Photos: New Orleans Honors Merchant Marine

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By MarEx 2015-12-09 16:44:34

On December 12, the Ralph E. Crump, LTJG, USNR, U.S. Merchant Marine Gallery will open at The National WWII Museum in New Orleans. This stand-alone 940-square-foot gallery, situated at the end of the new American Spirit Bridge, honors the civilian merchant mariners who risked their lives transporting weapons, men and matériel to U.S. troops overseas.  

Through video, artifacts, a model of a Liberty ship, and an engaging array of personal narratives, this exhibit tells their story - including impressive logistical feats, tales of constant danger (and higher casualty rate than any U.S. branch of service), and the role of this hardworking group in transporting 7.3 million American soldiers to support the epic battle fought across the oceans and continents of the world. 

Though less well known than other WWII participants, the U.S. Merchant Marine played a critical role by transporting lend-lease goods to support the Allies, and then men and materiél to support American forces abroad. Without the Merchant Marine carrying supplies, weapons and troops from the United States and the “Arsenal of Democracy,” there could have been no Normandy, no Saipan, and no probability of having our allies, Great Britain and the Soviet Union, in the war. 

The Merchant Marine was active in every theater of the war. Mariners crisscrossing the world’s oceans faced extreme weather conditions, the constant threat of attack and the knowledge that any voyage they set out on could be their last.  

As merchant mariners transported 268,252,000 long tons of cargo during the course of the war, each route they sailed had its own set of unique challenges. The Atlantic routes faced attacks from German “wolf packs” (groups of submarines attacking a convoy), which would overwhelm escorts protecting the convoy and sink as many merchant ships as they could. The “Murmansk Run” to Russia was the shortest and most direct route for ships carrying supplies to reach the Soviets, but ships sailing the route suffered against bitter cold and almost constant German air, sea and surface attacks. 

The Pacific mariners did not face large packs of Japanese submarines, but the danger was just as acute as in Europe: the Japanese, when they did sink merchant ships, would treat captured mariners brutally and many mariners did not survive being captured. Later in the war, Japanese kamikaze attacks were an added threat to merchant ships.  

When the United States entered the war, American industry was already in the midst of a shipbuilding program to bolster merchant shipping. However, the number of ships being produced was being surpassed by the number of ships lost to enemy attacks. Through ingenious shipbuilding innovations, American shipyards began to accelerate production of the famous Liberty ship. Using prefabricated sections and using welding instead of riveting, Liberty ships could be built quickly and inexpensively. By applying assembly-line techniques, American industry was able to build 2,710 Liberty ships.  

While merchant mariners were essential to the Allied war effort, their official status was a point of controversy both during and following the war. Wishing to maintain their labor union rights, mariners resisted being taken over by the U.S. Navy. As a result, the mariners who faced combat and other dangers across every theater of the war were long denied veteran benefits. Although WWII mariners were ultimately granted veteran status in 1988, the issue remains a sensitive one even today.

GALLERY HIGHLIGHTS

Video Wall 

Looping video on a wall of monitors gives an overview of the role of the Merchant Marine in World War II, an engagement that for merchant mariners began before the United States entered the war, delivering war materials overseas beginning in 1939, expanding with Lend-Lease deliveries to Britain beginning in 1941 and then throughout the war. The video will touch on the global nature of their task, the centrality of their role in the Arsenal of Democracy, the severe range of environmental challenges they faced, the Battle of the Atlantic, supplying the 1944 Allied surge and the daily risks they faced to the end of the war.

Digital Liberty Ship Diagram

An explodable 3-D diagram of the Merchant Marines’ signature Liberty Ship allows virtual access to the ship, including various decks and compartments to explore by touch screen. Also included are key facts and figures such as number produced, cost, dimensions, armament, cargo capacity and more. The entire diagram can be tagged and added to a visitor’s personal collection and access from home.

Narrated Video: Convoys

Using embedded animation to illustrate movement and strategy, this two-minute video describes how and why convoys were used, and why they were an effective strategy for winning the Battle of the Atlantic. 

Liberty Ship Model

A detailed scale model of a Liberty ship gives visitors an up-close look at the craft that merchant mariners use to transport cargo around the world. The ship represented, the Robert E. Perry, was one of thousands of ships designed in the Emergency Cargo Vessel (EC2) design that was approved by the U.S. Maritime Commission. The standardization of design meant increased efficiency in the cost and speed of building, essential for a fleet that was at many points being destroyed faster than it could be built.