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Who are the Merchant Marines?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Almost every nation has a merchant marine, a fleet of ships which are usually owned and registered in that nation and fly under its flag, but are separate from the military. It carries goods and people, and is a vital part of the national economy. In addition, many countries use their merchant marine to supplement the military in times of war, with it transporting goods and equipment to areas where they are needed. For this reason, the merchant marine is sometimes called the merchant navy, indicating its dual role.

The people who staff the merchant marine are known as merchant marines, and while some have served in the military as well, most have chosen a career in the merchant navy. These people are usually well trained, dedicated men and women who have ranks and procedures just like members of the military do. Many have served during periods of war, and have been recognized and decorated for services to their home governments.

Those in the fleet have a system of ranks and specialties which closely correlates to that of the military. Some specialize in a particular field, such as navigation, communications, or heavy equipment operations. Others attend an academy to begin careers as officers. Most intend to remain in the merchant marine for the duration of their careers, and many companies provide benefits and incentives to encourage their staff to continue serving.

In general, to be considered a member of a nation's merchant marine, a ship must fly that nation's flag. Some ships may have foreign registration, but choose to fly under the flag of another nation for various reasons. The staff may be of mixed nationalities, although generally the officers represent the nation whose flag is flown.

Merchant marines also rely on an extensive ground network, which includes shipyards, truck and train systems, and ground staff who manage the company. When marine insurance companies, lawyers, research companies, and a variety of other industries related to marine are added, it represents a sizable portion of the economy, with ships being a crucial part of the transportation system.

PublicPeople is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments
By anon347288 — On Sep 05, 2013

The 1938 Merchant Marine act specifies that in time of war the Merchant Seaman would be an axillary to the Navy. I was trained and uniformed by the Navy. When Roosevelt forced the food blockade on Japan (an act of war), he forced Japan to attack Pearl Harbor. When Roosevelt and the Congress declared war on Japan, then 250,000 Merchant Marines were drafted into the military as an auxiliary. They were between the ages of 14 and 83, and many were handicapped. We were under military law and would be court-martialed if we stayed on shore more than 30 days. Tell me, have any civilians ever been court-martialed?

By anon293538 — On Sep 26, 2012

Is it true that a passenger vessel holding fewer than 12 passengers is not subject to The Jones Act legislation?

By anon199039 — On Jul 21, 2011

I have a 71 foot vessel built in canada but titled in texas. we want to fix it up and use it to take injured vets deep sea fishing or diving.

By anon130671 — On Nov 29, 2010

@#13: The US considers all non-military vessels for hire as merchant vessels. The US Coast Guard has jurisdiction over all US flagged Merchant vessels, and requires that all personnel hold proper credentials and have certain training to qualify for the job. They also require most US flagged vessels to be inspected.

By anon90265 — On Jun 15, 2010

OK, thanks. I'll reword the question replacing the word "Marine" with the word "Mariner". Now can someone answer this question? Are all non-military U.S. ships on the ocean manned by Merchant Mariners? Or are some U.S. ships manned by the Merchant Mariners and others ships manned by whoever wants to start a company shipping goods and equipment around the world?

By anon87021 — On May 27, 2010

It is totally incorrect to call the men and women who go to sea in merchant ships 'merchant marines'. Marines are soldiers who are trained to fight on land and sea. People who go to sea in merchant ships are merchant seamen or merchant mariners.

By anon74151 — On Mar 31, 2010

Can someone answer this question? Are all non-military U.S. ships on the ocean manned by Merchant Marines? Or are some U.S. ships manned by the Merchant Marines and others ships manned by whoever wants to start a company shipping goods and equipment around the world?

By anon73175 — On Mar 25, 2010

The Quarter Master is normally a very experienced AB (Able Bodied Seaman) assigned to watchkeeping duties on the bridge together with the duty officer. Tasks includes steering the ship (being helmsman) when necessary, doing fire watch rounds around the ship and assist the duty officer as needed.

By anon73173 — On Mar 25, 2010

The 3rd Officer is the fourth in command (After the Captain, Chief officer and 2nd Officer). The 3rd Officer is normally the safety officer on board and i responsible for for fire fighting equipment, life saving equipment and ship security. The 3rd Officer is the duty/watchkeeping officer normally between 0800-1200 and 2000-2400 at sea and 0600-1200 and 1800-2400 under land.

By anon73170 — On Mar 25, 2010

The 2nd Officer is the 3rd in command (After the Captain and the Chief Officer) and is normally the navigation officer on board. He or she is responsible for navigation equipment, radio equipment, passage planning, chart corrections and other work related to navigation. He or she is also duty/watchkeeping officer normally between 0000-0400 and between 1200-1600 when the ship is at sea and between 0000-0600 and between 1200-1800 under land.

By anon64573 — On Feb 08, 2010

I appreciate this article on the Merchant Marines, but I guess I still have questions. Are all U.S. ships on the ocean manned by Merchant Marines? Or are some U.S. ships manned by the Merchant Marines and others ships manned by whoever wants to start a company shipping goods and equipment around the world?

If every ship is manned by Merchant Marines, then during a time of 20 years of peace, do they work under their own direction for whoever wants to pay for shipping for 20 years, then all of a sudden during a time of war everyone is under the direction of the military?

Or are just some ships manned by the Merchant Marines and they are always shipping for the military whether it is a time of war or peace? Just trying to get the big picture.

Thanks, Keith

By barfreman1 — On Jul 21, 2009

My great-grandfather was Portuguese and was a captain in the Merchant Marines during the Spanish-American War. From what I have been told, the Spanish army took him out of his home on evening, made him dig his own grave and in front of his wife and 11 children was executed. This happened in Cuba. I believe that I was told he had 3 ships. I would like to find out some more information on him as I am trying to do a family tree. Any suggestions as to go about it would be greatly appreciated.

By anon34712 — On Jun 26, 2009

glynnh- The Maersk Alabama would be considered the merchant marines. Many people see the merchant marine as a Navy Auxiliary or for support of the Navy and military, but those working on any trade ship are merchant marines as well. Such as container ships, oil tankers, or bulk carriers.

jdmiller- The 2nd Officer, also called the 2nd Mate is typically the navigator. They also stand watch on some ships. The 3rd officer stands watch. It all depends on what company and what kind of ship they are on.

By jdmiller — On Apr 11, 2009

The Merchant Marines where considered Civilians. Their jobs were to carry troops, food, fuel, trucks, whatever the Navy, Army etc. needed. They weren't given Veteran status until after WWII and only then if they had been in the Merchant Marines during WWII. Their jobs were very important. They also carried troops home from the war and provided hospital ships for the soldiers during the war, but they did not have the benefits the military had.

In peace time the Merchant Marines carry cargo, food, fuel and many other things all over the world. I've been researching the Merchant Marines for several years because my father spent over 20 years in the Merchant Marines.

By glynnh — On Apr 10, 2009

I'm a Canadian, so plead ignorance on this situation! Is the Maersk Alabama considered merchant marine?

Also, what are the titles or ranks of the people who command/run/operate this vessel?

How is it different from the Navy?

Help please.

By jdmiller — On Mar 31, 2009

I was wondering if anyone could tell me what duties are involved in the rank of Quarter Master, the rank 2nd Officer and the rank 3rd Officer?

I found these ranks on a Merchant Marine ship and was wondering exactly what those ranks' duties where.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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