What Is a Merchant Marine?


Quick Answer

The merchant marine is the fleet of civilian ships that carry goods and passengers during peacetime, but may be called upon to carry supplies during a war or national emergency. As of 2006, the United States Merchant Marine consisted of 465 ships with a capacity of 1,000 tons or more.

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What Is a Merchant Marine?
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Full Answer

The merchant marine is a system that allows a country access to a large number of vessels for logistics purposes without needing to maintain the vessels in perpetuity. Officers of private vessels may attend merchant marine schools for training in both civilian and wartime shipping, and serve in a wartime capacity when called upon. These officers are called mariners, in order to distinguish them from the Marines.

The first American merchant marine was formed during the Revolutionary War. At the time, the American colonies had no navy to speak of, and instead encouraged ship captains to serve their country. Many captains received letters of marque, attacking the British as privateers.

The merchant marine became a vital part of the Navy in World War II, when President Roosevelt realized the growing Navy needed a considerable fleet of ships for supply and transport. Merchant marines suffered the highest casualty rate in the war, with one in 26 mariners dying due to enemy action while serving.

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