July 23, 2014
A History of Coastwise Barges and Tugs from WW II
J. Don Horton
The United States Merchant Marine has been largely viewed by the general population as large ships sailing across oceans and seas carrying exotic cargo from one country to another. Little information to what actually takes place within the service is known or understood by the public. Most citizens have little knowledge that our Merchant Marine was established before our United States Navy or Coast Guard, and many do not know that during our nation’s wars our Merchant Marine is looked upon as the Fourth Arm of Defense.
The United States’ effort to fight and win the greatest war in history was comprised of a coalition of civilians and service members from the greatest generation this nation has ever known. There were three major components in that coalition, our fighting forces overseas, the civilian production machine here at home and, the link was the United States Merchant Marine.
Our Merchant Marine has proven itself time and again in every war we have encountered. History has consistently noted the brave seamen who crossed oceans carrying our troops and war materials in every war, and who often encountered enemy actions that sent many of those brave souls to the bottom of the seas. Stories have been written about their heroic efforts to keep our shipping lanes open even while losing ships enemy hostilities here on our own shores during World War II. Early on during WW II, we were losing our ships faster than they could be built. The commanders of the German U-boats considered the waters off the east coast to be a shooting gallery because of our lack of security and adherence to keeping our shoreline dark. The bright lights from the various amusement parks and residential areas along the coastal beaches provided the perfect backdrop for German U-boats to pick our ships off at will.
We fought World War II on a global scale, with major fighting on three fronts. Logistics for this war in terms of supplies reached a scale never since matched. The supply lines to our front lines stretched across both oceans. They were very vulnerable, especially at the very start of the war. Our nation was caught off guard by the magnitude of the logistical effort required to maintain our front lines. Every effort was made to keep our troops adequately supplied by working around the clock in our defense plants. Every able bodied person, rather it be man, woman or child stood up to do their part. This nation came together like no other time to produce the supplies required to keep that war effort moving forward. This effort has not been matched since, and probably will never be again.
The task of transporting our troops and the majority of materials overseas fell to our Merchant Marine. The United States had a very small inventory of ships that could carry our troops and supplies, and the German U-Boats were sinking them faster than we could build new ones. Enemy submarine successes threatened the outcome of the war in the first few years. In fact, the loss of shipping along our coastline during the first part of the war was so great that our own government had to step in and instruct our news outlets not to give out the number of ships lost. There was fear that our seamen would refrain from shipping out, thereby creating critical manpower shortages. This would have caused shipping delays and quite possibly could have placed our chances of winning the war in jeopardy. Had it not been for the gallant efforts of merchant seamen manning vessels against threatening odds, the war could have ended much differently.
The great loss of ships caused our nation to call upon another group of vessels that had generally been placed out of service. Our country had some 250-300 old wooden hulled barges that were rarely used. They had served our nation well but were now resting in our Ghost fleets and on sandbars in our rivers, rotting away. Most had long passed their effective life span. Some were built around the middle of the nineteenth century and their condition was poor. Many barges began their life as sail schooners in the mid-1800s. There was a short-lived belief that sails would help propel these barges and give the tugboats towing them a little help. By the turn-of-the-century most had their masts removed and extra hatches added to the hulls to carry more cargo.
These barges had reached a stage of maintenance neglect that the fears of many came true just as soon as they were placed back into service. The caulking, placed between the planking to keep them from severely leaking, was lost to both the rough seas before being placed into a stage of storage and from rot afterwards, had place them in grave condition and subject to sinking with the slightest bit of neglect. The companies were not about to expend funding to correct this problem. They were often referred to as floating coffins. Yet the mariners stepped up and manned them.
There were some seventy companies that did business in the coastal trades, and about 700 barges or schooners were originally recorded as actively participating. Records indicate the first wooden hulled barge was built around 1856 and maybe the last around 1923. They ranged in sizes in tonnage from 600 to 2400 tons. During World War II there were several hundred barges remaining to carry out this tradition.
After the turn of the 20th century, companies began to send the barges out into larger bodies of waters. Soon the coastwise trade for barges was where the money was for companies. A tow of three barges could carry more payload of, say coal, than several locomotives could carrying 300 coal cars or 600 trucks carrying the same payload and at a fraction of the cost.
Shortly after the outbreak of World War II, it became apparent that we needed every possible source of commerce to keep our supplies lines open. These barges were quickly called back into service even in their very old and primitive conditions. It was not uncommon to see ten or twenty tugs and their barges moving cargo up and down the coast on any given day. As demand for commerce grew the barges began playing a larger role in the defense of our country. After all, no other mode of transportation could offer the benefits at lesser costs. They were by far the most economical means to move product around the country.
The German U-boats sank our ships faster than we could build them. Larger and faster ships were needed to keep our shipping lanes open and to keep our troops overseas supplied with badly needed materials. Here at home, every available means of moving war materials to our defense plants became a necessity, regardless of the risk.
These barges kept alive a tradition dating back before the birth of this nation. Our forefathers brought this lifestyle with them when they landed here to establish this country. Families were traditional on some of the barges. This emanated from the river barges that traveled the major tributaries of our nation for as long as this nation has existed. Our major source of commerce came by river throughout our country. It still does. Often the crew that manned some of these barges during the summer school breaks was comprised solely by families. Companies owning these barges looked favorably on those that were manned by families. They believed families would remain on board more so than single seamen because of the primitive living conditions generally found on most barges. Families tend to adapt more easily.
Barge seamen endured a life that was extremely primitive as most barges were without the average necessities found ashore. There was no electricity, running water or the usual bathroom conveniences. Heat came from a simple coal stove that was used for cooking as well. Light from kerosene lamps was the norm. This life was hard and it left its mark on you. With the ever present German U-boats, young seamen matured fast. This was a far cry from a young man’s dream of sailing the 7 seas.
These coastwise barge seamen were a small, dedicated and mostly unknown group who served in the US Merchant Marine. They made little news but played a very important role during World War II. They moved bulk cargo and war supplies to the various defense factories and power plants along our coastal ports. Minimal news or entries in history were made as most gave little attention to them. They were considered by many as insignificant. Historians wrote limited information and they would only make news if something disastrous happened. Storms would cause sufficient damage and some would make the news if fatalities occurred. History passed them by and carried their records along with it.
The role these coastwise seamen played in WW II has slipped by most historians and history books, and, it needs to be identified. If one can imagine what is required to build some of the military supplies war materials used to fight a war then perhaps one may understand their role. The defense plants manufactured the war materials, from a simple safety pin to large locomotive engines; from the food to clothing, to medicine, to the actual fighting equipment such as guns, ammunition, tanks; and airplanes, bombs, and fuel, to operate all the vehicles manufactured to move the troops and equipment and so many other materials and equipment necessary to keep the enemy from our doors.. Raw/bulk materials are required to produce all finished product and these plants only survived by finding a way to bring the materials to their doorsteps. They operated on a 24/7 basis and required a steady influx of bulk/raw materials. The plants also required fuel to operate their machinery and power the plant itself. Power plants utilized coal and the primary source of energy to develop electricity for the surrounding population. This coal mostly came by barge to offload and the private docks of these power plants.
All the raw/bulk materials had to be shipped to those plants. The barges were the primary vessels used to transport the bulk cargo to the defense plants. Without the materials a war could not have been fought much less won. Without the barges we would not have had sufficient materials to fight a war on three fronts and win it to keep our shores free from the enemy and we would not be enjoying the freedom we now take for granted. These barges and the people who manned them played a major role in WW II and history has passed them by without the slightest mention anywhere throughout our history books today.
Most of our defense plants were located along our coastal ports and required to be serviced via our merchant vessels. Rail road facilities had minimal port access, limiting support from our rail systems. Most all the raw/bulk materials had to be shipped to those plants. Our larger merchant vessels were required to move the finished cargo to support our troops overseas. The barges became the primary vessels used to transport the bulk war materials to our defense plants. Without the materials a war could not have been fought much less being won. Without the barges we would not have had sufficient materials to fight a war on three fronts and win; keeping our shores free from the enemy and we would not be enjoying the freedom we now take for granted. Yes, the barges and the people who manned them played a major role in WW II and history has passed them by with hardly a mention anywhere in our history books today. Figuratively, speaking they supplied the ingredients to make the cake.
Since the younger and more able-bodied seamen preferred the larger modern ships, barges were more or less left to others less traditional crews. Some elderly seamen came back to the sea and brought their families to serve as members of the crew. This brought forth a resurge in the traditional use of barge families. Many women who were refused opportunities to work on the larger vessels came aboard the barges as crew as well. Some of the seamen that came to work on the barges were without the credentials now required to prove service on these vessels. The masters were the agent responsible to determine the need of the barge and hired accordingly. They worked alongside those with credentials and were paid the same wages with the same taxes withheld. They performed the same work and were exposed to the same threats as the credentialed seamen were. Yet, today, many of the seamen that operated tugs and barges cannot prove their service because they do not have the proper documents those others were provided. Many were directly denied documents because of their age, gender or disability. Today we call this discrimination.
Many seamen were considerably older than the required draft age and often disabled. Many were missing a leg, arm or an eye. School age children manned the crew positions as well as any other seamen. They proved their mettle. These barges carried the bulk raw war materials to the ports that fed the defense plants that built war supplies and equipment for our troops overseas. The use of these barges freed our larger merchant fleet to concentrate on the vital necessity of transporting supplies and equipment to our troops on the front lines. This was not a small task.
At the start of the war, women tried repeatedly to join the US Merchant Marine. They were thwarted by the War Shipping Administrator (WSA), Admiral Emory S. Land, who declared that there was no place in the Merchant Marine for women. It would be too immoral. By this order from the WSA, the US Coast Guard refused to document women who served. Women served anyway and performed every duty asked of them, without any formal recognition their work. They served on barges and other vessels, mostly as cooks and messmen. They were paid salaries and Social Security taxes were taken from their wages. They performed the same services as those with proper credentials on the same vessels and did it well. They deserve to be recognized for their service to our country.
Efforts to gain status as seamen by the women were met with stern denials from the Captains of the Port (COTP) stationed at the various coastal ports. I was present in June of 1942, when the COTP of New York denied my mother and sister their official documentation as seamen. Instead he issued an official US Coast Guard Identification Card to my mother and told her my sister did not need one as she was below the age of 16. Children could move about freely through the security checkpoints on the docks if accompanied by a parent. He stated by order of the WSA, he was directed to deny official seaman’s papers to women upon application.
Thousands of other women were denied official documentation for service in the Merchant Marine. To this day, there has been no avenue for these women to gain their due recognition as seamen of the United States Merchant Marine and thus gain veterans status of this nation. A letter from the US Coast Guard dated 09 Apr, 2010, states, “The US Government did not issue mariner credentials to females during World War II.” No effort has ever been made to recognize the WW II Merchant Marine women.
Recent research of 29 barges and tugs brought forth 1172 seamen who served between 1942 and 1943. From that group there were 84 seamen with traditionally female names who served aboard those vessels. That transmits to a ratio of almost 9 percent of the work-force being women, if one could use this finding to be an approximate ratio of seamen who served on coastwise vessels. In today’s military service, where women are recognized for their service, the ration is placed at 14%. This finding provides an astounding proportion of women serving during World War II in the Merchant Marine that have never been officially recognized as seamen and veterans. This is wrong and it must be corrected.
US CG Official Shipping/Discharge documents (Forms 718A) were obtained from the National Archives and Records Administration, Wash. DC through the superb support of Mr. Mark Mollan, WW II Senior Archivist, that contained information proving Active Duty (AD) services for some WW II coastwise barge and tug Merchant Mariners. Together with additional information obtained via a FOIA request to the National Maritime Center, research brought forth additional information. Research conducted between June-August 2013, in concert with the NMC, using official records of 1172 coastwise merchant mariners revealed the following:
WW II Coastwise Mariners Listing: Excel Sheet #1
1172 Mariners identified via official USCG Shipping/Discharge Forms 718A
84 Mariners may be women according to their feminine sounding names; OR 7.2% 1058 Mariners’ ages were specified. Ages ranged from 10 to 78.
583 Mariners identified within draft age and included those in 4F status; OR 55.1%
of known ages.
525 Mariners identified at over the draft age of 37; OR 49.6% of known ages.
114 Mariners with age not specified; OR 09.7%
47 Mariners who served were under the age of 17; OR 4.4% of known ages.
16 Mariners KIA with 1 receiving DD Form 1300.
National Maritime Form DD 214 Listing: Excel Sheet #2
794 Mariners were identified on NMC Coastwise Mariners listing identifying AD services.
291 Mariners on NMC listing had no USCG MMLD numbers listed; OR 36.6%
85 Mariners issued DD Form 214 from NMC listing, OR 10.7% of NMC; OR 7.2% of WW II CMM
National Maritime DD Form 1300 listing: Excel Sheet #3
348 Mariners listed on NMC DD 1300 file as having received DD Form 1300 from overall estimated number of approximate 9500 Mariners KIA, OR 3.7%
1 Mariner in NMC DD 1300 files as having received Form DD 1300 yet 16 identified on WW II CM listing
68 Mariners listed on NMC listing & not listed on WW II MM Personnel Casualty Summary Report of 1950
Other research has brought forth three more actions that have prohibited seamen who served in the Merchant Marine during World War II from seeking recognition as veterans. The Commandant of the US Coast Guard’s Order of 20 Mar 1944 relieved the masters of tugs and seagoing barges of the responsibility of issuing shipping and discharge papers to seamen. Then, the US Maritime Administration issued orders to destroy ship’s deck and engine logbooks in the 1970s. A US Coast Guard Reference Information Paper #77 dated April, 1990 refers to these actions.
World War II brought about the advent of women in the military and they proved themselves. They earned some of our country’s highest honors for their service. However, the women who served in the US Merchant Marine in World War II were denied their Official Mariner’s credentials and have never been able to achieve what they most gallantly earned, veteran status. Those of us who hold this status perceive it as one of our most honored possessions. Together we can make a difference as these brave seamen did for us during WW II. They stood up for us and in doing so they kept this country free. The very least we can do is repay them with the recognition they have most graciously deserve. Let’s stand up for them and make it possible for them to gain their rightful position as veterans. Will you help make it happen?
The reason I am interested in gaining recognition for the men and women who manned the barges during WWII is that I was one of them and I know we deserve and have been overlooked after giving so much for the war effort and Freedom. The tugboat Menomonee was sunk off the coast of Virginia on 31 Mar., 1942 at 37’ 34” N, 75” 25” by the German U-boat 754, with the loss of my brother, William Lee Horton, Jr. at the age of 17, while serving his country.
On 21 March, 2013, US Representatives G. K. Butterfield, Walter Jones, Mike McIntyre & Mark Meadows of North Carolina and 37 other Representatives introduced a bill in the House of Representatives that may help these coastwise seamen and women gain what has been denied them for more than 67 Years. H.R. 1288, the World War II Merchant Mariner Service Act would direct the Secretary of Homeland Security to allow other forms of documentation to prove service in the World War II Merchant Marine. Official Records were withheld, destroyed, or denied, thus preventing somewhere between 10,000 to 30,000 coastwise merchant seamen from gaining their rightful place as veterans of our country. We now have 94 cosponsors. On 02 August, 2013 HR 1288 was incorporated into HR 2189 and moved to the floor pending a final vote. It cleared the House Floor with a 404 to 1 vote and is now in the Senate.
HR 1288 could help some WW II Mariners gain recognition as a veteran. This legislation can correct a travesty that has gone unnoticed or ignored for such a long time. Costs associated with this bill have been deemed to have an insignificant impact on direct spending by the CBO so cost should not be an issue. This bill stands alone in helping these coastwise merchant seamen gain the recognition they have been deprived of due to records being withheld, destroyed, or denied. This needs to be corrected and soon.
In July Senators Murphy, D-CT, Blumenthal, D-Ct and Collins, R-ME introduced a bill in the Senate S-1361 with identical language as that contained in HR 1288 now HR 2189. Shortly thereafter S-1361 was incorporated into S 1561 and the language of S-1361 was replaced with provisions to perform a 90 process review study and then reporting back for another review. This is simply a method of killing the bill as a review is not warranted as the process is intact. What is simply needed are alternative methods of recognition that will provide a method of utilizing other documentation to replace those records that were destroyed by several government actions either directly destroying them or denying others from obtaining same; and allowing for personal oaths similar to what was allowed for veterans proving services dating back to the Revolutionary War. Now S 1581 has been incorporated twice since into first S 1950n and the latest to be S 1982 which cleared the committee on 24 Feb, 2014 and moved to the floor for debate and was defeated. Another Senate bill will be forthcoming and HR 2189 will have to be reconciled with the differences of the two bills worked out. The WW II CMM opposes changing the language of HR 2189 to a 90 day Process Review and will work toward keeping the language intact.
On 14 Mar, 2014 movement within some NC Districts, (1st and the 3rd), to encourage the respective Representatives to initiate actions to obtain specific records of some Merchant Marine veterans that should have had their records released to the National Military Personnel Records Center (NMPRC) in St. Louis, MO. This required action as a result of an agreement between the DOL and the National Archives Records Administration (NARA) whereby the records of any military personnel (including WW II Merchant Mariners) who have been discharged at least 62 years will be sent to the NMPRC for use in research by the public and free of the Privacy Act. The NMC and the NSARA have not moved those records pertaining to our WW II Merchant Marine and are still preventing access to the public citing the Privacy Act that should not apply. This action resulted in the NC Democratic Party approving a resolution unanimously in favor of support for our Mainers. Sad to say this was not the case in the State Republican Party. The resolution failed to make it out of the 3rd District and never reach State.
A second action within these same districts is directed toward our two Senators who have stood down in all endeavors to assist these mariners to gain their due recognition as veterans. Efforts are being initiated to send letters from the counties of each of these districts to our two senators urging them to support and defend the Companion bill S 1361 that will keep the wording of HR 1288 intact and have done with this issue.
Note: As of 15 Jul, 2014 there are two bills in the Senate awaiting action. HR 4435, the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act, and S-2410, the Senate version of the National Defense Authorization Act, both contain amendments regarding HR-1288 and S-1361, WW II Merchant Mariners Service Act. With positive support from out US Senators these bill will finally provide the long awaited and due recognition as veterans for these mariners.