Merchant Marines: An Often Overlooked Branch of Military Service

The following is a guest post by Antoinette O’Bryant, Senior Cataloging Specialist, Prints & Photographs Division.

For as far back as I can remember I have stared at a portrait of a young sailor hanging on a wall at home. “Who’s that?” I asked. “That’s your Uncle Melvin. He was in the Merchant Marines,” was the response.

Hoffman Island, merchant marine training center off Staten Island, New York. Living quarters for trainees. Men holding sacks next to bunk beds.

Hoffman Island, merchant marine training center off Staten Island, New York. Living quarters for trainees. Photo by John Vachon, 1942. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8d07023

He enlisted when he was eighteen years old but he was probably twenty years old at the time his portrait was painted. He stood proudly, wearing his Merchant Marine’s uniform, a hint of a smile and his arms folded across his chest.

He planned to study engineering when the war was over but regrettably, his plans were never realized because he was killed, January 25, 1944, while serving aboard the Liberty ship, the SS Penelope Barker. A German U-boat torpedoed the ship as it was traveling to Murmansk.

When he died three months before his 22nd birthday, a life full of promise tragically ended.

Liberty ship convoys were attacked and torpedoed constantly by enemy U-boats. A 2016 article in Smithsonian magazine explains: “The U-boat war was particularly unforgiving to merchant mariners. The Merchant Marine suffered a higher casualty rate than any branch of the military, losing 9,300 men, with most of the losses occurring in 1942, when most merchant ships sailed U.S. waters with little or no protection from the U.S. Navy.” [1]

A United States tanker torpedoed by an Axis submarine. Despite a raging fire which sent columns of black, oily smoke billowing into the sky, crew members were able to bring the flames under control and the tanker was towed to port by a United States Naval ship...

A United States tanker torpedoed by an Axis submarine. Despite a raging fire which sent columns of black, oily smoke billowing into the sky, crew members were able to bring the flames under control and the tanker was towed to port by a United States Naval ship… Photo by U.S. Navy, Office of Public Relations, between 1938 and 1945. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8e00811

Merchant Marines and Liberty ships were vital to the war effort because they were responsible for transporting shipments of supplies to military bases around the world for U.S. and Allied forces. The convoys carried vehicles, guns, bombs, gasoline, food, planes, medicine, and military personnel — all the necessary ingredients for warfare.

Sturdy cargo ships fill the sea lanes leading to all fronts, bearing guns, tanks, and planes for the United Nations. The Liberty ships are visible in this section of the convoy.

Sturdy cargo ships fill the sea lanes leading to all fronts, bearing guns, tanks, and planes for the United Nations. The Liberty ships are visible in this section of the convoy. Photo by U.S. Navy. Office of Public Relations, 1942. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8e01532

Uncle Melvin received the Mariner’s Medal posthumously. It was presented to my grandmother on National Maritime Day, May 22, 1944. The Mariner’s Medal recognizes seaman killed or wounded by enemy forces while serving aboard a ship during war.

At least four newspaper articles reported his death: The Evening Star. “Ship Fireman O’Bryant Reported Killed in Action.” (March 10, 1944); The Baltimore African American. “Medals to Kin of 48 Sea Heroes. (May 23, 1944); The Michigan Chronicle. “Posthumous Award for Dead Hero.” (May 27, 1944); The Omaha Guide. “Mother Receives Mariner’s Medal for Son Lost at Sea.” (June 3, 1944).

After his rescue, Mr. Andrew McMurray, a former crew and bunkmate of my uncle traveled to Washington, D.C. to speak with my grandparents and give an account of how their son died. The photos below, from the National Archives and Records Administration, document the occasion when they met.

Office of War Information "Negro Press Section" series (208-NP), 208-NP-5L-1. From the collections of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Office of War Information “Negro Press Section” series (208-NP), 208-NP-5L-1. From the collections of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Office of War Information "Negro Press Section" series (208-NP), 208-NP-5L-1. From the collections of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Office of War Information “Negro Press Section” series (208-NP), 208-NP-5L-2. From the collections of the National Archives and Records Administration.

I did not realize there was a memorial to honor those service members who were lost at sea before I came across this photograph by Carol M. Highsmith of just such a memorial in Washington, D.C.

Navy and Marine Memorial dedicated to Americans lost at Sea in Lady Bird Johnson Park, Columbia Island, Washington, D.C.

Navy and Marine Memorial dedicated to Americans lost at Sea in Lady Bird Johnson Park, Columbia Island, Washington, D.C. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/highsm.12653

I submitted my Uncle Melvin’s name to the World War II Memorial registry to honor his military service and the ultimate sacrifice he made.

World War II Memorial, Washington D.C.

World War II Memorial, Washington D.C. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, 2006. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/highsm.04950

His portrait continues to hang on the wall.

Portrait of Melvin O’Bryant. O’Bryant family collection. Used by permission.

Source:

[1] Geroux, William, “The Merchant Marine Were the Unsung Heroes of World War II: These daring seamen kept Allied troops armed and fed while at the mercy of German U-boats,”
Smithsonian. (2016, May 27).

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