The birth of the U.S. Merchant Marine can be found within the birth of the maritime tradition of European colonies within the New World, particularly in New England and the Caribbean Islands. Cutoff from the world that they knew, with almost no manufacturing capability to speak of and an overabundance of natural resources, colonists were dependant on products from across the sea. As colonies established themselves and stabilized enough to concentrate on their futures rather than their immediate needs, they began shipping vast amounts of raw material back across the ocean. Thus large-scale shipment of commercial goods, raw materials, and livestock began as early as the fifteenth century.
The professional sailors that manned these voyages were mariners by trade and tradition but it took a revolution to turn them into something more. As the echoes of the first musket reports of the American Revolution died in Lexington and Concord, these mariners were soon thrust into the forefront of a war like the world had never seen and they were quick to assume their role as the unseen backbone of American military might.
On June 12, 1775, just months after the start of the war, a group of citizens from Machias, Maine (having been ordered to load the HMS Margaretta with lumber ear-marked for building a British Barracks in Boston or starve) chose a third option and captured the British schooner in an incident that became the first documented account of wartime action of the Merchant Marines. That date precedes not only the formation of both the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Navy by fifteen years or more (indeed, one famous merchant mariner of the era, John Paul Jones, went on to become the “Father” of the U.S. Navy) but also the formation of the United States itself.
Seeing the value in having such a force available to command, the Continental Congress, as well as individual colonies, began issuing Letters of Marque to privateers, effectively licensing rag-tag flotillas of pirates to wreak havoc on the British.
Since 1775, the Merchant Marine, in some form or another, has been active in every major military conflict the United States has engaged in. From the Confederate Commerce raiders of the American Civil war to the Liberty Ships of the two World Wars to the rebirth of the Merchant Marines during the Korean War to the last battle of the Vietnam War and into the new millennium with its involvement in both wars in Iraq and the current war on terror, the Merchant Marine were indispensable.
The official formulation came about when congress passed two immensely important acts in the early part of 1900′s. The first, in 1920, was entitled the Merchant Marine Act but soon became commonly known as the Jones Act. Having deemed it “necessary for the national defense and for the proper growth of its foreign and domestic commerce” congress passed the act to ensure 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.” The main importance of the Jones Act was the clause nearing the end of the preamble which stated those ships of the merchant marine were “ultimately to be owned and operated privately by citizens of the United States.” It is this idea that shaped the future of the Merchant Marine as a private entity bound to the government. In order to ensure this, the Jones Act mandated that any U.S.-flagged vessels must be built in the United States and owned by U.S. citizens. It also required that that all officers and 75% of the crew must be U.S. citizens.
The second act, the Merchant Marine Act of 1936, was a direct response to a devastating fire in 1934 aboard the passenger ship Morro Castle, in which 134 lives were lost. The act’s primary function was to regulate the practices of those ships of the Merchant Marine as defined by the Jones Act.
The Merchant Marine Academy was built in 1942 on a plot of land in King’s Point, New York. Dedicated in 1941 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who felt strongly that Merchant Marine operations were essential to a healthy and stable American economy, the academy’s main goal was to provide a skilled workforce of officers and crew that could bring United States cargo operations to the forefront of the global marketplace. (After the World War II, the curriculum of the academy would change to that of a standard four-year maritime college to ensure there would always be a well-educated reserve of men to call upon to staff U.S. merchant vessels.) The Merchant Marine Academy was the first of the United States Armed Services schools to allow women inside its walls in 1974.
When World War II erupted in Europe, America called upon its fresh Merchant Marines to bear the brunt of transport operations. Even before American military forces joined the war, American ships were busy dodging German U-boat “Wolf Packs” and shuttling supplies, medical aid, and manufactured goods, and machinery to its beleaguered allies. When American forces finally entered the conflict, the Merchant Marine ferried the bulk of the 7-15 tons of supplies each soldier required on a yearly basis. Although asbestos had been used on ships in the 1930s, it was World War II when exposure of seamen to asbestos fibers increased substantially.
As World War II was a war of two fronts, supplying both of those fronts was a tremendous task. At the beginning of the war there were 1,340 ships in the U.S. Merchant Marine fleet. By the end of the war there were 4,221. Those ships hauled 203,500,000 tons of dry cargo and 646,700,000 of liquids between 1941 and 1945. During the war, the ranks of seamen in the service swelled from 55,000 to 215,000.
No one could doubt the contribution those sailors made the war effort. Indeed, Franklin D. Roosevelt renamed the Merchant Marine “the Fourth Arm” of American defense. So too did General Dwight D. Eisenhower understand that without the Merchant Marines, the allies could have easily lost the war. “When final victory is ours,” he said. “There is no organization to share its credit more deservedly than the Merchant Marines.”
In order to provide such a service, the Merchant Marine paid a heavy price. Of the 4,221 ships commissioned by the end of the war (75% of which were Liberty Ships) 833 were sunk. The loss of life was staggering. Nearly one in twenty-four men who served in the Merchant Marine, a total of 8,651, died during the war.
Interest in maintaining a full-time Merchant Marine fleet flagged in peacetime and demobilization crippled the fleet. When the Korean War broke out, there were just six ships chartered. In response, the Secretary of Commerce created the National Shipping Authority (NSA) in order to utilize ships from the Maritime Administration’s (MARAD) National Defense Reserve Fleet (NDRF) to meet the needs of military services and other agencies beyond the capabilities of the privately-owned vessels of the U.S.-flag Merchant Marine. Between 1951 and 1953 more than 600 ships were chartered to ferry essential goods, such as coal, to America’s Cold war allies in Europe.
During, the Korean War, in addition to the 255 ships brought directly under the control of the Military Sea Transportation Service, 130 decommissioned Liberty ships were put back into service forming a “backbone of ships across the pacific. Data compiled by the MSTS shows that for each soldier on the ground in Korea, seven tons of equipment needed to be in place with an additional ton every month for the duration of that soldier’s tour of duty. 85% of that materiel was shipped by American-flagged commercial vessel. In conjunction with the ships of Americas foreign allies, a total of 90% of the cargo and supplies transported during the Korean War were transported by chartered ocean-going vessels across the pacific, most of it destined for Pusan at the extreme southern tip of the country. In stark contrast, only 5% of that equipment was shipped by airplane.