Chapter 1

World War II presented the United States Navy and merchant shipping with their greatest test. Of the many well nigh insuperable problems which confronted the United States in the face of German and Japanese aggression, none was more important than that of moving vast numbers of men and vast supplies of material to the battle fronts in a global war. Upon the success or failure of our efforts to move men and goods across the oceans hinged the destiny of the nation. The Chairman of the Maritime Commission is reported as saying that the merchant marine did not win the war, but that without merchant shipping the Allies would have lost the war. We can safely take this line of reasoning a step further and assert that without the Armed Guard the merchant marine would have been lost and the war would have been lost. If the war gave merchant ships their greatest role in history, it also gave the men who defended these ships against enemy submarines and planes a mission of supreme importance. This study describes the defense of merchant ships by men of the United States Navy. It is as thrilling a story of triumph over difficulties, of heroism, devotion to duty, sacrifice, and courage as exists in the annals of the nation.

The history of the Armed Guard logically divides into three broad topics: (1) The Men, (2) The Guns, (3) The Fight. This order of discussion will be followed in this study. This chapter will give a brief description of the machinery for administering the Armed Guard


program and of the larger problems involved in the execution of the program. The second chapter will discuss the selection, training, assignment, and responsibilities of Armed Guards. Chapter III will be devoted to the arming and equipping of merchant ships for defense against surface, submarine, and air attacks. Chapter IV will discuss disarmament. A separate monograph will describe the most important clashes with the enemy. Particular attention will be given to the main theaters of action -- the Murmansk Run, the Mediterranean, and the Philippines. But we shall see that there was action along all the sea lanes, even within sight of our own coasts.

As the Armed Guard program developed to meet the exigencies of total war there were few precedents which could be called up for guidance. It is true that in World War I some 384 merchantmen carried Navy personnel and guns,1 but this program was so small as compared with the arming of 6,236 ships in World War II that it offered little guidance. Then, too, most of the records of World War I were not readily available. For a long time the British had been arming their ships, but the British Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships program was so radically different from the United States program that it could not be followed as a pattern. British Navy personnel formed only a small portion of the gunners and officers [who] were assigned only to the larger transports.


The British depended largely on merchant seamen to man the guns on merchantmen, in view of their comparatively large crews, whereas the United States supplied Navy personnel to man all key positions, with assistance from the merchant crew in passing ammunition, loading, and manning other less important stations. The difference arose in part from the diverse nature of the maritime service in the two countries. In Britain all merchant sailors were registered under the Universal Conscription Act of August, 1940, placed in seamen pools, and paid both afloat and ashore. They were completely under the control of the Ministry of Shipping; they went wherever and whenever they were required to go and were required to take gunnery training while in the pool. When assigned to a gunnery station, British seamen received a shilling a day extra. The Master was in charge of the defense of the ship. In the United States, on the other hand, seamen were paid at the end of each voyage and were on their own until they agreed to sign on for another voyage. Under such a system it was impossible to assign prime responsibility for manning guns to American merchant seamen, for they could not be required to take the training which was essential. The defense of the ship was a responsibility of the Armed Guard Commanding Officer and his Navy Gunners.

It can be safely asserted that the United States did almost nothing to prepare for the arming of merchant ships prior to 15 April 1941 and that this program lacked central direction prior to 31 January 1942, when the Arming Merchant Ships Section was established in the Fleet Maintenance


Division of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. It should be remembered that this country was operating under the Neutrality Act of 1939. Section 6 of this act prohibited the arming of American merchant vessels during the existence of a proclamation of a state of war between foreign states. Yet even before Section 2 of the act of 17 November 1941 (55 Stat. 764) repealed Section 6 of the Neutrality Act there had been a few faltering steps looking toward the ultimate armament of existing American flag and American owned merchant ships. The training of personnel to man the guns began about 15 April and in the coming months plans were developed to degauss merchant ships, to make the 'necessary preliminary installations for ultimate armament, and to install guns when the Neutrality Act was repealed. This preliminary planning was useful, but there appears to have been no concept of the magnitude which the problem would ultimately assume, nor was there any clear cut organization for handling the problem. Too many divisions in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations were mixed up in the problem. Central direction was lacking. We are interested here, therefore, in describing the efficient organization which finally emerged to administer the Armed Guard, rather than in recounting the trials and vicissitudes encountered in the development of that organization.

After 31 January 1942 the central direction, with power to speak with authority, rested with the Arming merchant Ships Section in the Fleet Maintenance Division of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. The authority of this section was almost absolute over the entire program, although it delegated power to make decision in certain matters to other agencies of the Navy. Training of Armed Guard personnel remained


in large part under the cognizance of CominCh until 11 September 1942 when primary interest in training also passed to the Arming Merchant Ships Section.2 Henceforth all matters connected with the Armed Guard except communication questions were within the province of Op-23L, as the Arming Merchant Ships Section was known in the Navy Department.

But Op-23L only gave control direction to the program. A vast number of agencies were involved in its execution. The Bureau of Naval Personnel handled the assignment of personnel to the Armed Guard and had responsibilities with regard to preparing curricula for training, subject to the directives from Naval Operations. The Bureau of Ordnance and the Bureau of Ships supplied the guns and equipment for the Armed Guard, on directives from Operations. The Maritime Commission -- War Shipping Administration, under the direction of the Coordinator for Defense Installations, had the responsibility for the installation of defense items in collaboration with local naval agencies at the yards. The Port Directors were entrusted with the execution of directives from the Chief of Naval Operations (Op-23L) and played a large part in the administration of the entire program. Theirs was the day by day responsibility to see that each ship which left port was properly armed, equipped, and manned


with Armed Guards and to make necessary arrangements for repairs and replenishment of material when ships returned from voyages. Under the port Directors an efficient Armed Guard Inspection Service was developed.

A vast network of training activities prepared the Armed Guards for their duties. There were three basic Armed Guard schools for most of the war. These were located at Little Creek (later moved to Shelton), Virginia; San Diego, California; and Gulfport, Mississippi. Prior to the establishment of the last mentioned school in the fall of 1942, training had been given at an Armed Guard school in Chicago, Illinois. Near each Armed Guard school was an anti-aircraft firing range where the Armed Guards were given actual firing experience. These ranges were located at Dam Neck, Virginia; Shell Beach, Louisiana; and Pacific Beach, California. Firing ships were also employed by the schools to give practical training to Armed Guards. Schools to give refresher training, especially in anti-aircraft gunnery, were established at New York, New Orleans, San Francisco (Treasure Island), and Seattle. Armed Guards at these schools for a day or so of refresher training were given firing practice at antiaircraft ranges at Lido Beach, New York; Shell Beach, Louisiana; Point Montara, California; and Pacific Beach; Washington.

When Armed Guard officers and men had completed Basic Training they were assigned to an Armed Guard Center. There were three of these centers, located at Treasure Island, New York, and New Orleans. From the Centers the men were assigned to ships. But their records, mail, and pay accounts were handled by the Centers. When released from a ship they


returned to the Center for further assignment. The Center administered discipline, furnished recreation and additional training, and attended to the health and personal problems of the Armed Guards. It was their wartime duty station while not attached to a ship. Especial attention was given to the matter of furnishing proper clothing and recreational equipment for use on shipboard.

During the early part of the war there was always a shortage of trained Armed Guards, but this difficulty was rapidly overcome as the schools expanded. More serious was the shortage of proper guns, a deficiency which was not completely overcome until the beginning of 1945. The immediate problems were, therefore, to use what was available wisely and to set machinery in operation to eliminate deficiencies.

Another major problem was the standardization of procedures and training. This task required most of the war to complete. The wise directives of the Arming Merchant Ship Section played the most important part in this process, but the officers at Shelton and at the Armed Guard Gunnery School in New York also played a major part in the development of gunnery doctrine and training devices. The Special Devices Section in BuAer gave valuable help in the development of synthetic training devices and special training films. In no branch of the Naval Service was there greater effort to adjust training and procedures to combat experience and the actual needs of the service. Of great help in this long and complicated quest for standardization were the visits of personnel from various Armed Guard activities to Washington and to other


Armed Guard activities. Without central direction the Armed Guard program would not have failed completely, but it could never have succeeded in the way it did. Perhaps the most amazing thing about the whole program is that it was constantly improving and never became static. The Armed Guards created a healthy respect for themselves not only among Navy and merchant marine personnel but also among Germans and Japanese pilots and submariners. By the latter part of the war merchant ships were able to put up such effective and concentrated gun fire that submarines dared not surface and enemy planes which dared come in for the attack were almost certain to meet with disaster.

Figures for the Armed Guard, substantially complete as this is written (20 August 1946) indicate that some 710 merchant ships of 6,236 armed by the Navy were lost. Armed Guards were aboard most of the 569 United States owned ships lost by enemy action and marine casualties. Armed Guards and communication personnel furnished to defend merchant ships numbered 144,970 officers and men. Of this number, 1,683 lost their lives from enemy action and other causes and 127 were missing, for a total of dead and missing of 1,810. Prisoners o war numbered 27, of which 14 were recovered. Awards and commendations of all types to Armed Guards, not yet completed, numbered 8,033 at the end of 1945. Operation and engagement stars authorized to August, 1946 numbered about 36,240. In addition 9,882 men have been authorized to wear the Philippine Liberation Ribbon and 4,031 have been authorized to wear stars on this ribbon. It should be pointed out that winning an engagement star in the Armed Guard is a difficult task. Some officers and men


who have had ships torpedoed from under them are still not authorized to wear the engagement star. More than 53,000 guns were placed aboard merchant ships during World War II. Armed Guards were furnished to most of the 5,114 United States owned ships and to a few foreign owned or foreign flag ships in special cases.


Table of Contents ** Next Chapter (2)


1. "Sea Lane Vigilantes," All Hands, (Nov., 1945), p. 33.

2. Specifically, Op-23L now performed all functions in regard to armed merchant vessels which had formerly been performed by the Fleet Training Division, the Ship Movements Division, and the Naval Transportation Service. Memo, Op-23 to All Desks, 31 Jan. 1942. For the directive giving Op-23L primary interest in training see CominCh ltr., ser. 3451 11 Sept. 1942.

Transcribed and formatted for HTML by Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation