Korea would also remind the United States that the Merchant Marines were comprised of much more than mere cargo-handlers. In September of 1950, the Army’s X-Corps made an amphibious landing at Inchon. As auxiliaries to the Navy, the Merchant Marines were directly involved in the operation. Thirteen USNS cargo ships and 26 American Merchant Marine vessels, along with thirty-four Japanese manned assisted the X-Corps in taking and holding Inchon.
However, the Merchant Marines’ role was not to merely deliver people and goods to the theater. Following the Choisin Reservoir campaign, the Merchant Marine was responsible for evacuating 100,000 United Nations troops and 91,000 refugees, in addition to 350,000 tons of cargo, and 17,500 vehicles – all in a timeframe of under two weeks.
From the insertion of troops, to the resupply of the troops, to evacuation of personnel and civilians, the very success of the Korean War hung on the Merchant Marine. As Admiral Charles T. Joy of the United States Navy stated the Merchant Mariners “. . . performed silently, but their accomplishments speak loudly.”
Vietnam proved to be no less of a challenge for the Merchant Marine. At the very beginning, the Forgotten Service was in the thick of the action. In 1954 when Vietnam was partitioned, Merchant Marine vessels lifted nearly 300,00 refugees and 200,000 tons of cargo from north to south Vietnam in what would come to be called the Passage to Freedom.
When U.S. troops began making landfall in Vietnam, the Merchant Marine hauled two-thirds of the troops from U.S. soil until the majority of troop transport switched to air traffic. By 1965 the MSTS had 300 freighters and tankers hauling nearly 95% of all the supplies used by all of the U.S. Armed forces in Vietnam with roughly 75 ships and 3,000 Mariners in Vietnamese ports at any given time. Between 1965 and 1969 the Merchant Marine carried 7.6 million tons of cargo for the U.S. Air Force alone.
Some of the MSTS ships were used as floating ammunition warehouses and even housed maintenance divisions such as the Army Aviation Maintenance Battalion in floating workshops off the shores of Vietnam, ensuring that vital supplies and facilities were never very far away.
Perhaps one of the most famous, or infamous, incidents involving a Merchant Marine vessel during the entire conflict was that of the SS Mayaguez, which happens to be the last official battle of the war though the actual combat occurred outside the borders of Vietnam and didn’t involve a single Vietnamese national.
The SS Mayaguez was an American Merchant Marine freighter operating in international waters. Khmer Rouge gunmen launched former U.S. Navy swift boats from Cambodia and captured the vessel on May 12, 1975. They took the crew hostage and commandeered the vessel. President Gerald Ford sent a considerable force into striking position including the aircraft carrier the USS Coral Sea and a nearly six hundred Marines drawn from forces stationed in Okinawa and Subic Bay.
On May 15, the U.S. Marines took back the Mayaguez only to find it empty. Eight helicopters carrying Marines from Golf and Echo companies assaulted the island of Koh Tang, off the shore of which the Mayaguez had been anchored. What ensued was a bloody disaster.
Seven of the eight helicopters involved in the assault were damaged beyond operation and forty-one United States Servicemen died. Five back-up helicopters where pulled in to provide support and evacuate the ground troops. Only after the battle did U.S. intelligence learn that the crew of the Mayaguez had been hustled discretely off Koh Tang before the assault even began. They were found in a fishing boat at sea, all in good health, and returned to the USS Holt.
Since the War in Vietnam, the burden of moving military supply by sea has shifted from the National Defense reserve Fleet to the Ready Reserve Force. Comprised of commercial vessels, they sit empty in times of war awaiting their call to action. Those ships must be ready to load and ready to sail within 4, 5, 10, or 20 days of being called up. Furthermore, those assigned 4 and 5 day readiness must maintain a permanent skeleton crew of no less than nine mariners at any time ensuring that the United States Armed forces are ever-ready to move in a world full of rapidly changing political landscapes and light-speed, digital warfare.
With the United States acquisition of global air-superiority, one might assume the brunt of transport operations has shifted from ocean going vessel to aircraft but recent military actions have shown the Merchant Marine is just as important to U.S. military operations as it ever was. Supplying over 11 million metric tons of vehicles, ammunition, fuel, and other assorted equipment during the 1991 “100 Hours War,” the 230 ships of the Military Sealift Command were busy ensuring that U.S. troops on the ground received the equipment they needed. One calculation shows that the 79 vessels of the Ready Reserve Force delivered 25% of the unit equipment and 45% of the ammunition consumed during the war. When it was all done and over with “The six month Gulf War buildup involved four times as much supply as the Normandy Invasion.”
Statistics for the current war in Iraq and Afghanistan are still accumulating but by the end of the first year alone the mariners serving on ships under Military Sea Lift Command moved 61 million square feet of dry cargo and 1.1 billion gallons of fuel.
As important as the Merchant Marines are to the United States during wartime, it is crucial that their contributions during smaller “humanitarian” crisises such as those which occurred in Kosovo in 1999, Somalia in 1993, and Haiti in 1994 are not overlooked. The U.S. Merchant Marine and the men and women of the Ready Reserve Force are also vigilant in times of natural disaster as well. When hurricanes Katrina and Rita destroyed parts of the United States Gulf Coast, wreaking havoc on the Gulf Coast, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) enlisted a total of eight ships from the Ready Reserve Force for use as floating shelters, storage containers, and even power generation stations while dispensing aid to the survivors of those natural disasters. In the case of Hurricane Rita, some RRF ships (such as the MV Cape Vincent and the MV Cape Victory) were also used before the storm made landfall as floating shelters for emergency workers and their equipment in order to safeguard them during the storm’s approach.
In recent years, the fate of the U.S. Merchant Marines has become uncertain. In 1950, U.S. ships carried 43% of the world’s cargo across the seas. By 1997 that percentage had dropped to four. As the U.S. job market for well-trained mariners decreases, many are finding stations on foreign owned vessels. All of the other armed forces combined depend heavily, some even primarily, on the cargo transportation services of the U.S. Merchant Marine and the Mariners, men and women, who made this “Forgotten Service” the “Fourth Arm” of national defense.