Update March 13, 2020 – President Trump today signed into law the “Merchant Mariners of World War II Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2020,” a bill to award the Congressional gold medal to American Merchant Mariners of WWII.
By Salvatore R. Mercogliano, Ph.D. – The outbreak of the Second World War on the high seas was marked by the sinking of the British passenger liner SS Athenia on September 3, 1939. As passengers scrambled into lifeboats, the American freighter SS City of Flint, built at the Hog Island shipyard during the First World War, arrived on scene and rescued more than 200 survivors. The following month, while carrying cargo for Britain, the German pocket battleship Deutschland stopped and seized the vessel. The Germans sailed her to the neutral port of Murmansk for internment. City of Flint was eventually released, but the ship met its fate at the hands of the Nazi submarine U-575 on January 23, 1943. Out of a complement of 65, six died and one crewmember – Chief Cook Robert Daigle – was picked up by the submarine and spent the rest of the conflict as a prisoner of war.
On March 3, Congress passed the “Merchant Mariners of World War II Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2020.” Sponsored by Congressman John Garamendi (D-CA) and Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), the bipartisan legislation will award a Congressional Gold Medal to those surviving members of the American merchant marine who served during World War II. This civilian organization was the vital link between the industrial capacity of the United States – known as the Arsenal of Democracy – and the war fronts in Africa, Asia, and Europe, separated by contested seas.
The Axis military inflicted horrific losses on these civilians. As early as December 7, 1941, a vanguard of Japanese submarines took up position off Hawaii and the American west coast. The Army-chartered freighter SS Cynthia Olsen encountered I-26 early in the morning as Japanese aircraft attacked Pearl Harbor. After being stopped, the submarine sank the vessel with gunfire and a torpedo. The entire crew of thirty-three, and two embarked Army soldiers, were lost. In the Far East, the liner SS President Harrison attempted to allude the Japanese as she sailed from Shanghai. She was eventually run aground off the coast of China and three of her crew died, while the remaining 164 went into prisoners of war camps were another dozen later perished.
The following month, German U-boats made their arrival felt off the U.S. East Coast, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean in what they referred to as the Happy Time. For the members of the merchant marine, sailing without proper protection and escort, it was a Second Pearl Harbor. Later that summer, vessels and crews of the American merchant marine would face their most difficult struggles in attempting to fight Convoy PQ-17 to Murmansk, and resupply the beleaguered island of Malta, in epic battles.
The end of the Second World War proved bittersweet for the over 200,000 mariners that sailed for the American merchant marine. Although President Franklin Roosevelt promised them equal treatment as other service members, they were denied the benefits of the G.I. Bill or veteran status. For those who lost their ship or were interned in enemy camps as happened to Robert Daigle, as they were no longer working on board their vessels, the companies stopped paying them from the moment their ships were lost.
It was not until 1988 that merchant mariners received veteran status, but many failed to take advantage of the benefits. With the Greatest Generation slowly fading away, the American Merchant Marine Veterans led the effort to pass the “Merchant Marine of World War II Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2020.” They lobbied members of Congress and staged numerous Storm the Hill efforts to earn support for the bill.
The greatest tragedy that can befall the merchant marine veterans of the Second World War is for their service to be forgotten. Ships of the U.S. merchant marine were instrumental in sustaining the fight for our military and allies. Liberty ships, such as SS Jeremiah O’Brien were off the beaches of Normandy. As American forces stormed Okinawa, on the doorsteps of Japan, Victory-ships were loaded with ammunition and surged to the front lines where they faced kamikaze attacks, resulting in the loss of Hobbs, Logan, and Canada Victory and the death of 24 mariners and 6 armed guardsmen.
As President Donald Trump prepares to sign H.R. 5671 into law, and as the few remaining veterans gather from March 24-29 at the Maritime Conference Center in Linthicum Heights, Maryland for the AMMV 34th National Convention, it is appropriate that the nation give the recognition to these brave mariners for whom victory in World War Two was essential. A Congressional Gold Medal is a symbol of those mariners who braved the seas to deliver the cargo, troops, and fuel needed for eventual victory against the Axis powers 75 years ago.
Salvatore R. Mercogliano is an associate professor of History at Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina and teaches courses in World Maritime History and Maritime Security.