After the United States entered World War II, it didn’t take long for the Nazi regime to bring the war to the states. Since the majority of the American military forces were deployed in Europe, German U-boats had no trouble at all with the decimation of merchant shipping vessels that used the Gulf of Mexico, the East Coast, and the Mississippi River as shipping lines. At the time, there was no way to defend the merchant vessels from the German attacks, so the effects were devastating.
What most people don’t realize is that those ships didn’t contain military personnel, but instead they were crewed by what was known as merchant mariners. These mariners were civilian volunteers who joined the United States Merchant Marine, and their job was to supply the Allied armies with anything they might need to survive the war. These mariners had no formal military or combat training of any sort, and they did not receive any benefits from the government for their service. However, they were some of the bravest and most valiant members of the American defensive and offensive forces.
Many who joined the Merchant Marine were aware of the dangers involved, but that didn’t stop them from volunteering. There was a good chance their boats would be attacked by German U-boats, which could leave them stranded on lifeboats in the middle of the sea, where sharks and icy water awaited to finish the job left by the Germans. Those that survived had a long journey home through the cold waters using nothing but a lifeboat.
The Merchant Marine lost more men at 9,300 than any legitimate branch of the armed services. The majority of those losses occurred during 1942, during which time there was absolutely no support from the Navy. During that year, the waters around the United States’ east coast were statistically the most dangerous in the world. The number of casualties got so high that the number of survivors started to increase as well, and there was even a club for those who survived a torpedo blast by a German U-boat. Many of the survivors continued to work the lines, and one particular mariner was present for ten separate torpedo assaults.
The Merchant Mariners made many sacrifices while they were in action, but that didn’t stop the American people from looking down on them. Since the workers were in such high demand, shipping companies had no choice but to hire those who they normally would not, like thieves, drunks, brawlers, and other undesirables. Many within the public assumed that these men were nothing more than small-time war profiteers since they didn’t join the legitimate armed forces.
Even though the mariners made decent money while they were working, they only got paid for the time they actually worked, unlike those in the military who received payment around the clock that was also supplemented with benefits and bonuses. The mariners, on the other hand, literally stopped earning money if the boat they were on got struck by a torpedo. They earned nothing while fighting to stay alive on the cold ocean.
These men, however history viewed them at the time, were undoubtedly the unsung heroes of the war. Without their courage and sacrifice, those who fought the good fight would have been drastically under-equipped and ill-prepared for the battle before them. However, it was and still remains a rare thing to hear any praise toward this group of men. There are only a few thousand of them left, but they still feel the sting of being left out and largely ignored by a government and public that relied upon them for victory all those years ago.