The Merchant Marine played a key but under-appreciated role in winning World War II (and other wars). That role was finally recognized this week, 77 years after the end of the war and with precious few Merchant Mariners on hand.
More than 8,600 Mariners gave their lives in World War II, the highest per capita casualty rate (one out of 26) during the war. But the Merchant Marine is not a branch of the military and Mariners did not receive status as veterans until 1988. It wasn’t until 2020 when Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed the World War II Congressional Gold Medal Act to recognize the Mariners’ contribution.
As Captain James Tobin, president of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Alumni Association and Foundation, wrote two years ago when the medal was approved, “Most Americans, especially today, are understandably unfamiliar with the work of the Merchant Marine, which is made up of commercial vessels crewed by merchant mariners. In times of war, however, America’s merchant fleet and its mariners become what President Franklin D. Roosevelt called ‘the Fourth Arm of Defense,’ delivering troops, supplies and equipment.”
Indeed, members of our Armed Forces fighting in World War II certainly recognized the Mariners’ value.
“They have brought us our lifeblood,” General Douglas McArthur said, “and they have paid for it with some of their own.”
General Dwight D. Eisenhower noted, “When final victory is ours there is no organization that will share its credit more deservedly than the Merchant Marine.” Nearly eight decades later, some recognition has finally come.