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.