In a March 2019 executive order, President Trump made a clear avenue for U.S. military veterans to transition into the Merchant Marine after their military service ends. This is a great thing for the men and women of the U.S. military who want to continue a life of service, but many will wonder what exactly the Merchant Marine is and what serving in it really requires.
During peacetime, the Merchant Marine is not a part of the military, but they do support military operations aboard ships like Kaiser-class replenishment oilers and Hope-class vehicle cargo ships. Its regular mission is the import and export of cargo in and out of the United States. Components of the Merchant Marine are both civilian sailors and government-owned ships. During wartime, the Merchant Marine can be used as the sealift component of the U.S. Naval Reserve.
1. Call them “Mariners”
A Merchant Marine Academy graduation ceremony.
While the Merchant Marine could go by many names, the preferred term is “mariner.” The terms sailor, seaman, and Marine are used elsewhere, and merchant mariners don’t need to try and be more than they are – they have an illustrious history of their own.
2. It has an illustrious history of its own
“Look out! Americans!”
So much so, it’s worth mentioning twice. The merchant mariners of the United States have existed in some form or another since the founding of our country, and have distinguished themselves in “getting the stuff to the fight” whenever called upon. Their first action came when a bunch of merchants off the coast of what is now Maine boarded a lumber schooner and sailed out to the HMS Margaretta in the aftermath of the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Yes, this is during the American Revolution.
The lightly-armed rabble of merchant seamen not only captured the Royal Navy’s armed sloop of war, they harassed the British for the remainder of the war.
3. It officially dates back to 1936
In the days leading up to World War II, Congress and President Roosevelt passed the Merchant Marine Act of 1936, which states:
“It is necessary for the national defense… 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…
4. War is not kind to the mariners
When the declaration of war on Japan forced the nationalization of the merchant marine fleet, it was a merger of American government needs and interest combined with the private sector’s means of getting the men and cargo to their destinations – for which the companies received handsome contracts. Weapons and armed guards from the U.S. Navy were then posted on ships.
And while you may think merchant shipping seems like an easy place to ride out the war, you’d be wrong. The merchant marine suffered the highest casualty rate of any branch serving in the war. For every 26 people who served aboard merchant marine ships, one of those would die, at a rate of almost four percent.
5. They didn’t get veteran status for 30 years
Retired Merchant Marine captain Paul Washburn sits on top of a Merchant Marine life boat.
After all was said and done and American GIs went home and bought houses and went to college, merchant mariners struggled for the same benefits for risking their necks just as much as the guys who fought in the Army, Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard. World War II merchant mariners weren’t afforded veteran status until 1988.
Merchant Mariners who worked in hostile waters during the Korean War, Vietnam War, and Desert Storm are still waiting for veteran status.
6. The Merchant Marine never stops
Oil tanker, gas tanker in the high sea.
When the treaties are signed, and the troops go home, the U.S. Merchant Marine still has a lot of work to do. Who do you think took all those men and vehicles back to the United States? Or moved occupation troops to Japan? Or hauled cargo for the Marshall Plan in Europe?