Stop 20: U.S. Navy Armed Guard

U.S. Navy Armed Guard in WWII

Few people today know what the U.S. Naval Armed Guard was. Even fewer are aware of the very important role it played in World Wars I, and II. Because of space limitations, our discussion will be concerned only with the Armed Guard of World War II. The Naval Armed Guard consisted of a group of navy sailors who served exclusively on board merchant ships of the United States and selected other nations during the war. Some of the Armed Guards, in spite of their being in the navy, never served aboard a United States ship. The function of the Armed Guard was to maintain the ship’s armaments and to use them attain the government’s objective, i.e., to allow the ship to arrive at its intended destination with its war cargo intact. The standard ship’s armament in 1943, consisted of the following: (1) one 5” 38 cal gun; (2) One 3” 50 cal gun; and (3) eight Oerlikon 20 mm anti-aircraft guns. One of their duties in that connection was to load the magazines of the Oerlikons with anti-aircraft shells so that every fourth shell was a tracer. Loading more than four per cycle would cause the barrel to overheat. The standard Armed Guard gun crew (for a Liberty, or later a Victory) was as follows: (1) One officer in the grade of Ensign, to Lieutenant; (2) a boatswain’s mate, or a coxwain; (3) two gunner’s mates and (4) about 19 seamen, for a total of about twenty-three per ship.[1]

The first Armed Guard detachments were small groups formed in Little Creek, Virginia, and several other locations, e.g., New Orleans on the Gulf Coast and at Treasure Island, California, on the west coast. The Armed Guard reached its peak on 1 November, 1994, with 5,447 officers and 106,661 enlisted personnel for a total of 112,108.[2] The Armed Guard of World War II was inactivated with the end of the war and the return of the Armed Guard crews to the United States where they could be discharged.

The function of the Armed Guard was solely a war-time employment. The objective of the Armed Guard embarked was to protect the ship and her cargo doing everything possible to enable her to deliver her cargo to the assigned destination. Personnel were expendable

The personnel of the Armed Guard were under the discipline of the Navy which, in that period was, “The Articles for the Government of the Navy”. Those articles were, in 1950, replaced by the current Universal Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), which applies to all of the various armed forces of the United States. Also, the master of the ship could exercise certain disciplinary controls, except where the Armed Guardsman was subject to military law.

This section about the Armed Guard would be incomplete without recognition of the invaluable service they rendered to the United States merchant marine and the country in their time of need. They sailed every ocean, and sea, in extreme heat and cold, suffering heavy casualties with their shipmates of the merchant marine. Together they fulfilled their mission – to get the cargoes through to the troops waiting for them.

[1] Justin F. Gleichauf, Unsung sailors: the Naval Armed Guard in Word War II, U.S. Naval Inst., Annapolis MD, 1990, p.47.

[2] Ibid., p. 48.

Duties of the U.S. Navy Armed Guard Aboard a Merchant Marine Ship

Some of the more specific duties of the Armed Guard are listed following:

  1. Maintain the ship’s defensive armaments in battle ready condition
  2. Maintain safe (and ready) custody of the ship’s ammunition storage
  3. Ensure that there were sufficient ready magazines for the Oerlikon 20 mm anti-aircraft machine guns
  4. Maintain sunrise and sunset submarine and anti-aircraft watches when submarines were most active
  5. Stand general look out watches as necessary; (6) stand signal and radio watches
  6. Keep up their military duties
  7. Train the merchant marine members of the gun crews. From this, it can be seen that the members of the Armed Guard were usually quite busy.


Interested in finding a relative that served in the Merchant Marines or U.S. Navy Armed Guard please follow the link below.