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Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know about the Merchant Marine But Were Afraid to Ask

On this week’s Scuttlebutt, we talk about the Merchant Marine. Yes, it still exists. No, they aren’t military. And, heck no, don’t ever call them “Merchant Marines”!

Anyone working with veterans quickly learns two things: don’t forget to include the Coast Guard, and don’t forget to include the Merchant Marine, especially when talking about World War II.

Of all the branches of service, the Merchant Marine is the most puzzling. In fact, the very term means several different things at once. First, it defines all the cargo ships “flagged” or registered with the United States for international trade. Then, the term can also refer to the American men and women who work on those ships.

But, for most students of history, “Merchant Marine” evokes memories of a para-military branch of service made famous by Humphrey Bogart in Action in the North Atlantic and the astronomically high casualty rates at the hands of German U-boats.

A US Flag Ship (Wikipedia)

Even though the Merchant Marine—both ships and people—are civilian and even mostly privately owned, operated, and directed, in times of war all merchant seamen can be put into government service on behalf of the Navy, and so can the ships. That’s what happened in World War II when virtually all US cargo ships were commandeered for wartime duty. Seaman served in war zones, and Navy guns and sailors appeared on ships. Almost 4% of the 250,000 merchant mariners of WWII died in service, the highest proportion of any branch, even the Air Corps.

While in service, Merchant Mariners held rank, wore uniforms, saluted, and served under military justice. But, they got paid union wages, could choose the ships the sailed, and could quit any time they wanted. Because of this, Merchant Mariners of WWII were denied veteran’s status until 1988. And they’re still fighting for the full benefits of VA recognition.

Merchant Mariners who served in war zones after 1945—think Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf—are not recognized as veterans, but can apply for limited veterans’ benefits.

Are you confused yet?

And notice how I’m using the term “Merchant Mariners” rather than “Merchant Marines.” That’s because Merchant Mariners HATE IT when you say “Merchant Marines.” As the FAQ page of usmm.org puts it:

What do you call people who are in the Merchant Marine?

Mariners. Seamen. Seafarers. Sailors. Never marines! Mariners is the preferred designation, just like the Seattle professional baseball team. The term Merchant Marines is incorrect.

To make matters more confusing, there’s also a United States Merchant Marine Academy, which is a government run service academy that requires graduates to serve in the military after graduation. Some serve on active duty, others in the Navy Reserve. And there are other maritime academies that also funnel graduates into the military.

The Coast Guard has a lot of authority over the Merchant Marine. The USCG registers ships and overseas training and exams for licensing as officers.

Oh, and our friend Popeye, also was a Merchant Mariner. That is, before he joined the Coast Guard and, later, the Navy.

Learn more on this week’s episode of the Scuttlebutt! 

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