Today is Memorial Day. And although the real meaning of the holiday often gets lost in all the sales and barbecues, we thought we'd take some time to remember some of the unsung heroes of wartime - the U.S. Merchant Marine.
This WWII-era newsreel highlights the important work of the Merchant Marine during the war:
The Merchant Marine refers to all U.S. flagged cargo ships and freighters. During wartime, these civilian vessels - and their civilian crews - were crucial to moving war materiel and maintaining supply lines across the oceans. Because these men were not officially enlisted in the military, despite their hugely important wartime work, they have not traditionally been celebrated on Memorial Day. In fact, National Maritime Day, held on May 22nd, is often referred to as the Merchant Marine Memorial Day. But merchant mariners had a higher wartime casualty rate than any branch of the military during the Second World War. One in 26 merchant mariners died in the war, a higher rate than even the U.S. Marines.
During WWII, approximately 243,000 merchant mariners served, and over 9,500 died as a result of enemy action, nearly 4%. In contrast, the U.S. Coast Guard, in which 242,000 served, lost 571 men to enemy action, or about a quarter of a percent. Despite these high casualty rates, because they were not enlisted in a branch of the military, the Merchant Marines were not eligible for Purple Heart medals. In 1943, Congress attempted to rectify that lack with the establishment of the Merchant Marines Mariner's Medal. Over 6,000 medals were awarded before it was discontinued in 1956. It was not awarded in subsequent conflicts, but in 1992, the US Department of Transportation announced several new medals which were retroactively awarded to merchant mariners who served in Korea, Vietnam, and more recently wartime engagements, including Operations Desert Storm, Iraqi Freedom, and others.
To get a taste of the dangerous voyages that merchant mariners made in wartime, there are a couple of movies to check out. The first is "Action in the North Atlantic," a 1943 film starring Humphrey Bogart.
Bogart stars as a hero of the wartime merchant marine in "Action in the North Atlantic." During World War II, the United States has been supplying its ally, the Soviet Union, as that country valiantly fights the invading German Army. But the supply lines cross the frigid, treacherous waters of the North Atlantic. When his ship is torpedoed by the Germans in mid-ocean, first mate Joe Rossi (Bogart) rallies the survivors of his crew to navigate their tiny lifeboat to land. After their harrowing journey, the brave seamen have only a brief time ashore before they set out to sea again, daring another crossing through submarine infested waters to supply the desperate Russians.
Another, more recent film also highlights the dangers of the Battle of the Atlantic to merchant mariners: "Greyhound," released in 2020 and starring Tom Hanks.
Although it focuses on the captain of the lead naval destroyer escorting a convoy across the Atlantic, you get a feel for the extreme danger posed to merchant mariners by U-boats, and how many ships and lives were lost attempting to keep the supply lines open and running. Based on the real events of the Battle of the Atlantic, "Greyhound" makes for good, if nerve-wracking, watching.
“If you’re a merchant sailor, you don’t know if the ship you’re on at any moment will suddenly explode. You don’t know if it is hit and you have to go in the water, will you be found? … If you’re a survivor, you hope to God you get in a lifeboat, and then you hope that somebody picks you up. Otherwise, you’re done.” To learn more about the real life counterparts of the Greyhound, check out this article from the Smithsonian Magazine.
As we remember all those who lost their lives in military action this Memorial Day, we hope you'll remember the Merchant Marines, too.
If you enjoyed this post and would like to support more history blog content, please make a donation to the Hudson River Maritime Museum or become a member today!
This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
Hudson River Maritime Museum
50 Rondout Landing
Kingston, NY 12401
The Hudson River Maritime Museum is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of the maritime history of the Hudson River, its tributaries, and related industries.
Become a member and receive benefits like unlimited free museum admission, discounts on classes, programs, and in the museum store, plus invitations to members-only events.
The Hudson River Maritime Museum receives no federal, state, or municipal funding except through competitive, project-based grants. Your donation helps support our mission of education and preservation.