1991 29¢ First Liberty Ship
1941: World at War
Issue Date: September 3, 1991
City: Phoenix, Arizona
Printed By: Bureau of Engraving and Printing
Printing Method: Lithographed, engraved
On March 15, 1938, the Merchant Marine Cadet Corps was established. Merchant Marines transport cargo and passengers in peacetime and are called upon in times of war to deliver troops and supplies wherever needed.
America’s Merchant Marines traces its roots to the colonial era and first entered combat during the Revolutionary War. On June 12, 1775, a group of citizens who had learned about the fighting at Lexington and Concord captured the British schooner HMS Margaretta. The British refused to surrender, and instead gave the Americans an ultimatum – either load the ships with lumber to build British barracks in Boston or starve (the British had much-needed supplies on other ships). The citizens instead chose to fight.
Once word of this revolt reached Boston, the Continental Congress issued Letters of Marque to privateers, authorizing them to attack and capture British vessels. The privateers soon began interrupting British shipping along the East Coast and across the Atlantic. Their actions predated both the US Coast Guard and Navy, which were founded in 1790 and 1797, respectively.
US merchant ships would go on to participate in every American conflict that followed. In fact, they were one of the contributing factors to the War of 1812. At the time, the British Navy didn’t recognize naturalized American citizenship and would stop American merchant ships and forcibly place anyone born a British citizen (which included many Americans) in to military service. This practice was one of several reasons the nations went to war in 1812. That war was largely fought by American merchant ships. The US Navy and privateers captured a combined 30,000 prisoners.
The Mexican-American War was the first in which the US Army invaded an enemy’s land by the sea. During that conflict, merchants provided dozens of ships to the US to support the cause.
During the Civil War, control of the nation’s waterways was important to both sides. The Union blockaded southern seaports and used hundreds of merchant vessels. The Confederates issued Letters of Marquee, attempting to capture Union privateers, but were largely unsuccessful.
By the time of the Spanish-American War, the Merchant Marine was greatly reduced and unable to supply the large number of ships to the conflict that it had in the past. However, merchants did supply the small number of ships available for that war.
By World War I, the Merchant Marine had rebounded and would supply a significant number of ships to the war effort. These ships carried supplies across the Atlantic to the American Expeditionary Force. One naval commander commended them saying, “The skill and seamanship of these sailors was something that amazed naval officers, and they proved themselves to be seamen in a sense that naval officers never have the opportunity to become. Without the merchantmen’s skill, courage, and loyalty the war could not have been won.”
Then on June 29, 1936, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Merchant Marine Act of 1936. The act was passed to “further the development and maintenance of an adequate and well-balanced American Merchant Marine, to promote the commerce of the United States, to aid in the national defense, to repeal certain former legislation, and for other purposes.” This act also created the US Maritime Commission, which realized that a trained merchant marine force would be essential to US interests.
This led to the creation of the US Merchant Marine Cadet Corps two years later on March 15, 1938. Up until this time, training programs were largely run by the states. This new program used civilian Maritime Commission and US Coast Guard instructors to train Merchant Marines. They trained on ships and in temporary locations until the US Merchant Marine Academy was completed in 1943.
The Merchant Marines would grow quickly leading up to and during World War II – nearly quadrupling in size from 55,000 to 215,000. It provided one of the largest merchant fleets of the war and has been credited as one of the most significant contributions of any nation during the conflict. Unfortunately, they also had the highest casualty rate of any service, with 1 in 26 losing their lives.
The Merchant Marines went on to participate in the Korean, Vietnam, and Gulf Wars as well, providing hundreds of ships and thousands of men to each conflict. In Vietnam, the Merchant Marines carried 95% of the supplies used by American forces. And during the first Gulf War, they delivered 12 million tons of vehicles, helicopters, ammunition, fuel, and other supplies.
Today, the Merchant Marines consists of over 400 ships and 69,000 officers and sailors.
You can discover a lot more Merchant Marine history here.
This stamp shows the first “Liberty Ship” – ships provided to Great Britain by the United States to transport supplies. The Liberty ships replaced the numerous supply ships lost by the British to German submarine activity.
Ten major events or developments of 1941 are depicted on the first of five scheduled sheetlets, one to be issued each year, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of World War II.
These sheetlets are a mini-course in the events that took place throughout the war years. In the center of this first sheetlet is a map of the world, showing the countries at war in 1941 and pinpointing locations of major events and conflicts that year.
Each of the 10 attached stamps deals with a specific subject - such as the Burma Road, a supply route for Chinese war materials, and the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Japan worried about a possible anti-Japanese backlash during the observance of the 50th anniversary of that fateful event.
The American Merchant Marine Act was passed in 1936, granting funding for 50 commercial merchant vessels that could be used by the US Nay in the event of a war. That number doubled in 1939 and again in 1940.
In late 1940, the British Merchant Navy was suffering from the Battle of the Atlantic, in which German U-Boats were sinking their ships faster than they could be built. The British then requested aid from the US, to build 60 Ocean-class freighters to replace the lost ships and help their merchant fleet. Following the creation of the Lend-Lease program, the number of ships requested was raised to 306 in April 1941.
The ships were plain and unattractive, which made them unpopular with the public. When he first announced the emergency shipbuilding program, President Franklin Roosevelt called the ship “a dreadful looking object,” and Time magazine called it an “Ugly Duckling.” To help gain greater support for the ships, the Maritime Commission organized Liberty Fleet Day for September 27, 1941.
On that day, the first 14 Liberty Ships were launched from shipyards around the country. The first ship, the SS Patrick Henry, was launched from the Bethlehem Steel Yard, in Baltimore, Maryland. President Franklin Roosevelt delivered a speech at the launch that stated, in part:
“The ship workers of America are doing a great job. They have made a commendable record for efficiency and speed. With every new ship, they are striking a telling blow at the menace to our nation and the liberty of the free peoples of the world. They struck fourteen such blows today. They have caught the true spirit with which all this nation must be imbued if Hitler and other aggressors of his ilk are to be prevented from crushing us.
“The Patrick Henry, as one of the Liberty ships launched today renews that great patriot's stirring demand: ‘Give me liberty or give me death.’ There shall be no death for America, for democracy, for freedom! There must be liberty, worldwide and eternal. That is our prayer—our pledge to all mankind.”
The ships generally had five cargo holds, which could carry 10,200 tons. Each ship had a crew of about 40 sailors a 4-inch deck gun. Later ships had additional anti-aircraft defenses added.
Initially, these Liberty Ships were built to replace British transports and cargo ships. A total of 18 American shipyards helped built 2,710 Liberty Ships between 1941 and 1945. Altogether, they averaged three ships every two days, though each ship took about 42 days to build. As a publicity stunt, Kaiser Richmond built a ship in four days, 15 hours.
Liberty ships served with distinction throughout the war. Many were manned by the US Merchant Marine and claimed several victories of German U-Boats. Though the ships were only intended to last five years, some remained in use into the 1970s. And many of the techniques used to build these ships are still used today.