The United States Merchant Marine refers to U.S. civilian and federally owned merchant vessels. Both the civilian mariners and the merchant vessels are managed by a combination of the government and private sectors, and engage in commerce or transportation of goods and services in and out of the navigable waters of the United States. The Merchant Marine primarily transports cargo and passengers during peacetime; in times of war, the Merchant Marine can be an auxiliary to the US Navy, and can be called upon to deliver military personnel and materiel for the armed forces. Merchant Marine officers may also be commissioned as Navy officers by the Department of Defense.
Merchant mariners move cargo and passengers between nations and within the US, and operate and maintain Navy Hospital ships, USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort, deep-sea merchant ships, tugboats, towboats, ferries, dredges, excursion vessels, charter boats and other waterborne craft on the oceans, the Great Lakes, rivers, canals, harbors, and other waterways.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, various laws fundamentally changed the course of American merchant shipping. These laws put an end to common practices such as flogging and shanghaiing, and increased shipboard safety and living standards.
Public Law 95–202, approved 23 November 1977, granted veteran status to Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPS) and “any person in any other similarly situated group” with jurisdiction for determination given to the Secretary of Defense who delegated that determination to the Secretary of the Air Force.
Although the Merchant Marine suffered a per capita casualty rate greater than those of the US Armed Forces, merchant mariners who served in World War II were denied such veterans recognition until 1988 when a federal court ordered it. The Court held that “the Secretary of the Air Force abused its discretion in denying active military service recognition to American merchant seamen who participated in World War II.”
On 27 September 1942 the Liberty ship SS Stephen Hopkins was the first (and only) US merchant ship to sink a German surface combatant during the war.
On route from Cape Town to Surinam, she encountered the heavily armed German commerce raider Stier and her tender Tannenfels. Because of fog, the ships were only two miles apart when they sighted each other. Ordered to stop, Stephen Hopkins refused to surrender, and Stier opened fire. Although greatly outgunned, the crew of Stephen Hopkins fought back, replacing the Armed Guard crew (who were USN gunners) of the
ship’s lone 4-inch gun with volunteers as they fell. The fight was fierce and short, and by its end both ships were wrecks. Stephen Hopkins sank at 1000. Stier, too heavily damaged to continue its voyage, was scuttled by its crew less than two hours later. Most of the crew of Stephen Hopkins died, including Captain Paul Buck. The survivors drifted on a lifeboat for a month before reaching shore in Brazil. Captain Buck was posthumously awarded the Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal for his actions. So was US Merchant Marine Academy cadet Edwin Joseph O’Hara, who single-handedly fired the last shots from the ship’s 4-inch gun as the sea claimed the ship. Navy reservist Lt-jg Kenneth Martin Willett, gun boss for the 4-inch gun, was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross.
Of the 2,710 Liberties built during WW II, more than 2,400 survived the war
As British colonists before 1776, American merchant vessels had enjoyed the protection of the Royal Navy. Major ports in the Northeast began to specialize in merchant shipping. The main cargoes included tobacco, rice, indigo and naval stores from the Southern colonies. From the other colonies exports included horses, wheat, fish and lumber. By the 1760s New England was the center of a flourishing shipbuilding industry. Imports included all manner of manufactured goods.
The first wartime role of an identifiable US Merchant Marine took place on 12 June 1775, in and around Machias, Maine. A group of citizens, led by Jeremiah O’Brien and his brothers, tired of having the British tell them where and for how much, they could sell their lumber, captured the British schooner HMS Margaretta. The citizens, in need of critical supplies, were given an ultimatum: either load the ships with lumber to build British barracks in Boston, or go hungry. They chose to fight. This battle is known as “The Lexington of the sea”; the first sea battle of the Revolution.
Word of this revolt reached Boston, where the Continental Congress and the various colonies issued Letters of Marque to ‘privateers’. The privateers interrupted the British supply chain all along the eastern seaboard of North America and across the Atlantic. These actions by the privateers predate the US Navy.
The Merchant Marine was active in subsequent wars, from the Confederate commerce raiders of the Civil War, to the assaults on Allied commerce in the First and Second World Wars.
During WW II, 3.1 million tons of merchant ship