Family Barge Life and the U.S. Merchant Marine of WWII

The United States Merchant Marine has been mostly viewed by the general population as large ships sailing across oceans and seas carrying exotic cargo from one country to another. Little information to what actually takes place within the service is known or understood by the public. Most citizens have little knowledge that our Merchant Marine was established before our US Navy or US Coast Guard. How many know that during our nation’s wars our merchant marine is looked upon by those in the know as the Fourth Arm of Defense?
Our Merchant Marine has proven itself time and again in every war we have encountered. History has consistently noted those brave seamen who crossed our oceans carrying our troops and war materials in every war and, often encountering enemy actions that have sent many of our brave souls to the bottom of our seas. Stories have been written about their heroic efforts to keep our shipping lanes open, often losing to the enemy even here on our own shores during World War II. At times we were losing our ships faster that could be built during WWII. The commanders of the German U-boats considered our East Coast a shooting gallery because of our lack of security or adherence to keeping our shoreline dark. The bright lights from the various amusement parks and residential areas along the coastal beaches provided the perfect backdrop for the German U-boats to pick our ships off at will.
The loss of shipping along our coastline during the first part of the war was so great that our own government had to step in and instruct our various public news outlets not to give out the number of ships lost for fear of having our seamen refrain from shipping out; thereby creating critical manpower shortages causing shipping delays and quite possibly placing our chances of winning that war in jeopardy. We were losing ships daily.
This great loss of these ships caused our nation to call upon another group of vessels that had generally been placed completely out of service. Our country had some 250-300 old wooden hulled barges that had been put out to pasture, so to speak. Most has long passed their effective 25 year life span. Some were built around the middle of the nineteenth century and their condition showed it too. Many barges began their life as sail schooners in the mid-1800s. There was a short-lived belief that sails would help propel the barges and give the tugboats towing them a little help. By the turn-of-the-century most had been dismasted and extra hatches were made in the hulls to carry more cargo.
There were some seventy companies that did business on the East Coast. During that time some 700 barges or schooners were recorded. Records indicate the first barge was built around 1856 and maybe the last around 1923. They ranged in sizes in tonnage from 600 to 2400 tons.
After the turn of the 20th century companies began to send the barges out into larger bodies of waters. Soon the coastwise trade for barges was where the money was. A tow of three barges could carry more payload of, say coal, than several locomotives could carrying 300 coal cars or 600 trucks carrying the same payload and at a fraction of the cost.
Shortly after the outbreak of WWII, it became apparent that we needed every possible source of commerce to keep our supplies lines opened; these barges were quickly called back into service even in their very old and primitive conditions. It was not uncommon to see twenty or thirty tugs and their barges moving cargo up and down the coast on any given day. As demand for commerce grew the barges began playing a larger role in the defense of our country. After all, no other mode of transportation could offer the benefits at lesser costs. They were by far the most economical means to move product around the country.
The German U-boats sank our ships faster than we could build them. Larger and faster ships were needed to keep our shipping lanes open and to keep our troops overseas supplied with badly needed materials and keep our shores free from the enemy. Every available means of moving war materials to our defense plants became a necessity, regardless of the risk.
These barges kept alive a tradition dating back before the birth of this nation. Our forefathers brought this lifestyle with them when they landed here to establish this country. Families were traditional on some of the barges. This emanated from the river barges that traveled the major tributaries of our nation for as long as this nation has existed. Our major source of commerce came by river throughout our country. Often the crew that manned some of these barges during the summer school breaks was comprised solely by families. Companies who owned these barges paid premium wages to those that were manned by families. It was believed families would remain on board more so than single seamen mainly because of the primitive living conditions generally found on most barges. Families tend to adapt more easily.
Barge seamen endured a life that was extremely primitive as most barges were without the average necessities found ashore. There was no electricity, running water or the usual bathroom conveniences. Heat came from a simple coal stove that was used for cooking as well. Light from kerosene lamps was the norm. This life was hard and it left its mark on you. With the ever presence of German U-boats, the young seamen matured fast. This was a far cry from a young man’s dream of sailing the 7 seas.
These coastwise barge seamen were a small, dedicated and mostly unknown group who served in the US Merchant Marine. They made little news but played a very important role during World War II, moving bulk cargo and war supplies to the various defense factories and power plants along the East Coast. Minimal news or entries in history were made as most gave little attention to them. They were considered by many as insignificant. Historians wrote limited information and they would only make news if something disastrous happened. Storms would cause sufficient damage and some would make the news if fatalities occurred. History has passed them by and carried their records along with it.
Coal was a major cargo that was loaded from railroad cars and dropped down large chutes that left all surfaces with a deep layer of black coal dust that made its way into all cracks and crevices aboard. You lived with this dust, as it was quite impossible to remove, even after a complete hose wash-down from the water available from over the side. A trip hauling cargo other than coal was received as a holiday. Barges in tow traveled at about 3 to 4 knots per hour. You were at the mercy of the storms when out to sea and many were lost to its elements. The constant threat of those German U-boats preying on any vessels traveling the East Coast corridor during WW II created continuous fear and anxiety for all aboard. Sleep at sea was almost non-existent o extremely limited.
Again, families answered the call to crew those old and dilapidated barges. Most seamen tended to steer away from those old hulks and go for the safer ships that had more modern conveniences most people were used to. Since the healthier and younger seamen steered clear of these barges that left older seamen and those less healthy. The families came forth again to play an important role in this war. They manned these vessels and did what was necessary. For the most part these seamen were much older than the crew of the oceangoing vessels. The captains and their wives were mostly in the 40-60 year old range. Many of the seamen were considerably older than the required draft age, as well; and often being disabled by missing a leg, arm or an eye. School age children manned the crew positions as well as any other seamen. They proved their mettle. These barges carried the bulk raw war materials to the ports to support the defense plants that built the finished war supplies and equipment for our troops overseas. The use of these barges freed our larger merchant fleet that was vitally needed to transport these supplies and equipment to the three continents where our troops were fighting and keeping our shores free from the enemy. This was not a small task.
At the start of the war, women tried repeatedly to join the US Merchant Marine. They were dealt a deathblow by the War Shipping Administrator (WSA), Adm. Emory S. Land who declared that there was no place in the Merchant Marine for women. By this order from the WSA, the US Coast Guard refused to document women who served. They served anyway and did what was asked of them and without any recognition for their work they served on these the barges as well as other vessels, mostly as cooks and messmen. They were paid salaries and Social Security taxes were taken from their wages.
Efforts to gain status as seamen by the women were met with stern denials from the Captains of the Port (COTP) stationed at the various coastal ports. I was present when the COTP of New York, (June, 1942) denied my mother and sister their official documentation as seamen. Instead he issued an official US Coast Guard Identification Card to my mother and told her my sister did not need one as she was below the age of 16. Children could move about freely through the security checkpoints on the docks if accompanied by a parent. He stated by order of the WSA, he was directed to deny official seaman’s papers to women upon application.
I expect that denial was expressed many times to other women as they attempted to gain official documentation for service in our merchant marine. With as many barges as there were, several hundred women and some teenage children were probably affected by that denial. To this day there has been no way for these women to gain their due recognition as seamen of the United States Merchant Marine and thus veterans of this nation. A CMDT, USCG Ltr 5730 of 09 Apr, 2010 states “The US Government did not issue mariner credentials to females during the World War II.”
A recent research, of 29 barges and tugs from that era brought forth 376 seamen who served on board during 1942-3. From that group there were 36 women who served aboard those vessels. That transmits to a ratio of almost 10% of the work force being women, if one could use this finding to be an approximate ratio of seamen who served on coastwise vessels. In today’s military service, where women are recognized openly, the ration is placed at 14%. This finding, if recognized, provides an astounding proportion of women serving during WW II in the merchant marine. They served and were never officially recognized as seamen and thus not veterans. That is WRONG. It needs to be corrected.
Other research has brought forth two additional actions that have discriminated against our seamen who served in the Merchant Marine during this war. The CMDT, USCG Order of 20 Mar 1944 relieved the masters of tugs and seagoing barges of the responsibility of issuing shipping and discharge papers to seamen shipped and the US Maritime Administration issued orders to destroy ship’s deck and engine logbooks in the 1970s.
In every war this nation has ever fought, women have served in one capacity or another. During WWII they manned the defense plants and worked side by side with the men and children. Recognition came only from some dramatic writing of display in newspapers. Rarely were any personal recognition afforded. Yet, they worked without complaint or dereliction from their assigned tasks. They kept the defense plants manned because they were the majority of able bodied people remaining. Stories and songs were written hailing their tremendous efforts put forth, but rarely any personal recognition. It can be stated, and has been written they earned their place in history for their significant input toward the defense of this country and no one can take that from them.
World War II brought about the advent of women in the military and again they proved themselves. They earned some of our country’s highest honors for their service. Another group of women served and have never been recognized. The women who served in the US Merchant Marine in WWII were denied their Official Mariner’s credentials and were unable to achieve what they most gallantly earned, veteran status. Those of us who hold this status perceive it as one of our most honored possessions.
On 22 July, 2010, US Representatives G. K. Butterfield, Walter Jones & Mike McIntyre of North Carolina introduced a bill in the House that may help these coastwise seamen, our women and others gain what has been denied them for more than 60 Years. The Bill, H.R. 5829 “WWII Merchant Mariners Service Act” was directing the Secretary of Defense to allow other forms of documentation be used to prove service in the Merchant Marine during WWII. Official Records have been withheld, destroyed and/or denied that have prevented as many as 30,000 coastwise merchant seamen from gaining their rightful place as veterans of our country. H.R. 5829 has since died in committee; however Representatives G.K. Butterfield, Walter Jones & Mike McIntyre recently announced plans to introduce a new similar bill in the 112th Congress about February 1st.
This bill will help some gain that recognition. A simple administrative legislation can correct a travesty that has gone unnoticed or ignored for such a long time. Costs associated with this bill have already been incorporated in P.L. 95-202. The soon to be proposed bill stands alone in helping these coastwise merchant seamen gain recognition as no other bill in congress has ever addressed the issue of gaining recognition for seamen who have been deprived of veteran’s status due to records being withheld, destroyed and/or denied. This needs to be corrected and soon. These seamen are leaving us at an alarming rate. If not now it will all be for history. We need to stand up and do what is right for these seamen. We must convince our members of congress they need to support this bill or other actions that will correct this unfortunate travesty. 
The reason I am interested in gaining recognition for the men and women who manned the barges during WWII is that I was one of them and I know we are deserving and have been overlooked after giving so much for the war effort and Freedom. The tugboat Menomonee was sunk off the coast of Virginia on 31 Mar., 1942 at 37′ 34″ N, 75″ 25″ by the German U-boat 754, with the loss of my brother, William Lee Horton, Jr. at the age of 17, while serving his country. WILL YOU HELP? 
Don Horton can be contacted at or 252 336 5553
To contact your local representative, click here.
PHOTO: (1) “Mom & Dad, circa 1943” (2) “Don Horton, age 12, 1944”
By Professional Mariner Staff