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World War II U.S. Navy Armed Guard
World War II U.S. Merchant Marine

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© 2009-2014 Dale E. Carlson

The U.S. Navy Armed Guard

The U.S. Navy Armed Guard was a service branch of the United States Navy that was responsible for defending U.S. and Allied merchant ships from attack by enemy aircraft, submarines and surface ships during World War II.

The men of the Armed Guard served as gunners, signal men and radio operators on cargo ships, tankers, troop ships and other merchant vessels. Disbanded following the end of the war, the Armed Guard is today little known or remembered by the general public, or even within the Navy. But without the courage and sacrifice of the men of the Armed Guard, victory in World War II would have been much more difficult and taken much longer.


The origins of the U.S. Navy Armed Guard date to World War I, during which some 384 U.S. merchant vessels carried guns and Navy personnel. This earlier version of the Armed Guard was disbanded following World War I and its modest scope hardly resembled that of the Armed Guard of World War II.

The Numbers

A total of 144,970 enlisted men and officers served in the U.S. Navy Armed Guard during World War II. They sailed on 6,236 merchant ships (including Allied vessels), of which more than 700 ships were sunk and many more were damaged. Armed Guard casualties numbered at least 1,810 killed or missing in action and many more wounded, a casualty rate that grimly rivals the casualty rate of any of the Armed Forces during World War II. Some sources place casualty totals even higher.


A vast network of training activities prepared Armed Guard sailors for their duties. There were three basic training Armed Guard Schools for most of the war. They were located at Little Creek (later moved to Shelton) Virginia; San Diego, California; and Gulfport, Mississippi. Prior to the establishment of the Gulfport facility in the fall of 1942, training had taken place at an Armed Guard school in Chicago, Illinois. This school was closed because winter conditions on the Great Lakes were not suited to year-round training. Near each Armed Guard School was an anti-aircraft firing range where Armed Guard sailors were given actual firing experience. These ranges were located at Dam Neck, Virginia; Shell Beach, Louisiana; and Pacific Beach, California. Schools for refresher training, especially in anti-aircraft gunnery, were established at New York, New Orleans, San Francisco (Treasure Island) and Seattle. Armed Guards attending these schools for refresher training were given firing practice at anti-aircraft ranges at Lido Beach, New York; Shell Beach, Louisiana; Point Montara, California; and Pacific Beach, Washington.

Armed Guard Centers

When officers and enlisted men completed their basic training they were assigned to one of three Armed Guard Centers. These were located in Brooklyn (for assignments to ships sailing in the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea), New Orleans (for Gulf of Mexico assignments), and Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay (for Pacific Ocean assignments). The Centers were the wartime duty stations of Armed Guard personnel when they were not at sea. The Centers handled records, mail and pay accounts, administered discipline, furnished recreation and additional training, and provided health care for Armed Guard personnel.

Wartime Assignments

The typical Armed Guard complement for a merchant ship was 24 gunners and one officer (generally an ensign, lieutenant junior grade or lieutenant), plus as many as three communication personnel for a total of 28 men. Ships carrying troops had larger Armed Guard detachments to man the increased numbers of guns installed on such vessels. In the early days of the war, however, many ships went out with less than the armament desired and with smaller Armed Guard crews; some Armed Guard crews were commanded by noncommissioned officers. Shortages in officers, men and armament were met by rapid increases in training and in installation of additional and newer guns. Not until early 1945 was the shortage in guns entirely overcome. But the Navy made every effort to give every merchant ship the best possible protection.

Late in the war, many experienced Armed Guard sailors were reassigned from duty aboard merchant vessels to serve as gunners on warships of the U.S. fleet, where their training and experience made them particularly valuable. With the end of World War II the Navy Armed Guard, like other military units, was rapidly drawn down in size as men were discharged from service. Small numbers of Armed Guard personnel were kept aboard merchant vessels to maintain the guns until the weapons were removed from the ships and returned to the Navy. The disarming of merchant ships continued into 1946.

Gunner Radioman Boatswain Signalman Pharmacist

More about the Brooklyn Armed Guard Center

Armed Guard Center, Brooklyn, New York

Booklet from the Brooklyn Armed Guard Center

Armed Guard Center, Brooklyn, New York, mobile training unit

Armed Guard Center, Brooklyn, New York; photographs from site of former Armed Guard Center

Armed Guard Center, Brooklyn, New York; photographs from site of former Armed Guard Center

Armed Guard Center, Brooklyn, New York; photographs from site of former Armed Guard Center

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