Military Life

Everything you need to know about the Merchant Marine

There is another maritime "service" you may not have heard much about, yet, the United States Merchant Marine is arguably incredibly important to the Armed Forces. They also help keep America's economy moving. But what exactly is this?


6. It is civilian-manned ships

Merchant Mariners are not part of the military. Now, some of them run a number of ships that support the U.S. Navy, like the Henry J. Kaiser-class replenishment oilers and Lewis and Clark-class dry cargo ships, as well as the sealift vessels like the Bob Hope-class vehicle cargo chips.

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Stethem (DDG 63) receives fuel from the fleet replenishment oiler USNS Rappahannock (T-AO 204). The oiler is manned by merchant mariners. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kelsey L. Adams/Released)

5. The United States Merchant Marine is small

The total civilian merchant fleet of the Untied States is 393 vessels, according to the CIA World Factbook. It ranks 27th in the world, behind Russia (11th with 1,143 merchant ships) and China (2nd, with 4,052 merchant ships). This includes privately-owned ships, as well as those owned by the federal government.

The Maersk Alabama is one of only 84 container ships in the U.S. Merchant Marine. (U.S. Navy photo)

4. The United States has a special agency for the Merchant Marine

The United States Maritime Administration, under the Department of Transportation, handles programs that administer and finance the United States Merchant Marine. This includes supporting the United States Maritime Service, which helps to train officers and crew on merchant ships.

Seal of the Maritime Administration (Department of Transportation graphic)

3. You can become an officer by going to one of seven "maritime academies"

To become the captain of a merchant ship, your best route would be to attend a "maritime academy." There are seven of them located across the country: The United States Merchant Marine Academy, the California State University Maritime Academy, the Great Lakes Maritime Academy, the Maine Maritime Academy, the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, the State University of New York Maritime College, and the Texas A&M Maritime Academy.

An aerial view of the United States Merchant Marine Academy. (United States Merchant Marine Academy photo)

2. A lot of famous people were in the Merchant Marine

Some very familiar names have served in the Merchant Marine at one point or another. While today's most famous merchant mariner is Richard Phillips, former captain of the Maersk Alabama, others include filmmaker Oliver Stone, writers Louis L'Amour and Jack Vance, as well as playwright and screenwriter David Mamet.

Capt. Richard Phillips, former Captain of the container ship MV Maersk Alabama, publicly thanks Sailors assigned to the guided-missile destroyer USS Bainbridge (DDG 96) for his dramatic rescue at sea. On Easter Sunday, April 12, 2009, Navy SEALs positioned on the fantail of the Bainbridge opened fire and killed three of the pirates who were holding Phillips hostage. (U.S. Navy photo)

1. There is a merchant mariner's equivalent to the Medal of Honor

While merchant mariners cannot receive the Medal of Honor or other military decorations, valor doesn't go unrecognized. The Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal is awarded by the Department of Transportation to those who show "outstanding conduct or service in the line of duty." A list of awardees from World War II can be seen here.

Front and back views of the Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal. (DOD graphic)

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