Suppose There Was a War and the Merchant Marine Didn’t Come?

US Merchant Marine / February 11, 2020

CNO Naval History Essay Contest Second Prize,
Professional Historian Category
Sponsored by General Dynamics

Without the ships and mariners of the U.S. merchant marine, the nation could find itself with military forces deployed overseas with no means to feed, arm, or sustain them.


In July 2002, the USNS Watson (T-AKR-310) departed her anchorage in Chagos Archipelago for the Port of Ash Shuaybah in Kuwait. Once pierside, she discharged 999 pieces of rolling stock and 437 containers from her 950-foot hull under the auspices of Exercise Vigilant Hammer. The Watson was the lead ship of an eight-ship class of new large medium-speed roll-on/roll-off (LMSR) vessels built after the 1991 Gulf War. Late in January 2003, the USNS Yano (T-AKR-297), one of five ships converted into LMSRs, arrived at the same Kuwaiti seaport and discharged more than 8,000 tons of equipment after sailing from Charleston, South Carolina, via the Strait of Gibraltar and the Suez Canal. Also from Charleston, the MV Maersk Missouri loaded containers for an Army field hospital. Using Maersk’s network, the cargo was shifted to the MV Maersk Antwerp for delivery to Ash Shuaybah.

These ships marked the beginning of a fleet that, from 2002 to 2011, delivered nearly 52 million tons of cargo for Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. Government-owned, civilian-crewed ships such as the Watson and Yano were responsible for nearly half the cargo delivered. The rest traveled on commercial merchant vessels, such as the Maersk Missouri and Maersk Antwerp.1 As it has in every conflict in U.S. history, the merchant marine sailed and manned the ships loaded with the beans, bombs, and black oil needed for the fight. But what if the United States had a war and the merchant marine did not come?


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February 11, 2020