Naval Armed Guard Service in World War II

Related Resources:

General Instructions for Commanding Officers of Naval Armed Guards on Merchant Ships - 1944
Naval Armed Guard Bibliography
Naval Armed Guard Records for Research on Naval Armed Guard-Personnel Records and Awards
Oral History: Seaman Second Class Basil D. Izzi, USNR
Antisubmarine Warfare: Notes for the Use of the Naval Armed Guard


Source: Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. "History of the Armed Guard Afloat, World War II." (Washington, 1946): 1-15 . [This microfiche, identified as United States Naval Administrative History of World War II #173, is located in Navy Department Library, and can be purchased, or borrowed through interlibrary loan.]

General Introduction
Convoys to Northern Russia Overview, including PQ-17, June - July 1942
Engagements with German Surface Raiders

Tragedy at Bari, Italy, 2 December 1943
Normandy Invasion, June - July 1944
Struggle for the Philippines, 1944-1945
Action at Okinawa, April-June 1945
Japanese Atrocities Against Armed Guards

World War II, like every other war which has ever been fought, was in large part a battle of the logisticians. Other factors being equal, the side usually wins which is able to get there first with the most men and material. When the United States became involved in the titanic world struggle, the odds were heavily stacked against her from the standpoint of logistics. Not only did Germany have control of the resources and communications of western Europe, her armies were also advancing deeply into Russia and were threatening to spread through large parts of Africa. There was, in fact, a grave danger that a union between Japanese and German forces might take place somewhere in Asia and that Europe, Asia, and Africa might pass under the effective control of the Axis before the resources of the Americas and of the British Empire could be thrown against the victorious invaders. Never has the United States faced such a threat to her national existence. Never had this country faced so many well nigh insuperable problems at one time.

Given such a crucial situation, the problem of moving vast numbers of men and vast supplies of material across submarine infested waters and against land based aircraft became as difficult as the problem of training men and producing the weapons of war. Upon the success or failure of our efforts to move men and goods across the oceans hinged the destiny of the nation. The Chairman of the Maritime Commission has said that the merchant marine did not win the war, but that without merchant shipping the Allies would have lost. If the war gave merchant ships their greatest role in history, it also gave the men who defended these ships against submarines and planes a mission of supreme importance. This study describes the defense of merchant ships by the Armed Guard of the United States Navy. It is as thrilling a story of triumph over difficulties, of heroism, devotion to duty, sacrifice, and courage as exists in the annals of the nation. This story, which for reasons of military security was veiled in secrecy during the war, deserves to be told.

In this chapter, attention will be given to the men of the Armed Guard, their training, and to the guns which were placed aboard merchant ships. We shall see how the Navy which went to sea on merchant ships was administered and learn something of the problems involved in training in four brief years more men than were in the entire United States Navy in 1937. Later chapters will describe the most important and spectacular clashes with the enemy in the battle of the supply lines. We shall see men who had never been near the ocean in mortal combat with the enemy after only a few brief months of training. We shall follow them as they go down with their ships, their guns still blazing, as they die in the sea or endure the tortures of hell for days on life rafts. We shall see them as they defy all the laws of nature and remain at general quarters beside their guns for unbelievable periods of time. We shall see them as they return haggard and worn to the United States to take other ships to the battle zones. We shall see them as happier days come and better guns are placed on their ships. We shall see them as they convert Armed Guard duty from the most hazardous duty afloat to the best duty in the Navy. We shall see them as they finally reach a stage where submarines dare not surface near merchant ships and where enemy pilots are courting almost certain death to come within range of their anti-aircraft guns. This is a story of American triumph over difficulties. It may not be true that the United States will ever become a great seafaring nation, but it is certain that her citizens can and do take to the sea when the defense of the country demands it.

When the United States was suddenly called upon to arm vast numbers of ships and to place men aboard to man these guns there were few precedents of any value which could be called up for guidance. It is true that in World War I some 384 merchantmen carried Navy personnel and guns, but this program was so small as compared with arming 6,236 ships in World War II that it offered little practical help. Besides, the records of World War I were not readily available to those who were charged with arming merchant ships. It might appear that the British program would serve as a useful patter in view of the fact that the British had been arming merchant ships for a long time. But the British Defensively Equipped Merchant Ship program (D.E.M.S.) was so radically different from the program which the United States had to follow that it could not be copied. British Navy personnel formed only a small portion of the gunners and officers were assigned only to the larger transports. The British depended largely on merchant seamen to man the guns on merchantmen, in view of their comparatively large crews, whereas the United States supplied Navy personnel to man all key positions, with assistance from the merchant crew in passing ammunition, loading, and manning other less important stations. The difference arose in part from the diverse nature of the maritime service in the two countries. In Britain, all merchant sailors were registered under the Universal Conscription Act of August, 1940, placed in seaman pools, and paid both afloat and ashore. They were completely under the control of the Ministry of Shipping and could be required to take gunnery training while in the pool awaiting further assignment. When assigned a gunnery station, British seamen received a shilling a day extra. The Master was in charge of the defense of the ship. But on United States ships the defense of the ship was a responsibility of the Armed Guard officer and his Navy gunners. The Armed Guard officer had the status of a commanding officer in the United States Navy. The United States was unable to assign prime responsibility for manning guns to merchant seamen, for there was no control over them from the time they completed a voyage until the agreed to sign on for another voyage, and, therefore, no means of forcing them to take the required gunnery training. Every facility was offered the merchant seaman while ashore to become proficient in gunnery, but the only training of any importance took place under the direction of the Armed Guard officers while at sea. There was a definite tendency on the part of merchant seamen to stay away from Armed Guard Gunnery Schools in the United States.

The United States Navy was somewhat handicapped in preparing to arm merchant ships by the Neutrality Act of 1936. Given such an act was the law of the land it was not surprising that there was little far-sighted planning and no realization of the magnitude which the problem would ultimately assume. A few people were trained in gunnery beginning in the spring of 1941, but the training program, even after the repeal on November 17, 1941 of Section 6 of the Neutrality Act, which prevented arming merchant ships, was wholly inadequate in numbers of men trained. Little progress was made in developing the vast administrative machinery necessary to handle the Armed Guard Service until practically all authority was centered in the Arming Merchant Ship Section in the Fleet Maintenance Division of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations on January 31, 1942. When CominCh assigned primary interest in training to this same section on September 11, 1942 the Arming Merchant Ship Section finally had almost absolute authority over every phase of the Armed Guard Service. It, of course, delegated authority to make decisions on many matters to other Bureaus and agencies in the Naval Establishment. For example, questions concerning communications on merchant ships never came under the cognizance of Op-23L, as the section came to be known in the Navy Department.

Op-23L gave general direction to the program. It formulated doctrine and issued directives. It kept elaborate files and records. It worked to improve training and to standardize all procedures in the Armed Guard Service. It worked to overcome the shortage of guns and trained personnel. It studies a multitude of devices and items of equipment and approved the good while rejecting the bad. It was ever on the alert to catch matters which were going wrong and to detect new trends in warfare. It was largely through it efforts that the new Armed Guard Service became dynamic and was always improving, even to the end of the war with Japan. Working closely with the Arming Merchant Section was the Coordinator of Defense Installations on Merchant Ships in the Maritime Commission. A vast number of agencies were involved in the large and expensive program to arm and defend merchant ships. The Bureau of Naval Personnel handled the assignment of personnel to Armed Guard duties and had responsibilities with regard to preparing curricula for training, subject to directives from the Chief of Naval Operations (Op-23L). The Bureau of Ships and the Bureau of Ordnance supplied the guns and equipment for defense of merchant ships, subject to directives from the Chief of Naval Operations. Much of this material was to be returned to the Navy at the end of hostilities. The Maritime Commission War Shipping Administration, under the direction of the Coordinator of Defense Installations on Merchant Ships, had the responsibility for the installation of defense items in collaboration with local naval agencies at the yards. The Port Directors were entrusted with the execution of directives from the Chief of Naval Operations (Op-23L) and played a large part in the administration of the entire program. Theirs was the day-by-day responsibility to see that each ship which left port was properly armed, equipped, and manned with Armed Guards. They also arranged for necessary repairs and for replenishment of material when ships returned from voyages. Under the Port Directors, an efficient Armed Guard Inspection Service was developed.

A vast network of training activities prepared Armed Guards for their duties. There were three basic 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 last mentioned school in the fall of 1942, training had been given at an Armed Guard School at Chicago, Illinois. This school was closed because winter conditions on the Great Lakes were not suited to training. Near each Armed Guard School was an anti-aircraft firing range where Armed Guards were given actual firing experience. These ranges were located at Dam Neck, Virginia; Shell Beach, Louisiana; and Pacific Beach, California. Firing ships were also employed to give practical training to Armed Guards. Schools to give refresher training, especially in anti-aircraft gunnery, were established at New York, New Orleans, San Francisco (Treasure Island), and Seattle. Armed Guards at these schools for a day or so of 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.

What type of men were brought into the Armed Guard Service? The men of the Armed Guard came from all walks of life. Their most common characteristic, perhaps, was that few of them had ever been on the ocean. Since there was an urgent need for large numbers of men to man the guns on merchant ships, the Navy took all officers and enlisted men who could be spared from combatant ships and other activities and made them into Armed Guards. It was a terrific gamble on the ability of the Navy to develop a training program which could turn men out for combat duty at a fast pace and on the ability of these men, many of whom had never seen the ocean, to take to the sea under the most trying conditions. Men who had been living quiet and normal lives as farmers, bankers, merchants, writers, lawyers, school teachers and factory workers found themselves in mortal combat with the enemy after only a few months in the Navy. Men who had never done more serious shooting than at ducks and quail soon found themselves bringing down German planes and firing heavy guns at submarines.

One requisite of Armed Guards was that they be in good physical condition. They must have good eyes, ears and teeth. They must be able to swim. But above all they must be people who had their hearts in their work, who loved their country and were willing to sacrifice even their lives for it if necessary. The Armed Guards was no place for the ne'r- do-well, the malcontent, or the loafer. For months Armed Guards lived aboard ship with highly paid merchant seamen. They must be able to get along with men whose highest form of discipline probably came from the regulations of their labor unions. Officers who served as commanding officers in charge of Armed Guard crews were expected to have the usual traits of leadership expected of all naval officers who wear the uniform of the United States Navy. But experience soon indicated that a certain ability to get along with Masters of ships was an important characteristic. Emphasis soon shifted away from the procurement of the very young officer and especially of the person who knew or thought he knew too much about running merchant ships. The ideal Armed Guard officer was a tactful person who could look after the interests of his men and at the same time keep relations smooth between the between the Navy complement and the Master, officers and crew of the merchant ship. He was a man who could get along with people who were under great mental strain and who could win their confidence. His relations with his gunners was close. He was a kind of doctor, chaplain and commanding officer at the same time. The highly nervous individual did not last in the Armed Guard. Neither did the troublemaker nor the officer who had too exalted an idea of the scope of his duties and the privileges which the uniform of the United States Navy conferred upon him. The calm, but not necessarily brilliant, individual often made a much better officer than the erratic and highly intelligent man who cracked in a crisis.


When officers and enlisted men completed their basic training they were assigned to one of three Armed Guard Centers. These were located at Brooklyn (Atlantic), New Orleans (Gulf), and Treasure Island (Pacific). From the Centers the men were assigned to ships. The final complement for a ship armed with a 5"/38 dual purpose stern gun, a 3"/50 AA gun, and eight 20mm machine guns was set at one officer and 24 gunners, plus normally about three communications men for a total of 28 Armed Guards. This armament was accepted as standard for ships which were going to combat zones in World War II. It goes without saying that many ships went out in the early days with less than the armament desired and with smaller Armed Guard crews. Shortages in officers and men were met by rapid increases in the training program and at times by sending petty officers out in charge of the smaller gun crews on ships operating in the less dangerous areas. Not until early 1945 was the shortage in guns entirely overcome. But the Navy made every effort to give every ship the best possible protection.

The Centers were the wartime duty stations of Armed Guard when they were not at sea. They handled the records, mail, and pay accounts of Armed Guards. They administered discipline, furnished recreation and additional training, and attended to the health and legal problems of Armed Guards. Special attention was given to the matter of furnishing proper foul and cold weather clothing and recreational equipment for use of Armed Guards.

In the standardization of procedures and training the Arming Merchant Ships Section received special help from the Armed Guard Gunnery School at New York and the Armed Guard School at Shelton. The Bureau of Aeronautics gave valuable aid in the development of many synthetic training devices. Before the war was over a man could walk into a gunnery school and experience all realities of battle without actually meeting the enemy. Of great help in the development of the Armed Guard Service and in the long and complicated quest for standardization were the visits of personnel from various Armed Guard activities to Washington and other Armed Guard establishments. Outstanding Armed Guard officers who had been in especially heavy engagements with the enemy were brought to Washington to give information on the latest enemy tactics. Such men were also made instructors in the schools. In no branch of the Naval Service was combat experience for instructors emphasized more than in the Armed Guard.

Armed Guards studied many subjects. But the primary emphasis was on shooting planes and submarines. They also learned something of seamanship and many officers studied simple navigation. Part of the Armed Guards on each ship eventually had training in fire fighting. Armed Guards, in fact, established a fine record in fighting fires on ships, although this was not a prime responsibility. Recognition of aircraft was naturally stressed and the fire control record of Armed Guards was on the whole a very fine one.

Many defense installations were tried during the war. Among the most successful were degaussing ships against magnetic mines and smoke floats for hiding ships from view of attacking aircraft. Barrage balloons and kites were also used with some success in the European and Mediterranean theaters as protection against low-flying aircraft. Crew quarters for Armed Guards, magazines for stowing ammunition, life saving equipment, special gun foundations and armor protection for guns were other important defense items. Facilities were provided for blacking out every ray of light on merchant ships. Special provisions were made for tankers to fuel escorts at sea and to supply them with depth charges. This meant that escorts had unlimited cruising range and unlimited supplies of depth charges to drop on lurking submarines. Special protection for sea valves on merchant ships, closure of tonnage openings and extension of watertight bulkheads were also very important installations which saved many ships to fight again. There were a number of other special installations, but those enumerated above were the most important.

Figures complied by the Maritime Commission and by the Arming Merchant Ship Section in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations give a comprehensive picture of the importance of the Armed Guard in World War II. When the war began the United States had only about 1,340 cargo ships and tankers. When the war ended the fleet of merchant ships controlled by the War Shipping Administration numbered 4,221 with a deadweight tonnage of 44,940,000 tons. Up to VJ day 733 merchant ships of over 1000 gross tons were lost, according to figures of the Maritime Commission. The Navy armed 6,236 to the end of World War II. Of this number 4,870 were United States flag ships; 244 were United States owned but under foreign flag; the rest were foreign owned and foreign flag ships. Armed Guards were placed aboard nearly all of the 5,114 United States owned and United States flag ships. They were placed aboard a few allied ships which were foreign flag and foreign owned but only in exceptional circumstances. Of the United States flag or United States owned ships which were armed (and most of which were supplied with an Armed Guard crew) 569 were lost. The total losses of all merchant ships armed with Navy guns ran to 710. These figures are substantially complete as of August 12, 1946. It will be seen that of the ships which were supplied with Armed Guards a little better than ten percent were lost from all causes.

This vast fleet of merchant ships carried the materials needed for victory to all parts of the world. Between December 7, 1941 and the surrender of Japan 268,252,000 long tons of cargo left United States ports. About three fourths of this cargo was carried in ships controlled by the War Shipping Administration. Imports during the war ran to 70,652,000 tons of dry cargo and 35,118,000 tons brought back in tankers. A large part of this cargo was brought in on ships defended by Armed Guards.

From the outbreak of war to November 30, 1945 over seven million Army personnel and more than one hundred and forty-one thousand civilians were transported overseas. Many were carried in Army and Navy transports. Many were carried in merchant ships. The Armed Guard defended the merchant ships and the Army transports. During the same period almost four and a quarter million personnel were returned to the United States.

The Armed Guards played an important part in defending ships which cost $22,500,000,000 to build and operate. The value of the cargo which they defended cannot be estimated in dollars. Upon the safe arrival of this cargo depended the future of every American and of the world. Total costs of the Armed Guard program have not been figured, but it seems fairly certain that it ran to more than two billion dollars. Training and maintaining a group of men larger than the entire United States Navy in 1937 and supplying more than 53,000 guns and many other defense items naturally costs much money. But the Armed Guard Service paid such high dividends in ships and cargo saved that its cost may be termed nominal.

Armed Guards won glory for themselves on every ocean. Up to the time this was written (August, 1946) 8,033 had received decorations or commendations. This figure includes 5 Navy Crosses, 2 Legions of Merit, 75 Silver Stars, 24 Navy and Marine Corps Medals, 54 Bronze Stars, 563 commendations by the Secretary of the Navy, 2,778 commendations by the Bureau of Naval Personnel, and 4,533 entries in service records. About 36,240 operation and engagement stars have been authorized for Armed Guards to date and this figure may run even higher eventually. In addition, 9,882 men have been authorized to wear the Philippine Liberation Ribbon and 4,031 have been authorized to wear stars on this ribbon. Five destroyer escorts, one destroyer and a transport have been named for Armed Guard officers who were heroes in combat. These ships are the USS Borum [DE-790], named for LT (jg) John R. Borum who served on the SS Brilliant; the USS Brennan [DE-13], named for ENS John J. Brennan who served on the SS Otho; the USS Herzog [[DE-178], named for LT (jg) William R. Herzog who served on the SS Pan New York; the USS Hunter Marshall [APD-112], named for ENS Hunter Marshall who served on the SS Merrimack; the USS Kenneth M. Willett [DE-354], named for ENS Kenneth M. Willett who served on the SS Stephen Hopkins; the USS Vesole [DD-878], named for ENS Kay K. Vesole who served on the SS John Bascom; and the USS Walsh [APD-111], named for LT (jg) Patrick J. Walsh who served on the SS Patrick J. Hurley.

The war took a terrible toll of merchant seamen and Armed Guards. But the situation was never as bad as the "Sighted Sub, Glub, Glub" slogan would indicate. The Maritime Commission indicates that 5,638 merchant seamen and officers are dead and missing from World War II and that 581 were made prisoners. Armed Guard dead and missing out of 144,970 in the service numbered 1,810, of which 1,683 were definitely killed and 127 were missing. Prisoners of war numbered 27, of which 14 were recovered.

In the files of the Arming Merchant Ship are reports of some 1,966 air attacks and 1,024 submarine attacks. Some of these reports cover more than one contact with the enemy. It is obvious that several Armed Guards often reported the same attack. Figures for planes destroyed can never be exact, but 467 ships participated in destroying planes and these ships were credited with 477 destroyed, 66 probably destroyed, and 315 assists in destroying planes.