Poster Join the Fighting Men of the U.S. Merchant MarineGeneral Quarters!
All Hands to Battle Stations!
General Quarters!

Myth: The U.S. Merchant Marine of World War II only operated the ship, while the Armed Guard manned the guns!

Fact: The U.S. Merchant Marine of World War II was an Armed Force and the vessels were Armed Warships. Naval Armed Guard and Merchant Mariners worked as a team manning the guns.

U.S. Maritime Service Recruiting Poster, "Join the Fighting Men of the U.S. Merchant Marine" from National Archives

According to historian Bruce L. Felknor, editor, The U.S. Merchant Marine at War, 1775-1945:

"Merchant mariners who served at sea in World War II were denied recognition as veterans for 43 years. The major reason was a combination of misinformation, misunderstandings, and outright lies. One of the most influential of these was the argument that merchant seamen had nothing to with guns or firing at enemy vessels or planes."

On December 12, 1942, in a message for the dedication of the U.S. Maritime Service Training Station, Sheepshead Bay, NY, President Franklin D. Roosevelt stated:

"... the entire country joins me in wishing you every success and in paying tribute to you men of the Merchant Marine who are so gallantly working and fighting side by side with our Army and Navy to defend the way of life which is so dear to us all."

Admiral Albert J. Herberger, USN (Ret) stated:

During WWII, when were guns and gunners first put on U.S. ships?
"In the Pacific, long before war was declared, some enterprising ship crews built plywood "guns," hoping their profile would fool enemy ships. On November 17, 1941 Congress approved arming of merchant ships and set up the Naval Armed Guard. It took many months for guns and crews to get aboard thousands of ships. Many of the initial guns were of World War I vintage. Mariners in the Merchant Marine were trained at U.S. Maritime Service Training Stations, and at gunnery schools in Great Britain, Australia, and elsewhere. And, of course, they received on-the-job training while under attack. Mariners assisted the Naval Armed Guard in passing ammunition, catching cannon hot shells after firing wearing large asbestos gloves, and many were assigned anti-aircraft gun stations."

Did the Merchant Marine receive military training and acquire a military capability?
"Yes, in early 1940 the Coast Guard began training the Merchant Marine personnel in gunnery and, in addition, the Merchant Marine Academy required extensive military training of their cadets to qualify for graduation. By November 1941 (in an act of Congress) our Government began to arm Merchant Ships and in December of that year, Navy armed guards were assigned to many vessels."

"In responding to attack by the enemy, Navy personnel and Merchant Mariners fought together as a team --- they were members of the same gun crews. [emphasis added] The exchange of gunfire, especially in the first two years of the war was a daily routine for many of the Merchant vessels."

Battle Station Assignments and Gunnery Duties of Merchant Marine Crew
In February 1942, the Navy issued new instructions to Masters which stated there is no situation which permits a delay in opening fire on an enemy.

Clarification of Gun duties and training of Merchant Marine Mariners aboard ship
War Shipping Administration Regulation, Washington, CONFIDENTIAL January 25, l943
On a typical cargo ship, 23 mariners out of a crew of 40-45 men were assigned gun stations during battle. This constituted full combatant status for the Merchant Marine.

Confidential Message regarding Gunnery Training at British Ports
Indicates British concern of maintaining the safety of the lifeline of supplies to Britain. December 22, 1941

Congressional Hearings Regarding Gunnery Duties
Committee on The Merchant Marine and Fisheries, House of Representatives, April 4, 1946


Instructions to Masters from the Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox

Op-23L-JH (SC) S76-3 Serial 097923


March 30, 1942

From: The Secretary of the Navy.

7225 Gross Tons.

SUBJECT: Instructions for Scuttling Merchant Ships.

1. It is the policy of the United States Government that no U. S. Flag merchant ship be permitted to fall into the hands of the enemy.

2. The ship shall be defended by her armament, by maneuver, and by every available means as long as possible. Then, in the judgment of the Master, capture is inevitable, he shall scuttle the ship. Provision should be made to open sea valves, and to flood holds and compartments adjacent to machinery spaces, start numerous fires and employ any additional measures available to insure certain scuttling of the vessel.

3. In case the Master is relieved of command of his ship, he shall transfer this letter to his successor, and obtain a receipt for it.


Received 3 September 1943
Port Director Date

Jacksonville, Florida [s] Edwin C. Kaminski
Port Master

Copy to: VCNO


Mariners were trained in gunnery at:

U.S. Maritime Service Training Station Gunnery Training

The United States Maritime Service, staffed by experienced officers of the United States Navy, Coast Guard and Merchant Marine, functioned directly under the War Shipping Administration and had the responsibility of recruiting, training and delivering competent crews to man the thousands of merchant ships built by the Maritime Commission.

"... America's seamen are being trained for a fighting merchant marine, a promise that the goods will be delivered... Give a Man a Gun and teach him how to use it."
Off Soundings, May 1943, published for trainees at the U. S. Maritime Service Training Station, Avalon, Catalina Island, California. Captain J. L. Beebe, U.S.N.R., Superintendent; Commander P. Brennan, U.S.N.R., Executive Officer

 U.S. Maritime Service trainee
A trainee on the U.S. Maritime Service training ship American Sailor keeps a never-ending vigil during a training cruise. [Cover of official USMS Magazine, Catalina May 1943]
 Captain J. L. Beebe Superintendent,  U. S. Maritime Service
Captain J. L. Beebe, U.S.N.R., Superintendent,
U. S. Maritime Service Training Station at Catalina

Give a Man a Gun
and teach him how to use it. The Station Armory, with the latest U. S. Navy equipment for merchant marine defense, gives Avalon trainees the opportunity to learn how to fight back. When they have the job of getting the cargoes through to our armies and our allies, Maritime Service men will have the "know-how."

U.S. Navy personnel teaching Gunnery to U.S. Maritime Service Trainees

U.S. Maritime Service gunnery training U.S. Maritime Service gunnery training
U.S. Maritime Service gunnery training U.S. Maritime Service gunnery training

Trainees at Avalon Catalina Island practice gunnery

Caption at left:
Cargo ships of the victory fleet must plough through the waters of all of the Seven Seas before victory is won. Sharp-eyed men will man the guns of America's merchantmen, keep a keen lookout for trouble. They will be trained to fight back, and they will get through, somehow. The constant rumble of the Training Station's guns is a promise that America's seamen are being trained for a fighting merchant marine, a promise that the goods will be delivered.


U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, Kings Point, NY

Cadet-Midshipmen receiving gunnery instruction

Cadet-Midshipmen receiving instruction in operation of a 40 mm anti-aircraft gun from Lt. Arthur Mills, USNR at the Academy. Cadets also were trained with rifles and small arms. Rifles were used aboard ship to detonate floating mines.

U.S. Merchant Marine Academy is the only Federal Academy allowed to fly a Battle Standard. 142 Cadet-Midshipmen were killed or missing in combat during World War II. Cadet training included service aboard U.S. Merchant Marine vessels.

(Cover of POLARIS Magazine, July 1944, published for and by USMM Cadet Corps]


Gunnery Training Staff of U.S.M.S. Officers' Training Station, Alameda, CA
U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Navy, and U.S. Maritime Service officers and men in charge of gunnery training, 1942

Who Said We're Not Members of An Armed Force?
Sheepshead Bay: Each trainee is given fundamental instruction in 30- and 50-calibre machine guns, the .20 millimeter anti-aircraft gun, and three- and four-inch deck guns, according to Lt. Walker Laramore, USNR, Station Gunnery Officer.

U.S. Maritime Service Training Station Gunnery Instructor
Jesse Worth Cady was assigned to Ships Company [Training Staff] at Sheepshead Bay as a gunner's mate. Cady instructed USMS trainees in operation of 4" 50 and 5" 38 cannons, and 20 mm, 30 and 50 caliber anti-aircraft guns. He was stationed in the Gunnery Building.

Training at Gunnery Schools in the USA

U.S. Navy Gunnery Training Mobile Units Trained Navy Armed Guard and Merchant Marine Dockside at Various Ports


Navy Armed Guard Mobile Gunnery training bus
U.S. Navy Armed Guard Training Mobile Unit No. 1 at a New York City pier. Armed Guard and Merchant Marine crew members instructed in the use of one 20 mm, one 50 mm, and two 30 caliber guns inside the bus.
Merchant mariners gun instruction
U.S. Navy Instructor teaching Merchant Marine crew members on how to load a 30 caliber Browning machine gun. Photo taken on U.S. Navy Armed Guard Training Mobile Unit bus.
Navy officer gunnery instructor
Navy Instructor in an Armed Guard Mobile Unit shows 20 mm sighting method.
trainees taking apart 20mm gun
Navy Instructor in a Mobile Unit shows how to take down a 20 mm gun.

Official U.S. Navy photos from The POINTER News Magazine Apr/May/June 2001, courtesy of C.A. Lloyd, Chairman of the U.S. Navy Armed Guard Veterans.


Mariners at the Guns

Many mariners distinguished themselves in battle by manning the guns and were awarded Distinguished Service Medals by President Franklin D. Roosevelt Merchant Mariner Heroes

Robert Carse
Mariner, author and war correspondent tells of his gunnery experience during the Murmansk Run.
"We talked ships, and we talked planes and submarines and guns, hour after hour. We were coming home more than merchant seamen; we were fighting men, trained and experienced gunners, specialists in death."

Gunnery Training Aids Avalon Grad
Frank O'Neill
described an attack by German planes on his ship to illustrate the importance of gunnery training.
"When a ship is under attack everybody is a member of the armed forces." On his ship, the .20 mm guns were manned by a Navy gunner and two Merchant Seamen. Their gun jammed and their training got the gun working "almost instantly."

Gunnery During Battles

FIGHTER! Gets Tanker to Malta Under Blazing Attacks

SS Nathaniel Currier

Merchant vessels shoot down 107 Japanese planes

SS Francisco Morazon

SS Antoine Saugraine

SS Floyd W. Spencer

Tanker Yamhill Battles Japanese Submarine

SS Nathaniel Currier

Wartime Memos and Messages: U.S. Merchant Marine an Armed Force
President Franklin D. Roosevelt states U.S. Merchant Marine is an Armed Force eligible for war medals and decorations.
FDR Message to the Fighting Men of the Merchant Marine, Christmas 1943, to all ships at sea.

Thanks to Wallace B. Smith for loan of Off Soundings.


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