Magazine article Insight on the News
How U.S. Merchant Marine Fared during WWII
Most Americans consider Pearl Harbor Day as commemorating the start of World War II, but for the U.S. Merchant Marine, the war started long before. On Oct. 9, 1939, a U.S. ship was commandeered in the mid-Atlantic by the German pocket battleship Deutschland.
The unarmed SS City of Flint, clearly marked as neutral, was carrying general cargo from New York to Great Britain when, with the Deutschland's guns trained on her, she was ordered to stop. The Nazis decided lubricating oil in her holds was "contraband" and put on a "prize crew" which took the ship via a circuitous route to Norway. Norwegian commandos eventually freed the ship and crew. Within two weeks, the United States ordered many ships reflagged to support our allies while skirting neutrality laws.
The first U.S. ship sunk during WWII was the SS City of Rayville which struck a German-laid mine off Australia on Nov. 9, 1940, killing one mariner.
The toll of men and ships continued with attacks on the SS Charles Pratt, Robin Moor, Steel Seafarer, I.C. White, Lehigh, Astral and Sagadahoc. Americans saw dramatic photographs of the Lehigh's sinking taken by her crew in Life magazine.
On Dec. 7, 1941, the SS Cynthia Olson, chartered to the U.S. Army Transport Service, was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. Her crew of 33 merchant marines and two Army men went down with the ship.
The SS President Harrison, which just had evacuated a contingent of U.S. Marines from Shanghai, China, to Manila, was ordered by the U.S. Navy to evacuate Marines from Beijing. On Dec. 7, 1941, a Japanese cruiser trapped the President Harrison at the mouth of the Yangtze River below Shanghai. The captain ran the ship aground at full speed. Her crew of 167 was among the first of 604 mariners held as prisoners of war.
The merchant marine suffered its own "Pearl Harbor" at Bari, Italy, on Dec. 2,1943. A German air attack sank 17 Allied merchant ships in the harbor with a loss of more than 1,000 lives. The SS John Harvey, which carried a secret cargo of 100 tons of mustard-gas bombs, was one of five U.S. ships destroyed that day. Many mariners, Navy personnel and civilians died from the effects of poison gas. …