They Also Served – US Coast Guard Merchant Marines

Ask someone to name the branches of the U.S. armed forces, and you will most likely hear, “Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines”. Many overlook the fifth and smallest branch, the US Coast Guard, which fulfills vital security, rescue, and relief missions on American lakes and waterways and in international waters every day. Formally established in 1915, the service can trace its origins to 1790, initially serving under the Navy; the USCG is now a division of the Department of Homeland Security.

The men who served with the Merchant Marine during World War II, hauling precious cargo around the world, pulled the most dangerous duty during that war. The casualty rates during World War II were dramatically higher for the men who served on Merchant Marine ships than in any formal branch of the military. Working sometimes without escort and with only modest fire power aboard, the ships of the Merchant Marine sailed through mine fields and dodged submarines and bombers to deliver invaluable cargo everywhere from Arctic Russia to the Persian Gulf. Even so, veterans’ status and benefits were denied the Mariners until 1988. It’s important to note that the US Coast Guard have participated in every armed conflict between the United States and a foreign power.

During WWII, my Dad, and his fellow Merchant Mariners served as escorts, performed rescue missions, brought fuel and supplies to oceangoing vessels, and were involved in bringing many of our troops back home at the end of the war. Although they didn’t receive recognition as US Veterans until 43 years after the war ended, I never once heard my Dad complain. Instead, he continued to serve, along with Mama, on the USCG Auxiliary, and was proud to accept his formal acknowledgment as a US Merchant Marine Veteran serving aboard oceangoing merchant ships in service to the United States of America during World War II, when the time finally came.

A 16 year old lad from South Ozone Park, Queens, New York, Russell gained mechanical and working knowledge working aboard these vessels that would carry him, and us, throughout the rest of his life. He sent his paychecks home to his mother, and his older sister, to help pay for her tuition through nursing school. Dad’s sister, Barbara May Sweet became an RN with a Masters Degree by 1950, and was the head nurse of a large hospital in upstate New York.

Dad went back to school at the encouragement of my mother, and he earned his H.S. GED at the age of 46 years old, from what was then FJC, Florida Junior College, in 1973. I remember his graduation party, he was humbled and modest about this accomplishment, which he had postponed in order to serve others. He was without doubt the smartest man I have ever known.

Don’t let anyone tell you that these guys were just a bunch of rabble rousers. They were tough as nails, with gusto for life and hearts as big as the Atlantic. My dad loved the sea. He loved his family, his country, and most everyone he ever encountered. I think he picked the right service…the Merchant Marines motto, “Acta Non Verba,” or “Deeds Not Words,” describes his character to a tee.

I love you and I miss you Dad. I promise to keep your memory alive, and to remind others that you and your fellow Mariners also served.