Little Creek Naval Training Center, Virginia September 17, 1941

On this date in 1941 the U.S. Navy created a camp for Armed Guard gun training at Little Creek, Virginia, 12 miles north­east of the huge naval com­plex at Norfolk. Few people then and even less now have ever heard of this branch of the U.S. Navy. Often called “the other Navy” or “the forgotten Navy,” the Armed Guard (AG) was estab­lished months before the nation was dragged into World War II. Its mission was to train sailors and petty officers to serve aboard variously flagged com­mer­cial mer­chant marine ships during the Battle of the Atlantic (1939–1945). Ini­tially, the Guard­men’s theater of oper­a­tion was defined by the pres­ence of German U‑boats, sur­face raiders, and air­craft intent on sinking cargo ships and tankers delivering wea­ponry, troops, oil, food­stuffs, and other vital goods in support of Amer­ica’s allies fighting the Axis powers. Armed Guard crews even­tu­ally totaled 144,970 person­nel, and they served as gunners, signal­men, radio oper­a­tors, medics, and petty offi­cers on 6,236 ships. In con­trast, U.S. Mer­chant Marines—America’s “fourth arm of defense” after the Army, Navy, and Marines—numbered 250,000 civilians during the war.

Little Creek was the first of four basic Armed Guard schools. After the Japa­nese attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor on Decem­ber 7, 1941, three other schools opened: one at Gulf­port, Missis­sippi, one at San Diego, Cali­for­nia, and a short-lived one in the Chicago area. Largest of the schools, Little Creek’s training practices were adopted by the other schools.

Just as was the case during the First World War, the need for U.S. merchant­men to pro­tect them­selves became clearer in the period leading up to Pearl Harbor. A few months into 1941 the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Mari­time Com­mis­sion began dis­cus­sions on how to arm and man defen­sive wea­pons on U.S. non-naval ships then num­bering approx­i­mately 1,375 (Octo­ber 1941 figure). Between the two world wars mer­chant ships were essen­tially unarmed and had no protec­tive armor. The Mari­time Com­mis­sion assumed respon­si­bility for installing defen­sive items pro­vided by the U.S. Navy on board mer­chant ships and Navy per­son­nel manned the wea­pons. Finally, on April 15, 1941, the Armed Guard Ser­vice was reac­ti­vated, and sailors who had been prac­ticing gunnery at the nation’s naval armo­ries were posted to one of the three basic Armed Guard schools. All new recruits to the AG were sent there as well. Grad­u­ates were assigned to mer­chant ves­sels by Armed Guard cen­ters in Brook­lyn, New York; New Orleans, Lou­i­si­ana; and Treasure Island (San Francisco), California.

On December 2, 1941, the first Armed Guard crew of seven men was placed on board the 3,515‑ton SS Dun­boyne crewed by over 30 mer­chant marines. Steaming as part of con­voy PQ 13 with 18 other freighters of mixed regis­try and 3 British whalers to the Soviet Union’s Arctic port of Mur­mansk in late March–early April 1942, the Dun­boyne fired her nine guns 58 times, downed two enemy planes and pos­sibly a third, and just missed being torpedoed. The Germans sank five freighters for a loss of one destroyer.

The Dunboyne’s December 1941 departure occurred shortly after the U.S. Con­gress repealed Sec­tion 6 of the Neu­tral­ity Act, which pre­vented arming U.S. mer­chant ships. With­in weeks 55 Amer­i­can-owned ships were assigned Guards­men. By the end of 1942 Guards­men were crewed on roughly 1,000 mer­chant vessels. Assisting the men were civil­ian mariners who had received elemen­tary gun­nery training at U.S. Marit­ime Service Training Schools.

As war on the high seas tapered off more than 80,000 Armed Guards­men were inte­grated into the regu­lar Navy to man guns on, for exam­ple, LSTs (Landing Ship, Tank), LCIs (Landing Craft, Infan­try), and LCVP (Landing Craft Vehi­cle, Per­son­nel). These amphib­ious assault ves­sels deliv­ered fighting forces, war mate­rial, and ancil­lary person­nel directly onto beaches in Africa, Normandy, and the Pacific. With­out the cour­age and sacri­fice of Naval Armed Guards­men, victory over the Axis would have been more difficult and taken longer.

U.S. Navy Armed Guard and U.S. Merchant Marine in World War II

U.S. Navy Armed Guard Insignia U.S. Navy Armed Guard: Target practice using 4-inch gun

Left: U.S. Navy Armed Guard insignia. The Guards­men’s motto: “We Aim to Deliver.” Many naval per­son­nel were init­ially despon­dent upon being assigned to the Armed Guard, belie­ving the Navy had cheated them by denying them a berth in the fleet, giving them instead a one-way ticket on a sui­cide mis­sion in a “slow rust bucket,” that the odds were against them ever returning home, and that they were simply “fish food.” Yes, ser­vice in the Armed Guard was fraught with danger, suf­fering, hero­ism, and of course casual­ties. Of the 6,236 ships on which Guards­men served, 710 were sunk and damaged (less than 1 in 9 ves­sels under AG pro­tec­tion); 1,810 Armed Guards were killed in action—164 at Leyte in the Philip­pines cam­paign alone. Others died from expo­sure in life­boats, freezing water, or blistering sun, or suf­fered unknown injuries (1 in 100). Twenty-seven Guards­men were taken pri­soner, of which 14 sur­vived the war (1 in 2). Con­trast that with the merchant sea­men with whom the AG mostly served. According to two con­flicting autho­ri­ties, 250,000 or 350,000 mer­chant mariners served during World War II, with over 8,765 men losing their lives. These civil­ian volun­teers died pro­por­tion­ally in num­bers that rivaled or exceeded any branch of the U.S. uni­formed mili­tary. That said, for men in both branches of war­time ser­vice, the odds of sur­viving their duty tours turned out to be pretty good.

Right: Aboard the oil tanker SS O.M. Bernuth Armed Guards man a 4-in gun. Ber­nuth’s crew assisted Armed Guards­men by handing them the heavy shells or firing off 20mm machine guns. The tramp tanker plied the Gulf of Mexico and pos­si­bly the East and West coasts of North Amer­ica. It sur­vived the war. A mouth-watering AG menu for Thanks­giving dinner 1942 aboard the Ber­nuth fea­tured grape­fruit with mar­a­schino cherry, chicken soup, roast young Ver­mont turkey, oyster dressing, cran­berry sauce or a dinner of baked Vir­ginia ham, cau­li­flower, aspa­ra­gus tips, and mashed pota­toes. Des­sert was pump­kin or mince­meat pie, fruit cake, and mixed nuts, all served with genuine coffee.

U.S. Navy Armed Guard: Gunnery practiceU.S. Navy Armed Guard: Three Guardsmen pose on shore leave

Left: During gunnery practice at sea in Septem­ber 1943, Armed Guards­men learned the finer points of oper­a­ting this 4‑in deck gun aboard a mer­chant ship. Other cali­bers were 5- and 3‑in can­nons and 20mm (Oeri­kons) machine guns. Sadly, some ship­board guns dated to the 19th cen­tury. From 5‑weeks gunnery training in 1942, recruits received 18 weeks in 1943, with an addi­tional 5 weeks of advanced training at Little Creek. Vir­tually unknown out­side the fleet Navy and sister ser­vices, Armed Guards­men pro­vided a cer­tain measure of defense against enemy sea- and air­borne attack, supple­menting more aggres­sive mea­sures pro­vided by escort war­ships and their crew if the civil­ian ships formed a con­voy. The Armed Guard school at Little Creek (later moved to near­by Camp Shel­ton) trained over 200,000 Naval per­son­nel and 160,000 Marine Corps and Army personnel.

Right: Three Naval Armed Guardsmen distin­guished by their no­nreg­u­la­tion hair and beards pose for a photo while on shore leave. Duty in the AG was acknow­ledged by­­ sailors as quite haz­ard­ous. The aver­age AG detach­ment num­bered 27 men, among them petty offi­cers, a cox­swain, gunner’s mates, signal­men, and a radio oper­a­tor. Naval Guards­men could find thems­elves posted to Amer­i­can mer­chant ships like the tough new 7,176‑ton Liberty or the faster Vic­tory ship, as well as to those of Allies or occu­pied nations such as Den­mark, Norway, and France, which were a hodge­podge. Enemy sub­marines and air­craft posed con­stant threats, but so too did cli­mate, weather, and tem­pes­tu­ous seas churned by tropi­cal storms or Arctic gales. During dan­ger­ous sub­zero winter con­voys to Arctic ports in the Soviet Union men sta­tioned at deck guns wore heavy gloves, alpaca fleece-lined hats, face masks, fur-lined goggles, heavy fur-lined trou­sers, wool pants, and ther­mal under­wear; jackets and sweaters were worn beneath parkas.

“One Sailor’s Story”: Well-Done Digital Photo Album of Grandfather’s World War II Service in U.S. Navy Armed Guard

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