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About the Merchant Marine

SS John W. Brown by US Navy Military Sea

SS John W. Brown, one of only three operational World War II liberty ships, is seen entering Norfolk Harbor. Photograph provided by and used courtesy of the US Navy / Military Sealift Command

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.

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.  

In addition to being torpedoed, they also were taken captives as prisoners of war. 


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.


Ever hear of the dazzle ship? I had seen pictures of them but had absolutely no idea why they were painted in such outlandish schemes. As it turns out, a little reverse psychology goes a long way. Read about it:

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:


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. 

US Merchant Marine Academy


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. Watch this video, Welcome to the US Merchant Marine Academy:


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 Insignia and Awards


The following was written by Ian Watts and posted on Facebook:

Here's a super neat booklet that is at the American Merchant Marine Museum - it shows cadet-midshipman in a dress uniform and all the medals and ribbons available to merchant mariners in early to mid-1944 (note: both the Meritorious Service medal and Gallant Ship ribbon were not yet created, they were instituted in August 1944).

A uniform says a lot. When Kings Point was in the process of construction, the U.S. Coast Guard (who was overseeing mariner training) was of the mind that the Academy and all the Maritime Service training stations were "for the duration." When the role of training cadets was handed over to the War Shipping Administration/Maritime Service, the consensus under the new administration became the Academy was to be permanent. In 1943 there was a Dedication and re-styling of uniforms at Kings Point. Before 1943, cadet-midshipmen wore uniforms like those current in the industry - reefers and working khakis (and whites like banana boat officers). In July-September 1943, cadets began wearing dress uniforms just like the midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis and U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London. Of particular importance is the fact the Merchant Marine Academy uniformed its cadets like those at Annapolis - the administration was very pointedly stating these cadets were at par with those of the other service academies.

The booklet also shows awards potentially awardable to Kings Pointers - showing these students served in war zones and could be (and were) decorated for bravery and service. During World War II there were two styles of ribbons: the thin U.S. Army sort and the taller U.S. Navy sorts. The ribbons depicted are in U.S. Navy format - showing the awardees are members of a sea service.

Here are the insignia and awards and what they mean.

Merchant Marine Legislation in the 20th Century

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.

Maritime Safety: 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.


RMS Titanic 


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.


Lessons Learned

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 theCosta 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 Mariners to the Rescue!


US Merchant Mariners helped to evacuate Lower Manhattan on 9/11

US Merchant Mariners rescue US Air 1549 passengers and crew from the Hudson River


Merchant Mariners rescue man lost at sea for 2 months


Our Guys Deserve the Gold

Written by Harry T. Scholer while he was at sea in 1996



Thoughts of young men dying,

ships swallowed up by the sea,

too few huddled close in lifeboats,

memories still painful to me.


Across the slate gray Atlantic,

countless dramas would nightly unfold,

merchantmen unprotected and helpless,

German U-boats increasingly bold.


The prey was slow allied convoys:

tanker, freighter, none left unscathed.

Toll on the crewmen was frightening;

thousands went to the grave.


Survivors who came home stayed briefly;

then, back to the battle they'd go.

The tide, when it turned, did so swiftly;

war was brought home to the foe.


Brave sailors now long since retired:

their sacrifice earned our respect,

whose spirits still live on the ocean,

an example we try to reflect.


The Merchant Marine in the Media



Here are a few books that have been written about the US Merchant Marine. Herman Starnes, author of Torpedoed for Life: World War II Combat Veterans of the United States Merchant Marines, writes, "The subject of this book is not the U.S. in WW II. Those accounts almost never mention the Merchant Mariners. Our stories are told by these old men who were out there on every ocean before, during, and after the US entered the war, 1940-1946." That is the story that these books tell -- the war as Jack and others like him saw it. This list is a work in progress.


American Maritime History Project, The (author). Braving the Wartime Seas: A Tribute to the Cadets and Graduates of the United States Merchant Marine Academy and Cadet Corps Who Died During World War II. XLIBRIS, 2014. ISBN 978-1493186150 


Billy, George J. and Billy Christine M. Merchant Mariners at War: An Oral History of World War II (New Perspectives on Maritime History and Nautical Archaeology). University Press of Florida, 2008. ISBN 978-0813032467 


Bunker, John. Heroes in Dungarees: The Story of the American Merchant Marines in World War II. Naval Institute Press, 2013. ISBN 978-1591140993 


Geroux, William. The Mathews Men: Seven Brothers and the War Against Hitler's U-Boats. New York: Penguin Books, 2016.


Gordon, Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts. The Strange Fate of the Morro Castle. New York: Dorset Press, 1988, 1972.


Herbert, Brian. The Forgotten Heroes: The Heroic Story of the United States Merchant Marines. Forge Books, 2004. ISBN 978-0765307064


London, Jack. In addition to his better known books (Call of the Wild, White Fang, and others), Mr. London wrote about his travels on the Pacific Ocean between 1906 and 1916.

McLean, Alistair. San Andreas. Harper-Collins, 1984 and subsequent editions. ISBN 978-0642558268


Miller, Steve. First Sailing of the SS Smith Thompson: Serving in the US Merchant Marine in World War II. CreateSpace, 2011. ISBN 978-1105535260


Moses, Sam. At All Costs: How a Crippled Ship and Two American Merchant Mariners Turned the Tide of World War II. Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2007. ISBN 978-0345476746 


 Starnes, Herman G. Torpedoed for Life: World War II Combat Veterans of the United States Merchant Marines. Create Space Independent Publishing Platform, 2013. ISBN 978-1480285231


Websites, Articles, and Blogs

Byrd, Philip R. “S.S. John W. Brown,” Explore Baltimore Heritage, accessed February 22, 2017,


Earle, Rob. Capt. Misunderstood Mariner. 


Giroux, William. "The Merchant Marine Were the Unsung Heroes of World War II" in Smithsonian Magazine. May 27, 2016. 


Karatzas, Basil. "The Indispensable Liberty Ship" in gCaptain. July 6, 2014.


Losee, Geoffrey. “Thank a Merchant Mariner” in Wilmingtonbiz Insights. May 17, 2017.


Peterson, James. “Veterans Gather to Muster Support for Bill Honoring World War II Merchant Mariners” in Seapower. May 18, 2017.


On the Water. A website about merchant ships throughout history, from 1459 to the present. One section, entitled "Answering the Call," tells about merchant ships and seamen in World War II. It is presented in three sections. 



Building Ships for Victory:

Merchant Seamen:


Potter, N. "S.S. John W. Brown: Honoring Those Who Built, Defended, and Sailed the Liberty Fleet" in Sealift: Official Blog of the U.S. Navy's Military Sealift Command. May 24, 2016.


Scarpello, Charles A. "The Life of a Merchant Marine : Documents" in The SS John W. Brown Blog.

Schaffer, Amanda. "Lost at Sea on the Brink of the Second World War in Culture Desk" in The New Yorker. May 28, 2016.

American Merchant Marine Heroes and their Gallant Ships in World War II.

Poems related to the Merchant Marine

Academy Newspapers

Heaving Line, the newspaper of the Sheepshead Bay Training Station of the Merchant Marine. There is nothing in them about our boy, Jack, who attended officer training at the Coast Guard Academy, Fort Trumbull, Connecticut, but they tell a great deal about the training these aspiring mariners received, those missing and lost in the war at sea, and even their fight to be recognized as members of the military. 


Heaving Line. United States Maritime Service. Vol 1, No 10. Brooklyn, New York, April 10, 1943.


Heaving Line. United States Maritime Service. Vol 2, No 1. Brooklyn, New York, May 6, 1943.


In ten boats (not ships), Merchant Marine volunteers from the United States and Canada transported 38,000 survivors of the Nazi death camps to Israel in a secret mission in 1947. Hear survivors tell what it was like in Waves of Freedom (video).


Merchant Marine on You Tube


Cargo Ships in World War II


Sea Stories from World War II. Ran Bay Film Studio.


Men and Ships : Merchant Marine (1940). Periscope Films.


Men and the Sea : Merchant Marine in World War II (1943). War Shipping Administration.


Transporting Wartime Cargo : Hannibal Victory (1945). US Maritime Commission.


How a Cargo Ship Helped Win WWII: The Liberty Ship Story.


GREECE: The last WW2 LIBERTY SHIP, fully renovated and ready for a tour.


Cargo Ships in Peacetime

Merchant Marine Freighter at Sea : SS Anchor Hitch Voyage to South America (1948). Periscope Films.


Marchado, Martin. Six Months at Sea in the Merchant Marine (2012).

Merchant Marine in Films


Here is a partial list of movies using or about merchant ships:

Become a Merchant Mariner

If you want to work on boats and ships — whether tug boats, ferry boats, riverboats, passenger liners, cargo ships, or tanker ships — you must be licensed by the US Coast Guard’s National Maritime Center. That is, you must register with the Merchant Marine. Here’s how it’s done:

How to obtain the Merchant Mariner



Merchant Mariner Credential Application Acceptance Checklist.


Merchant Mariner Oath.


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).

Join the

American Merchant Marine Veterans

Whether you were a Merchant Mariner

or are simply a supporter, you may join and

help these veterans from World War II

receive the recognition they deserve.

Visit their website for more information

Pros and Cons of Joining the Merchant Marine

Top 5 Reasons To Join The Merchant Marine.

10 Reason why Maritime is AWESOME (And such a great career! earn 400k USD per year!?).

10 Reasons Why Maritime SUCKS (NEED TO KNOW Before Joining Merchant Marine).

Sinking_of_the_SS_Robin_Moor,_1941_By Mi

"Sinking of the SS Robin Moor" (1941)

by Michael Mate 

American Merchant Marine Museum 

(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

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