When most of you see the phrase “armed guard” you probably conjure up some notion of a the national guard or a state militia of some type. That is not at all what that phrase referenced. It harked back to a branch of the US Navy during WWII. You must remember that the war had already been raging for over two years by the time Pearl Harbor was attacked. The British and the Germans had been waging a gigantic struggle in the North Atlantic since the beginning of the war for mastery of the seas. Just as in the First World War transporting material and goods across the Atlantic was critical if the Allies were to prevail. Churchill rightly believed it was the one battle that could not be lost otherwise all would be lost. If the materials of war could not be provided to Britain for its own defense and for our build up of troops to liberate Europe there would be no victory. At best a debilitating stalemate would be the best outcome the Allies could have hoped for.
The US Navy was small at the beginning of the War. We had transferred many of our older destroyers to the British under the Lend Lease program. There were not sufficient forces available to protect the convoys plying the oceans with all those war materials. We had in place the convoy system to protect against the Uboat threat and against aeiral attack primarily from the coast of Norway. For those who have forgotten you can look at the map and see why that was a real problem. We used the “northern” route to convoy the goods to Britain because that is the way the earth is shaped and the Germans had occuppied Norway since 1940. There were not enough destroyers and frigates to protect the convoys. We had to do something effective and something that could be done quickly. The vast majority of all the ships in the convoys were merchant ships or cargo ships to transport the war material to Britain and the Russia. These cargo ships were not US Navy or British Fleet vessels. They were private ships contracted by Government to tranport the war cargo. The US started a new program to increase that merchant fleet immediately after the start of the war. These were the Liberty ships. We built thousands of them during the war. The only cargo ships the Navy used were those to carry its own supplies for its fleets–such as ammo, fuel, water, and victuals for the crews.
The merchant ships were manned by civilian crews and the captain was a civilian. They were merchant seaman. We had to devise a means to provide immediate extra protection for those ships. The Navy created the Armed Guard. These were bluejackets that would man the guns and weapons that would be mounted on the merchant ships. A bluejacket by the way is the moniker for a US navy seaman. The Liberty ships and other merchant ships were equipped with 5″ guns and 20 millimeter guns and 50 caliber anti-aircraft machine guns in most cases. On the merchant ship there would be a small contingent of bluejackets to man those guns and of course to stand watch. So on the one ship you would have the merchant crew captained by a civilian “master” who was always called “captain” when the ship was at sea. On that same ship you had the Navy crew with a chief petty office in charge or an ensign. This method greatly increased the fire power of the convoy against both subs and aircraft.
My dad served as one of those bluejackets in the Armed Guard. During the course of the war over 50,000 US sailors served in the Armed Guard. They lived, ate and served side by side with the merchant seaman who naturally were making about 20 times as much as the Navy seaman. The Armed Guard was responsible for sinking subs and downing many enemy aircraft. They fought all over the North and South Atlantic, the Meditterrean Sea to support the battles in North Africa and the invasion of Sicily and Italy and even in the Pacific. My dad was also the pharmacist mate on a couple of the ships. In the Navy the “medic” is called that on board ship and on land (like with the Marines) he is called a “corpman”. His training was the official Navy manual. In those days they figured you could read the manual and be up to speed. Thousands of them lost their lives in these battles around the world. The Armed Guard was a very effective and efficient way to bring power and protection to the merchant fleet and insure our ultimate victory on the seas and thus the whole war. But for that victory on the seas there never would have been a D-Day.
I believe the same method could and should be used today to protect at least the US flagged merchant ships transeversing the waters off the Horn of Africa and Somalia. It would only take a crew of 8 in all likelihood. The crews could be brought on board in the Mediterrean before passage through the Suez Canal or in the Indian ocean. The ordance could be mounted by the Navy crew. There are only a few hundred US flagged ships that travel these waters from the available data on a yearly basis. Those sailors would put an immediate stop to the piracy, death, ranson and pillaging of those thugs. It would be inexpensive and a real bang for our buck. The program could be ramped up on no time at all. Hell my dad was in the Navy for less than 3 months before he was sailing with the Armed Guard in a convoy across the Atlantic. He didn’t volunteer, he was assigned. He went where he was told and did what he was told. The sailors already have the training and they could be placed aboard very quickly. The cost of insurance at least for US ships would plummet and the numbers of pirates would too.
The bluebonnets and Indian Paintbrushes are in full bloom now along the highways of Texas. The colors are glorious to behold on a fine spring day.