Merchant Marine in World War II
Merchant Marine in World War II
War in Europe and Japan shut down availability of most industrial and war related production for the Allies. This left North America as the arsenal of defense. This also meant there was an increase in ocean shipping demand from North America in accordance with the dictates of the war. Germany and Japan declared war on the United States in December 1941. Each had fleets of submarines and other war making resources that could attack Merchant ships to prevent the flow of war material. In the Merchant Marine Act of 1936 merchant ships were made “auxiliary military vessels” and could be ordered to serve the war effort including Merchant Marine crews. Throughout the history of our nation, famous people have commented about the essential need for an American Merchant Marine and the heroism or its sailors. Here is one quote “The men of our American Merchant Marine have pushed through despite the perils of submarine, dive bomber and surface raider. ……(without Merchant Marine)…life-lines to our battle fronts would be broken ……” Franklin D. Roosevelt 1943
Dixie Arrow (1921)
Heavy Merchant Ship losses in 1942 — For the first six months of 1942 the US had no effective strategy for preventing German submarines from sinking merchant vessels. The East Coast of the United States was a favorite target area. This was German submarine “Happy Time”, they could sink merchant vessels with impunity and they took advantage of the situation. For example: The British Tanker “Coimbra” was sunk by German submarine U-552 about 25 miles from Southampton NY (January 1942). Dozens of residents saw the fireball from the burning “Coimbra”. Almost anywhere along our coasts, sea side visitors could see black smoke from burning tankers, fires from burning ships at night or actual explosions as torpedoes exploded against ships. Because of war secrecy, authorities denied that there was a significant loss of shipping.
The answer to preventing sinking was to operate in convoys with screening escort vessels and cover aircraft if within range of coastal airfields. In early 1942 the US did not have available escort vessels nor planes and thus heavy losses.
Another heavy loss of merchant ships occurred during convoy PQ17 run to Murmansk Russia. The convoy route is forced between polar ice and the coast of Norway which narrows the area of attack. Only 11 of 34 ships made it to Murmansk (July 1942).
In the period, 1920 to start of WWII, New York Shipyard produced 15 tankers and 21 passenger/cargo type vessels. Of these, three tankers and 5 passenger/cargo ships were sunk early in the war.
The Dixie Arrow torpedoed off Cape Hatteras (1942)
Excalibur (1930) (American Export Lines) cargo/passenger ship later USS Joseph Hewes (AP50). Sunk November 1942 by U173 which was sunk by an American Destroyer 5 days later
World War II statistics
Source— internet USMM.org, shipbuildinghistory.com, book Forgotten Heroes by Brian Herbert. See Destroyers for destroyer losses.
Veteran Benefits for Military personnel were provided after WWII. In President Franklin Roosevelt speeches he would like to have some form of benefits given to Merchant Marine veterans. Roosevelt died before benefits were given. In 1988, limited benefits were given to Merchant Marine Veterans, 45 years after the war. Too little, too late.