SEA LANE VIGILANTES Armed Guard on Merchantmen Played Vital Role In Delivering Goods for War Around the Globe IN the log of World War II is an early entry that reads like this: The United States became the arsenal of democracy producing for liberty- loving nations the goods essential to the successful prosecution of the war against agression. Today you can add: Goods delivered in time. And one great reason why the goods were delivered is the Armed Guard, the Merchant Marine's bodyguard that, in the days before adequate escort ships and planes, stood as virtually the lone defense of our supply lines through successive U-boat forays. Ranging north and south, east and west, to remote "whistle stops" of the world unknown even to ubiquitous Navy ships, the men of the Armed Guard went to work at a time when no insurance man would have wagered much on their life expectancy. They started as a small band, with scanty training. But by the end of the fighting they constituted one of the largest and most specialized outfits in the service. They put to sea in ancient ships armed with ancient guns. And they battled the U-boat when it was its deadliest, when it was making the eastern seaboard a graveyard of blasted hulks. "You can tell them all that we are going to sea again. They can't stop us with a couple of torpedoes .... " They fought back against submarines, contemptuously striking on the surface. And they fought back with .30- and .50-caliber machine guns and 4" and 5" guns which were too obsolete for warships. They sailed when they knew that long black shadows were waiting be- neath the waters outside of New York harbor and Lynnhaven Roads and even in the estuary of the Mississippi River. But they sailed. And when they died they died as seamen--on a rusty old freigh,er which a torpedo smashed and jarred apart, or a tanker which burst into a cascade of flames--in a chaos of their wrecked ships or in the oil-covered waters. They starved to death or died of thirst in the tropics or froze to death on life rafts in the Arctic Ocean. The loss of ships and cargo they carried was deplored throughout the nation, but the men died in obscurity and loneliness. But--the guns improved, and the crews grew in size. Soon the subs would not come to the surface any more. Life expectancy in the Armed Guard was on the increase. "We may not be the fanciest outfit in the world--but show me another gang of salesmen, farmers, newspapermen, teachers, and lawyers that have knocked off as many U-boats and planes . . ." The scope of their travels was on the increase. U-boats became but one among many predatory dogs of war. There was the Luftwaffe in the Medi- terranean and the Luftwaffe along the gale-swept trail to Murmansk. Out in the Indian Ocean, the Pacific, and the Bay of Bengal there were Jap planes, also Jap raiders and cruisers in addition to Jap subs. In September of 1942 the Armed Guard of the ss Stephen Hopkins, a Liberty ship, in an heroic and epic 20-minute battle sank with her 4-inch and 37-mm. gun one German armed raider and probably damaged another. The action took place in the South Atlantic between Capetown and Rio de Janeiro.
The Hopkins was herself quickly riddled by the superior fire power of the raider, but the crew stuck to the guns until ammunition was exhausted and the magazine was finally hit and exploded. The Armed Guard officer, Ens. Kenneth M. Wi]lett, who kept firing though wounded, and was last seen trying to launch life rafts, was awarded the Navy Cross. Five of his crew survived, these after a 31-day voyage in an open boat to Brazil. Casualty rates varied throughout the war. For weeks at a time the survivors section of the Armed Guard Center, Brooklyn, would have no business at all. But after a long lull, the survivors this past winter and spring began again to stream home in a manner tragically reminiscent of early '42.
1,810 Casualties Through 30 June of this year 1,810 officers and men of the Armed Guard were reported killed or missing, and 41 were or had been prisoners of war. This very high incidence can be better appreciated when it is understood that the average unit was 25 men, and in almost all sinkings more survived than were lost. On the asset side it wasn't so long after Armed Guard got in full swing that more and more merchant ships were returning to port with swastikas and rising suns painted on the gun tubs and funnels. And the crews were being awarded and commended for acts of heroism. By 30 June, 7,728 awards, from the Navy Cross to service record entries had been conferred, and 24,273 personnel were authorized to wear operation and engagement stars. With the posthumous award of the Navy Cross to Ens. Kay Vesole, of Davenport, Iowa, was this citation: "For extraordinary heroism as com- manding officer of the U. S. Armed Guard aboard the ss John Bascom when that vessel was bombed and sunk in the harbor of Bari, Italy, on the night of Dee. 2 1943. Weakened by loss of blood from an extensive wound over his heart and with his right arm helpless Ens. Vesole valiantly remained in action calmly proceeding from gun to gun directing his crew and giving aid and encouragement to the injured. With the John Bascom fiercely ablaze and sinking, he conducted a party of his men below decks and supervised the evacuation of wounded comrades to the only undamaged lifeboat, persistently manning an oar with his uninjured arm . . . They saw hundreds of thousands of troops safely overseas by manning the guns both on Army and War Shipping transports. They saved many transports and untold numbers of lives of soldiers by fighting off planes, submarines, and E-boats. Particularly vital was the service they rendered in this respect during the great invasions of the war. They manned the guns not only on American ships, but also on ships flying the Belgian, Brazilian, Chinese, Dutch, Greek, Italian, Latvian, Norwegian, Panamanian, and Polish flags. They tasted a shipboard bill of fare which ranged from bird's nest soup to ravioli. On 4,000 Vessels As of the end of this June more than 4,000 vessels were in service with Armed Guard aboard, and 6,200 had been armed during the war. And--144,857 personnel had been assigned to Armed Guard duty by the end of June. Actual arming of merchant ships started 18 Nov 1941, the day the President signed the repeal of the Neutrality Act, although preliminary organizational steps had been initiated during the summer. A modest pattern for Armed Guard had been set in the last war when 384 merchant vessels carried a Navy complement and guns. The first such ship to be armed was the ss Manchuria of the American Line, which put to sea with her armament in March, 1917. The global nature of World War II made it necessary to dwarf 1917 quantities of ships and quality of armament. In the first rush to protect our ships in 1941 the bottom of armament barrels literally had to be scraped. Yet modern rapid-firing and heavy- caliber weapons, when they became available, were given to the Armed Guard, and by this summer a total of 45,157 guns had been installed on merchant ships and Army transports. They comprised these types: 5"51, 5"50, 5"38, 4"50, 3'50AA., 3"23, 6 pounder, 40-mm., 20-mm, .50 cal., and .30 cal., plus pistols and rifles. A Liberty ship mounted eight 20s, a 3'AA. and a 4', or a 3"AA. and a 5", or possibly three 3" guns and a 5' or 4". The Armed Guards never had the advantage of modern fire control de- vices. They depended rather on local control at each gun station, and a battlephone circuit to the bridge. Even so, the sharp eyes and training of the gunners, made up for what was lacking in scientific equipment, and officers and men with Armed Guard experience, became sought after by ships of the fleet. "One Nip came in so close we could have almost reached out and touched him. We shot off his tail assembly . . ." Training of crews was perforce ephemeral at first. A few weeks in gun sheds at Little Creek, Va., and the pioneers of the Armed Guard were rushed off, still a bit dazed, to battle against what was then almost insurmountable odds. Schools, however, sprang up with amazing rapidity. Schools and firing ranges started at Norfolk, Chicago, Gulfport, New Orleans, San Diego, New York and San Francisco. During the past fiscal year officers were trained at the rate of 192 a month and men at 3,000 a month. During the peak of the training program 360 officers and 4,400 men were trained per month. Officers were usually over 30 years old, while the men varied from 17 to over 40, the youngsters predominating. Instruction constantly improved and became more routine and exact as experienced officers and men returned to teach. When such battle-tested veterans arrived, they were usually introduced to their class with some such understatement: "This is Smith--he came back." By late 1943, an officer knew almost everything concerning the functions and problems of Armed Guard after his two months' instruction, and the men were given a concentrated course on guns and gun mechanisms.
Varied Skills Needed Rates to be found in an Armed Guard crew were Gunner's Mate, Boatswain's Mate, Coxswain, Signalman, and Radioman. The officers not only had to know enough about these rates to give their men examinations for advancement, but in their varied knowledge they also had to have un- derstanding of communications, first aid, seamanship and navigation. The Armed Guard as a self-contained and independent unit was a natural for the fostering of esprit de corps. The average Armed Guarder came to be as proud of his duty as those in a similar "silent service," the submariners. "At times bombs fell around us llke hailstones .... we just kept those guns barking at the Jerries .... " Even when we were getting the upper hand in the war against the U-boats, Armed Guard continued to be hazardous duty. A large number of ships carried high-octane gasoline and high-explosive cargoes, and even if the route was through a "quiet area" the ever present danger of accidents and collisions were as much a threat as the enemy. Many personnel were lost in shipwrecks and fires. One merchant ship ran aground within yards of the coast and pounded to pieces before rescue could arrive. Only two gunners survived that disaster. A Liberty broke in two in a wild North Atlantic gale. The entire Navy and merchant crew huddled on the careening stern for more than a day and a half before a corvette could get a line to them. All were rescued. When the ships made port and began to discharge, dangers were not necessarily at an end. Ask those who called at Antwerp or Naples or Anzio, Oran, Suez, M. urmansk, Noumea, or Malta.. And m numberless foreign ports where direct attack was unlikely, the possibility of sabotage had to be guarded against with constant vigilance. All was not combat in an Armed Guarder's life. But always there was waiting and an unexpressed and often unrealized current of tension, whether during the long morning and evening periods of general quarters or at chow time or even in the hours of off duty, letter writing, and reading. The hull of a merchant ship is not a very thick affair--and almost constantly there was the waiting for the torpedo, the aerial bomb, or even the prow of a neighboring ship in the convoy to come smashing through. "It was light 20 hours a day . . . we were an the guns for 36 hours at one stretch, ate and slept right on the gun decks . . . one day nearly 100 planes hopped us, Hitler really wanted to stop that convoy . . ." When the merchant ship came home for another cargo the men had a great feeling of accomplishment. Not only had they seen several thousand tons of war supplies come safely through the perils of the weather, the sea, and the enemy, but they had cobra through it themselves. They had a right to feel more than ever proud of their branch of the service. They came home on leave or perhaps only extended liberty--home to Centralia or San Francisco, Upper Darby or New York City--to tell tales worthy of sealore traditions: of how they had ridden camelback in Egypt, or climbed the Eiffel Tower in Paris, or eaten water buffalo meat in South Africa, or visited the burning ghats along the Ganges River, or tasted fish and chips, ginger beer and porridge in England or bouillabaise in Marseilles, or bargained in Ceylon for rare sapphires and rubies. If they were on survivors' leave their storios were proportionately more breathholding: "The ship was sinking so rapidly that I just had to step into the water rather than jump . . ." "We were machine gunned after we took to the life boats . . ." "I floated for three and a half hours in the North Sea before they picked me up..." Soon after the Japanese surrender, Armed Guard crews and their guns began to move off the ships they had served so well. Aside from these things, all that remains of the Armed Guard are the various tasks of physical disposition, the voluminous files in the Navy Department, and a lurking nostalgia in the hearts of those who were a part of it, who helped deliver the goods which won the war.
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