The United States Merchant Marine is the fleet of U.S. civilian-owned merchant vessels, operated by either the government or the private sector, that engage in commerce or transportation of goods and services in and out of the navigable waters of the United States. The Merchant Marine is responsible for transporting cargo and passengers during peace time. In time of war, the Merchant Marine is capable of being an auxiliary to the Navy, and can be called upon to deliver troops and supplies for the military. The Merchant Marine however, does not have a role in combat, although a merchant mariner has a responsibility to protect cargo carried aboard his or her ship.
Merchant mariners move cargo and passengers between nations and within the United States, operate and maintain deep-sea merchant ships, tugboats, towboats, ferries, dredges, excursion vessels, and other waterborne craft on the oceans, the Great Lakes, rivers, canals, harbors, and other waterways.
As of 2006, the United States merchant fleet numbered 465 ships and approximately 100,000 members. Seven hundred ships owned by American interests but registered, or flagged, in other countries are not included in this number.
The federal government maintains fleets of merchant ships via organizations such as Military Sealift Command and the National Defense Reserve Fleet. In 2004, the federal government employed approximately 5% of all American water transportation workers.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, various laws fundamentally changed the course of American merchant shipping. These laws put an end to common practices such as flogging and shanghaiing, and increased shipboard safety and living standards. The United States Merchant Marine is also governed by several international conventions to promote safety and prevent pollution.
While the U.S. Government does employ some persons with Merchant Marine credentials to work on various types of government-owned ships, the Merchant Marine itself is not a military service, nor is it an auxiliary to the U.S. Navy during peacetime, and merchant seaman themselves are not military personnel. A "merchant marine" is the commercial fleet of a nation, the ships are owned by various shipping companies. U.S. merchant ships are regulated by the Coast Guard, the Department of Transportation, and the Department of Transportation's Maritime Administration.
The first wartime role of an identifiable United States merchant marine took place on June 12, 1775, in and around Machias, Maine. A group of citizens, hearing the news from Concord and Lexington, captured the British schooner HMS Margaretta. The citizens, in need of critical supplies, were given an ultimatum: either load the ships with lumber to build British barracks in Boston, or go hungry. They chose to fight.
Word of this revolt reached Boston, where the Continental Congress and the various colonies issued Letters of Marque to privateers. The privateers interrupted the British supply chain all along the eastern seaboard of the United States and across the Atlantic Ocean. These actions by the privateers predate both the United States Coast Guard and the United States Navy, which were formed in 1790 and 1775, respectively.
The merchant marine was active in subsequent wars, from the Confederate commerce raiders of the American Civil War, to the assaults on Allied commerce in the First and in the Second World Wars. 3.1 million tons of merchant ships were lost in World War II. Mariners died at a rate of 1 in 24, which was the highest rate of casualties of any service. All told, 733 American cargo ships were lost and 8,651 of the 215,000 who served perished in troubled waters and off enemy shores.
Merchant shipping also played its role in the wars in Vietnam and Korea. During the Korean War, the number of ships under charter grew from 6 to 255. In September 1950, when the U.S. Marine Corps went ashore at Incheon, 13 Navy cargo ships, 26 chartered American, and 34 Japanese-manned merchant ships, under the operational control of Military Sea Transportation Service, participated.
During the Vietnam War, ships crewed by civilian seamen carried 95% of the supplies used by the American armed forces. Many of these ships sailed into combat zones under fire. The SS Mayaguez incident involved the capture of mariners from the American merchant ship SS Mayaguez.
During the first Gulf War, the merchant ships of the Military Sealift Command (MSC) delivered more than 11 million metric tons of vehicles, helicopters, ammunition, fuel and other supplies and equipment. At one point during the war, more than 230 government-owned and chartered ships were involved in the sealift.
Government-owned merchant vessels from the National Defense Reserve Fleet (NDRF) have supported emergency shipping requirements in seven wars and crises. During the Korean War, 540 vessels were activated to support military forces. A worldwide tonnage shortfall from 1951 to 1953 required over 600 ship activations to lift coal to Northern Europe and grain to India. From 1955 through 1964, another 600 ships were used to store grain for the Department of Agriculture. Another tonnage shortfall following the Suez Canal closing in 1956 brought about 223 cargo ship and 29 tanker activations from the NDRF. During the Berlin crisis of 1961, 18 vessels were activated, remaining in service until 1970. The Vietnam War required the activation of 172 vessels.
Since 1977, the Ready Reserve Fleet (RRF) has taken the brunt of the work previously handled by the National Defense Reserve Fleet. The RRF made a major contribution to the success of Operation Desert Shield/Operation Desert Storm from August 1990 through June 1992, when 79 vessels helped meet military sealift requirements by carrying 25% of the unit equipment and 45% of the ammunition needed.
Two RRF tankers, two Roll-on/Roll-off (RO/RO) ships and a troop transport ship were employed in Somalia for Operation Restore Hope in 1993 and 1994. During the Haitian crisis in 1994, 15 ships were activated for Operation Uphold Democracy operations. In 1995 and 1996, four RO/RO ships were used to deliver military cargo as part of U.S. and U.K. support to NATO peace-keeping missions.
Four RRF ships were activated to provide humanitarian assistance for Central America following Hurricane Mitch in 1998.
In 2003, 40 RRF ships were used in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. This RRF contribution included sealifting into the combat theater equipment and supplies including combat support equipment for the Army, Navy Combat Logistics Force, and USMC Aviation Support equipment. By the beginning of May 2005, RRF cumulative support included 85 ship activations that logged almost 12,000 ship operating days, moving almost 25% of the equipment needed to support operations in Iraq.
The Military Sealift Command was also involved in the Iraq War, delivering 61,000,000 square feet (5,700,000 m2) of cargo and 1,100,000,000 US gallons (4,200,000 m3) of fuel by the end of that year. Merchant mariners were recognized for their contributions in Iraq. For example, in late 2003, Vice Adm. David Brewer III, Military Sealift Command commander, awarded the crew of the MV Capt. Steven L. Bennett the Merchant Marine Expeditionary Medal.
The RRF was called upon to provide humanitarian assistance to gulf coast areas following Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita landfalls in September 2005. The Federal Emergency Management Agency requested a total of eight vessels to support relief efforts. Messing and berthing was provided for refinery workers, oil spill response teams and longshoremen. One vessel provided electrical power.