The US Merchant Marine and US Navy Armed Guard

Introduction

The US Merchant Marine during World War II was a fleet of government owned vessels operated by private shipping companies. It was responsible for transporting 85% of the troops, ammunition, and supplies used to support the Allied war effort and is credited with contributing decisively to the ultimate Allied victory. The percentage of merchant mariners lost during the war was greater than the losses suffered by any other branch of the military. One in twenty mariners serving aboard merchant ships died in the line of duty. These valiant sailors of the Merchant Marine and the US Navy Armed Guard, who manned the guns on the merchant ships, are truly the forgotten heroes of World War II.

Merchant Marine sailors were all volunteers ranging in age from 16 to 78. No one was drafted into the US Maritime Service. Many of the volunteers were “unfit” for the military due to health concerns or disabilities, and they could have stayed home. But true patriots and eager to help the war effort, they chose to risk the perils of the sea.

Merchant ships, often old and slow, faced dangers from submarines, aircraft, surface ships, mines, and the elements. Over 863 ships were lost due to enemy action and 31 disappeared without a trace resulting in a total of 9,300 dead and 12,000 wounded merchant mariners and 2,000 dead and 1,100 wounded Armed Guard sailors.

Mariners received pay only while serving aboard ship. If a ship was sunk, the survivors pay was stopped and they had to arrange for a trip home at their own expense. After the war, returning mariners did not receive the same benefits as the armed forces. They were not eligible for medical care, low cost home loans, or educational expenses. The US Government finally granted veteran status to the Merchant Marine in 1988.

WW II Merchant Marine Displays

WW II Merchant Marine Related Displays

SS Jeremiah O’Brien – American Liberty Ship

The O’Brien was built by the New England Ship Building Corporation in Maine. Commissioned in 1943, she was one of 2,710 Liberty Ships built during World War II. She made nine trips to England carrying war supplies and crossed the English Channel eleven times to support the D-Day invasion. This ship type was designed to be built quickly and inexpensively to rapidly assemble a large fleet of cargo ships to support Britain in her fight against Germany. The O’Brien is one of two Liberty Ships still afloat and the only ship of the original invasion fleet to return to Normandy fifty years later for the ceremonies held in 1994.

Esso New Orleans – T-2 Tanker

This model represents the T-2 tankers that were common during the Second World War. They carried 41,000 barrels of crude oil, fuel oil, gasoline or diesel fuel for the war effort. They also refueled Navy ships at sea.

Mr. James Manzolillo, the founder of the Houston Maritime Museum, served aboard the Esso Aruba, sister ship to the Esso New Orleans, as Chief Engineer during the war. After his ship was torpedoed in the South Atlantic, he spent four days in a life raft before being rescued.

HMCS Mimico, K 307 – Canadian Corvette

A Flower-Class Corvette commissioned in 1944, Mimico was 208 feet long, could attain a speed of 16 knots, and was crewed by 109 officers and men. She was armed with one 4” gun, one 2 lb anti-aircraft gun, six 20mm anti-aircraft guns and one Hedgehog, an anti-submarine weapon. Corvettes were designed to protect convoys crossing the Atlantic to supply England with war materials against German “Wolf Packs” of U-boats.

HMS Bergamot, K-189 – British Corvette

This model depicts a type of small warship developed by the British Navy, the Corvette, dedicated to protecting supply convoys against Hitler’s German forces. Their mission was to screen cargo ships from attack by German aircraft and especially U-Boats. The Bergamot served as a convoy escort in not only the North and South Atlantic, but also the Mediterranean Sea and the Arctic Ocean.

German U-Boat, U-596

This model is representative of the German submarine Type VII, first launched in 1936. It is painted in camouflage colors appropriate for Mediterranean service. The Type VII was about 220 feet in length, powered by diesel engines, and capable of reaching 18 knots on the surface and 9 knots submerged. The main armament was 21” torpedoes, which are shown to scale beside this model, but they also carried an 88 mm deck gun. German subs borrowed a Dutch idea and featured the snorkel, a breathing tube that allowed subs to run just submerged on engine power, saving their batteries.

Packs of these submarines stalked American supply convoys setting out to cross the Atlantic to help England during the first years of World War II. In all, German subs cost the Allies nearly 3,000 ships during the war, 13 of which were sunk by this particular sub, U-596. Unfortunately for German submariners, they suffered from 75% casualty rates during the peak years of the war.

SS Mortar – Munitions Carrier

This coastal freighter was commandeered for the Normandy Invasion to carry munitions in support of the Allied landing on D-Day. The Mortar was the first ship to enter the port of Cherbourg on June 7, 1944

Modern Battleships

Development of the Modern Battleship

Modern battleships grew out of the early ironclads of the Civil War era. In the late 1800′s, the basic design of warships began to change into all steel vessels equipped with very large caliber breech loading guns mounted in turrets.

The United States commissioned her first battleship-style vessel, the USS Texas in 1895, followed by her sister ship the USS Maine. Texas was a coal-burning ship carrying two 12-inch and six 6-inch guns. Protected with 12-inches of steel armor, she was one of the most powerful ships in the world. The larger Connecticut-Class ships, with four 12-inch and four 8-inch guns, were launched in 1906 but were quickly outrun by the forerunner of the modern battleship, the HMS Dreadnought commissioned by the Royal Navy that same year. Dreadnought was the first of the ‘all big gun’ ships carrying a main battery of ten 12″ guns in five turrets instead of being armed with a variety of calibers. Dreadnought was powered by coal driven steam turbines and could reach a speed of 21 knots. Rotating turrets allowed the guns to fire in a wide arc, with over 100 degrees of angle to either side of amidships. Although HMS Dreadnought was the first of the ‘Dreadnoughts,’ as battleships were called for quite some time, other navies around the world were moving in the same direction. The essential form of the battleship emerged as a narrow nosed, broad beamed hull, capable of carrying large quantities of fuel and ammunition, protected by thick armor and armed with six to twelve heavy guns in three or four turrets.

Armor thickness during WW I was about nine inches, but by the end of that war many ships carried a thickness of 13 or 14 inches. During WW II the armor thickness remained set at roughly 12 inches for the four battleship classes built by the U.S., but the size of main guns continued to grow. By the end of WW II, most new battleships carried 16-inch main guns, and the Japanese Yamato carried 18.1-inch guns.

Modern battleships reigned supreme for only 40 years, from 1906 through the end of WW II, when their importance diminished with the development of air power. Today no battleships remain in active service though visitors can see numerous examples of battleships as museums ships around the world.

Exhibits

USS Fletcher, DD-445 – American Destroyer

Commissioned in June 1942 and named after Admiral Frank Friday Fletcher, a Medal of Honor recipient, USS Fletcher is one of the most decorated destroyers of World War II. The Fletcher earned 15 battle stars for her actions in the Pacific Theater during World War II and 5 more battle stars for her anti-submarine warfare and shore bombardments during the Korean War

At 2,100 tons, she was 376 feet long, 40 feet wide, and drew 13 feet of water. Crewed by 273 officers and men, she could sail at 36 knots. Her armament consisted of five 5” x 38 caliber guns, four 1.1” x 38 caliber guns, six 20mm cannons, ten torpedo tubes and a depth charge rack for attacking submarines.

The Higgins Boat, 33-10 – LCVP

The Higgins Landing Craft – Vehicle/Personnel played a significant role in winning the Second World War for the Allies. It was a plywood, shallow draft boat designed to run up on a beach, drop the bow ramp, and discharge jeeps or men directly on shore. They were 36 feet long, 10 feet wide, and drew 3 feet of water. Diesel powered, they could make 9 knots and carry 36 fully equipped soldiers. They were crewed by Navy sailors and armed with two .30 caliber machine guns.

USS Missouri, BB-63 – American Battleship

This Iowa-Class Battleship was commissioned in June 1944 and measured 887 feet long, 108 feet wide, and drew 29 feet of water, with a speed of 33 knots. All American naval vessels were designed to go through the Panama Canal, but the “Mighty Mo” barely fit in the canal with only a 6” clearance on each side. Her restricted beam limited the size of her main battery to 16” guns that could fire a 2,700-pound armor piercing shell 20 miles. She also carried twenty 5” guns, eighty 40mm anti-aircraft guns, and forty-nine 20mm anti-aircraft guns, and was crewed by 2,700 officers and men. She supported the American landing at Okinawa and took part in many other engagements earning eleven battle stars for her actions. One of her most significant moments took place in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945 when Japanese representatives signed the official surrender on her main deck. Today she is moored in Pearl Harbor as a permanent museum ship detailing her 48 years of active and reserve service.

USS Hornet, CV-8 – American Aircraft Carrier

Launched in 1940 and built by Newport News Shipbuilding, the Hornet first became famous in the spring of 1942 when Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle and the “Doolittle Raiders” launched B-25 bombers off her decks and carried out a surprise bombing raid on Japan. Forced to launch earlier than intended, none of the 16 bombers reached their intended landing strip in China, although only seven of the 80 airmen died as a result of the mission. After her return from Japan, the Hornet participated in the Battle of Midway helping to weaken Japan’s carrier force and preserving Midway as a strategically important location for the Allies. She assisted in the campaign in the Solomon Islands during the fall of 1942 and engaged in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands that October. After suffering several bomb and torpedo hits, the Hornet was under tow when it was attacked again and the captain ordered his crew to abandon ship. Though she was severely damaged, the Hornet still absorbed 13 torpedoes and over 400 5in rounds before she finally sank. In November 1943, the Navy paid tribute to her service by naming aircraft carrier CV-12 the Hornet in her honor.

USS Indianapolis, CA-35 – American Cruiser

Commissioned on November 16, 1932, the Indianapolis was 610 feet long, 66 feet wide, and displaced 9,800 tons. Her wartime crew of 1,269 manned nine eight inch guns, eight five-inch guns, and 8 .50 caliber machine guns. Within her first active years she transported President Franklin D. Roosevelt from Campobello Island, New Brunswick to Annapolis, Maryland before being designated flagship and welcoming the President again for a cruise to South American in 1936. After the war began, the Indianapolis saw action in the South Pacific where she engaged Japanese ships and planes in February 1942. After returning to the US for repairs, she steamed back to the Pacific and successfully surprised the Japanese at Kiska Island causing large amounts of damage to shore installations, ships in the harbor, and submarines before withdrawing to safety.

For the next two years, the Indianapolis served in the Pacific supporting the recaptured of Attu Island and the Battles for the Gilbert Islands, Makin, Tarawa, the Marianas, and Saipan. She participated in the fleet attack on Tokyo as a diversion to both landings at Iwo Jima and Okinawa and she also assisted in the assaults on the islands themselves. While at Okinawa, she received damage from a Japanese bomb that pierced her keel in two places, killed nine crewmen, and forced her to return to Mare Island for repairs.

After her refit, the Indianapolis received orders for what would become her most infamous engagement. She departed for Tinian Island carrying parts and Uranium for the atomic bomb on July 26, 1945 just days before the bomb was dropped on Japan. She departed for Guam followed by Leyte, but she never reached her destination. On July 30, two Japanese torpedoes struck her and exploded causing extensive damage that resulted in her sinking within only twelve minutes. Roughly 300 men of her 1200 man crew died in the explosions and subsequent sinking, and the rest relied on the few lifeboats and lifejackets to await rescue. Unfortunately, the Navy remained unaware of the sinking for four days until a pilot spotted the survivors while on a routine patrol and rescued the 321 who had withstood the elements, dehydration, and shark attacks.

In light of the disaster, a court of inquiry and later court martial attempted to explain the lack of communication and place blame, resulting in the court martial of the ship’s captain, Charles Butler McVay III. Though there was evidence of miscommunication, negligence, and lack of support on the part of other naval personnel, and numerous people testified in his defense including the Japanese commander of the submarine that sank them, Captain McVay was charged with “hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag.” His sentence was remitted by Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz and he was restored to active duty, but in 1968, he committed suicide with his navy issue revolver unable to live with the fact that many still believed him to have been guilty in the deaths of his crew.

Yamato – Japanese Battleship

The Yamato was the most heavily armed battleship ever built. Not as long as USS Missouri but wider in her beam, she mounted nine 18” guns in her main battery which could fire a 3,200 pound shell 27 miles. She was 800 feet long, 121 feet wide, drew 36 feet of water and could travel at 27 knots. She was commissioned in 1941 and spent much of the war being repaired from damage caused by American carrier-based dive bombers. The Yamato was sunk during the unsuccessful Japanese attempt to prevent the American landing on Okinawa in 1945 with only 267 of her crew of 2,760 surviving.

German Torpedo Patrol Boat

This model is typical of the type of Torpedo Patrol Boat used by the German Navy. It is similar to the PT Boats used by the U.S. Navy to harass enemy shipping. They were very fast and maneuverable and were armed with torpedoes for attack and machine guns for protection. Referred to as “Schnellboots” or “fast boats,” by the Germans, they were nicknamed “E-Boats” for “Enemy Boats” by the British Navy. Though they quickly found themselves outnumbered and outgunned, torpedo boats were some of the first German vessels to respond to the D-Day invasion of June 1944. By the end of the war, these boats were credited with the direct sinking of over 140 Allied merchant vessels and warships and they laid the mines that destroyed forty-four other ships.

Tirpitz – German Battleship

Commissioned in 1939, this sister ship to the Bismarck was named after Germany’s Admiral of the High Seas Fleet of World War I, Alfred Von Tirpitz. She was 811 feet long and could sail at 30 knots with a compliment of 2,608 officers and men. She had eight 15” guns in her main battery as well as smaller anti-aircraft guns and torpedoes. The Tirpitz spent most of the war in a Norwegian Fjord as a deterrent to British convoys trying to re-supply the Russian port of Murmansk. She was sunk at her mooring by a “skip” bomb dropped from an RAF bomber in November 1944.

USS Crockett, PG-88 – American Gunboat

The USS Crockett was a U.S. Navy gunboat commissioned in June 1967 that saw service in offshore patrols during the Vietnam War. At 245 tons, she was 164 feet long, 23 feet wide, drew 5 feet of water, and could reach 40 knots with twin screws. Crewed by 24 officers and men, she carried one 3” gun forward, one 40 mm cannon, and two twin .50 caliber machine guns.

USS Enterprise, CVN-65 – American Aircraft Carrier

The USS Enterprise, the 8th US ship to bear the name, was the world’s first nuclear powered aircraft carrier. At 73,858 tons, she is 1,123 feet long, 132 feet wide, draws 39 feet of water, and can reach a speed of 33 knots. Crewed by 5,800 officers and men, she could carry 90 F-4 Phantoms. Upon retirement in 2013, the Enterprise will have served continuously for 51 years, longer than any other carrier in the US Navy.

PT Boat

PT Boats, or motor torpedo boats with the hull designation of “PT,” were developed as small, fast patrol boats to counter larger vessels. Weighing roughly 75 tons and able to reach speeds of 35-40 knots, PT boats were less expensive than large warships and could use their speed and size to approach ships without detection. These boats were introduced prior to World War I and continued to be in use throughout the twentieth century.

USS Lexington, CV-2 – American Aircraft Carrier

With a hull originally designed for a battle cruiser, the USS Lexington was converted to an aircraft carrier in 1922 and launched in 1925, but she retained some of the heavy guns planned for the cruiser. Lexington, named for the famous first battle of the American Revolution, was 888 feet long, 105 feet wide, and drew 24 feet of water. Crewed by 2,122 officers and men, she could carry 90 aircraft and sail at 34 knots. After providing aircraft support and blockade patrols in the Pacific during the early part of the war, the “Gray Lady” was sunk by a gasoline explosion caused by two torpedoes and three bombs on May 8, 1942 during the Battle of the Coral Sea.

USS Oakland, CL-95 – American Light Cruiser

The USS Oakland was commissioned in July 1943. At 6,000 tons, she was 541 feet long, 53 feet wide, and drew 26 feet of water. She was crewed by 802 officers and men, could make 32 knots, and was armed with twelve 5” guns, eight 40mm cannon, sixteen 20mm cannon, and torpedoes. Her mission was to provide anti-aircraft protection to fast carrier task forces. She saw extensive action during the last 2 years of the Pacific War and earned nine battle stars for her honorable service.

American Gun Boat

This model is of an American gunboat, typical in size and style to many that served with distinction in the Pacific Theater during the Second World War. Fast and nimble, she could do over 30 knots and was armed with a 3” gun on her foredeck and could also carry additional anti-aircraft armament and depth charges for anti-submarine warfare.

National Geographic Map Cabinet

This cabinet containing eighteen regional, national, and world maps was given to Captain James Sykes of the USS Bennington at the end of World War II. The Bennington was one of ten Essex-class aircraft carriers commissioned during the war years, all of which received similar map cabinets. The presentation of this map cabinet to Capt. Sykes put him in the company of kings, presidents, and even a Pope, all of whom have received specially commissioned map cabinets from National Geographic. They presented their first to President Franklin Roosevelt in 1941 and instituted the tradition after he requested additional copies for fellow war leaders.

Silhouette Training Box

This is a model set used by the U.S. Navy during World War II to teach sailors and naval aviators who might one day be standing watch aboard ship at dawn or dusk to be able to identify Japanese war ships by just their outline on the horizon. Built by the Comet Metal Products Corporation during the war, this 1:500 scale set of Japanese ships was donated to the Houston Maritime Museum by Captain Dale R. Johnston.

Warship Group – Battleships

The ships in this encased group include the USS Montana (Laid down but never completed), the carrier Enterprise, the battleship New Jersey, the old World War I North Carolina and the famous USS Iowa.

Stacked Panorama – Various Types

The models in this display represent many of the ship types that were used by the Allies during the Second World War. In those days, one could tell what a ship was by her name. Battleships were named after states, cruisers after cities, destroyers after naval heroes, carriers after famous battles, and submarines after fish.

Within the case you can see the USS Juneau, sunk at Guadalcanal with the loss of all five Sullivan Brothers from Waterloo, Iowa; four stacker destroyers; early and modern aircraft carriers; and the modern nuclear submarine, the USS Asheville.

USS Maine – American Battleship

The USS Maine was the most powerful American battleship after her commissioning in September 1895. She was 319 feet long, 57 feet wide, drew 22 feet of water, and could reach a speed of 17 knots. Her main battery consisted of four 10” guns and six 6” guns and she carried a crew of 374 officers and men.

The United States, uneasy with Spanish influence in the Caribbean, sent the Maine to Cuba, to “show the flag.” She entered Havana Harbor on January 25, 1898 and while at anchor on February 15, the Maine exploded and sunk with heavy loss of life. The U.S. Government blamed the Spanish and declared war. Years later, divers found evidence that the ship’s sinking was accidental and most likely caused by a coal dust explosion.