Family Barge Life and the U.S. Merchant Marine of WW II
There was a small, dedicated and almost unknown group of people that served in the US Merchant Marine on seagoing barges. They made little news but played a very important part during World War II, moving cargo and supplies to the various defense factories and power plants along the East Coast. Hardly any news or entries in history were made because most gave little attention to them. They were considered by many as insignificant. Historians wrote limited information and they would only make news if something disastrous happened. Storms would cause sufficient damage and some would make the news if fatalities occurred
Many barges began their life as sail schooners in the mid-1800s. There was a short-lived belief that sails would help propel the barges and give the tugboats towing them a little help. By the turn-of-the-century most had been dismasted and extra hatches were made in the hulls to carry more cargo.
Most companies owned both the tugs and barges, however, when it came time to make up the tow, it was generally made up of barges from various companies. It was more profitable to tow three or more barges owned by different companies than just tow one or two barges owned by the same company owning the tug.
During the lifespan of the barges (1855-1955) there were some seventy companies that did business on the East Coast. During that time around 700 barges or schooners were recorded. Records indicate the first barge was built around 1856 and the last built around 1923. They ranged in size from 600 to 2400 tons capacity.
Around the turn of the 20th century companies would send the barges out into larger bodies of waters. Soon the coast wide trade for barges was where the money was. A tow of three barges could carry more payload of, say coal, than several locomotives could carrying 300 cars or 600 trucks carrying the same payload and at a fraction of the cost.
By the early 1900s it was not uncommon to see twenty or thirty tugs and their barges moving cargo up and down the coast on any given day. Competition was fierce as companies forged forward building bigger tugs to tow bigger barges to carry larger payloads.
As tradition remained, the families continued to man many of the barges. Right after World War I was over, the trend moved toward larger vessels to carry the trade. Barges were heavily used on the East Coast; as it was the most profitable method of moving bulk cargo, mainly coal. When World War II came about there were about 250 barges remaining and they had left the scene by the 1950s.
The early 1920s brought about the end of barge construction. Seagoing barges had a limited lifespan. On the average, most large wooden vessels would begin to show age and neglect from rot and heavy wear and tear after the age of twenty. With their disabilities increasing, their maintenance decreased.
These barges kept alive a tradition that dates back beyond the birth of this nation. Our forefathers brought this tradition with them when they landed here to establish this nation. Large families were traditional on some of the barges. This emanated from the river barges that traveled the major tributaries of our nation for as long as this nation has existed. Our major source of commerce came by river throughout our country. Families were the entire crew that manned some of these barges. Companies who owned these barges paid premium wages to those that were manned by families. It was believed that families would remain on board more so than single seamen mainly because of the primitive living conditions generally found on most barges. Families tend to adapt more easily.
The barge people endured a life that was extremely primitive as almost all barges were without the average necessities found ashore. There was no electricity, running water or the usual bathroom conveniences. Heat came from a simple coal stove that was used for cooking as well. Light from kerosene lamps was the norm. It was a very hard life and it left its mark on you.
Barges usually carried coal that was loaded from large chutes that left all surfaces with a deep layer of black coal dust that made its way into all cracks and crevices aboard. You lived with this dust, as it was quite impossible to remove, even after a complete hose wash-down from the water that was available from over the side. A trip hauling cargo other than coal was received as a holiday. Barges in tow traveled at about 3 to 4 knots per hour. You were at the mercy of the storms when out to sea and many were lost to its elements; and later to those German U-boats that preyed on any vessels traveling the East Coast corridor.
As demand for commerce grew the barges were built larger to accommodate it. After all, no other mode of transportation could offer the benefits at lesser costs. They were by far the most economical means to move product around the country.
World War II came upon us and all of a sudden these old barges that had been placed in the bone yards or mud flats were called back into service. The German U-boats were sinking our ships faster than we could build them. Larger and faster ships were needed to keep our shipping lanes and to keep our troops overseas supplied with badly needed materials and keep our shores free from the enemy.
Again, families answer the call to man those old and dilapidated barges. Most seamen tended to steer away from those old hulks and go for the safer ships that had the modern conveniences most people were used to. Since the healthier and younger seamen steered clear of these barges that left older seamen and those less healthy. The families again began to play an important role in this war. They manned these vessels and did what was necessary. They moved the war materials to the ports to support the defense plants that built the war materials for our troops overseas. Our larger merchant fleet transported these materials to the three continents where our troops were fighting and keeping our shores free from the enemy.
At the start of the war, women tried repeatedly to join the US Merchant Marine. They were dealt a deathblow by the War Shipping Administrator (WSA), Adm. Emory S. Land who stated that there was no place in the Merchant Marine for women. By this order from the WSA, US Coast Guard refused to document women who served. They served anyway and did what was asked of them and without any recognition for their work they served on many of the barges as well as other vessels, mostly as cooks and messmen. They were paid salaries and Social Security taxes were taken from their wages.
Efforts to gain status as seamen by the women were met with stern denial from the various captains of port up and down the coast. I was present when the Captain of the Port of New York, (June, 1942) denied my mother and sister their official documentation as seamen. He stated that by order of the WSA he was instructed to deny women seamen’s papers upon their request. Instead he issued an official US Coast Guard Identification Card to my mother and told her my sister did not need one as she was below the age of 16. Children could move about freely through the security checkpoints on the docks as long as they were with one of their parents.
Research has brought forth two additional actions that have discriminated against our women who served in the Merchant Marine during this war. The CMDT, USCG Order of 20 Mar 1944 relieved the masters of tugs and seagoing barges of the responsibility of issuing shipping and discharge papers to seamen shipped and the US Maritime Administration orders to destroy ship’s deck and engine logbooks in the 1970s. These documents are required to prove service under P.L. 95-202.
I expect that denial was told many times to other women as they attempted to gain official documentation to serve in the merchant marine. With as many barges as there were, many hundreds of women and some teenage children were affected by that denial. To this day there has been no way for these women to gain their due recognition as seamen of the United States Merchant Marine and thus veterans of this nation. A CMDT, USCG Ltr 5730 of 09 Apr, 2010 states “The US Government did not issue mariner credentials to females during the World War II.”
In every war this nation has ever fought, women have served in one capacity or another. During WW II they manned the defense plants here and worked side by side with the men and children. Recognition came only from some dramatic writing or display in newspapers. Rarely were any personal recognition afforded. Yet, they worked without complaint or dereliction from their assigned tasks. They kept the defense plants manned because they were the majority of able bodied people remaining. Stories and songs were written hailing their tremendous efforts put forth, but hardly any personal recognition. It can be stated, and has been written they earned their place in history for their significant input toward the defense of this country and no one can take that from them. World War II brought about the advent of women in the military and again they proved their worth. They earned some of our country’s highest honors for their service. Another group of women served and have never been recognized. The women who served in the US Merchant Marine in WW II were denied their official credentials and were unable to achieve what they most gallantly earned, veteran status. A status held by all who have received it as one of their most revered possessions.
On 23 July, 2010, US Representative G. K. Butterfield of North Carolina introduced a bill that may help our women and others gain what has been denied them for more than 60 years. This Bill, H.R. 5829 “WW II Merchant Mariners Service Act” is directing the Secretary of Defense to allow other forms of documentation be used to prove service in the Merchant Marine during WW II. Official Records have been withheld/destroyed that have prevented as many as 10,000 seamen form gaining their rightful place as veterans of our country. This bill will help some gain that recognition. A simple administrative legislation can correct a travesty that has gone unnoticed or ignored for such a long time. Costs associated with this bill have already been incorporated in P.L 95-202. This bill stands alone in helping these seamen gain recognition as no other bill in congress has ever addressed the issue of gaining recognition for seamen who have been deprived of veteran’s status due to records being withheld/ destroyed. This needs to be done and soon. These seamen are leaving us at an alarming rate. If not now it will all be for history. We need to stand up and do what is right for these seamen. Call your House of Rep and tell him you want him to vote YES on BILL HR 5829.