The Naval Armed Guard Conducted Extremely Dangerous Missions with Shockingly Little Equipment

The Naval Armed Guard Conducted Extremely Dangerous Missions with Shockingly Little Equipment

Assigned to protect merchant sailors, these members of the U.S. Naval Armed Guard were unsung heroes of World War II.

They have been called “the other Navy,” the “Navy’s stepchildren,” and perhaps most fittingly, “the forgotten Navy.” Officially, however, they were the Naval Armed Guard or more simply the Armed Guard (AG). Often mistaken for members of the Merchant Marine, the Armed Guard was a special branch of the U.S. Navy assigned to defend merchant ships against enemy attack. Its history is one of the most dramatic of World War II, fraught with danger, suffering, heroism, and staggering casualty rates. Yet, as one veteran wrote, “The Armed Guard hasn’t had as much publicity as the average two-headed calf gets.”

Formed in World War I, when German U-boats first prowled the Atlantic, the Armed Guard proved its worth protecting merchant ships. From U.S. involvement in 1917 until the Great War ended, U-boats attacked 227 American merchant ships. The AG repulsed 191 of these attacks, with a loss of only 36 ships. Perhaps most remarkable, throughout the war not a single American troopship guarded by the AG was lost to U-boats. Even with this extraordinary record, when the war ended, so did the need to arm merchant ships; and the Navy deactivated the Armed Guard.

The Threat of the German U-Boat: Reactivating the Armed Guard

With Europe’s descent into war in 1939, U-boats again menaced the Atlantic. Although President Franklin Roosevelt promised to keep the United States out of the war, he decreed the country should be the “arsenal of democracy.” His decision to allow American merchant vessels to deliver war material to England meant these ships would be in harm’s way. This led to debates on how to best protect these ships. Some suggested arming merchant ships as a means for the mariners to defend themselves. Others feared that such an action might lead to more aggression by the Germans.

This debate was largely irrelevant since the Neutrality Act of 1939 made the arming of merchant ships illegal. Even so, the training of Navy gunners for service aboard merchant ships had already begun at naval armories, and on April 15, 1941, the Naval Armed Guard was officially reborn.

Increased U-boat activity from April through September 1941 gave President Roosevelt justification for the U.S. Navy to escort convoys. The U-boat attacks on the destroyers Greer and Kearny, the sinking of the destroyer Reuben James, combined with increased losses of American merchant ships led Congress to repeal Section 6 of the Neutrality Act that prevented arming merchant ships. With this legal hurdle removed, the Navy opened the first Armed Guard training center on September 17, 1941, at Little Creek, Virginia. Even though AG training had started in early 1941, Congress did not officially authorize the Armed Guard or the arming of merchant ships until November 1941.

While Roosevelt promised to keep America out of the European conflict, Navy gunners were being placed aboard American-owned merchant ships, including those under Panamanian registry. In the words of the chief of naval operations, Admiral Harold R. Stark, “The Navy is already in the war in the Atlantic, but the country doesn’t seem to realize it.”

“Sub Sighted, Glub, Glub”

After Pearl Harbor, the increased need for gunners aboard merchant ships resulted in the opening of additional AG training facilities at Gulfport, Mississippi, and San Diego, California. The camp at Little Creek, unable to handle the influx of new recruits, was relocated to larger Camp Shelton, Virginia.

For those recruits assigned to the AG, the first questions often asked were, “What the hell is the Armed Guard? Are they going to have us guarding a building or something?” A few knew the role of the AG, and they “wanted to go anyplace but the Armed Guard.” Those who did not know soon learned, and they would have agreed with AG veteran Robert Baxter’s assessment: “We were sitting ducks. We had a one-way ticket, and we weren’t going to be coming back.” Even their comrades in the fleet called those assigned to the AG “fish food.” One young ensign, it was said, shot himself after learning he had been assigned to the Armed Guard rather than accept condemnation to death. While the story was fictional, it illustrated the fear of serving in the Armed Guard.

The men in the Armed Guard knew the odds were against them, and many believed theirs was indeed a suicide mission. Representing this were two signs posted at a training center. The first declared, “Ready—Aim—Abandon ship!” The other, playing on the signal “Sub sighted, sank same,” read, “Sub sighted, glub, glub.”

In telling the history of the Armed Guard, one must not overlook the disappointment of the men upon receiving this assignment. A majority would have agreed with AG veteran Tracey Corder when he said, “I felt that the Navy had cheated me.” In the regular Navy, ships went hunting the enemy, and when the enemy was brought to bay, the two engaged each other in combat. These young gunners had dreamed of serving aboard warships, not on a slow “rust bucket” that ran from the enemy and let the escorts do the fighting.

Some may wonder why the merchant crews were not utilized as gunners. The Navy did attempt to train the mariners in the months before Pearl Harbor and set up gunnery instruction centers at major Atlantic ports, but few cared to take the training. From the Navy’s perspective, it was either use the AG or have no one trained to protect the ships. In defense of the merchant crews, it should be noted that most mariners learned to assist the gunners. Many became ammunition passers, and some learned to man the guns should the Navy crews become incapacitated. In the duel between the SS Stephen Hopkins and the German raider Stier, Cadet/Midshipman Edwin O’Hara singlehandedly manned the deck gun after the Navy crew was killed and fired the last five shots of the battle.

Training the Naval Armed Guard

Initially, training for the Armed Guard was limited and hampered by a lack of guns. At one gunnery school, there was a single outdated gun for every 500 men. Corder recalled that at Gulfport gunners were sent on an armed pleasure yacht to get a feel for the guns. Although they trained on the 3-inch deck gun and the 20mm rapid-fire guns, they did not get to shoot at targets until they were at sea.

Even officers’ training was lacking. One officer recalled his gunnery training amounted to an instructor pointing at two guns and saying, “This is a 4-inch gun and that is a 3-inch, and if you don’t believe it you can get a ruler and measure them.”

With the great need for experienced officers in the fleet, the sailors of the AG frequently had to make do. A man could be made a gunnery officer simply because he had some college and a little boating experience. Armed Guard veteran Zed Merrill noted that, if a seaman first class admitted experience with hunting weapons, he could find himself in charge of a gun crew. Although Navy regulations required that an ensign or lieutenant (j.g.) command the crew, it was not uncommon to have a chief gunner’s mate or a gunner’s mate in charge, especially early in the war or with a small AG contingent.

All that changed as the war progressed. Officers began receiving lengthy and advanced training. Lieutenant Robert Ruark of the U.S. Naval Reserve wrote in a wartime article for the Saturday Evening Post, “When the AG officer takes a ship today, his skull is bulging with fire control, gunnery, seamanship, communications, navigation, convoy procedure, aircraft identification, first aid, and simple surgery.“ Training for the gun crews also improved. While Corder received only five weeks of gunnery training in 1942, Bob Galati spent 18 weeks in gunnery school in 1943 with an additional five weeks of advanced school in Little Creek, Virginia.

Assigned to a Ship

After training, the new gunners were assigned to one of three Naval Armed Guard centers: Brooklyn, New York; New Orleans, Louisiana; or Treasure Island (San Francisco), California, where members of the AG would wait until assigned a ship. These centers were combination barracks, medical facilities, clothing depots, and schools for additional training. A man’s mail, records, and pay came through his assigned center.

If a sailor had been disappointed with his assignment to the Armed Guard, he was typically even more dissatisfied with his ship. Often the first ship assigned to a new Armed Guardsman was a rusted old freighter or tanker. Several wondered if their antiquated ships were even seaworthy. One AG officer remembered his first ship as “filthy dirty … the decks were caked with rust and most of the gear was rusty and tossed all over the decks.” A pile of garbage left on the deck was “beginning to crawl,” and the jumble of air hoses, fire lines, and electric cables made him feel as if he had “stepped into a junk yard full of serpents.”

Not all ships were in such disrepair. Another AG recalled his as being “designed for comfort, to bend and give with the tall waves, not to slam down and break her back against them.” Instead of being covered in rust, she had “fine rich wood in her paneling and pure bright brass fittings.” Although his ship showed signs of a hard life, “she carried herself with pride.”