Merchant Marines

Updated: November 3, 2022

What is a Merchant Marine? If you search online, you will find a variety of sometimes confusing results.

The Wikipedia entry is a good example of why it can be tricky to pin down what Merchant Marines do, how they are trained, and what the requirements are to become one. From Wikipedia, we learn that one definition of “merchant marine” involves, “either United States civilian mariners, or U.S. civilian and federally owned merchant vessels.”

The nature of the duty performed by Merchant Marines. Their duties can include moving cargo within the Continental United States (CONUS) but also provide support and participation in deep-sea missions, tugboat operations and more.

Civilian mariners and merchant vessels functioning in this capacity are managed by the private sector and federal government. They are typically involved in commerce during peacetime but also crucial military missions that do not involve combat in times of conflict.

In 2018, the American merchant marine fleet included more than 180 “oceangoing” vessels, and there is federal involvement via the Navy’s Military Sealift Command and something known as the National Defense Reserve Fleet, which falls under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Maritime Administration.

Merchant Marines do not participate in combat operations though they may work in places where combat is actually occurring. The fleet is divided into several categories:

  • Commercial fleet
  • Federal fleet: Military Sealift Command
  • Federal fleet: National Defense Reserve Fleet
  • Federal fleet: Ready Reserve Force

Military Sealift Command (MSC)

MSC is a part of the United States Navy, serving the DoD by transporting fuel, gear, ammunition, and supplies critical to the sustained daily operations of the U.S. military around the world.

In the past, MSC has conducted operations with roughly 120 ships in active service and a large reserve fleet. Some sources report approximately 5,000 contractors and/or Civil Service employees serving on board ships in this capacity.

See What You Qualify For

Select a VA Home Loan Option to Continue:

Home Purchase
Home Refinance
Cash-Out Refinance
Explore My Options
Get Started

The National Defense Reserve Fleet (NDRF)

NDRF maintains a reserve of cargo ships intended for use in national emergencies and civil defense. Since the 1950s, the number of this reserve fleet has dwindled from more than two thousand vessels at the height of the program to just under 100 ships as of 2017.

Ready Reserve Force (RRF)

RRF has operated as a component of NDRF since 1976 when it was created to facilitate global deployments. RRF had more than 100 vessels in the mid-1990s. In modern times there are just more than 40. More than 5,000 are employed in this capacity.

Merchant Marine Training

In general, Merchant Marine training and licensing operations fall under the jurisdiction of the United States Coast Guard (which falls under the Department of Homeland Security).

The United States Code of Federal Regulations Title 46, Chapter I, Subchapter B guides these operations, as well as regulations found in the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers.

There are two basic types of people who serve in the Merchant Marines–licensed officers and unlicensed. Unlicensed crew members are more or less analogous with their enlisted military counterparts, but these crew members are not considered part of the United States Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, or Marine Corps.

On the other hand, Merchant Marine officers will become members of the military by attending one of the military service academies or the United States Merchant Marine Academy (US MMA).

The MMA is one of seven U.S. maritime academies and is responsible for training Merchant Marine officers for work with the government and the transportation industry.

The seven academies are:

  • United States Merchant Marine Academy
  • California State University Maritime Academy
  • Great Lakes Maritime Academy at Northwestern Michigan College
  • Maine Maritime Academy
  • Massachusetts Maritime Academy
  • State University of New York Maritime College
  • Texas A&M Maritime Academy

There are also colleges offering Coast Guard-approved courses:

  • Chapman School of Seamanship
  • Fremont Maritime Services
  • Gulf Coast Maritime Academy
  • Mid Atlantic Maritime Academy
  • Northeast Maritime Institute
  • Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training and Education
  • Sea School
  • Seattle Maritime Academy (Seattle Central College)
  • STAR Center, Florida
  • Maritime Institute Inc, San Diego, California
  • Maritime Professional Training, Fort Lauderdale, Florida
  • University of Alaska Southeast

Requirements To Become A Merchant Marine

All schools and academies differ. There may be a variety of unique requirements depending on what program you choose. But a good example of what is required to become a Merchant Marine is found in the list of attributes desired by the United States Merchant Marine Academy. To be eligible for attendance there, all candidates are required to meet the following criteria:

  • Be at least 17 years of age,
  • Candidates must not have passed their 25th birthday before July 1 the year they enter the academy,
  • Be a citizen of the United States (by birth or naturalization). There are exceptions made on a limited basis for a number of international midshipmen as authorized by Congress,
  • Meet the physical, security, suitability and character requirements necessary for commission in the U.S. Navy Reserve,
  • Obtain a Congressional nomination to the Academy,
  • Submit a completed application and qualify scholastically.
  • Be “of good moral character,”


A Short History Of The Merchant Marines

What some scholars refer to as the maritime history of the United States reaches as far back as the 1600s when the first English colony succeeded in Jamestown along the James River.

There were ship-based merchants doing business in American waterways even then, but the real story of the Merchant Marines that most people are familiar with gets going with World War Two when Merchant Marines (as civilian volunteers for the war effort) hauled war supplies and material for Allied combat operations.

World War I, World War II

It’s true merchant vessels were used in World War I to counter German attacks on British supply runs, but the full benefit of having a Merchant Marine resource to count on in wartime would have to wait until World War Two.

In 1936, Congress passed the Merchant Marine Act, establishing the U.S. Maritime Commission “to further the development…” of an American merchant marine service, and to “to promote the commerce of the United States, and to aid in the national defense.”

Setting Up The Merchant Marines

Congress asked the chairman of the Maritime Commission, Vice Admiral Emory S. Land, to work with the Commandant of the Coast Guard to create a training program. That new program began in 1938 as a hybrid of Maritime Commission and uniformed Coast Guard training for future Merchant Mariners.

During World War II, volunteer Merchant Marines had no military rank, no opportunities to earn a military retirement or any of the other financial support associated with military service. They simply did their part and paid high prices for that service according to a report by Smithsonian Magazine.

German U-boats inflicted incredible damage to Merchant Marine operations, with Smithsonian Magazine reporting as many as 9,000 Merchant Marine casualties in 1942 alone.

At the time, these people were not viewed as favorably by the public as their enlisted, U.S. military counterparts. Merchant Marines had earned a bad reputation in some quarters, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt is reported to have offered high praise for these Americans and their volunteer efforts.

The End Of The Maritime Commission

In 1950, The United States Maritime Commission was shut down and its operations divided up between the U.S. Federal Maritime Board and the United States Maritime Administration which was charged with operating the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.

Merchant Marine crews would distinguish themselves during this time in Korea and later in Vietnam when a significant portion of the supply chain involved Merchant Marines in one capacity or another. In Vietnam, some reports claim Merchant Marines were responsible for nearly all of the supplies delivered to combat zones.

Merchant Marines In The 21st Century

The Merchant Marine Act of 2001 directed the construction of ships–300 in 10 years! These vessels have been used in contemporary military operations including Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

By 2005, some published sources report 85 “ship activations” and approximately 12,000 days of ship operations accounting for around a fourth of all equipment needed for operations in Iraq. Merchant Marines have also played vital roles in missions to help recover from Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) requested eight Merchant Marine vessels to provide electricity, housing and staging areas for crisis response teams.

The Navy and the U.S. Department of Labor report that in 2014, the federal government “directly employed” more than five thousand seafarers, and the service of these Merchant Marines is still just as important to the U.S. military as it has been for decades.

Written by Team