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WWII Merchant Mariners Receive Congressional Gold Medal

merchant marine convoy WWII
10 veterans of the WWII Merchant Marine accept the Congressional Gold Medal on behalf of their shipmates, U.S. Capitol, May 18 (American Merchant Marine Veterans)

Published May 18, 2022 10:41 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Wednesday, 10 veterans of the WWII U.S. Merchant Marine were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. Congress. The veterans received the medal at the U.S. Capitol on behalf of about 1,500 remaining WWII merchant mariners. 

Congress authorized the awards in 2020, acting on legislation sponsored by Rep. John Garamendi and Sen. Lisa Murkowski. However, the social-distancing precautions of the pandemic prevented the awards ceremony from moving forward until this year. 

“The bravery demonstrated by the U.S. merchant mariners to keep Allied forces supplied during World War II is second to none,” said Dru DiMattia, President of the American Merchant Marine Veterans. “In the face of targeted attacks by German submarines and U-boats, the unarmed merchant mariners met the moment with resilience and courage, and serve as an inspiration for all of American maritime.”

WWII merchant mariner Charlie Mills, 102, receives the Congressional Gold Medal (American Merchant Marine Veterans)

243,000 American mariners served during WWII, and 9,521 perished – four percent, a higher fatality rate than that of any U.S. armed services branch during the war. They faced the threat of attack from German U-boats and aircraft, as well as the maritime hazards of the North Atlantic and the Arctic. 

Many served on the transatlantic run from the U.S. East Coast to Britain, providing America's closest ally with billions of dollars in arms, ammunition and aircraft to fend off the threat of a German invasion. Others braved the dangerous Murmansk Run to Soviet Russia, delivering critical supplies for the Red Army in its fight against German invaders. The frigid Arctic route exposed them to the dangers of ice, freezing spray, Nazi U-boats and aircraft attacks. The deliveries of American-made arms to the USSR's Arctic ports helped turn the tide on the Eastern Front - but at great cost. 

Other U.S. merchant mariners ran the longer - but safer - voyage to the Persian Gulf, delivering U.S. supplies to British-controlled ports in Iraq and Iran. From these offloading points, millions of tonnes of American arms were ferried overland through Iran to reach Soviet territory. At the Iranian port of Abadan, U.S. ships delivered roughly 3,800 dissassembled aircraft over the course of the war; these were reassembled on site and flown north to the front by Russian pilots. By bolstering Soviet forces at Stalingrad and other fiercely-contested battlegrounds along the front, this aid helped hasten Nazi Germany's collapse. 

Despite their bravery and their critical contribution to the war effort, these mariners only won the right to formal veteran status in 1988. The Russian government provided them with belated recognition for their assistance in 1992, shortly after the end of the Soviet Union, by awarding medals to 250 survivors of the Murmansk Run in a ceremony in Baltimore.