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US Navy Armed Guard

Updated: Aug 4, 2023

Few people will know the story of the US Navy Armed Guard, which is very sad, considering the duty and sacrifice they made. There is more than one reason why they aren't known very well, and it only makes their tale more tragic. Since I'm from the coast, and I grew up just as much on hearing the stories of U-boats sinking ships as much as I did on pirates and ghosts, I know the importance of their brief history.

At the beginning of World War II, the US was woefully unprepared for dealing with the U-boat threat that appeared almost overnight on our coast. North Carolina was an especially dangerous place, as the ships passed close to the coast, allowing for easy hunting as they passed the still well lit coastal towns. The US was so intent on protecting the big caravans of ships in the North Atlantic, as well as beginning the pursuit of the Japanese in the Pacific, that it had very few ships to spare to protect smaller single craft as they came up the coast to find safe homes farther north in ports at Norfolk all the way to New York. Of the many attempts to protect the cargo and passenger ships, with very few ideas that worked, one was the formation of the Navy Armed Guard. Naval artillerymen, along with engineers and radiomen, were placed with whatever armament could be found onto merchant marine ships. Often, the only weapons they could have would be mounted machine guns, and the guard would occasionally resort to telephone poles made to look like cannons.

Sadly, while the men were generally well trained and clearly ready for action, as my story will show, they, too, were woefully underprepared for an enemy that would barely be seen, and often only after the enemy had fired their shot first.

One such event happened aboard the soon to be stricken City of New York, a passenger freighter that had made numerous stops in the past four months from the Indian Ocean all the way to the Caribbean. It was now on its last day of travel as it headed to its namesake of New York. Sadly, the New York was targeted by the skipper of the U-160, Georg Lassen. He put a torpedo in the ship that quickly crippled her and put her into a listing position, and while the passengers struggled to get into lifeboats, a second torpedo struck.

The City of New York was now passed crippled and was sinking quickly at her bow. The ship was doomed from the first strike, as were many of the passengers and crew. But the members of the US Navy Armed Guard stayed at their post, firing their 50 caliber deck gun downrange at a target they could only guess at. One shot would have finished off the U-boat, if only they had a target better than a periscope, and weren't on a rapidly sinking ship. But the Navy Guard stayed at their post as the ship sank, continually coughing out rounds until the ship and the gun, and the gun crew, hit the icy water of the Labrador Current. Sadly, at least three members of the US Navy Armed Guard died in the sinking, and their names were never recorded. No one knows who they were.

The Armed Guard for merchant ships was just one of many attempts to protect Allied shipping from the Nazis. While a few crews were able to either fend off or attack U-boats in the North Atlantic, the guns had no real effect on stopping the hunting. Joining the Armed Guard was with inherent risk. With hundreds of ships going down, and thousands of victims falling to the Nazi U-boats, the Armed Guard had the greatest percentage of deaths of any of the armed forces during World War II. Yet sadly, we don't remember or barely recognize their sacrifice. Especially what they did on the coast of North Carolina in the dark, early days of the US involvement.

When I wrote The Unmerciful Sea I had a short but rather gruesome scene (this book is definitely not meant for kids!) where I have some of the mostly nameless protagonists appear to give a bit of aid to my characters. I really wanted to address this specific story above. I knew that many of the newly minted troops, especially the coastal guards, were from interior lands had never seen the ocean before, and probably not a boat, let alone a ship. While the Armed Guard took from the Navy mostly trained artillerymen, I had no idea where they came from, similar to how no one really knew the Guard on board those same ships. I had an opportunity, and gave one a name, a rather vague and common name, not local to the Outer Banks, certainly. He could have been from anywhere. But I at least wanted to give him a name, so that he would be remembered somewhere. I know it's not the real name of any of those victims from the New York. I've tried to find any listing of who they were. Their identities are truly lost. But I gave them all one last name for all of them. Just so they know I remembered.

Now you know, too.

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