CHAPTER FORTY TWO – U.S. NAVY ARMED GUARD
United States Navy Armed Guard units (USNAG) were established during World War II as a branch of the U.S. Navy in an attempt to provide defensive firepower for merchant ships carrying all important cargo to troops at the front. This was necessary because of the constant danger from enemy submarines, surface raiders, fighter aircraft and bombers, and because of the shortage of Allied escort vessels necessary to provide the merchant vessels with adequate protection.
Merchant ships were slow and unwieldy and were priority targets for enemy submarines and planes. Furthermore, merchant ships were among the last to receive updated equipment. Early on in the war, some ships only had a few machine guns installed, so the crews painted telephone poles to imitate the barrels of larger guns. The most common armament to be installed on merchant ships during the war were the MK II 20mm Oerlikon autocannon and the 3″/50, 4″/50, and 5″/38 deck guns.
The men of the USN Armed Guard served at sea primarily as Gunners Mates, signal men, radio operators, an occasional Pharmacist’s Mate, and toward the end of the war, a few radar-men.
ALL HANDS, the U.S. Navy’s monthly bulletin from August 1942 chronicled some Armed Guard crews’ experiences on routine cruises during World War II:
***** OVER THE OCEAN TRAILS ARMED GUARD CREWS BATTLE TO KEEP THE SUPPLY LANES OPEN *****
Over the far flung convoy trails that cover the Globe the Navy’s “Orphans of the War” — the ARMED GUARD crews — carry on to keep the flow of supplies moving to our own forces and our Allies. Under the blazing sun of the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean — over the wintry “road to Murmansk’ with its menace of ice and snow carrying almost as great a threat of disaster as the submarine and dive bombers — the Armed Guards hammer away to keep the path overseas open and Davy Jones’ locker shut.
Not merely against the submarine menace are these men of the Armed Guard operating, for one officer in a matter of fact report related how his crew had faced enemy air fighters and bombers, surface raiders and mines on one trip they successfully completed t0 a port less than 75 miles from the fighting front. Gun crews of the Armed ‘Guard have been exacting their toll of the Axis raiders in the air, on the surface and underwater. Crews from two of the guarded merchant men attacked by enemy aircraft were officially credited by observers of the nation in whose port they were unloading cargo and by Naval observers of their own country with having sent three of the enemy aircraft plunging in flames into the waters of the harbor.
It isn’t all manning guns for these hardy members of the Armed Guard, however, for time and again they have been forced to take to boats and life rafts as their torpedoed craft slid under the waves. Days of drifting under the merciless sun was the lot of one of these crews before they finally were picked up by a convoying destroyer that had been called to their aid by a patrol plane that sighted their frail craft tossing on the brassy southern sea.
“U. S. Navy gun crew members were the last to leave the ship”, was the laconic report of the master of an Army transport that had been torpedoed. This crew, the master said in enlarging on his report, stuck by their gun until the deck on which their gun had been placed was almost knee deep in water. They waited so long, however. that only one of the nine was saved. This man was picked up after he had been swimming around for the greater part of the night – – for the craft was torpedoed in the dead of night.
A master who knew full well that his vessel had been struck a death blow gave the order to abandon ship but not for these Armed Guards. Experience had taught them that time after time the undersea raiders surfaced to shell the life boats and they were willing to pay with their lives for a crack at the enemy. It was their task to keep the sea lanes open, to maintain the Navy’s traditions of ‘not giving up the ship”, and this they did even though they paid with their lives.
“Loaded 5,000 cases of TNT, then cleared to join convoy” was the log entry of another commander of an Armed Guard crew in his report to the Navy Department after the successful completion of a trip overseas. “Sitting on a load of dynamite” was literally the truth for this crew. They saw the trip-through but only after battling against air and sub forces. Time after time they were attacked by Axis air raiders. Time after time they set up anti-aircraft barrages so terrific that the raiding planes turned back to their base. Bombs were dropped on them often but they kept the raiders at such high altitude, that the bombs dropped harmlessly some distance from the TNT laden freighter.
One of the raiding planes, the commander of this particular ship reported, after being driven off time after time, finally was sighted diving directly at the port side of the ship. Then, as fire was directed at him, he was hit and crashed smoking and flaming into the sea. The Axis raider’s running mate, the captain reported, made no further attempt to attack the convoy. He wheeled in the air and vanished over the horizon.
It wasn’t only beating off air attackers for the crew of Navy sharpshooters on this freighter, as witness the following quotation made late in May from the report of the Armed Guard commander: “Between snow flurries that continued all day and night a single scout plane was observed circling the convoy far out of range. This procedure was maintained for sometime when the plane disappeared. Then the Commodore hoisted a signal to expect an air attack.
Less than an hour later in the early morning hours three planes were sighted on the starboard wing of the convoy and fire was immediately opened. The planes continued their approach in formation toward the convoy. Just before passing over the center of the line of the leading ships the plane on the left of the formation was hit. It seemed to stop for a moment and then plunged into the sea in flames. At the same time, the leading plane and the plane on the right of the formation dived and attempted to torpedo the two leading ships.”
It wasn’t only beating off air attackers for the crew of Navy sharpshooters in this convoy. Here is another quotation from the log of the Armed Guard after the convoy landed in the heart of an attacking sub pack. “Just a few minutes after the air attack the lookout on this ship sighted the exposed part of a submarine’s conning tower in the heart of the convoy and just a FEW YARDS off our starboard quarter. “In fact, she was so close aboard that neither a heavy gun mounted on the stern nor machine guns were able to be brought to bear on it.
Evidently realizing that we had sighted her, the submarine changed course and came across to the port quarter. When she was about 25 yards away from the ship, fire was opened. The second shot from the stern gun struck her squarely in the conning tower. As the shell exploded, the top of the conning tower was blown off. As she appeared to sink, the water boiled up in a great froth of air and bubbles. After observing the spot where she submerged we saw an oil slick forming with occasional bubbles rising to the surface. At this point one of the gunners reported a torpedo track crossing our bow from port to starboard. The ship immediately backed at full speed and the torpedo missed us by a few feet.
But just note the thought of the Armed Guard leader. No claim of a submarine sunk just,“ she appeared to sink.” Nothing is sunk in the Navy unless proof is positive and in the heat of battle — well, the convoy goes on sub or no sub.
This Armed Guard commander chronicled one other attack by Axis air raider that same day and wound up his report apologetically as follows: “Unfortunately both planes escaped without being damaged.’’ The trip of the Armed Guard that previously had been listed as bringing down three planes read like a nightmare of continuous action against the enemy, but still they carried through to victory on the ocean road overseas and home again.
Extracts from a resume of the voyage as submitted by the commander of the Armed Guard crew follow: “Upon our departure from ___, March ___, we ran into foul weather that ended in a full gale lasting several days, with the result that seven ships lost their convoy escorts in the excessive weather. On March 2 we were attacked by a high altitude bomber and again on the same afternoon by a dive bomber. Enemy destroyers which attempted to intercept the convoy during the air attack were defeated. Of the attacking surface raiders one destroyer was sunk and another set afire.
On four occasions our escort vessels dropped depth charges. Just prior to entering the safety of the submarine net at ___, we were attacked by a pack of submarines which were repulsed by our escort vessels with damage to three of the attackers. “During our stay in ___ we were frequently bombed by enemy planes and manned our anti-aircraft guns 58 times. Gun Crew 1E shot down two enemy planes, helped bring down a third, put one rear gunner out of action, and hit several others causing slight damage.
The air raid on one Sunday saw the fiercest bombardment during our stay in the port. The attack lasted, except for short intervals, for six hours. On the return trip from ___ to our home port we were attacked one morning by four torpedo carrying planes and on the same afternoon enemy destroyers attacked our convoy several times getting close enough to drop shells among the merchant ships without any great damage. German planes circled the convoy until the afternoon of May ___. By this time the vessel was far out on the trail home across the Atlantic.”
So goes the Armed Guards’ routine report of a trip in the life of a convoy, but for the purpose of record the crew that made this voyage were:
- Ensign Rufus T. Brinn, USNR
- Eaton P. DeCottes, Boatswain’s Mate, 1st Class, USN
- Edwin B. Newman, Coxswain, USN
- Gustav B. Schill; Jr., Gunner’s Mate 3rd Class, USN
- Edward C. Hoban, Gunner’s Mate 3rd Class, USN
- Thomas J. Dixon, Gunner’s Mate, 3rd Class, USN
- Julian D. Pylant, Seaman 1st Class, USN
- Peter L. Price, Seaman Ist Class, USN
- Gabriel G. Franzeo, Seaman 2nd Class, USN
- Edgar Smith, Seaman 2nd Class, USN
- Clarence L. Smith, Jr., Seaman 2nd Class, USN
Of this group only one was injured during the voyage and this man, Coxswain Edwin B. Newman, only slightly. He was injured slightly about the head when a 50 caliber shell ricocheted. He was carried unconscious to below decks during the attack but quickly recovered and later resumed his post during subsequent attacks.
A member of the Navy less than a year F. Gallegos, Seaman Second class, inscribed his name on the roll of Navy heroes by his actions one night when a freighter on which he was a member of an Armed Guard crew was torpedoed and sunk in the Caribbean. Ordered into a lifeboat when the command to abandon ship was given, he discovered his lifeboat had been crushed in the explosion that followed the torpedoing.
Gallegos jumped over the side of the sinking freighter, swam around in the darkness until he located a life raft and then spent the remainder of the night and part of the next day picking up survivors. Then, according to his commanding officer, he took charge of the crew of the merchantman until they were picked up and brought safely to port.
When this freighter was torpedoed it had already taken aboard survivors, including members of an Armed Guard crew, from another merchantman that had been torpedoed. These Navy gunners were unable to work their gun because it had been torn loose from its base when the first torpedo struck the vessel.
Despite the fact that their main weapon of offense had been destroyed the Armed Guard crew commanded by Lieutenant (junior grade) R. B. Berry, USNR, stuck by smaller weapons until water was knee deep on the main deck. Then when the submarine failed to surface, they took to the boats at a time when, as Lieutenant Berry described it, we were riding practically on top of the boat deck and thought the funnel was going to strike us as it toppled.”
During the night they rounded up members of crew of the sunken freighter and lashed them together. Shortly after dawn they picked up lifeboats from another torpedoed freighter and kept them in line until they were sighted by a freighter. The wind-tossed crews were finally picked up by the third freighter after drifting for about 12 hours. By this time men aboard the third steamer numbered 116.
The two naval gunnery officers set their Armed Guard crews up both as lookouts and gunners. The freighter then turned back to its course and was steaming full speed ahead when torpedoed. Adrift for hours again, they were picked by U. S. patrol craft.
The master of a steamer off the coast of Cuba brought his ship safely back to port with nothing but the highest praise for the work of his Navy gunners. Standing on the bridge of his vessel he saw the members of his Armed Guard crew firing at almost point blank range at an Axis undersea raider. “Whether our fire scored, I cannot say definitely,” he reported, “for it was at night. One of my crew being on the poop during the brief engagement, and in better position than mine to observe the results, states positively that our second shot scored.
The master of the ship reported discovery of the submarine to the Navy Department as follows: “Shortly after dawn, a vessel was observed approaching directly from astern, the most visible part being the tossing bow wave. I recognized it almost instantly as a submarine on the surface and sounded the General Alarm, rang for full speed and ordered full right rudder to keep our heavy stern gun bearing on the enemy.
Simultaneously the submarine must have discovered the blackened out shape of the freighter, because it swerved to the left and came almost abeam on our port side and opened fire with a machine gun, raking our port side. Within a minute the Armed Guard crew swung into action with one of their guns. Immediately the submarine crash-dived and we had only time for three shots before she was submerged.
The master of the ship had a sobering and then a patriotic thought in reporting the battle to the owners of the ship. ”It is a sobering thought to contemplate that one has participated in sending some 60 men to their Maker. On the other hand, this submarine was westbound, most certainly loaded to capacity with torpedoes and ammunition, bound on a voyage of destruction, and our action has spared many American seamen’s lives and ships.” *****.
Editorial Note: These men were heroes of the highest order. I knew one Armed Guardsman during his final years, but didn’t know that he was Armed Guard, only that he was “Navy.” I sincerely regret that his oral history was not recorded, but I have honored him as best I could, with what little he was willing to share, in the next chapter, “August Lee Bergmeier (USNAG).” R.I.P.
Liberty ship SS John W Brown, shown above, is a survivor of World War II, and an excellent example of a cargo ship that was manned by U.S. Navy Armed Guard crews. Liberty ships were built in the United States during World War II. Eighteen American shipyards built 2,710 Liberty ships between 1941 and 1945, easily the largest number of ships produced to a single design. Mass-produced on an unprecedented scale, the Liberty ship came to symbolize U.S. wartime industrial output.
The Victory ship was a later class of cargo ships also produced in large numbers. They were a more modern design compared to the earlier Liberty ship, were slightly larger and had more powerful steam turbine engines. This design produced higher speed to allow the ships to participate in high speed convoys and were more difficult targets for German U-boats.
Typically the USNAG crew was led by a single commissioned officer, but earlier in the war chiefs and even petty officers had command. Armed Guard crews served on Allied merchant marine ships in every theater of the war. The assignment as an Armed Guardsman was, however, often dreaded because of the constant danger. The USNAG uniform was distinguished by a vertical white stripe on the right shoulder seam.
Armed Guard crews served on Allied merchant marine ships in every theatre of the war. More than 53,000 guns were placed aboard merchant ships during World War II. Armed Guards were furnished to most of the 5,114 United States owned ships, and to a few foreign owned working with the Merchant Marine. The Navy Armed Guard unit would travel with the merchant ship to its destination and return Stateside on the same ship, or another, depending on convoy schedules.
Disbanded following the end of the war, the Armed Guard is today little known or remembered, but without the courage and sacrifice of the men of the Armed Guard, victory in World War II would have been much more difficult and would have taken much longer.
The 1943 film Action in the North Atlantic, featuring Humphrey Bogart, Raymond Massey, and Alan Hale, illustrates the importance of the Naval Armed Guard and how it interfaced with the Merchant Marine officers and crew.
Hull #579, the “SS Hannibal Victory,” was a Type VC2-S-AP2, launched December 21, 1944 and delivered January 25, 1945. Her maiden voyage was San Francisco to Manila in 1945. The trip, her cargo and USNAG gun crew are documented in Periscope Films’ 1945 documentary “Hannibal Victory,” at the time of this writing, located on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=78zu7hSXS-k . Her USNAG gun crew is prominent in the film, and several exerpts are shown here.
A vast network of training activities prepared the Armed Guards for their duties. Initially, training was given at an Armed Guard school in Chicago, Illinois. By 1942, there were three basic Armed Guard schools for the rest of the war. These were located at Little Creek (later moved to Shelton), Virginia; San Diego, California; and Gulfport, Mississippi.
Near each Armed Guard school was an anti-aircraft firing range where the 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 by the schools 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.
When Armed Guard officers and men had completed Basic Training they were assigned to an Armed Guard Center. There were three of these centers, located at Treasure Island, New York, and New Orleans. From the Centers the men were assigned to ships. But their records, mail, and pay accounts were handled by the Centers. When released from a ship they returned to the Center for further assignment.
The Center administered discipline, furnished recreation and additional training, and attended to the health and personal problems of the Armed Guards. It was their wartime duty station while not attached to a ship. Especial attention was given to the matter of furnishing proper clothing and recreational equipment for use on shipboard.
Hazardous Duty Considerations
The assignment as an Armed Guardsman was often dreaded because of the constant danger. Merchant ships were slow and unwieldy making them priority targets for enemy submarines and planes. Furthermore, merchant ships were among the last to receive updated equipment. Early on in the war, some ships only had a few machine guns installed, so the crews painted telephone poles to imitate the barrels of larger guns. The most common armament to be installed on merchant ships during the war were the MK II 20mm Oerlikon autocannon and the 3″/50, 4″/50, and 5″/38 deck guns.
Historical data for the Armed Guard indicate that some 710 merchant ships of 6,236 armed by the Navy were lost. Armed Guards were aboard most of the 569 United States owned ships lost by enemy action. Armed Guards and communication personnel defending merchant ships numbered 144,970 officers and men. Of this number, 1,683 lost their lives from enemy action and other causes, and 127 were missing, for a total of dead and missing of 1,810. Prisoners of war numbered 27, of which 14 were recovered.
Awards and commendations of all types to Armed Guards numbered 8,033 at the end of 1945. Operation and engagement stars numbered about 36,240. 9,882 men were authorized to wear the Philippine Liberation Ribbon, and 4,031 were authorized to wear stars on that ribbon. It should be pointed out that winning an engagement star in the Armed Guard was a difficult task. Officers and men who had ships torpedoed out from under them were not authorized to wear the engagement star.
Cross-training for Merchant Marine Crew Members
When practicable, the Navy Armed Guard aboard a merchant ship would provide cross-training to merchant crew members in the use of the guns in the event the Navy personnel were killed or injured.
“Liberty ship” was the name given to the EC2 type ship designed for “Emergency” construction by the United States Maritime Commission in World War II. Liberty ships were nicknamed “ugly ducklings” by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The first of the 2,711 Liberty ships was the SS Patrick Henry, launched on Sept. 27, 1941, and built to a standardized, mass produced design. (2,710 ships were completed, as one burned at the dock.) The 250,000 parts were prefabricated throughout the country in 250-ton sections and welded together in about 70 days. One Liberty ship, the SS Robert E. Peary was built in four and a half days. A Liberty cost about $2,000,000.
The Liberty was 441 feet long and 56 feet wide. Her three-cylinder, reciprocating steam engine, fed by two oil-burning boilers produced 2,500 hp and a speed of 11 knots. Her 5 holds could carry over 9,000 tons of cargo, plus airplanes, tanks, and locomotives lashed to its deck. A Liberty could carry 2,840 jeeps, 440 tanks, or 230 million rounds of rifle ammunition.
Liberty ships were named after prominent (deceased) Americans, starting with Patrick Henry and the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Any group which raised $2 million dollars in War Bonds could suggest a name for a Liberty ship, The Francis J. O’Gara was named after a mariner who was presumed dead, but who in fact, was a Prisoner of War. He was the only person to visit a Liberty ship named in his own honor.
Liberty Ship Design
Liberty ships carried a crew of about 44 merchant mariners and 12 to 25 Naval Armed Guard. Some ships were armed with as many as one 3 inch bow gun, one 4 or 5 inch stern gun, two 37mm bow guns, and six 20 mm machine guns. See details below.
The Nation’s wartime merchant shipbuilding capacity was increased considerably by building ocean vessels on the Great Lakes. The only way of getting these large vessels to salt water was via the Chicago drainage canal and Illinois-Mississippi river system to New Orleans. Superstructures were removed to get under Chicago bridges, and steel pontoons were attached to the sterns for the river trip, to lift them out of shallow water according to https://www.skylighters.org/troopships/libertyships.html
Services of more than 40 skilled trades were required to build a Liberty ship.
Female workers constituted 13 percent of the 700,000 merchant shipyard employees in 1943, and 18 percent of the 585,000 total in October 1944.
A Liberty ship could carry an amount of cargo equal to four trains of 75 cars each. They sailed with no name painted on their bows so as to give the enemy no hint as to their mission or cargo. Each ship had its own distillation system to make seawater drinkable. According to Lee Bergmeier, who sailed aboard several of these ships as a Navy Armed Guard gunner, the bread was usually laden with weevils, which the sailors had to pick out before eating any of the bread.
Credit: Liberty Ship images from https://www.skylighters.org/troopships/schematic3.html
The actual cost of a Liberty Ship at the various shipyards ranged from $1,543,000 to $2,099,000 per ship. A Liberty ship “paid for itself” if she completed one half of its maiden voyage — in other words — a one way trip was considered “successful,” to all except her crew. (www.USMM.org ©1998-2007)
About 200 Libertys were lost to torpedoes, mines, explosions, kamikazes, and other causes during WWII. Two Liberty ships, the SS Jeremiah O’Brien in San Francisco and the SS John W. Brown in Baltimore, survive as “museum ships” open to the public for tours and occasional cruises.
Next chapter: 43 – August Lee Bergmeier, Gunner, U.S. Navy Guard