The United States (US) Merchant Marine Act of 1936 stated, “It is necessary for the national defense… that the United States shall have a merchant marine of the best equipped and most suitable types of vessels sufficient to carry the greater portion of its commerce and serve as a naval or military auxiliary in time of war or national emergency…”
In the late 1930s with the US foreseeing an approaching involvement in WWII, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered US shipyards to build ships that would be needed in the conflict and established the US Maritime Service which was responsible for training merchant mariners and the men of the US Army Transport Service.
The Merchant Marine was a commercial, non-military fleet of ships that was effectively nationalized by the US government in WWII. The men of the Merchant Marine were civilian volunteers.
The Merchant Marine ships had limited defensive capabilities. Guns, to provide a defense for the ships and crews, were placed onboard merchant ships and manned by the US Navy Armed Guard which was a special unit of Navy military personnel at that time.
On March 11, 1941, President Roosevelt signed into law An Act to Promote the Defense of the United States, more commonly known as the Lend-Lease Act, which was a program through which the US sent food, oil and fuel, supplies, equipment, and war materiel to England, countries of the British Commonwealth, China, the Free French, other Allied nations, and the Soviet Union.
On December 8, 1941, President Roosevelt declared war on Japan after the surprise attack December 7, 1941, on Pearl Harbor, Oahu, US Territory of Hawaii.
The ships of the US Merchant Marine in WWII sailed around the world to deliver troops, supplies, food, aircraft, gasoline, oil, guns, shells, vehicles, tanks, bombs, ammunition, medicine, equipment, and needed materiel for war. It played a critical, logistical role in the war.
In addition to enemy warships, aircraft, and submarine attacks, the Merchant Marine vessels faced the perils of weather, icebergs, rough seas, mines, sharks, and in the Pacific Theater Japanese “kamikaze” attacks.
Battle of the Atlantic (September 3, 1939 – May 8, 1945).
After Italy joined the Axis countries on June 10, 1940, submarines of the Italian Royal Navy (Regia Marina) worked with Germany to interrupt and stop the Allied flow of supplies to areas of conflict.
The Allied forces of the US, Canada, Britain, Norway, and Brazil would fight against the warships, submarines, and aircraft of the German Navy (Kriegsmarine), the German Air Force (Luftwaffe), and the Italian Royal Navy.
The most dangerous time during this campaign was from 1940 to the end of 1943 with resulting staggering losses of merchant vessels and other convoy ships.
It was the longest military campaign of WWII.
The convoy system was intended to protect Allied merchant ships sailing during wartime. Before the US entered WWII, convoys bound for British ports were escorted from convoy assembly points at Halifax and Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada, by the Royal Canadian Navy to a location in the mid-Atlantic Ocean where the British Royal Navy would meet and escort the convoy to its destination. The US Navy provided convoy escorts after December 7, 1941.
Merchant ships were grouped in the center of a convoy formation with warships, aircraft, and submarines surrounding and guarding the ships. During WWII there were over 300 convoy routes around the world. Each convoy would have a two or three letter code indicating destination and convoy speed. A convoy could only go as fast as the slowest ship in the convoy.
The Arctic Convoys (August 1941 – May 1945).
After Germany attacked Russia on June 22, 1941, the Soviet Union joined the Allies. Joseph Stalin, the ruler of the Soviet Union, was in desperate need of military equipment and supplies to fight the Nazis. The British began sending supplies and war materiel to the Soviet ports of Murmansk and Archangelsk. The first convoy from England would arrive in Archangelsk on August 31, 1941. Convoys to Russia would continue until the end of the war.
The shortest and fastest route for convoys to Russia was the Arctic Sea route.
Also making the Arctic route dangerous was the German military occupation of Norway on April 9, 1940, which provided close proximity to Allied convoys in the Atlantic Ocean, Arctic Sea, and the Barents Sea.
Arctic Convoy PQ-17.
PQ-17 was the first combined Anglo-American naval operation of WWII under British command.
Convoy PQ-17 under the command of British Commodore John Dowding set sail on June 27, 1942, from Hvalfjörður, Iceland, with a destination of Archangelsk, Russia.
[One of the ships providing PQ-17 protection was an American destroyer the United States Ship (USS) Wichita. Hollywood actor and US Navy Reserve Officer Douglas Fairbanks, Junior, was a member of the crew.]
A German submarine U-456 sighted and would follow convoy PQ-17 shortly after it left Iceland on June 27, 1942.
The first merchant ship, the Liberty ship Steamship (SS) Christopher Newport, was sunk on the morning of July 4 by a German torpedo bomber Heinkel HE 115. On that same day, a US destroyer the USS Wainwright, part of the covering force for PQ-17, repulsed an attack on the convoy by German torpedo bombers. On July 4 German torpedo bombers also sank the Liberty ship SS William Hooper.
Back in London, England, on July 4, a decision was made that would decide the fate of PQ-17.
The Germans, surprised at what happened, took advantage of every opportunity to sink the merchant vessels. The Tirpitz did leave Norway on July 5 to intercept PQ-17 but returned to port that same day because German bombers and submarines had already been very successful in destroying the convoy.
Of the 35 merchant ships that left Iceland, only 11 would eventually reach a port in Russia. One hundred and fifty-three merchant mariners were lost.
In addition to men and ships, it was reported that war materiel, equipment, and supplies lost included 200 aircraft, 3,300 trucks, 435 tanks, and other war supplies that could equip 50,000 men.
Stalin was said to be angry and unable to understand how such a disaster could happen and questioned why convoy protection was removed. This incident would drive a wedge of distrust between the Soviet Union and the Allies.
The Arctic supply route was halted temporarily as convoy plans were studied. On September 2, 1942, Convoy PQ-18 left Loch Ewe, Scotland, and sailed with additional escort ships to provide protection.
Story of WWII Merchant Mariner Frank E. Scott.
Frank Edward Scott. Oral History Interview for the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas, on October 25, 2010. He was interviewed in San Antonio, Texas.
Frank Scott was born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, on May 9, 1925. He had two brothers, Dale and Quincy. In 1936 his family moved to San Antonio, Texas. He was playing touch football on December 7, 1941, when he heard about the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
After graduating from Brackenridge High School in San Antonio in 1943 Frank went to the Merchant Marine Recruiting Office in the city to volunteer for service.
Frank travelled to a Maritime Service base in St. Petersburg, Florida, for basic merchant seaman training in August 1943. The training staff at the base found out he had taught swimming in San Antonio and asked him to stay on and teach survival swimming to recruits. There was no pool at the school at the time so Frank taught new recruits survival skills in the Gulf of Mexico. Two of the survival skills he taught were how to make a life jacket from trousers and how to jump off a tower into the water which simulated jumping from a ship.
January 3, 1944, the SS Washita. Frank’s first assignment at sea was on the oil tanker SS Washita. The tanker travelled in a convoy of about 200 ships to Swansea in Wales, England. The convoy was not attacked, but at that time in the war the Atlantic route was less threatened by German submarines. The Washita travelled back to the US, and Frank was discharged on February 2, 1944, upon fulfillment of his contract.
[At this period of time in WWII troops and supplies were being stockpiled in England in preparation for the closely guarded secret of the Normandy, France, invasion planned for June of 1944.]
[The Merchant Marine being a non-military organization had different requirements regarding its crews. A merchant seaman signed a contract to serve on a specific ship which may make one or more trips to various destinations. Upon completion of the contract he had the choice to sign another contact. If he did not sign another contract within 30 days, he became eligible for the military draft.]
April 20, 1944, the Liberty ship SS Samuel Mcintyre. After a visit with his family in San Antonio, Frank signed his second contract and sailed on a cargo ship the Liberty ship SS Samuel Mcintyre. He would serve almost 9 months on this ship. The ship’s captain who Frank estimated to be around 65 years old was from Scotland and had been called back into service out of retirement.
Job responsibilities and life aboard a merchant ship.
In his interview Frank spoke of his job and duties on a ship.
– A seaman’s duties included deck work, painting, standing watch, steering the ship, among other responsibilities.
– Schedules for standing watch were midnight to 4 am, 4 am – 8 am, 8 am – 12 noon, and so forth. One third of the crew would be on watch at any one time; a watch schedule was four hours on and eight hours off. It was difficult to sleep between standing watch duties when traveling in the Northern Atlantic because of the long periods of daylight.
– Tankers took about three days to unload, and cargo ships could take two to four weeks to unload. When unloading in port, they may work for 24 hours straight.
– Weather was always a factor. Storms could reek havoc on ships and convoys.
– Crews could average around 40 – 50 merchant mariners and about 35 Navy Armed Guard.
– Typical gun placements on merchant ships were five inch guns on the bow, eight inch long range guns on the stern, and a dozen or so anti-aircraft guns.
– Barrage balloons were sometimes used to deter German aircraft from attacking a ship.
– When leaving the US the crew didn’t always know the ship’s destination. If the destination was the Arctic or Northern Atlantic, cold weather gear and clothing was handed out after about 24 hours at sea.
– If ships in a convoy were sunk, destroyers or dedicated rescue ships would pick up survivors, if possible.
Frank’s experiences on the SS Samuel Mcintyre.
Frank would sometimes take over steering the ship when a particular seaman got shaky or nervous in rough seas. That seaman had survived the sinking of five ships.
On a voyage to Cardiff, England, the ship had a closely guarded P-51 Mustang fighter plane on the deck, along with tanks, and in preparation for the invasion of Normandy hundreds of full five gallon gas cans cabled to the deck.
After the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, the Samuel Mcintyre did “shuttle runs” from Cardiff to Omaha Beach with needed supplies and equipment.
From July 15 – August 31, 1944, the Samuel Mcintyre was anchored off Omaha Beach with a loaded ship awaiting the Allied capture of Cherbourg, France.
[As the Allies advanced towards Germany additional ports and supply lines were needed. The focus was on the port of Antwerp, Belgium, and the Scheldt River. Antwerp was captured by the British on September 4, 1944. The West and East Scheldt Estuary were still held by the Germans. The Battle of the Scheldt (October – November 1944) fought by Canadian, Polish, and British units resulted in an Allied victory on November 8.
After the Scheldt was swept for mines, the first convoy carrying Allied supplies unloaded in Antwerp on November 29, 1944.]
The SS Samuel McIntyre was one of the first ships to arrive in Antwerp. Frank said it took about four weeks to unload the ship. While on watch he would sometimes see flares from German artillery being fired into Antwerp as the Germans were still in the area.
[Cine Rex, De Keyserlei 15, Antwerp, Belgium. On December 16, 1944, (the first day of the Battle of the Bulge) a V-2 rocket was fired from the German SS Werfer Battery in Hellendoorn, The Netherlands. The rocket landed on the roof of the Cine Rex movie theater at 3:20 pm. Of the over 1,000 people inside, 567 people including 296 Allied servicemen were killed in the explosion. It was the highest death toll in WWII from a single rocket.
The American movie The Plainsman was playing at the theater that day.]
The Samuel McIntyre left Antwerp and sailed back to the US in late December. Frank was discharged January 11, 1945.
The Scott family Christmas card for 1944 celebrated the military service of the three Scott brothers and Quincy’s wife, Dottie. They would all return home after WWII.
March 6, 1945, the SS Emile N. Vidal, one of the concrete ships of WWII. Frank signed on the SS Emile N. Vidal in New Orleans, Louisiana. He would have back-to-back sailings on this ship. The ship would sail in the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico to ports which included Cuba and Puerto Rico. One of the supplies transported on this ship was sugar.
[The US government in WWII contracted with McCloskey and Company of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to construct 24 self-propelled concrete ships at a time when steel resources for shipbuilding were scarce. The ships were built in Tampa, Florida, starting in July 1943 at the Hookers Point shipyard at a rate of one per month. They were named after pioneers in the development and science of concrete.
The government also contracted the building of concrete barges with companies in California. The barges lacked engines to propel them and had to be towed.]
Merchant mariner Alfred “Al” G. Booth, a good friend of Frank’s from San Antonio, Texas, was also a crew member on this voyage.
Frank was discharged on April 9, 1945.
April 10, 1945, the SS Emile N. Vidal. Frank and Al would sail a second time on this ship and were discharged May 21, 1945.
July 21,1945, the Liberty ship SS Beckley Seam. Frank, Al, and another fellow San Antonio native, merchant mariner William McCollough, were members of the crew.
The Beckley Seam delivered coal to Savona, Italy, and was still in the Mediterranean Sea when it was announced that WWII had ended.
During Frank’s interview with the National Museum of the Pacific War he proudly showed me a photograph he had taken of the American flag on the SS Beckley Seam.
The US Merchant Marine did not have a centralized record-keeping system in WWII, and because of that, the estimates of merchant seamen losses vary significantly. During WWII there were about 250,000 civilian merchant mariners. A total estimate of merchant seamen and officers that went missing or were killed varies from 5,662 to over 9,000. An estimated 12,000 men were wounded, and over 600 became prisoners of war.
A total of 1,554 merchant ships were sunk in WWII according to the War Shipping Administration.
Merchant seamen were not included in the postwar Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, also known as the GI Bill, nor did they qualify to receive other military benefits due to their civilian status. It wasn’t until 1988 that WWII merchant seamen were recognized officially as veterans.
Frank Scott commented during his interview that the 1943 movie Action in the Atlantic was close to his actual wartime experiences.
Frank Scott’s brother, Quincy, came home from WWII with his own war story while assigned to the US Navy destroyer USS Borie in the Atlantic. On November 1, 1943, the Borie rammed German submarine U-405, which had surfaced. The two ships were locked together with the bow of the Borie resting on the foredeck of the submarine. Until the two ships were able to separate, the Borie and U-405 exchanged small arms fire at close range. Both the Borie and U-405 would be lost in this incident. Survivors of the Borie were rescued by the escort carrier USS Card.
Four WWII merchant mariners that went into acting after the war were James Garner, Peter Falk, Carroll O’Connor, and Jack Lord.
A very special thank you to Frank Scott’s wife, Helen, and to Al Booth’s wife, Maureen, for providing photographs and documents related to this story.
Thank you to the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas, and museum archivist Chris McDougal for providing information related to this story. The oral history interview of Frank Scott is in the museum archive.