Family Barge Life and the U.S. Merchant Marine of WW II

**This article was sent to me from a subscriber to my blog.  I wanted to repost it here, as well as a comment on the original post, because I think it’s important to understand the rich history of the US Merchant Marines.  After researching some of the information contained below, it amazed me realize that Merchant Marines have, in some cases, lost their lives in an effort to preserve ours.  These unsung heros really don’t get the recognition they so deserve.**

The United States Merchant Marine has been mostly viewed by the general population as large ships sailing across oceans and seas carrying exotic cargo from one country to another. Little information to what actually takes place within the service is known or understood by the public. Most citizens have little knowledge that our Merchant Marine was established before our US Navy or US Coast Guard. How many know that during our nation’s wars our merchant marine is looked upon by those in the know as the Fourth Arm of Defense?
Our Merchant Marine has proven itself time and again in every war we have encountered. History has consistently noted those brave seamen who crossed our oceans carrying our troops and war materials in every war and, often encountering enemy actions that have sent many of our brave souls to the bottom of our seas. Stories have been written about their heroic efforts to keep our shipping lanes open, often losing to the enemy even here on our own shores during World War II. At times we were losing our ships faster that could be built during WW II. The commanders of the German U-boats considered our East Coast a shooting gallery because of our lack of security or adherence to keeping our shoreline dark. The bright lights from the various amusement parks and residential areas along the coastal beaches provided the perfect backdrop for the German U-boats to pick our ships off at will.
The loss of shipping along our coastline during the first part of the war was so great that our own government had to step in and instruct our various public news outlets not to give out the number of ships lost for fear of having our seamen refrain from shipping out; thereby creating critical manpower shortages causing shipping delays and quite possibly placing our chances of winning that war in jeopardy. We were losing ships daily.
This great loss of these ships caused our nation to call upon another group of vessels that had generally been placed completely out of service. Our country had some 250-300 old wooden hulled barges that had been put out to pasture, so to speak. Most has long passed their effective 25 year life span. Some were built around the middle of the nineteenth century and their condition showed it too. Many barges began their life as sail schooners in the mid-1800s. There was a short-lived belief that sails would help propel the barges and give the tugboats towing them a little help. By the turn-of-the-century most had been dismasted and extra hatches were made in the hulls to carry more cargo.
There were some seventy companies that did business on the East Coast. During that time some 700 barges or schooners were recorded. Records indicate the first barge was built around 1856 and maybe the last around 1923. They ranged in sizes in tonnage from 600 to 2400 tons.
After the turn of the 20th century companies began to send the barges out into larger bodies of waters. Soon the coastwise trade for barges was where the money was. A tow of three barges could carry more payload of, say coal, than several locomotives could carrying 300 coal cars or 600 trucks carrying the same payload and at a fraction of the cost.
Shortly after the outbreak of WW II, it became apparent that we needed every possible source of commerce to keep our supplies lines opened; these barges were quickly called back into service even in their very old and primitive conditions. It was not uncommon to see twenty or thirty tugs and their barges moving cargo up and down the coast on any given day. As demand for commerce grew the barges began playing a larger role in the defense of our country. After all, no other mode of transportation could offer the benefits at lesser costs. They were by far the most economical means to move product around the country.
The German U-boats sank our ships faster than we could build them. Larger and faster ships were needed to keep our shipping lanes open and to keep our troops overseas supplied with badly needed materials and keep our shores free from the enemy. Every available means of moving war materials to our defense plants became a necessity, regardless of the risk.
These barges kept alive a tradition that dates back before the birth of this nation. Our forefathers brought this tradition with them when they landed here to establish this country. Families were traditional on some of the barges. This emanated from the river barges that traveled the major tributaries of our nation for as long as this nation has existed. Our major source of commerce came by river throughout our country. Often the crew that manned some of these barges during the summer school breaks was comprised solely by families. Companies who owned these barges paid premium wages to those that were manned by families. It was believed families would remain on board more so than single seamen mainly because of the primitive living conditions generally found on most barges. Families tend to adapt more easily.
Barge seamen endured a life that was extremely primitive as most barges were without the average necessities found ashore. There was no electricity, running water or the usual bathroom conveniences. Heat came from a simple coal stove that was used for cooking as well. Light from kerosene lamps was the norm. This life was hard and it left its mark on you. With the ever presence of German U-boats, the young seamen matured fast. This was a far cry from a young man’s dream of sailing the 7 seas.
Those seamen who worked on the coastwise barges were a small, dedicated and mostly unknown group who served in the US Merchant Marine. They made little news but played a very important role during World War II, moving bulk cargo and war supplies to the various defense factories and power plants along the East Coast. Minimal news or entries in history were made because most gave little attention to them. They were considered by many as insignificant. Historians wrote limited information and they would only make news if something disastrous happened. Storms would cause sufficient damage and some would make the news if fatalities occurred. History has passed them by and carried their records along with it.
Coal was a major cargo that was loaded from railroad cars down large chutes that left all surfaces with a deep layer of black coal dust that made its way into all cracks and crevices aboard. You lived with this dust, as it was quite impossible to remove, even after a complete hose wash-down from the water available from over the side. A trip hauling cargo other than coal was received as a holiday. Barges in tow traveled at about 3 to 4 knots per hour. You were at the mercy of the storms when out to sea and many were lost to its elements. The constant threat of those German U-boats preying on any vessels traveling the East Coast corridor during WW II created continuous fear and anxiety for all aboard.
Again, families answered the call to crew those old and dilapidated barges. Most seamen tended to steer away from those old hulks and go for the safer ships that had more modern conveniences most people were used to. Since the healthier and younger seamen steered clear of these barges that left older seamen and those less healthy. The families came forth again to play an important role in this war. They manned these vessels and did what was necessary. For the most part these seamen were much older than the crew of the oceangoing vessels. The captains and their wives were mostly in the 40-60 year old range. Many of the seamen were considerably older than the required draft age, as well; and often being disabled by missing a leg, arm or an eye. School age manned the crew positions as well as any other seamen. They proved their mettle. These barges carried the bulk raw war materials to the ports to support the defense plants that built the finished war supplies and equipment for our troops overseas. The use of these barges freed our larger merchant fleet that was vitally needed to transport these supplies and equipment to the three continents where our troops were fighting and keeping our shores free from the enemy. This was not a small task.
At the start of the war, women tried repeatedly to join the US Merchant Marine. They were dealt a deathblow by the War Shipping Administrator (WSA), Adm. Emory S. Land who declared that there was no place in the Merchant Marine for women. By this order from the WSA, the US Coast Guard refused to document women who served. They served anyway and did what was asked of them and without any recognition for their work they served on these the barges as well as other vessels, mostly as cooks and messmen. They were paid salaries and Social Security taxes were taken from their wages.

Efforts to gain status as seamen by the women were met with stern denials from the Captains of the Port (COTP) stationed at the various coastal ports. I was present when the COTP of New York, (June, 1942) denied my mother and sister their official documentation as seamen. Instead he issued an official US Coast Guard Identification Card to my mother and told her my sister did not need one as she was below the age of 16. Children could move about freely through the security checkpoints on the docks if accompanied by a parent. He stated by order of the WSA, he was directed to deny official seaman’s papers to women upon application.
I expect that denial was expressed many times to other women as they attempted to gain official documentation for service in our merchant marine. With as many barges as there were, several hundred women and some teenage children were probably affected by that denial. To this day there has been no way for these women to gain their due recognition as seamen of the United States Merchant Marine and thus veterans of this nation. A CMDT, USCG Ltr 5730 of 09 Apr, 2010 states “The US Government did not issue mariner credentials to females during the World War II.”
Research has brought forth two additional actions that have discriminated against our seamen who served in the Merchant Marine during this war. The CMDT, USCG Order of 20 Mar 1944 relieved the masters of tugs and seagoing barges of the responsibility of issuing shipping and discharge papers to seamen shipped and the US Maritime Administration issued orders to destroy ship’s deck and engine logbooks in the 1970s.
In every war this nation has ever fought, women have served in one capacity or another. During WW II they manned the defense plants and worked side by side with the men and children. Recognition came only from some dramatic writing of display in newspapers. Rarely were any personal recognition afforded. Yet, they worked without complaint or dereliction from their assigned tasks. They kept the defense plants manned because they were the majority of able bodied people remaining. Stories and songs were written hailing their tremendous efforts put forth, but rarely any personal recognition. It can be stated, and has been written they earned their place in history for their significant input toward the defense of this country and no one can take that from them.
World War II brought about the advent of women in the military and again they proved themselves. They earned some of our country’s highest honors for their service. Another group of women served and have never been recognized. The women who served in the US Merchant Marine in WW II were denied their Official Mariner’s credentials and were unable to achieve what they most gallantly earned, veteran status. Those of us who hold this status perceive it as one of our most honored possessions.
On 31 Mar. 2011, US Representative G. K. Butterfield of North Carolina introduced a bill in the House that may help these coastwise seamen, our women and others gain what has been denied them for more than 60 Years. This Bill, H.R. 1288 “WW II Merchant Mariners Service Act” is directing the Department of Homeland Security to allow other forms of documentation be used to prove service in the Merchant Marine during WW II. Official Records have been withheld, destroyed and/or denied that have prevented as many as 30,000 coastwise merchant seamen from gaining their rightful place as veterans of our country.
This bill will help some gain that recognition. A simple administrative legislation can correct a travesty that has gone unnoticed or ignored for such a long time. Costs associated with this bill have already been incorporated in P.L. 95-202. H.R. 1288 stands alone in helping these coastwise merchant seamen gain recognition as no other bill in congress has ever addressed the issue of gaining recognition for seamen who have been deprived of veteran’s status due to records being withheld, destroyed and/or denied. This needs to be corrected and soon. These seamen are leaving us at an alarming rate. If not now it will all be for history. We need to stand up and do what is right for these seamen. We must convince our members of congress they need to support this bill or other actions that will correct this unfortunate travesty.
The reason I am interested in gaining recognition for the men and women who manned the barges during WW II is that I was one of them and I know we are deserving and have been overlooked after giving so much for the war effort and Freedom. The tugboat Menomonee was sunk off the coast of Virginia on 31 Mar., 1942 at 37’ 34” N, 75” 25” by the German U-boat 754, with the loss of my brother, William Lee Horton, Jr. at the age of 17, while serving his country. WILL YOU HELP? Don Horton 252 336 5553 104 Riverview Ave, Camden, NC 2721

J. Don Horton

Submitted on 2011/06/06 at 7:16 pm

Executive Summary
Findings 1: PUBLIC LAWS 95-202 & 105-368 Provide veteran status to US Merchant Marine Seamen of WW II, providing they meet certain eligibility requirements.
Findings 2: USCG Information Sheet #77 (April 1992) identifies acceptable forms of documentation for eligibility meeting the requirements set forth in Public Laws 95-202 & 105-368.
a. Certificate of Discharge (Form 718A)
b. Continuous Discharge Books (ship’s deck/engine logbooks)
c. Company letters showing vessel names and dates of voyages

Findings 3: Some 30,000 coastwise seagoing tug and barge merchant seamen have been or will be denied recognition upon application because actions taken by government agencies (before inaction of P. L. 95-202) have removed required eligibility records from being available to the veteran.
Findings 4: Commandant USCG Order of 20 March, 1944 relieves masters of tugs, towboats and seagoing barges of the responsibility of submitting reports of seamen shipped or discharged on forms 718A. This action removes item (a) from the eligibility list in Findings 2.
Findings 5: USCG Information Sheet # 77 (April, 1992) further states “Deck logs were traditionally considered to be the property of the owners of the ships. After World War II, however, the deck and engine logbooks of vessels operated by the War Shipping Administration were turned over to that agency by the ship owners, and were destroyed during the 1970s”. This action effectively eliminates item (b) from the eligibility list in Findings 2.
Findings 6: Company letters showing vessel names and dates of voyages are highly suspect of ever existing due to the strict orders prohibiting even the discussion of ship/troop movement much less having written communication dealing with ship and troop movement. Then consider item (c) of Findings 2 should be removed from the eligibility list. USCG Info Sheet # 77, page 2 refers
Findings 7: Commandant, USCG Ltr 5739 Ltr of 09 Apr 2010 states, “The US Government did not issue mariner credentials to females during the World War II.” No action has ever been taken to correct this.
Whereas: Public Laws 95-202 & 105-368 provide for veteran status to certain US Merchant Marine seamen during the timeframe of WW II (07 December, 1941 to 31 December, 1946) with the same benefits accorded all veterans as administrated by the Veterans Administration. These US Merchant Marine seamen were required to provide certain documentation to prove eligibility. However due to specific government actions, documentation required to prove eligibility have been removed from use, thus obtaining veteran status for some 10,000 US Merchant Seamen cannot be obtained unless alternative methods of recognition for veterans status be made available by the US Government, preferably by legislation. With the mortality rate at 850 per year, action should be swift less we lose the opportunity to bestow this recognition on the remaining few. The following actions are recommended:
1. Determine if DOD instructions can be amended to include alternate documents (listed below) that will replace documents that have been withheld, destroyed, denied or otherwise removed, resulting in the veteran attaining due recognition with all rights prescribed under P. 95-202. OR:
2. Initiate immediate legislative action to provide alternative methods of recognition (listed below) for veteran status to those seagoing coastwise tug and barge seamen of the US Merchant Marine of WW II that are being denied veteran status because of records not available to gain recognition. The Bill H.R. 5829 “WW II Merchant Mariners Service Act” was introduced on 22 July, 2010 by Representative G.K. Butterfield, D-NC. H.R. 5829 expired in committee. On 31 Mar, 2011 HR 1288 was introduced in the 112th congress by the same cosponsors.
3. Alternative Documentation to Support Veteran status of MM of WW II:
A. Records held by Social Security Administration (SSA) denoting dates, wages earned and companies employed shall be utilized when shipping and discharge forms, ship’s logbooks or other official employment data are not available to determine veteran’s eligibility for veterans’ status.
B. Validated testimony from the individual or next-of-kin as to employment shall be considered in conjunction with records from the SSA to determine eligibility for veterans’ status. And
C. Other Official documentation offered by the individual shall be considered in place of records that have been destroyed or lost by those responsible for the control and maintenance of veterans’ records.
D. For the timeframe between 07 December, 1942 and 31 December, 1946, masters of seagoing vessels shall be recognized as agents of the United States authorized to document the hiring or discharge of a particular individual for services to the Armed Forces of the United States.
4. These replacement records shall satisfy all requirements for proof of service of active-duty service during the required timeframe of 07 December, 1941 and December 31, 1946 and proof of eligibility for veterans’ benefits.
Otherwise Stated, Documentation for eligibility includes:
(1) Casualty Information
(2) Deck/Engine logbooks
(3) Pay vouchers/stubs
(4) Personal certified statements of individual attesting to service
(5) Personal certified statements of Next-of Kin attesting to service of individual(s) concerned
(6) Personal letters revealing service or locations of individual’s services or vessels served aboard
(7) Reports of lost/found seaman’s documents
(8) Shipping/discharge certificates
(9) Social Security Administration records
(10) USCG Identification Cards
(11) Masters of seagoing vessels shall be recognized as agents of the United States authorized to document the hiring/discharge of a particular individual for services aboard vessels serving the Armed Forces of the United States.
HR 1288 may help to Correct this travisty.


About George Fisher

George is a freelance writer, an author and a Democratic political consultant. He has worked as Deputy Communications Director for a Senatorial campaign and Campaign Manager for several NC House races and one congressional race. He previously worked as a news producer for a local television station.
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