Review of Heroes in Dungarees: the Story of the American Merchant Marine in World War Two (Part 1 of 2)

Heroes in Dungarees: the Story of the American Merchant Marine in World War Two by John Bunker (3 Stars) isn’t actually a history of the US Merchant Marine in WW Two but a series of vignettes about life and death aboard American merchant ships. What makes this book stand out is the author, who died in 2003, served on a number of merchant ships between 1942 and 1945 in every theater of the war. He went onto a successful career in journalism which equipped him to compile this fine narrative history.

Serving in the US Merchant Marine was far more hazardous than serving in the US Navy. According to estimates compiled in the 1990s by Captain Arthur R. Moore, author of: A Careless Word…A Needless Sinking, which is an out-of-print academic history of the subject, 9,521 merchant officers and men were killed in action or subsequently died of wounds received in action or as died prisoners of war. (Figures from Almost all of those who died as POWs were beaten and starved to death by the Japanese. The Germans ran separate POW camps for captured Allied merchant sailors and those camps were run more or less under the rules of the Geneva Conventions.

The figure of 9,251 works out to a total percentage of killed in action of 3.90% versus 0.88% for the US Navy and 0.24% for the US Coast Guard. (Figures from This figure is the best estimate available because exact records from the war are not available. In spite of their service and heroism in time of war, none of these men were given veteran’s benefits until the late 1980s.

Before sailing in a North Atlantic convoy, passengers and crew were given a handy booklet, How To Abandon Ship, which would not have eased my anxiety. In the movies, sailors always have plenty of time to abandon ship after it’s struck by a torpedo. In reality, they often had just minutes depending on the cargo. Ore carriers, ships carrying steel or copper or any cargo intrinsically heavy, would often go down in a minute or less. Surviving was a matter of luck and only those on deck or on the bridge had any chance of getting away.

I recall reading some years back that during the war, merchant officers on ships carrying lumber would remove their coats, hats, shoes, et al before going to bed. They would fold those items and leave them on a chair with their life jackets. If hit by a torpedo, the ship would float for a long time and they would have adequate time to dress. Officers on ore-carriers would keep all their clothes on and put their life jackets around their necks before laying on their bunks. If the weather was warm and they were in known U-Boat territory, officers and men often slept fully clothed on deck and kept the lifeboats swung out. Officers on tankers carrying high octane aviation fuel, removed all their clothes and put them neatly away in closets and drawers. They changed into their pajamas then slipped into their nice warm beds. Why such nonchalance? If the ship was hit they would never know it since it would explode into nothingness in a few seconds.

Our merchant mariners in WW Two were incredibly brave and ONLY RECEIVED veterans benefits beginning in 1986 after years and years of pleading with the Congress to do something.

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website:

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