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Merchant Marines a valuable resource for military in World War II

| Wednesday, April 24, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
Mike Kemple of the Mon Valley Chapter of the American Merchant Marine Veterans displays a Merchant Marine wreath made by local Girl Scouts in 2011.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
Merchant Marines and other veterans salute the flag during McKeesport Area High School's band performance of the national anthem during the 2008 commemoration of the SS McKeesport's final voyage.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
During the 2011 ceremony, Merchant Marines Mon Valley Chapter president Gerard Driscoll and Paul Baran of the Naval Armed Guard carry a memorial wreath to the SS McKeesport monument at the Marina at McKees Point.

During times of peace and war, the resource-transporting Merchant Marine is a valuable asset to the American Armed Forces.

Carrying imports and exports during times of peace or troops and war materials during times of conflict, the Merchant Marine fleet grew from its Revolutionary War foundation to a vital asset in World War II with continued service in Korea and Vietnam.

The Merchant Marine Act of 1936 declared the United States shall have a Maritime Service branch to “serve as a Naval or military auxiliary in time of war or national emergency ... and should be operated by highly trained and efficient citizens.” It called for the Navy and Merchant Marine to work in harmony to “promote the maximum integration of the total seapower forces of the United States.”

Under provisions of the 1936 act, the U.S. Maritime Service officially was established in 1938, charged to train officers and staff for a qualified Merchant Marine.

Often referred to as the forgotten service, Merchant Marine enlistees were recruited along with men serving in the Navy and Coast Guard, but many believe the American public doesn't know enough about the Merchant Marine role. The group suffered a death rate of one in every 23 seamen, higher than any other branch of the armed services, but was nevertheless denied veteran status for years by the federal government. In 1988, they were granted combat veteran status but former Merchant Marines have yet to receive financial benefits available to members of the other services, despite efforts in Congress to establish a Merchant Marine Equity Compensation Fund.

During World War II, the Maritime Service recruited more than 250,000 untrained personnel and transformed them into fighting seamen, who could operate anti-aircraft weapons. They also learned navigation techniques along with ship maintenance and operation in the face of underwater attacks from German and Japanese submarines.

According to the American Merchant Marine at War website and historic database, Mariners transported supplies and troops in the largest fleet of freighters, tankers and transports in history to bases around the globe for U.S. and Allied forces. Military personnel on the front lines depended on the Merchant Marine for everything from bombs and ammunition to vehicles, food and medicine.

As evidenced by ships such as the SS McKeesport, which was attacked by a German U-boat on April 29, 1943, Merchant Marine ships were on the frontline immediately upon starting a mission. Whether under direct attack or subject to planted explosives, ships were in danger along the Atlantic coast.

“We were young and it was an adventure,” Ed Peterson of Elizabeth Township recalled during a 2011 picnic of the Mon Valley Chapter of the U.S. Merchant Marine Veterans. “There were dangers on the high seas but there were also good times.”

In 1942, Franklin Delano Roosevelt praised those “who are so gallantly working and fighting side by side with our Army and Navy” in time for the dedication of a New York Maritime Service training station. The president composed a message to more than 10,000 servicemen and guests that spoke on behalf of the entire nation in its gratitude to the Merchant Marine.

In the 1950s, the duties of the Maritime Commission were divided between the federal Maritime Board for ship operation and the Maritime Administration for program distribution. In the 1980s, Martime duties were overseen by the Department of Transportation.

Merchant Marine work continues into this millennium, with a 2001 act that allowed for new ship construction by 2011. Merchant Marine ships also provided equipment and combat support in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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