During World War II, the merchant marines suffered the highest casualty rate (1 in 24) of any of the branches of the military. They often faced danger—particularly from submarines, air attacks, torpedoes, and floating mines—and many mariners were killed (8,000), wounded (11,000), or taken prisoner of war (650); 800 ships were lost.
The U.S. Merchant Marine is a group of civilian-owned merchant ships that serves as an auxiliary of the navy during wartime, transporting soldiers and supplies for the troops. Because merchant mariners are civilians and only considered part of the military during war, they are sometimes looked down on by the armed forces. In fact, despite the mariners important role in World War II, the U.S. government didn’t give them veteran status (or the accompanying benefits) until 1988.
The dangerous situations merchant mariners faced in World War II tested their character and courage, and many proved themselves to be heroes. The following are a few Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal citations from World War II:
Ordinary Seaman on SS Virginia
For heroism beyond the line of duty.
The tanker Virginia, struck by two enemy torpedoes, instantly exploded and the surrounding waters over a wide area were an inferno of burning gasoline. Only fourteen men survived the terrible death trap. Kuzma, though severely burned in the blast, swam through the flame swept water to the assistance of another badly burned seaman who had become exhausted in his heroic attempt to rescue a third shipmate. With complete disregard for his own safety, and in spite of his own injuries, Kuzma succeeded in towing both men out of the flaming area and in supporting them until they were picked up by a rescue craft.
His selfless and heroic deed, exemplifying the creed of the merchant seaman, was in keeping with the finest traditions of the United States Merchant Marine.
Arthur J. Drechsler
Jr. Third Engineer on SS Richard Hovey
For distinguished service beyond the line of duty.
Adrift in a damaged lifeboat under the scorching sun of the Arabian Sea, thirty-nine men faced death as a result of thirst. Their ship, SS Richard Hovey, had been torpedoed by an enemy submarine which had viciously strafed the lifeboat with machine-gun fire wounding some of the survivors and puncturing all but one of the fresh water tanks. With no other tools than an axe, pliers, a screwdriver and a steel punch, Drechsler, utilizing metal brackets from a foot rest, two empty metal food containers, the metal cone from a storm oil bag, and the rubber hose from a lifeboat pump, improvised an ingenious still which produced a ration of eleven ounces of potable water per man throughout the sixteen days before rescue.
His resourcefulness and ingenuity which contributed so largely to the chances of survival for his shipmates will be an inspiration to men of the United States Merchant Marine everywhere.
Bertram E. McDowell (medal awarded posthumously)
Wiper on SS Virginia
For heroism beyond the call of duty.
When the first torpedo hit his ship, the SS Virginia, the platform in the engine room, on which McDowell and the Second Assistant Engineer were standing, buckled and the officer was trapped. Refusing to leave him, McDowell courageously struggled until he had freed his shipmate and dragged him clear. Upon reaching the main deck, he encountered another shipmate who had been injured – gave him his own life jacket – and then, with utter disregard of his own safety, went below for extra clothing for this man. It was while on this mission that the second and third torpedoes hit the ship in quick succession and spread burning gasoline over the ship and on the surrounding water. In assisting this man over the side, McDowell received serious burns which subsequently proved fatal. Even after jumping into the flame-swept water, and despite his injuries, he assisted in holding up another of his injured shipmates.
His heroic actions in risking, and subsequently giving, his own life while assisting three shipmates were in keeping with the finest traditions of the United States Merchant Marine.
Read additional Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal citations, or learn more about the merchant marines during WWII.