The U.S. Merchant Marine Cadet Corps during World War II

The U.S. Merchant Marine Cadet Corps during World War II

It was, as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt solemnly intoned, a “date that would live in infamy.” On December 7, 1941, Japanese planes attacked the United States Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, killing 2,403 Americans and injuring an additional 1,178, destroying or damaging eight Navy battleships, and abruptly plunging the United States into war.

Although the dawn attack was unexpected, a global conflagration was already underway. Pearl Harbor, and the subsequent declaration of war on the Axis powers, only accelerated a massive mobilization of the U.S. armed forces and private industry that was already in process. Less than a month later, President Roosevelt announced production goals for 1942 that included 60,000 planes, 45,000 tanks, 20,000 antiaircraft guns, and 18 million deadweight tons of merchant shipping. These were staggering, almost unbelievable targets for a nation that had long indulged its isolationist streak.

Almost overnight, the rules had to be rewritten. Suddenly, scrap metal was no longer disposable. Idle talk was no longer harmless. For most Americans, the world had changed irrevocably.

In cities across the country, the world had also changed for 395 young men who, only a day earlier on December 6, 1941, had taken the fifth national competitive exam to qualify as cadets in the fledgling Merchant Marine Cadet Corps. The Corps, which had been founded two years earlier by the U.S. Maritime Commission to train officers for the U.S. merchant marine industry, had been selecting highly qualified young men from every state in the nation to become part of an elite training unit. However in the new, post-Pearl Harbor world of merchant shipping, every able-bodied young man was needed—and thus, the December 6 exam was never graded. All applications to the Corps were accepted, as long as the applicants met Naval Reserve standards for physical fitness.

Over the next several months, many of those who had taken the exam would report to one of three Cadet Corps Officer Training Schools to begin training for service in the U.S. merchant marine. In subsequent months and years, these men, and thousands of others like them, would find themselves serving as part of the fifth arm of national defense, the U.S. Flag Merchant Marine, and on the front lines of war.


12 thoughts on “The U.S. Merchant Marine Cadet Corps during World War II

  1. I think you will find that Roosevelt’s remarks were:”a date that will live in infamy”……

    • Thanks I will make the change. Interesting that FDR substituted ‘which’ that was in the original text to ‘that’. I appreciate your keen eyes. George

  2. Gordon, Jr. John Robert was my fathers brother, he later had a Liberty ship named after him. I have the pictures of the ship when it was launched. My Grand Mother christened the ship. And yes our last names are spelled different the O was changed to a E sometime between ’20 and ’22.

  3. Don Horton, U.S. Merchant Marine Veterans, asked me to place the following in hopes that those reading this Blog could provide info to him about those who served on in the Coastwise trade on tugs and barges during WW II. He can be reached at 252 336 5553 or email at

    We are In search of some 10,000 merchant seamen or relatives of those who served on coastwise barges and tugs during WW II and who were NOT recognized as veterans for their services. These seamen include some disabled seamen, women and school age children who served as families during school breaks. Please note: Women were refused the proper credentials for service during WW II and were ordered off the ships as soon as they hit an American port. During the first part of the war some were KIA, POW, MIA and others critically wounded. They refused to stay home and many found themselves serving along with families on coastwise barges. These barges carried bulk war materials to defense plants along our coastal ports. Families serving on barges were a tradition long before this nation was born. Many seamen who served on these coastwise barges and tugs did so without the credentials now required for veteran’s status today. They did the job, received wages and paid taxes; and worked alongside other seamen holding the proper papers. Today this sort of reaction is known as discrimination and cannot be tolerated. Others had their papers lost.
    George J. Ryan, January 4, 2013

  4. To George Ryan From George J. Roewe, Jr., Class of 1945
    Date 1/22/13

    Below is what I wrote to submit to your American Maritime History Project. It contains some of my memories of serving in World War 2 as requested in your Dec. 21, 2012 letter.

    George J. Roewe, Jr.;Born: November 27, 1924; Hometown: Washington, D.C.;Class: 1945
    Service: Merchant Marine, Deck Cadet, 3rd Mate

    I made my contribution to WW 2 by joining the U.S. Maritime Service. As a kid I had fished, rowed and sailed boats. I had a great interest in water activities and felt I could provide my best service to my country on the water. I had been a Boy Scout and a Sea Scout as well. When my selective service notice came, it interrupted by goal to go to Georgia Tech to train to be a chemist. Consequently, I joined the U.S. Merchant Marine
    Academy at Kings Point, N.Y.
    The four year course had been shortened to 18 months which involved 3 months at the Academy, 6 months at sea on a ship and 12 months back at the Academy. While you were on the ship as a student you worked 6 hours a day as a Deck Cadet, doing ship jobs. Two hours a day were allowed to complete your Sea Project. This required 2 sets (250 pages in each set) to sets of your Sea Project and two textbooks that had to do with your onboard duties and learning experiences to make learning more functional as a Deck Officer. It took more like four – five hours a day to research for all the answers to these questions. If you didn’t get a good grade on the Sea Project you were fired and sent back to the Army Ground Forces. I passed as did most of us in the class. I graduated in Jan., 1945.

    While at the Academy and at sea, we were paid $65.00 a month. If our ship was in a convoy, your pay was double. The ship I was on was built on Hog Island, PA. now known as the Philadelphia, Airport. This ship was built in 1918 for WW I and moved at about 7 knots. It was too slow for 1942 convoys. We were assigned during those six months at sea to sail on this vessel, and we sailed to South America. No German submarines were supposed to be in that area, hence no convoys. We never saw or heard any subs during those 6 months.
    I returned to Kings Point for 12 months and graduated with a Deck Third Mate’s License at about $250 a month.
    I sailed for two trips in convoys back and forth two weeks each way in ships that were built in the mid 1940’s and sailed at 20 knots. On the 3rd trip I became ill and was taken off the ship and put in a hospital in France. While in the hospital we heard V-2 bombs overhead on their way to England. They sounded like an automobile with no muffler. The Germans had captured much of western France and were at the French/Belgian border. Our hospital position on the ground just happened to be in the target line overhead as the V-2’s flew to London to explode and kill people.
    We all hoped they wouldn’t fall short and fall on us. None did. That was a scare every day in the hospital.
    I got well and relieved another ill ship’s officer and got on his ship as 3rd mate. This ship was in route to Marseilles, France to pick up 2,000 soldiers on their way to Japan.
    The 2,000 soldiers in Marseilles were paid off for their wages in $100 bills. There was no professional entertainment on the vessel headed to Japan. So, they played cards, Gin Rummy, Poker and any other games and bet only $100 bills. I will never forget looking at those pots of winnings holding thousands of dollars. As we neared the Panama Canal, the Atomic Bomb was dropped in Japan, and several days later the Japanese surrendered. We were happily rerouted to Savanna, Georgia for discharge and took trains home.
    I continued to sail after this as a 2nd mate for U.S. Lines. on trips that usually lasted only 4 to 6 weeks and only seeing your wife for a week before the next 6 week trip. I gave up going to sea. i returned to college, got my degree in Chemistry and worked for the DuPont Company for the next 28 years.

  5. My dad was Austin Douglas (Bud) Fuller. He went through Kings Point around 1941. His stories about his memories of the cold North Sea fascinated me when I was young. My dad told me that it was harsh and really rough, but he also had such pride in the Merchant Marine.
    When he died in 1992, he was finally recognized by the US military and my Mom (who is now 91) received his flag. These were brave men. Whenever I meet a Merchant Marine today, I tell them that. Incidentally, I married a submarine sailor and he recently passed away after being on subs for over 25 years.

    • Thank you for reading our blog about the men of the merchant marine who truly braved the wartime seas as did your Dad. One of out team researched your Dad’s name and sent me the following: Under Ancestry I found a couple of hits on Austin D. Fuller. He was from Schenectady, NY. Born in 1920 or 1921. Sailed in 1945 and 1946 as an engine utility man and also as Jr. 3rd Asst. Engineer on the USA HS Jarrett Huddleston. There was a photo of him taken in 1937 as a sophomore at Draper High School in Schenectady.
      You probably know all of this. I am pleased that he was honored and received an American Flag upon his death. George Ryan

  6. I had received a 3rd alternate Congressional appointment to the Naval Academy at Annapolis before graduating from High School in June, 1942. In October,1943, and just 19 years old, I still had not received orders to Annapolis so I joined the Merchant Marine as a Cadet/Midshipman. Reported to Pass Christian, MS early November for basic training. Completed that in Feb, 1942. Was assigned as an engineering cadet to a new construction Liberty ship in Houston, TX. We moved the ship to Galveston where it was loaded with barrels of aviation fuel and a deck cargo of P-47 airplanes. In a convoy to Guantanamo where we were detached and sailed to the Panama Canal. Saw a couple of ships sunk by torpedoes in the Florida Straights. Leaving Panama we sailed solo to Sydney, Aus. foe a few days R&R and refueling. Then inside the Great Barrier Reef to Townsville, Aus. where we off loaded our cargo. While there in late April, I received a radiogram stating that I was to report to the Naval Academy in June. No transportation was available to the states. The captain advised me to stay with the ship and things would be okay. He could not tell me where we we headed but obviously we were going home. With much effort and the assistance of the Red Cross, I was able to get train tickets to Jacksonville, FL (my home) and then took a bus to DC before going to the academy. I was discharged from the MM Cadet Corps simultaneously with being sworn in as a midshipman at Annapolis in June, 1944. Graduated in June , 1948. Went to flight training and retired from the US Navy in April 1974. Have worked and lived in DC and Maryland since that time. Harry Belflower, CDR USN(ret.).

    • Thank you for sharing your experiences as a Cadet-Midshipman. You were probably one of the few Naval Officers who understood what the Merchant Marine was all about. I know I found such a lack of knowledge about the U.S. merchant Marine when I served briefly as a naval officer on a cruiser. I hope you will visit the Academy when in the area. You will see the various monuments and the Chapel that honors those who served and died. Thanks for all you did for our country. George

    • You are correct in that the U.S. Maritime Commission administered the program, placed cadets on subsidized American ships and they were supervised by shoreside district staff.

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