by Johnathan Thayer, Archivist
Nearly 71 years after the US declared war on Japan, many continue to overlook the role of the US Merchant Marine in maintaining shipping lanes and supplying the Allied effort during World War II. The Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI) has held a unique relationship with America’s merchant sailors since the beginning of its maritime ministry in the 1840s. SCI’s archives records detail the professional and personal narratives of the Merchant Marine throughout its history, and records preserved from World War II provide a rare insight into the inner workings of the fleet—from federal bureaucratic memos to stories of the men who went to war on ships.
The Merchant Marine Act of 1936 proved to be a very timely piece of legislation. One year before war broke out in Asia between China and Japan, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, while concurrently serving as Lay Vice President of SCI’s Board of Managers, authorized a long-term program to expand and improve the US merchant fleet. During the War years of 1939-1945, the US fleet nearly quadrupled, increasing from approximately 1,000 to 4,000 vessels. Likewise, the number of men serving in the US Merchant Marine expanded from approximately 55,000 to 250,000. This wartime expansion speaks to the essential role that the US Merchant Marine played in the Allied war effort while facing significant dangers. Before the peace declaration, the Merchant Marine suffered a higher proportional casualty rate than any branch of the US Military.
During 1939-1941 (before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the American declaration of war), American seafarers felt the austere effects of neutrality, struggling to find work on ships banned from entering zones of conflict. Meanwhile, as European merchant ships fell victim to German torpedoes in the Atlantic, their survivors began seeking refuge at SCI’s headquarters at 25 South Street. The Institute established clubrooms for Dutch, Belgian and British seamen in exile from their home countries, and 256 British children evacuees roamed the building’s halls while they waited to find temporary placement with American families.
The global merchant fleet suffered during the war years, and SCI quickly reinvented operations to adapt to the needs of mariners during wartime. Click on the link below to explore the first part of a digital exhibit detailing the role of SCI and the Merchant Marine during World War II.