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Congressional Medal

Congressional Medal for World War II Merchant Marine

In recognition of the importance of ocean transport and American Merchant Marine in times of war, the federal government set up a shipbuilding program and a training program for Merchant Marine Personnel. Without a supply line, victory in World War II would have proved more difficult than it was. Without the tanks, bombs, ammunition, and fuel oil, the potent U.S. war machine could not function. The bulk of the shipbuilding program produced “Liberty Ships” and “T2 Tankers”.   If a ship made a single voyage across the ocean loaded with valuable cargo, it was said to have paid for itself .

Victory ship Hellas Liberty

T2 tanker Hat Creek

In the year 1942, the US military was not prepared to defend merchant ships especially along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. The enemy sunk over 1500 U.S. flag cargo ships.  Destruction of so many merchant vessels was cloaked behind a veil of secrecy for the sake of morale.  The Merchant Marine lost more men proportionately to those who served in the Army or Navy during World War II.  Of the 250,000 Americans who sailed the cargo ships, 9,500 perished.  Many of the crew went down with the ship and remain entombed inside. 1 out of every 8 merchant seamen had their ship sunk from under them. 1 of every 26 were lost at sea.  Their bones rest on the bottom of oceans all over the world where only the waves mark their graves.  General Douglas MacArthur declared, “I hold no branch in higher esteem than the Merchant Marine”. 

Merchant seaman stood watch constantly fearing torpedoes from submarines, mines lurking below the surface, and aircraft raining bombs from above.  Those leaping into the cold waters of the North Atlantic from a sinking ship stood little chance of survival.  If lucky enough to gain a spot in a lifeboat, survival was not guaranteed.  Countless merchant seamen who drifted away from a sinking ship in a lifeboat on a vast ocean were never seen or heard from again.  All seamen who sailed on tankers knew a single torpedo meant no survivors.  The treacherous run to Murmansk, Russia, especially struck fear in the hearts of seaman.  In one Murmansk convoy only 11 out of 34 ships made it.

On D-Day, June 6th, 1944, hundreds of merchant ships rested off the coast of Europe waiting to support the invasion.  Although not taking bullets on Omaha Beach, their mission of supplying the landing force reigned supreme among the Allied Commanders.  Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower stated, “When final victory is ours, there is no organization that will share its credit more deservedly than the Merchant Marine.” The patriotic seamen who sailed the cargo ships gallantly served our Nation in time of war just as the soldiers, sailors, and airmen had done.  Their story is seldom told.  When the G.I. Bill came out, the Nation bestowed great thanks and thousands of dollars on the soldiers and sailors of the armed forces.  The boys (most were boys) who risked their lives at sea in the Merchant Marine to feed the war machine were not included.   

President Roosevelt wished the Merchant Marine to be included in the G.I. Bill, but his wish died with him.  Congress never classified them as veterans. The Merchant Marine could not enjoy the educational benefits and financial help in buying homes granted to servicemen that were given veterans status. In the year 2020, recognition finally came for the U.S. Merchant Marine of World War II. They received the prestigious Congressional Gold Medal for their part in the war effort.  Few people took notice when President Trump quietly signed the measure into law on March 14, 2020 amid the Covid pandemic.  Sadly, few Veterans are alive today to bask in the praise.  Most of the seamen have already “Crossed Over The Bar,” leaving only family to appreciate the award.

I wrote this article to honor my late father, John J. Wilson. He proudly served in the Merchant Marine as an Able Seaman and later graduated as an Ensign from Fort Trumbull Officer’s School.  He sailed on many Liberty Ships and told of the intense anxiety sailing in the North Atlantic at the mercy of roving German U- Boats. 

Joseph F. Wilson

joef21@aol.com

General Meade Society

Fort Trumbull Officer Training School (New London, CT) trained 15473 merchant marine officers between 1939 and 1946. It was transferred to Merchant Marine Academy, Kings Point.

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