U.S. Navy Armed Guard (1942-45) Gunners to Protect Merchant Ships
Of the many challenges facing the United States confronting Axis forces in a global war after it entered World War II in late-1941 none was more daunting than moving troops, weapons, equipment and supplies across the world’s oceans to the fighting fronts. Although this monumental effort in power projection would be spearheaded by U.S. Navy battle fleets, the massive logistical burden would have to be borne by thousands of civilian merchant ships – troop transports, cargo vessels and oil tankers. Yet, unlike the Navy’s warships, merchant ships were normally not armed with naval guns or anti-aircraft weapons. Therefore, since these merchant ships would be sailing into harm’s way in the ocean’s combat zones, the U.S. Navy Armed Guard was created to provide the ships with some protection against enemy attack, particularly to defend them from enemy submarines and warplanes.
From 1942 until the end of World War II in 1945, U.S. Navy Armed Guard gun crews were placed aboard 6,236 merchant ships sailing in all of the world’s oceans. Armed Guard training schools, concentrating on teaching the sailors gunnery skills, were established at Chicago, San Diego, Gulfport, Mississippi and Little Creek/Shelton, Virginia. By the end of the war, nearly 145,000 U.S. Navy sailors had passed through the schools and had served as gunners on merchant ships.
Typically, an Armed Guard crew on each merchant ship consisted of about 28 U.S. Navy personnel: an officer in charge; 24 gunners manning naval guns and anti-aircraft weapons; and three communications specialists. The weapons they manned on each ship were usually: one 5-inch/38 naval deck gun; one 3-inch/50 anti-aircraft gun; and eight 20mm anti-aircraft guns. By the end of the war, the U.S. Navy Armed Guard had placed over 53,000 naval guns and anti-aircraft guns along with their crews on merchant ships.
Most of the Armed Guard sailors were volunteers since the U.S. Navy considered it a “hazardous duty” assignment. In fact, this is borne out by their casualty figures (almost 1,700 killed in action, 127 missing in action from sunken ships, and 27 captured – of which 14 survived the war) and the recognition of Armed Guard personnel heroism that garnered five Navy Crosses, 75 Silver Stars and 54 Bronze Stars.
UNIT: U.S. Navy Armed Guard
STRENGTH: 144,970 total served
CASUALTIES: 1,683 KIA; 127 MIA; 27 POW
SERVICE: Gun crews on 6,236 merchant ships in all naval theaters of war
TYPICAL CREW: 1 officer, 24 gunners and 3 communications specialists per ship
TYPICAL WEAPONS: one 5-inch/38 naval deck gun, one 3-inch/50 anti-aircraft gun and eight 20mm machine guns per ship.
FILM: Action in the North Atlantic (1943)
BOOKS: Gunners Get Glory by Lieutenant Robert B. Berry (Dobbs-Merrill, 1943); We Delivered: The U.S. Navy Armed Guard in World War II by Lyle E. Dupra (Sunflower University Press, 1997); Bluejacket Odyssey, 1942-1946: Guadalcanal to Bikini, Naval Armed Guard in the Pacific by William L. McGee (BMC Publications, 2000); Unsung Sailors: The Naval Armed Guard in World War II by Justin F. Gleichauf (Naval Institute Press, 2002); No Surrender: True Stories of the U.S. Navy Armed Guard in World War II by Gerald Reminick (Glencannon Press, 2004)
Jerry D. Morelock, PhD, Editor at Large, World History Group/HISTORYNET.COM