Remembering the U.S. Merchant Marine's Sacrifice in a Time of Crisis

Merchant convoy off Newfoundland, July 1942 (USN file image)

Published Apr 6, 2020 7:28 PM by Burt Shearer

As our nation contends with the coronavirus pandemic, parallels have been drawn to the civilian response to WWII. I was struck then, as I am now, how resilient Americans are and how many ordinary folks are willing to risk their lives to meet critical needs. It’s an eerie coincidence that ceremonies to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII—and honor the selflessness of millions of Americans who answered the call to duty so long ago—are now being postponed.

I was one of those – in high school at the time – who answered the call, but I didn’t serve in the army, navy or marine corps. I was part of a far lesser-known group that didn’t storm beaches, parachute in behind enemy lines or fly bombers over Tokyo.

What I did was statistically more dangerous. One in 26 of my band of brothers, though civilians, died in the line of duty, a greater percentage of war-related deaths than any branch of military service. We were in the U.S. Merchant Marine.

It has been said there was never a parade for the Merchant Marine, butearlier this month President Trump signed bipartisan legislation establishing the World War II Congressional Gold Medal to recognize the contributions of merchant mariners who did a job few were willing to take on. 

History has overlooked us because our service defies easy description. We didn’t have a traditional chain of command. Many of us were too old to serve in the army or navy. And, though we’ve been around since the Revolutionary War, nobody makes movies about logistics—or stops us at a mall to thank us for our service.

But every WWII general, from Eisenhower to Patton to MacArthur, knew we had no chance to beat the Germans or Japanese without the greatest merchant fleet on the seas.

We commanded and crewed the ships that brought the war to the most lethal enemy America has ever faced. We literally kept American forces armed, clothed and fed for the entire war by executing the greatest sealift in human history. We moved everything – tanks, troops, supplies, fuel – making us the number one target of Nazi U-boats.

What teenager really knows what they want to do, but, in 1944, my path led to the newly-created U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) in Kings Point, New York. After graduation, I served as a deck officer on a merchant ship and made several crossings across the ocean delivering vital supplies to hot spots like Guadalcanal.

Thanks to Navy escorts, we were less vulnerable to German submarine attacks, but at the beginning of the war, unaccompanied merchant ships were stalked relentlessly. We were sitting ducks, and hundreds died terrible deaths as a result. We not only feared what lurked beneath, we had to constantly look to the skies. My cousin was killed on a merchant ship outside the Philippines by a Japanese kamikaze plane. Even if a mariner survived a torpedo or kamikaze, he often found himself treading water in gale force winds while dodging fires, sharks and enemy strafing from above.

The toll on the Merchant Marine was devastating. More than 8,300 of my fellow mariners were killed at sea during WWII. Another 12,000 were wounded and 1,100 of these died of their wounds.  Six hundred sixty-three were taken prisoner. More than 1,500 ships were sunk by mines, torpedoes and bombs, including 733 of the largest vessels. Countless others were damaged.

I was lucky. During my time at sea, which began as the war neared its end, it turned out that my biggest risk was the ocean version of a multi-car pile-up. Our convoys were so tight, we often collided with other U.S. ships. I served in the Korean War and went on to spend a career in commercial shipping.

Part of me is still disheartened that the merchant mariners, who served so valiantly with such great loss of life, were forgotten after the war ended in 1945. We weren’t eligible for the G.I. Bill and not considered veterans by Uncle Sam until the 1980s.

Today, we have a professional class of merchant mariners, many of whom trained at USMMA where all graduates commit to serve the nation in times of war. I pray these young men and women never see the horrors of war, but it is good to know they are ready to serve when called.

I am 96 years old and am proud of my service in both wars. I am thankful I survived when so many of my brother mariners were sent to watery graves.

To our President, to our Democrats and Republicans in Congress, thank you for honoring us. There aren’t too many of us left, but please know we are so moved that, after 75 long years, the nation remembers. 

Burt Shearer is a 1944 graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and lives on Mercer Island, Washington. 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.