Wikipedia defines the U.S. Merchant Marine as the fleet of U.S. civilian-owned merchant ships, operated by either the government or the private sector, that are engaged in commerce or transportation of goods and services in and out of the navigable waters of the United States.
The merchant marine is responsible for transporting cargo and passengers during peace time. In time of war, the merchant marine is an auxiliary to the U.S. Navy and can be called upon to deliver troops and supplies for the military.
During World War II, 243,000 merchant mariners served in the U.S. Merchant Marine. Of those, 9497, or 3.9 percent, were killed. That is a 1 in 26 ratio, the highest of any branch of service. The Marine Corps was second at 2.94 percent, or a 1 in 34 ratio.
In fulfillment of its mission, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy's Battle Standard bears honored testimony to the 142 cadet-midshipmen who paid the ultimate price during World War II. The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy is the only federal academy to have a battle standard, as it is the only academy to have lost cadets while serving on duty during wartime.
As a young lad I would frequently ride my rickety old bicycle down to the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, and sit on the pier at the foot of 31st Street near my home, watching the merchant ships coming and going. The foghorns cried of faraway places. I vowed I would someday go to sea in the merchant marine; that was my dream, and it would dictate my entire life.
Years later, I was aboard a ship of the merchant marine as she prepared to dock at the foot of 33rd Street in Brooklyn. As she maneuvered through that same canal, I positioned myself on deck to take it all in. When I saw the very spot at 31st Street where I used to sit watching the merchant ships coming and going, a lump formed in my throat. The kid had finally realized his merchant marine dream, coming home to where it all began. That's part nostalgia and part reality.
The fascinating journey in between, is best left to White Sails Became Me.