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News   Observances

WWII Merchant Mariners Receive Congressional Gold Medal

May 19, 2022 | BY Terri Moon Cronk , DOD News

The Congressional Gold Medal was awarded yesterday to the U.S. merchant mariners of World War II, who played crucial roles in the country's war effort.

In 2020, Congress passed the Merchant Mariners of World War II Congressional Gold Medal Act to recognize the merchant mariners for their courage and contributions during the war. 

Men pose for a photo with replicas of a gold medal.
Gold Medal Award Ceremonies
At the U.S. Capitol, World War II members of the U.S. Merchant Marine pose for a photograph with replicas of the Congressional Gold Medal awarded to merchant mariners for their service during the war, May 18, 2022.
Photo By: Ike Hayman, House Creative Services Photographer
VIRIN: 220518-O-D0439-034

"[President Franklin D. Roosevelt] called their mission the most difficult and dangerous transportation job ever undertaken," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at the ceremony, which was held at the U.S. Capitol and attended by congressional and military leaders. 

The Congressional Gold Medal will be displayed at the American Merchant Marine Museum in Kings Point, New York. In addition, each of the surviving merchant mariners — now estimated to number about 12,000 from the World War II years — will receive a bronze replica of the coveted award. 

Two of the World War II mariners — Charles Mills, 101, of Baltimore, Maryland, and Dave Yoho, 94, of Vienna, Virginia — attended the ceremony at the U.S. Capitol. 

He had a single request of those gathered for the ceremony: "And, so, when you're with others, say to them of what we did; urge them to read about us and find out about us. Greet us today if you can [and] then say to those, 'We gave up our yesterdays for your better tomorrow.'" 

Yoho enlisted at 15 and became a civilian merchant mariner at age 16. Once in the U.S. Merchant Marine, he went to basic training and then worked in the boiler room of a refueling tanker, which served ships in the South Pacific, he said in a Defense Department interview earlier this week.

A young man is seen in an old photo.
Dave Yoho
Teenager Dave Yoho poses for a photo in his U.S. Merchant Marine uniform during World War II. Yoho was present for a ceremony recognizing the contributions of merchant mariners of World War II.
Photo By: Courtesy of Dave Yoho
VIRIN: 220518-D-D0439-002
 

Yoho said it was his role to speak at the ceremony for the mariners of World War II who cannot speak for themselves. "I'm speaking for 248,500 guys that are already dead," he told those who attended the ceremony. "One out of 26 of us died, but thousands of us came home deprived of a part of our life. That's probably one of the least-understood missions that ever was accomplished in modern warfare," he said of the merchant mariners' role in supporting the U.S. military.  

By 1943, the mariners had more ships than men because of the loss rate. The mariners began taking young men at age 16 to fill the void — and Yoho was among them. 

"In World War II, we had 130 million people in the United States. We put 16 million into uniform as 12-and-a-half percent of our population," he said in an interview. 

A man gestures broadly with his left arm while standing at a lectern.
Gold Medal Award Ceremonies
Dave Yoho, 93, speaks during a Congressional Gold Medal presentation ceremony honoring members of the U.S. Merchant Marine for their World War II service, May 18, 2022.
Photo By: Eric Connolly, House Creative Services Photographer
VIRIN: 220518-O-D0439-640A

"We brought home the scars of war," Yoho said of the World War II mariners. "[We] delivered 15 million tons of goods in war materials to five continents — 13 million tons to the South Pacific, 8 million tons to the Mediterranean, 5 million tons to Russia. Put it all together, and that's what came out of our growth [when the United States] had the wisdom to bring us aboard."  

Yoho said that young people should serve in the military because of the discipline, maturity and leadership qualities it delivers.  

About Merchant Mariners 

During World War II, nearly 250,000 civilian merchant mariners served as part of the U.S. military and delivered supplies and armed forces personnel by ship to foreign countries engulfed in the war. Between 1939 and 1945, 9,521 merchant mariners lost their lives — a higher proportion than those killed than in any military branch, according to the National World War II Museum.  

A man wearing a WWII veteran hat holds up a presentation case containing a large gold medal.
Gold Medal Award Ceremonies
At the Capitol, World War II merchant mariner Charles Mills, 101, holds up the Congressional Gold Medal presented to members of the U.S. Merchant Marine for their wartime service May 18, 2022.
Photo By: Ike Hayman, House Creative Services Photographer
VIRIN: 220518-O-D0439-1870

Americans might know little of the contributions of the U.S. Merchant Marine. They are civilian sailors who operate ships carrying commercial goods to worldwide ports. During wartime or a national emergency, the U.S. military can call the merchant mariners into service to transport personnel and supplies to wartime theaters.  

In 1988, the mariners became eligible for benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs.  

The mariners have their own federal-service school — similar to those of the U.S. military branches — at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York. In his 2018 academy commencement speech, then-Defense Secretary James N. Mattis said the United States needs its merchant mariners for commerce and, when "storm clouds gather," to support the U.S. military in the fight.