US Coins

Senate, House bills seek gold medal

A bill was introduced in the Senate on Jan. 15 that, if enacted, would issue a congressional gold medal collectively to American merchant mariners who served in World War II. 

Introduced by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the bill, S. 133, has yet to be reviewed by any committee or voted on by either house. 


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Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., introduced an identical piece of legislation, H.R. 550, in the House of Representatives on the same day as S. 133 was introduced. 

Recognizing that “the United States Merchant Marine ... was integral in providing the link between domestic production and the fighting forces overseas, providing combat equipment, fuel, food, commodities, and raw materials to troops stationed abroad,” S. 133 and H.R. 550 express that the nation “will be forever grateful and indebted to these merchant mariners for their effective, reliable, and courageous transport of goods and resources in enemy territory throughout theaters of every variety in World War II.”

Merchant mariners were civilians who crewed supply ships traversing the Atlantic Ocean prior to and after the entrance of America into the second world war. 

Nazi Germany’s U-boat campaign, in full swing by the beginning of the 1940s, had been executing raids against allied shipping for over a year even before America entered the war in late 1941. 

Britain, in desperate need of supplies and cut off from mainland Europe by the rapid German advance, had appealed to the United States, which in turn provided material aid. Understanding the importance of sea trade to Britain’s war effort, Germany deployed U-boats as they had in World War I. German submarines tracked ships transporting goods to Britain and sank many of them.

The U-boat campaign made duty on Merchant Marine vessels a very dangerous prospect. Once struck by torpedoes or surface cannons, merchant ships could sink in minutes, and though assembling convoys and posting more powerful escorts with sophisticated sub-hunting weaponry helped to mitigate the danger posed by U-boats, more than 3,500 Merchant Marine ships were sunk at a cost of over 72,000 sailors, a higher casualty rate for its size than any branch of the armed forces. 

The U-boat campaign reached its zenith in 1943, by which point American shipping far outpaced the German ability to sink ships, and wartime pressures from other fronts forced the Germans to divert resources. Nonetheless, the U-boat remained a potent force until the war’s end. 

Their effectiveness in battle notwithstanding, U-boats had a psychological impact on convoys, putting stress on those tasked with watching the waves for periscopes or, worse, the water skipping behind a speeding torpedo. 

Despite the importance of the supplies carried across the seas by the Merchant Marine and the combat the crews participated in, often without any means to defend themselves, their role in the Allied war effort is often understated and, in the words of the act, “deserving of broader public recognition.” S. 133 and H.R. 550 seek to address this by acknowledging the collective service and sacrifice of the Merchant Marine. 

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