WWII U.S. Navy Armed Guard

SS John W Brown is a survivor of World War II, and an excellent example of the cargo ship class ship manned by U.S. Navy Guard crews. Liberty ships were built in the United States during World War II. Eighteen American shipyards built 2,710 Liberty ships between 1941 and 1945, easily the largest number of ships produced to a single design. Mass-produced on an unprecedented scale, the Liberty ship came to symbolize U.S. wartime industrial output.

United States Navy Armed Guard units were established during World War II in an attempt to provide defensive firepower to merchant ships in convoy or merchant ships traveling alone. This was done because of the constant danger from enemy submarines, surface raiders, fighter aircraft and bombers, and because of the shortage of Allied escort vessels necessary to provide the merchant vessels with adequate protection.

The. Navy Armed Guard was a service branch of the United States Navy that was responsible for defending U.S. and Allied merchant ships from attack by enemy aircraft, submarines and surface ships during World War II. The men of the Armed Guard served primarily as gunners, signal men and radio operators on cargo ships, tankers, troop ships and other merchant vessels. Disbanded following the end of the war, the Armed Guard is today little known or remembered, but without the courage and sacrifice of the men of the Armed Guard, victory in World War II would have been much more difficult and taken much longer.


A vast network of training activities prepared the Armed Guards for their duties. Initially, training was given at an Armed Guard school in Chicago, Illinois. By 1942, there were three basic Armed Guard schools for the rest of the war. These were located at Little Creek (later moved to Shelton), Virginia; San Diego, California; and Gulfport, Mississippi.

Near each Armed Guard school was an anti-aircraft firing range where the Armed Guards were given actual firing experience. These ranges were located at Dam Neck, Virginia; Shell Beach, Louisiana; and Pacific Beach, California.

Firing ships were also employed by the schools to give practical training to Armed Guards. Schools to give refresher training, especially in anti-aircraft gunnery, were established at New York, New Orleans, San Francisco (Treasure Island), and Seattle. Armed Guards at these schools for a day or so of refresher training were given firing practice at anti-aircraft ranges at Lido Beach, New York; Shell Beach, Louisiana; Point Montara, California; and Pacific Beach; Washington.

When Armed Guard officers and men had completed Basic Training they were assigned to an Armed Guard Center. There were three of these centers, located at Treasure Island, New York, and New Orleans. From the Centers the men were assigned to ships. But their records, mail, and pay accounts were handled by the Centers. When released from a ship they returned to the Center for further assignment.

The Center administered discipline, furnished recreation and additional training, and attended to the health and personal problems of the Armed Guards. It was their wartime duty station while not attached to a ship. Especial attention was given to the matter of furnishing proper clothing and recreational equipment for use on shipboard.

Unit composition

The United States Navy Armed Guard (USNAG) were U.S. Navy gun crews consisting of Gunner’s Mates, Coxswains and Boatswains, Radiomen, Signalmen, an occasional Pharmacist’s Mate, and toward the end of the war a few radarmen serving at sea on merchant ships.

Armed Guard crews served on Allied merchant marine ships in every theatre of the war. More than 53,000 guns were placed aboard merchant ships during World War II. Armed Guards were furnished to most of the 5,114 United States owned ships and to a few foreign owned working with the Merchant Marine. Typically the crew was led by a single commissioned officer, but earlier in the war chiefs and even petty officers had command. The Navy Armed Guard unit would travel with the merchant ship to its destination and return Stateside on the same ship, or another, depending on convoy schedules.

Hazardous Duty Considerations

The assignment as an Armed Guardsman was often dreaded because of the constant danger. Merchant ships were slow and unwieldy making them priority targets for enemy submarines and planes. Furthermore, merchant ships were among the last to receive updated equipment. Early on in the war, some ships only had a few machine guns installed, so the crews painted telephone poles to imitate the barrels of larger guns. The most common armament to be installed on merchant ships during the war were the MK II 20mm Oerlikon autocannon and the 3″/50, 4″/50, and 5″/38 deck guns.

Historical data for the Armed Guard indicate that some 710 merchant ships of 6,236 armed by the Navy were lost. Armed Guards were aboard most of the 569 United States owned ships lost by enemy action. Armed Guards and communication personnel defending merchant ships numbered 144,970 officers and men. Of this number, 1,683 lost their lives from enemy action and other causes, and 127 were missing, for a total of dead and missing of 1,810. Prisoners of war numbered 27, of which 14 were recovered.

Awards and commendations of all types to Armed Guards numbered 8,033 at the end of 1945. Operation and engagement stars numbered about 36,240. 9,882 men were authorized to wear the Philippine Liberation Ribbon, and 4,031 were authorized to wear stars on that ribbon. It should be pointed out that winning an engagement star in the Armed Guard was a difficult task. Officers and men who had ships torpedoed out from under them were not authorized to wear the engagement star.

Cross-training for Merchant Marine Crew Members

When practicable, the Navy Armed Guard aboard a merchant ship would provide cross-training to merchant crew members in the use of the guns in the event the Navy personnel were killed or injured.

Liberty  Ships

“Liberty ship” was the name given to the EC2 type ship designed for “Emergency” construction by the United States Maritime Commission in World War II. Liberty ships were nicknamed “ugly ducklings” by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The first of the 2,711 Liberty ships was the SS Patrick Henry, launched on Sept. 27, 1941, and built to a standardized, mass produced design. (2,710 ships were completed, as one burned at the dock.) The 250,000 parts were prefabricated throughout the country in 250-ton sections and welded together in about 70 days. One Liberty ship, the SS Robert E. Peary was built in four and a half days. A Liberty cost about $2,000,000.

Cargo Capacity

The Liberty was 441 feet long and 56 feet wide. Her three-cylinder, reciprocating steam engine, fed by two oil-burning boilers produced 2,500 hp and a speed of 11 knots. Her 5 holds could carry over 9,000 tons of cargo, plus airplanes, tanks, and locomotives lashed to its deck. A Liberty could carry 2,840 jeeps, 440 tanks, or 230 million rounds of rifle ammunition.

Liberty ships were named after prominent (deceased) Americans, starting with Patrick Henry and the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Any group which raised $2 million dollars in War Bonds could suggest a name for a Liberty ship, The Francis J. O’Gara was named after a mariner who was presumed dead, but who in fact, was a Prisoner of War. He was the only person to visit a Liberty ship named in his own honor.

Liberty Ship Design


Liberty ships carried a crew of about 44 merchant mariners and 12 to 25 Naval Armed Guard. Some ships were armed with as many as one 3 inch bow gun, one 4 or 5 inch stern gun, two 37mm bow guns, and six 20 mm machine guns. See details below.

The Nation’s wartime merchant shipbuilding capacity was increased considerably by building ocean vessels on the Great Lakes. The only way of getting these large vessels to salt water was via the Chicago drainage canal and Illinois-Mississippi river system to New Orleans. Superstructures were removed to get under Chicago bridges, and steel pontoons were attached to the sterns for the river trip, to lift them out of shallow water according to https://www.skylighters.org/troopships/libertyships.html

Services of more than 40 skilled trades were required to build a Liberty ship.

Female workers constituted 13 percent of the 700,000 merchant shipyard employees in 1943, and 18 percent of the 585,000 total in October 1944.

A Liberty ship could carry an amount of cargo equal to four trains of 75 cars each. They sailed with no name painted on their bows so as to give the enemy no hint as to their mission or cargo. Each ship had its own distillation system to make seawater drinkable. According to Lee Bergmeier, who sailed aboard several of these ships as a Navy Armed Guard gunner, the bread was usually laden with weevils, which the sailors had to pick out before eating any of the bread.

Credit: Liberty Ship images from https://www.skylighters.org/troopships/schematic3.html

The actual cost of a Liberty Ship at the various shipyards ranged from $1,543,000 to $2,099,000 per ship. A Liberty ship “paid for itself” if she completed one half of its maiden voyage — in other words — a one way trip was considered “successful,” to all except her crew. (www.USMM.org ©1998-2007)

About 200 Libertys were lost to torpedoes, mines, explosions, kamikazes, and other causes during WWII. Two Liberty ships, the SS Jeremiah O’Brien in San Francisco and the SS John W. Brown in Baltimore, survive as “museum ships” open to the public for tours and occasional cruises.

Next chapter: August Lee Bergmeier, Gunner, U.S. Navy Guard


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