February 1996 - Dr. Harold C. Deutsch WWII History Roundtable

April 1999
Volume 7 Number 7
Published by The WW II History Roundtable
Edited by Jim and Jon Gerber
Welcome to the April meeting of the Dr. Harold C. Deutsch World War II History Roundtable.
Tonight’s topic is on the Merchant Marine. When we think of WW II we often think of the battles in
the air, on the land and on the sea. Seldom do we consider how the men and equipment got to
where they were supposed to be to fight these battles. The United States Merchant Marine
provided the greatest sea lift in history between the production army at home and the fighting
forces scattered around the globe in WW II. More than 6830 seamen were killed, 11,000
wounded and 604 were taken prisoner. Sixty died in prison camps and about 500 Americans
were lost while serving on other Allied ships. There were 55,000 experienced prewar seaman and
this was increased to 215,000 through many training programs. Members of the Merchant Marine
serving aboard merchant ships in WW II suffered a greater percentage of war-related deaths than
all US armed forces combined. Of the 833 merchant ships sunk, 31 disappeared without a trace.
Except for a few anti-aircraft guns, the slow merchant ships, in the beginning, were often
unprotected and therefore sitting ducks for the enemy. Even when traveling in convoys with
destroyer escort, danger from submarines, aircraft and mine fields was always present. In 1942
alone, more than 400 US merchant ships were torpedoed and sunk in US coastal waters.
Surprisingly, in one month, prowling U-boats sank 41 ships in the Gulf of Mexico.
Despite the hazards, the oceans had to be crossed. “Pipelines of supply ships” had to be
maintained between the American arsenals and our power bases, first in Great Britain and then in
Russia and other war theaters. In order to build ships faster than the enemy could sink them, the
US government organized an emergency ship-building program which, between 1942-45,
produced a great fleet of 2700 identical Liberty Ships which carried more than two thirds of all US
and Canadian war cargo.
Costing under $2 million with a construction time of as little as a few weeks, these ships literally
rewrote the book on shipbuilding by utilizing fast mass production methods. The hulls were often
welded with the structures prefabricated on land before being hoisted on deck. The design was
based on modified British plans with a hull 441 feet long and a beam of 57 feet. Power was
supplied by a standardized three cylinder steam engine that produced 2500 horsepower and a
top speed of only 11 knots when loaded.
For every ship, a complete crew was needed. Basic training schools were quickly established and
they turned out seahands with the rank of Ordinary Seaman in as little as six weeks. The US
Merchant Marine Academy and other maritime academies shortened their academic programs by
as much as half. Officer training schools also offered short courses for upgrading men to officer
Despite the heroic contribution of the merchant marine, which was acknowledged by three
presidents as indispensable in winning the war, the US government took 43 years to keep its
promise and grant merchant seamen full veteran’s status, finally making them eligible for veteran
benefits as of January 19, 1988. Obviously these seamen were victims of blatant discrimination
because 25,000 members of the navy armed guard (gunners), who served side-by-side with the
crews on the same merchant ships, received their discharge benefits promptly. The irony of the
bittersweet victory was that it took a long court battle over four decades to secure what was
promised to these men during the height of the conflict as reward for their critical and dangerous
service in the war effort. Since that determination in 1988, more than 70,000 merchant mariners
have received honorable discharge certificates of service that qualify them for veteran’s status.
Unfortunately, there are still more than 2500 merchant mariners who have been denied veteran’s
rights because their service aboard vessels began after the war ended. They were not recognized
like other military personnel whose cutoff date was the end of 1946.
The finality for most mariners is that the only benefit they will obtain is the right to have a flag on
their coffin. A dubious reward!
US Merchant Ships Lost Before Pearl Harbor
The City of Flint was seized by a German warship on October 9, 1939, but her captain’s
diplomacy and the intervention of Norway eventually freed the ship. Following this, six American
ships were lost before Pearl Harbor. On November 9, 1940, the City of Rayville struck a German
mine off the Australian coast; May 21, 1941, the Robin Moor was torpedoed by a U-boat in the
South Atlantic; September 5, 1941, the Steel Seafarer was bombed by German aircraft in the Gulf
of Suez; October 19, 1941, the Lehigh was torpedoed off the African coast; and December 2,
1941, the tanker Astral torpedoed in the North Atlantic. This ship and her crew were never heard
from again. On December 3, 1941, the Sagadahoc was torpedoed in the South Atlantic. A total of
39 American seamen were killed in action before Pearl Harbor.
US merchant seamen were among the first US POW’s. The US flag passenger ship President
Harrison, bound for Shanghai to evacuate US Marines and pursued by an enemy cruiser, ran
aground on December 8, 1941, in the Yangtze River. The crew was taken prisoner along with the
Marines and 14 sailors of the USS Wake stationed in Shanghai. One hundred forty-nine crew
members of the Harrison were repatriated four years later. 16 had died.
The Liberty ship Jean Nicolet was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine on July 2, 1944 off of
Ceylon. She had a 41 man crew, 28 armed guards, 30 passengers and an Army medic on board.
All survived the explosion. They were taken aboard the sub and their lifeboats and rafts were
sunk. With their hands tied behind their backs they were forced to sit on the deck. The Imperial
Japanese sailors then massacred many of them with bayonets and rifle butts. Thirty survivors
were still on the deck with their hands tied behind their backs when a British plane appeared. The
submarine crash-dived washing the survivors into the sea. Only 23 men were rescued out of the
100 men from the Jean Nicolet. They were landed on Addu Atoll on July 5, 1944 by the HMIS
Hoxa of the Indian Navy.
The Second Pearl Harbor
One of the most costly disasters of the war occurred in the Italian port of Bari, December 2, 1943.
A German air attack sank 17 Allied merchant ships with a loss of more than 1000 lives. One of
the five American ships destroyed that day was the John Harvey which had a secret cargo of 100
tons of mustard gas bombs on board. When these exploded, hundreds of merchant seamen,
naval sailors and civilians were hospitalized. Many later died from the effects of the mustard gas.
The merchant ships played a vital role on D-Day, not only bringing troops and supplies ashore but
also as Blockships. 1000 volunteers sailed 22 obsolete merchant ships to the beachheads to be
sunk as artificial harbors at the Omaha and Utah beachheads.
More information on tonight’s topic:
Heroes in Dungarees
by John Bunker
Naval Institute Press
1995 1-800-233-8764
by Philip Kaplan and Jack Currie
Naval Institute Press
The Liberty Ships
by L.A. Sawyer and W.H. Mitchell
Lloyds of London Press, LTD
We Delivered
by Lyle E. Dupra
Sunflower Press
1997 1-800-258-1232
See you next month.
Don’t forget that May’s meeting is the first Thursday of the month, May 6th.