Merchant Marines; still fighting for recognition

During World War II, the seamen of the Merchant Marine carried the troops and supplies to battle, at great risk

When the United States officially entered World War II following the attack on Pearl Harbor, military mobilization began across the nation.

Some men who were not medically qualified for military service joined the Merchant Marine, instead of the armed forces. Others found their way to the waterfront through recruiting efforts and posters seeking mariners.

In either case, their service was essential to the war effort. Merchant Marines transported eight-thousand tons of cargo every hour, every day and they found themselves in the cross-hairs of enemy subs and U-boats. Off the coast of North Carolina lies the remains of nearly 100 World War II vessels and is the final resting place for nearly 1,700 men.

The seamen of the U.S. Merchant Marine suffered a higher casualty rate than any branch of service. Some estimates indicate that as many as 9,500 perished, nearly one in 26 mariners. However, there is no definitive casualty count because Merchant Mariners worked for both private companies and government agencies.

There is also no definitive count of vessels lost in the War, either, but numbers range from 990 to 1,600 ships.

“They have delivered the goods when and where needed in every theater of operations and across every ocean in the biggest, the most difficult and dangerous job ever undertaken.” President Franklin D. Roosevelt

After the War, there were no parades for the Mariners, and no hiring preference for jobs, either. In fact, many returned to find their contributions to America’s war effort were held in little regard. They received no government pensions, education or other benefits for their service. They also did not receive “credit” for their service, leaving many of them vulnerable for the Korean War draft a few years later.

Efforts to recognize WWII Merchant Mariners as veterans began immediately after the War, but most initiatives failed. After many legislative attempts, the Veterans Programs Enhancement Act passed in 1988 and extended limited veterans rights to Mariners who served during WWII.

David Alberg

David Alberg

David Alberg, Superintendent of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, appears on Smart Talk, November 11, 2019.

Appearing on Smart Talk on Veterans Day to discuss their experience during and after the War are Merchant Mariners Bill Balabanow and Bill Kelley. Joining them to detail the national efforts to recognize Merchant Mariners are Sheila Sova, advocate with the American Merchant Marine WWII Veterans organization and David Alberg, Superintendent of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Monitor National Marine Sanctuary.

Merchant Mariners Bill Balabanow and Bill Kelley

Justin Kocis

Merchant Mariners Vetarans Bill Balabanow and Bill Kelley, appear on Smart Talk, November 11, 2019.


World War II Posters: Merchant Marine Training or return to sea

Work Projects Administration Poster Collection (Library of Congress)

World War II Posters: Merchant Marine Training or return to sea


I found your November 11 program about the role of the Merchant Marine in World War II very interesting. The first time I recall any public recognition of the Merchant Marine was at a Memorial Day service in Lititz a few years ago. The band played all of the service anthems, and then they played the Merchant Marine anthem. A woman next to me said, “Merchant Marine, what’s that?” I tried to explain to her what it was, but I don’t think it really registered that, during WW II, all of those men, their equipment, their ammunition, and all that was necessary to fight the war was delivered in merchant vessels, and that those mariners were targets for enemy submarines. 

While doing genealogy research on my family, I found that my uncle, George Vial, was a gunner on at least two of those merchant ships. The ship’s manifests for the SS Tusten and William Prescott listed gunner’s mate third class George Vial as one of U.S. Navy Gun Crew assigned to those vessels. I know he was in the North Atlantic and at least one of his ships delivered supplies to Britain. He once told of being in a British port when a German air raid took place. The RAF and the Luftwaffe were fighting it out overhead, and he stood on the deck watching this until pieces of airplanes and spent munitions started falling from the sky. He took cover below deck.

Merchant ships traveled in convoys as a way of protecting themselves from U-Boat attacks. I have read that if one of those ships were torpedoed, the other ships did not stop to pick up survivors lest they become targets too. 

A very interesting book about the Merchant Marine in World War II is The Mathews Men. Mathews Virginia has a tradition of sending men to sea in merchant ships. During the war some of these men survived being torpedoed more than once, and some lost their lives in U-Boat attacks. 

Thank you for bringing this piece of history to light, and for giving these brave seamen long overdue recognition.

Roy Hoglund, Newmanstown, Pa


Heard your program on the Merchant Marines, nicely done.  My father was a career Merchant Marine, after graduating from HS in 1942, failing the army physical because of a broken arm as a kid that never set correctly, he joined the Merchant Marine as an ordinary seaman and retired in the mid/late-1980s as a Captain after a long, successful and interesting career.  It was interesting growing up in Clarion, PA. When you’re a kid (along 3 younger siblings) you really don’t realize your father not being around much was abnormal!  By the way, after all 4 of us were raised, my mother got her seaman’s papers and joined him on a few trips. 

David E Black I President & CEO, Harrisburg Regional Chamber & CREDC


My cousin, Merl Smith, served on the SS Meredith Victory and in December 1950, participated in the greatest military evacuation of civilians under combat conditions in US history.  This rescue of 14,000 Korean refugees has been written about in a book by Bill Gilbert called “Ship of Miracles.”  There is much information about this operation online, including a picture of my cousin and several other crew members.  In 2015, my cousin and other surviving members of the crew were invited to return to South Korea to be honored by the government for their humanitarian and heroic act.  One more astounding fact is that all 14,000 refugees survived standing room conditions without food or water for three days, until the ship could reach Geoje-do Island.  Five babies were born during those three days. It is an amazing and sadly untold story of the Korean War, the forgotten war. Thank you for devoting your program to this often “unsung” branch of our military. 

Elaine Thompson, Palmyra PA


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