Merchant Mariners

Seamen in the Merchant Marine came from all corners of American society. Recruiting standards differed from those of the armed forces, so thousands of men excluded by the military served their country aboard merchant ships. They ranged in age from 16 to 78. Some men had weak hearts, poor vision, or other disabilities, but their service was essential to the war effort. The Merchant Marine was more racially integrated than any of the branches of the service.

Young men trained as ships’ officers at the U.S. Merchant Marine Cadet Corps, established in 1938 at the Merchant Marine Academy in King’s Point, New York. By the end of the war, 6,000 new officers had been trained.



Loading a Liberty

Merchant mariners load war vehicles into the hold of a cargo ship in New York Harbor, September 1944.

Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

Free Time on a Liberty

Like other sailors in downtime at sea, Liberty ship crews played cards, read, and tried to distract themselves from the intensity of wartime service. The crews included members of the Armed Guard of the U.S. Navy, shown here in navy uniforms, who manned the guns aboard ship.

Courtesy of the U.S. Maritime Commission

All we cared is that you did your work.
—Bill Bailey, Engine Department, USMS


It’s the old timers who made seamen out of them.
—Pete Goodman, Engine Department, USMS


Liberty cargo vessel (type EC2-S-C1)

Gift of the U.S. Maritime Commission

Liberty Ship

Liberty ships were as crucial to the Allied war effort during World War II as any tank or fighter plane. Nearly everything the Allies needed to fight in Europe and the Pacific arrived in ships—tanks, locomotives, tractors, tires, ball bearings, ammunition, fuel, food, and cigarettes, to name only a few. Naval vessels were first in line for new steam turbine engines, so Liberty ships were built with tried-and-true reciprocating steam engines—reliable but slow.

By the end of the war, 2,600 Liberty ships had entered service.

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Victory cargo vessel (type VC2-S-AP)

Gift of the U.S. Maritime Commission

Victory Ship

Faster freighters had a better chance of surviving a transoceanic crossing in hostile waters. As steam turbine engines became available later in the war, a few shipyards began building more powerful cargo vessels—called Victory ships. American shipyards built about 550 by the end of 1945. After the war, their greater speed made them more valuable as commercial freighters.

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