The Scuttlebutt | Season 2 Episode 7

This week on the Scuttlebutt, we’re talking all about an oft-forgotten service: the Merchant Marine. We talk to two Merchant Mariners, Sal Mercogliano and Bridget Cooney, about their work. We ask, how do the Merchant Marines differ from the US Marines (turns out—a lot!)? What does their day-to-day on ship look like? And why do we need them. We also go into the history of the Merchant Marine, the Jones Act, and refer to, of course, the Toms Hank movie Captain Phillips. Tune in for this fascinating discussion!


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 (1943) and the astronomically high casualty rates at the hands of German U-boats.

In times of peace, the Merchant Marine—both ships and people—are civilian and (mostly) privately owned and operated. In times of war, however, 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 with Navy guns and sailors at their side. 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 their ships, 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 some Merchant Mariners HATE IT when you say “Merchant Marines.” As, a site dedicated to the Merchant Marine, 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 several other state and private maritime colleges that 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.

And you may be interested to know, before he join the Coast Guard and then the Navy, Popeye was a Merchant Mariner.

Further Reading

Everything About the Merchant Marine

Sal Mercogliano

Jones Act

SS Cynthia Olson

The Way of the Sea by Alex Roland

Fourth Arm of Defense by Sal Mercogliano

Lightning Round Maritime Dictionary