Researching wwll era us merchant seamen

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Theron P. Snell, Ph.D

Unfortunately for researchers, tracing WWII era merchant seamen and their
wartime histories is complicated by the fact that the merchant service was
a business first and foremost. While the War Shipping Administration
(WSA) requisitioned and managed the merchant fleet, the ships
themselves...and their crews...were operated and employed by private
companies. Shipping companies took care of finding crews and the day to
day operation of the vessels under contract with the WSA. The upshot is
that the merchant seamen were civilians working for private
companies. Unlicenced seamen got their jobs through the hiring halls, and
the licenced officers were hired directly by the companies.

This business practice also complicates locating operational records of

any given ship. For the most part, the traditional "deck logs" have been
destroyed. In the words of US Coast Guard Information Paper #77: "Deck
logs were traditionally considered the property of the owners of the
ship. After WWII, however, the deck and engine logbooks of vessels
operated by the WSA [note: almost the entire fleet] were turned over to
that agency by the shipowners, and were destroyed during the 1970's."

With all of this said, there are still records available, especially if you

know the name of the ship on which the person being researched actually
sailed. The rest of this short piece will outline some of these records
and what information they may contain. This report is divided into two
major sections: 1. records pertaining to individual ships and 2. convoy
records that can provide larger contexts for the individual ships in each
convoy. The records are listed from most useful (the easiest to access by
mail) to the least useful.


The surviving operational records of any ship, managerial records that
may mention the ship and records of convoy operations are spread throughout
the various records groups in The National Archives and Records
Administration (NARA). Fortunately, NARA is on-line at:
http:// . Once in the site, click on "Search" and type in
the records you want. You will get a list of the Records Groups that
contain the records and can then "click" on the Group for a general list of
files within the Records Group. You can also e-mail inquiries directly to
NARA at:

To help with your search, here are several kinds of records, what you might
find in them , their Records Group in NARA. and which National Archives
Center holds them. Keep in mind that all the records listed here can vary
in quality and completeness from voyage to voyage. Some reports are
detailed while the report filed for the next voyage and written by
another person might be sketchy at best.


"Ship Movement Card"

Perhaps the most central record needed is the "Ship Movement Card." This
card lists all the voyages: ports of call, arrival and sailing dates and
the convoy designation if any. The Cards may also contain miscellaneous
information. The Card for the SS SANTA MARGARITA, for example, lists
specific diversions for submarine threats as well as the record of a
serious cargo fire while docked at Calcutta, India. These cards, filed by
ship name, are held at NARA II:

National Archives and Records Administration
8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD 20740

"Armed Guard Voyage Reports" and Ship Files

Once the dates of voyages are known, then specific reports can be ordered.
The best single source for operational details are usually the "Voyage
Reports" filed by the commanding officer of the Naval Armed Guard
Detachment on board the ship. These were the naval ratings who manned the
guns. These reports can be perfunctory, but can also contain a great
amount of detail. Reports are filed by ship name in RG 38; each ship file
may also contain copies of individual messages sent/received, Armed Guard
crew lists and other material, including survivors' statements if the
vessel was sunk. Additionally, Naval Armed Guard "smooth logs" can be found
in RG 24. These logs are the "official" record taken from the "rough" day
to day log of the Armed Guard detachment. These list formal inspection
times, times the crew stood to, etc. These records are located at NARA II
in College Park, MD

"Official Logs"

"Official Log Books" were issued to U.S. registered vessels engaged in
foreign trade at the beginning of each voyage. The masters turned them in
after the voyage terminated. During WWII, these books were turned over to
the U.S. Coast Guard and later filed in the regional archive closest to
each ship's home port. Official Logs should not be confused with
the traditional deck logs in which the ship masters recorded daily
entries listing position, rpm's and the general operations of the ship.

Instead, "Official Logs" included a crew list and went on to record
incidents affecting the crew's health and welfare. The entries included
accidents, illnesses and crew disciplinary matters requiring the forfeiture
of pay as well as routine company business issues such as monies advanced
to the ship's master by the Shipping Company 's agents overseas. The logs
also listed ports of call and the arrival/departure dates as well as
shipboard drills and any accidents involving the ship. Thus, while it is
not always possible to look up a single individual and trace his career in
Federal records, it is possible to verify that the person did sail on board
a specific vessel on a specific trip.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Although these logs are available from The National
Archives as outlined below, the copies will not be complete. The only

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