United States Navy Armed Guard

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Insignia of the United States Armed Guard.

United States Navy Armed Guard units were established during World War II in an attempt to provide defensive firepower to merchant ships in convoy or merchant ships traveling alone. This was done because of the constant danger from enemy submarines, surface raiders, fighter aircraft and bombers, and because of the shortage of Allied escort vessels necessary to provide the merchant vessels with adequate protection.

Unit composition[edit]

The United States Navy Armed Guard (USNAG) were U.S. Navy gun crews consisting of Gunner's Mates, Coxswains and Boatswains, Radiomen, Signalmen, an occasional Pharmacist's Mate, and toward the end of the war a few radarmen serving at sea on Merchant Ships.

Armed Guard crews served on Allied merchant marine ships in every theatre of the war. Typically the crew was led by a single commissioned officer, but earlier in the war chiefs and even petty officers had command.

Hazardous duty considerations[edit]

The assignment as an Armed Guardsman was often dreaded because of the constant danger and because the merchant ships were among the slowest to receive updated equipment. Early on in the war some ships only had a few machine guns and painted telephone poles to replicate the barrels of larger guns. The most common armament to be installed on merchant ships during the war were the MK II 20mm machine gun and the 3"/50, 4"/50, and 5"/38 deckguns.

Cross-training for crew members[edit]

When practicable, the Navy Armed Guard aboard a merchant ship would provide cross-training to merchant crew members in the use of the guns in the event the Navy personnel were killed or injured.

Scheduling[edit]

The Navy Armed Guard unit would travel with the merchant ship to its destination and return Stateside on the same ship, or another, depending on convoy schedules.

First use in convoy to Russia[edit]

The first merchant ship to make the eastbound convoy to North Russia (PQ-8 out of Iceland) with a Navy Armed Guard was the 3800-ton freighter SS Larranga. At the insistence of the ship's master, Captain Cameron Dudley Simmons, she was installed with a Navy Armed Guard consisting of Ensign H. A. Axtell, Jr. and eight enlisted men under his supervision. Ordnance placed under their charge on the SS Larranga was one 4-inch gun and eight 30-calibre machine guns. The Armed Guard crew of the SS Larranga has the distinction of being the first to fire on an enemy submarine from an armed merchant vessel.

Cinematic dramatic description[edit]

The movie film Action in the North Atlantic, issued in 1943 and featuring Humphrey Bogart, Raymond Massey, and Alan Hale, illustrates the importance of the Naval Armed Guard and how it interfaced with the Merchant Marine crew who were in charge of their merchant vessel.[1]

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