Wednesday, March 10, 2010

U.S. Merchant Marine Cadet Corps

U.S. Merchant Marine Cadet Corps (pre-1942)
Yellow-goldenrod thread.
Embroidered anchor on wool backing and mohair band.
Pre-to-early Second World War era; 1939-1942.

From the period following the First World War through the Depression, the U.S. Merchant Shipping industry was in a shambles: once profitable companies faltered and fell, ocean-going trade evaporated and even intercoastal shipping dried up. As a result, companies went bankrupt, very few ships were built and crews manning the ships dwindled to a very few. It is also during this period that U.S. maritime unions started operating in full swing, and involved themselves in vicious internecine fighting and bitter struggles with steamship carriers. Of those seamen that survived the wreckage, their efficiency and morale was at an all time low. With the passing of the Merchant Marine Act of 1936, Congress abolished the ineffective U.S. Shipping Board and ushered in a new age for the U.S. Merchant Marine. The formerly under-regulated industry came under federal control and found itself subject to an array of programs and regulations. A few of salient features of the Act were the formulating and subsidizing the construction of U.S.-flag ships, as well as the formal training of men to man the ships.

With the passage of the Merchant Marine Act, the U.S. Maritime Commission came into being. The organization was ostensibly "to further the development and maintenance of an adequate and well balanced American merchant marine, to promote the commerce of the United States, and to aid in the national defense." It too, became embroiled in the old system of unions and steamship carrier falterings. To prop up the maritime industry, the USMC eventually bought out insolvent carriers thereby ringing whole shipping lines under federal control. With the storm clouds of war looming on the horizon, the Merchant Marine Act defined the entirety of the U.S. Merchant Marine as a military auxiliary in the event of war; furthermore, officers and crew of U.S.-flag ships could be pressed into the service of the U.S. Navy.

One of the most sweeping changes made by the act was that the Merchant Marine be "manned with a trained and efficient citizen personnel." The Act did not offer any specifics for the USMC; but soon after, the Bland Amendment of June 1938 created the United States Maritime Service for "training of licensed and unlicensed merchant marine personnel." Shortly thereafter, Congress enacted the Naval Reserve Act bringing all officers of U.S. public vessels into the U.S. Navy reserve as well as cadets (now cadet-midshipmen) at Federally-funded state maritime and the soon-to-be-created Federal system. It is worth mentioning that the U.S. Maritime Commission's first report to Congress in January 1939 suggested the establishment of a federal cadet system augmenting the pool of graduates from state and private schools - moreover along with traditional sea-handling, the system should emphasize naval science. Congress acted quickly and a series of Maritime Service cadet schools opened in the Pacific, Gulf and Atlantic coasts. Navy, Coast Guard and USMS personnel trained the cadets, with licensure remaining in the hands of the Coast Guard. With the declaration of war, the training of the Merchant Marine Cadet Corps was transferred to the Coast Guard in February 1942 and then to the War Shipping Administration in Fall of the same year.

The presented hat badge dates from the period between the founding the the Federal Merchant Marine Corps just prior to the Second World War and the institution of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in 1942 through the creation of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Cadet Corps Regiment on Dedication Day, November1943. By early 1944, midshipman-cadets began wearing midshipman hat badges mirroring their colleagues at the U.S. Navy Academy in Anapolis.  This hat badge is an embroidered anchor on a wool backing and mohair band; this specific example was removed from a hat and stored over the period of several years. Bands, such as this were an integral part of the hat to which it was affixed, and did not slide off easily as is the case with removable covers and bands of the present-day; hats were spot cleaned or taken to the cleaners. With the United States' formal entry into the war, the U.S. insignia industry servicing maritime and Naval concerns changed its means and modes of production. The older, elegant hat devices made of woven bullion and metallic thread were replaced by metal hat badges and other removable devices; although, those who had means and money continued to purchase and wear embroidered insignia. For cadets, who were rapidly moved through the federal training system, it was more expedient and cost-effective to use stamped metal devices and removable bands. This badge is the last of an era; from this point forward, stamped devices were and continue to be employed.

U.S. Merchant Marine Cadet Corps hat badge (pre-1942), obverse.
Period photographic evidence points to the fact that leading up to the Second World War and in the initial year of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy's operation, cadet-midshipmen wore embroidered hat badges, rather supplanted by the more common stamped metal (brass, gold plated or gold fill). The presented item may be a custom piece - as the majority of cap devices of the period were comprised of metal thread (bullion) on wool backings - as opposed to silk or composite thread.  It is important to remember that the USMMCC was quite small in the period leading up to the institution of the USMM school system and uniforms were not always that - uniform - young men on the Gulf coast did not always wear the same kit as their colleagues on the West or even the East coast.

U.S. Merchant Marine Cadet Corps hat badge (pre-1942), obverse detail.

U.S. Merchant Marine Cadet Corps, pre-1942 reverse

U.S. Merchant Marine Cadet Corps cadet-midshipman, SUNY Maritime period (1939-1941).

U.S. Merchant Marine Cadet Corps cadet-midshipmen, SUNY Maritime period (1939-1941).
The cadet-midshipmen are shown photographed in working khaki manning a monomy in Long Island Sound. Note that the young gentlemen are not wearing garrison hats, pointing to the fact that this photograph is pre-Regiment. The make of their combination hats is consistent with late-1930s and early Second World War construction. Their uniform shirts lack insignia of any sort, underscoring the same.