Many people are not aware of the critical role of US Merchant Marine Ships in World War II. These ships were used to carry military personnel, supplies for the troops and large equipment. This meant the availability of a ship, or worse yet non-availability, was a determining factor in what the Allies could do, or not do, throughout the war. Without these ships, the war most probably would have been prolonged by a number of months, and possibly even years. It is feasible the Allies may have even lost the war had it not been for these ships and their ability to provide pertinent transportation and supplies. On average, anywhere from 7 – 15 tons of supplies were necessary to support just one military soldier.
The US Merchant Marines had a dramatic increase in experienced mariners during the war. Thanks to the US Maritime Service training programs, the prewar number of 55,000 jumped to more than 215,000 during the war.
The merchant marine ships faced a number of dangers throughout their service. Submarines, mines, aircraft, destroyers and even the elements were just some of the hazards they faced. In all, close to 8,300 mariners lost their lives at sea and another 12,000 were wounded. Almost 700 (including both men and women) were taken prisoner.
An average of one in 26 of the mariners serving aboard a ship during the war died in the line of duty. Percentage wise, this number was far greater than any other U.S. branch of service. This information was kept secret to prevent the enemy from learning of their success and to continue to attract interested mariners. Newspapers would basically run a similar story each week – Two Medium Allied Ships Sunk in the Atlantic’. However, the true average for 1942 was closer to 33 ships.
The Bari, Italy disaster was one of the costliest disasters of the entire war. On December 2, 1943, an air attack from the Germans on the port of Bari resulted in the sinking of 17 Allied merchant ships. More than 1,000 lives were lost that day. One of the ships destroyed, the SS John Harvey, was carrying a secret cargo – 100 ton of mustard gas bombs. When the ship was hit, the bombs exploded affecting hundreds of mariners, sailors and even civilians. Many of them died as a result of the effects of the gas.
On 2 July 1944, just off Ceylon, a Japanese sub torpedoed the SS Jean Nicolet – a Liberty ship. All on board, which included 41 crew, 28 Armed Guards, 30 passengers and an Army medic, survived. The Japanese forced them aboard the sub, bound their feet and their hands behind their backs and sunk their lifeboats and rafts. They kept them on deck and many of them were massacred by the Japanese. Those remaining – about 30 in all – were still bound and tied on deck when a British plane appeared. Of those 30 survivors, only 23 were rescued after the sub did an emergency crash-dive and washed them into the sea.
From September of 1939 through May of 1945 there was an ongoing battle to gain control of shipping in the Atlantic. German U-boats attempted to sink merchant marine ships faster than they could be produced. From 1940 through mid-1942, they were successful.
Even days prior to the outbreak of WWII, the U-boats were already prowling against supply ships. Britain once again used the successful convoy tactic which successfully limited their losses under similar circumstances in WW1. However, these convoys created a number of delays as they would often take longer routes or reduce their speed in order to match the slowest ship. Once they’ reach port, there would be a delay in unloading the cargo due to the number of ships coming in at one time.
In September of 1939, the German’s had a total of 46 U-boats. However, by war’s end, that number increased to 863. Initially, the boats would be sent out individually, but tactics changed in September of 1940 at which time they began traveling at night in ‘packs’ preying on merchant ships. The British were eventually able to beef up their convoy escorts as well as their air escorts, which greatly decreased their losses. Once Germany entered the war on the US, the U-Boats headed directly for the US Atlantic seaboard and once again instituted their night time ‘pack’ travels. This went on from January thru May of 1942.
For some unexplained reason, the US did not arm their merchant marine ships. They also failed to provide any escorts, air support or organized convoys along their Atlantic or Gulf Coasts or in the Caribbean. It wasn’t until June of 1942 that the US government began ordering blackouts for the cities along the seacoast. Prior, the ships could be easily spotted as their silhouettes would stand out in contrast to the shoreline. They were basically sitting ducks for the well-armed German U-boats in the area. In fact, 1942 was the most successful year for the U-Boats which sank at least 1,200 Allied ships, the majority of them being sunk in the North Atlantic.
By late spring of 1942, the United States finally began organizing trans-Atlantic convoys. They utilized American, Canadian and British escorts to increase the odds of these slower, lightly-armed ships. Each night, they would be herded into a nearby port. Despite the extra steps for safety, their prognosis was still very poor.
The Germans gained knowledge about the movement of the ships via spies and/or by intercepting radio messages. Even when they had no information to go on, the German U-Boats would gather along the anticipated route approximately 15 miles apart from each other. Once the convoy was spotted, the ‘pack’ would assemble for their nighttime attack. Oftentimes, the attacks would come simultaneously from several different directions. This was just one of a number of successful tactics used by the German U-Boats.
One area of the North Atlantic known as the “Air Gap” saw many battles. Aircraft did not patrol this area. The US had a number of long-range aircraft, but chose to position them all in the Pacific. Aircraft were one of the biggest enemies of the U-Boat as they could locate submarines even from a great distance. They were also capable of dropping depth charges, which would hinder the submarines. As a result, an aircraft protected convoy was rarely targeted.
The U-Boats continued to be effective. Despite their ongoing success, the British still chose to focus on bombing German factories rather than their U-Boat ports. By the time the British and US decided to take action in October of 1942, the German’s had long since reinforced the sub pens with 12 ft. of reinforce concrete. In all, the Allies dropped an estimated 40 million bombs and lost over 100 aircraft. Not a single U-Boat sustained damage.
Despite the odds, the Merchant Marines continued their missions to deliver the necessary support for our troops. They worked hard and often did so without any additional support. Without their continued, heroic efforts, the war may have had a very different outcome. Yet, we don’t hear much about the Merchant Marines even today.
These are but a few of the highlights of their epic journey throughout World War II.