanent facility of its own in King's Point, New York, some twenty miles east of New York City. Construction began at once, and the new facility was dedicated on 30 September 1943 by President Franklin Roosevelt, who equated the Merchant Marine Academy to the Army's academy in West Point, New York, and the Navy's academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
The Merchant Marine Academy was established as a four-year college-level program; however, during World War II, the program was shortened to a two-year program in order to meet the need for merchant marine officers. By war's end, 6,634 officers had graduated from the Merchant Marine Academy. After the war, the Academy resumed its four-year college-level program. In 1949, it received accreditation as a degree-granting institution.
Today, the Merchant Marine Academy is one of the world's leading institutions of maritime training. Its demanding program is noted for developing leadership qualities in its graduates.
Learning from Experience
Society learns by the mistakes it makes. The shipping industry is no exception, and it learned reams and volumes from the catastrophes that befell the RMS Titanic and the SS Morro Castle. The Titanic was designed and built between 1909 and 1911 using the finest technology available in the early 20th century. The Morro Castle was built between 1929 and 1930 with 75 percent government financing under the Merchant Marine Act of 1928. Despite their vastly different origins, both succumbed to weaknesses in their systems.
As history and a number of books and movies have told us, the RMS Titanic sank after an iceberg tore a gash of at least 300 feet in the starboard hull, rupturing five of sixteen compartments. Modern investigators say the hull was penetrable because metallurgy and riveting were not advanced in the early 20th century. In fact, they have proven that the rolled steel plates that were used to clad the Titanic became very brittle when exposed to cold water and that this caused the ship to sink more quickly than it would have, otherwise. Modern investigators go so far as to say that modern metallurgy and seamless construction may not even be enough to prevent a rupture of such great magnitude. They cite the sinking of the SS Costa Concordia in 2012 as an example.
Other factors were at play, as well. There was no moonlight to light the way, and the sea was calm, precluding waves from crashing against the iceberg that would have alerted the watchmen aboard the Titanic. The watchmen did not have binoculars due to an oversight in Southampton, England, where the cruise originated, although sources say binoculars would have been ineffective on that dark night. In addition, search and rescue efforts were flawed. Although the merchant ship SS Californian was only six miles away and could see flares and hear SOS messages from the Titanic, it did not respond for undisclosed reasons. Although the RMS Carpathia responded, it was so far away that, by the time it arrived, it could only pick up lifeboat survivors. Passengers and crew who jumped into the frigid sea water died of hypothermia within minutes.
SS Morro Castle
The SS Morro Castle, a passenger cruise liner, was carrying 489 passengers and 240 crew through high winds and seas. On the night of September 7, 1934, the ship’s captain died of a heart attack, and the chief officer was in control. On the night of September 8, 1934, as a nor’easter (severe storm) was whipping up the northeastern coastline, the SS Morro Castle was making its way along Long Island, en route to New York Harbor. Fire broke out in a storage cupboard in the first-class writing room on the B Deck. Within thirty minutes, the ship was fully ablaze, only half of its lifeboats had been deployed, and passengers and crew were having to decide whether to risk jumping into the stormy waters or to burn to death.
So, what went wrong? The investigation uncovered several important facts, all of which contributed to the catastrophe:
- The ship was constructed quickly and inexpensively in an effort to stay within budget of shipbuilding financing provided by the government under the Merchant Marine Act of 1928. It seems likely that corners were cut where they should not have been.
- The ship was constructed of flammable materials. The handsome wood walls were glued pressboard. The finishes were made of flammable varnishes. Although doorways were fire resistant, a six-inch gap between them and the wooden ceilings allowed air to fan the flames. As a result, escaping the inferno was hampered.
- The flues leading up from the engines were not properly insulated. As a result, material located near the flues was resting against red-hot flues. Blankets treated with flammable dry cleaning fluid were stored in the cabinet in the writing room, where the fire originated. In addition, because of the storm, the engines were stoked to full capacity, making the flues hotter than normal.
- Water pressure was not adequate to operate all fire hydrants. As a result, insufficient water was available to extinguish the flames.
- The fire quickly penetrated electrical and communication lines. As a result, the ship was plunged into darkness, making escape more difficult, and rescuers received only one SOS signal from the ship.
- There was no coordinated effort by maritime officers to fight and control the fire, close the fire doors, or direct passengers to safety.
- Rescue efforts were completely inadequate despite the Morro Castle’s close proximity to shore. Crew had been trained, but passengers had not. Few lifeboats were deployed, and those that were primarily held crew members with passengers being left aboard ship to decide whether to risk drowning by jumping or burning by staying aboard. Too, lack of training meant they did not know how to use the life preservers and often were knocked unconscious or suffered broken necks from their improper usage. The high waves made it difficult for rescuers to spot victims in the water.
Improvements to ship construction and operation arose from the SS Morro Castle fire.
- Ships were required to be constructed entirely of fire-retardant materials; have automatic fire doors, ship-wide fire alarms, emergency generators, backup systems for lighting and communications, and adequate numbers of life jackets and life boats for the numbers of passengers and crew aboard.
- Life jackets must be colored bright orange to make them more easily spotted in the water by rescuers.
- Life boats must be easy to lower and enclosed to protect occupants from the cold ocean water and wind.
- Both passengers and crew must receive safety training before the ship leaves port. Training must include how to reach an outside deck and join one’s teammates, how to use life jackets, and how to lower lifeboats, among other issues.
- Crews must receive training in firefighting.
- Reforms must be made in the licensing of Merchant Marine officers. This led in part to the establishment of the US Merchant Marine Academy.
Although maritime deaths still occur, they are far fewer aboard ships where safety procedures are followed from the drafting board to the lifeboat. In 1912, 1516 of 2229 passengers and crew (68%) died when the Titanic went down. In 1934, 137 of 549 passengers and crew (25%) died when the Morro Castle burned. In 2012, 32 of 4252 passengers and crew (<1%) died when the Costa Concordia sank. Safe construction materials and practices; well-planned passenger, crew, and rescue procedures; and diligent training of passengers, crew, and rescue personnel make a huge difference in maritime safety.
Merchant Marine Act of 1915 protected the rights of merchant seamen. It has been described as "the magna carta of sailors' rights".
Merchant Marine Act of 1920 - The U.S. Shipping Board was established to monitor and respond to foreign laws, regulations, or practices that created conditions unfavorable to shipping in the foreign trade.
Peter T. Young’s article about the Merchant Marine Act of 1920
Merchant Marine Act of 1928 - The Merchant Marine Administration began making loans to American manufacturers of merchant ships to help finance their construction. The amount of the loans could run as high as 75 percent of the cost of the ship.
U.S. Shipping Board transferred to the U.S. Shipping Board Bureau within the Commerce Department (1933).
Merchant Marine Act of 1936 - The U.S. Shipping Board Bureau was severed from the Commerce Department and became the US Maritime Commission (1936). It served "to further the development and maintenance of an adequate and well-balanced American merchant marine, to promote the commerce of the United States, to aid in the national defense, to repeal certain former legislation, and for other purposes."
The regulatory programs of the US Maritime Commission were transferred to the Federal Maritime Board within the Commerce Department in 1950.
The Federal Maritime Commission was created in 1961.
Merchant Marine Act of 1970 amended government assistance for the construction of merchant ships.
Merchant Mariner Credential Application Acceptance Checklist. http://www.uscg.mil/nmc/credentials/original/pdf/original_entry_level_packet.pdf
Merchant Mariner Oath. http://www.uscg.mil/nmc/credentials/forms/Merchant_Mariner_Oath.pdf
Today, you’ll also need to obtain credentials from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). It’s the same group that manages airport security screening. They will test you for illegal drug use, a criminal record, and any number of other issues that could pose a threat to maritime safety. Read here to learn more about it:
Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC). http://www.tsa.gov/stakeholders/transportation-worker-identification-credential-twicR