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Merchant Marines & Vietnam

U.S. Merchant Marine Vietnam Service MedalThe United States Merchant Marine served our country bravely in the Vietnam War, just as it had in the Korean War and World War II before that.  The Merchant Marine is engaged in the transportation of cargo and services in and out of U.S. navigable waters.  During peacetime, the Merchant Marine moves cargo and passengers.  In wartime, the Merchant Marine acts as an auxiliary to the U.S. Navy, delivering troops and supplies through hostile waters in aid of the U.S. military.  The Merchant Marine’s fleet of U.S. civilian-owned vessels is operated by the private sector, the government or both.  The United States government also maintains fleets of merchant ships through institutions like the Military Sea Transportation Service or Military Sealift Command.  Throughout most of the twentieth century, Merchant Marine asbestos exposure, like Navy asbestos exposure, put the men aboard at risk for developing mesothelioma decades in the future.

During the Second World War, sea transportation was managed by four distinct government agencies.  To coordinate the task, in 1949, the Department of Defense consolidated control of its ocean transportation needs under just one managing agency – the Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS).  This agency took over the job of providing sealift and ocean transportation for each branch of the military and for a variety of government agencies.  MSTS became Military Sealift Command (MSC) in September 1970 during the Vietnam War.

Learn more about ASBESTOS EXPOSURE in the Merchant Marine

The U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command and the earlier MSTS provided support for U.S forces all during the Vietnam War.  Although MSTS vessels operated with “civilian” crews, individual crew members were assigned Navy grades and rank identification, just in case of enemy capture.

Thank you for your service to our countryBetween August 1954 and May 1955, 39 MSTS vessels transported many of the 293,000 North Vietnamese who relocated to South Vietnam during Operation Passage to Freedom.  In addition, the ships transported 200,000 tons of cargo from North to South Vietnam.  In the early 1960s, MSTS vessels Card (T-AKV 40) and Core (T-AKV 13) transported Army helicopter units.  From 1965 to 1969, MSTS moved almost 54 million tons of supplies and combat equipment to Vietnam, along with nearly 8 million tons of fuel.  MSTS troop ships also transported thousands of servicemen to Vietnam. In fact, this was the last time that MSTS troop ships were used for the job; U.S. troops are now transported by air travel.

In March 1965, before the buildup of American troops in Vietnam, the MSTS had only five cargo ships under time charter, not nearly enough to transport the 20.9 million measurement tons of cargo the agency had to move in 1966 alone.  The MSTS petitioned private industry to help provide more shipping capability for the War.  The amount of cargo pouring into South Vietnam was so overwhelming that the port facilities there were overloaded.  The ships that were available were being held too long at port, just compounding the shortage of vessels.  For a time, private ship owners were able to help by offering many ships for charter for short periods of between three to six months.  When MSTS still needed more ships, it ultimately decided to withdraw ships from the National Defense Reserve Fleet (NDRF), refurbish them and authorize their use by private industry solely for the support of the U.S. military in Vietnam.

At the peak of the program, forty private shipping companies operated 172 ships, 161 of which were activated from NDRF.  The ships brought guns, ammunition, fuel, refrigerated items, food and medical supplies across the 10,000 miles of ocean between the Pacific coast and the Vietnam shoreline.  They also brought almost every conceivable form of transportation, including: tanks, trucks, trains, helicopters, bombers, barges and riverboats.  Many MSTS vessels sailed bravely into combat zones under fire in order to fulfill their mission.

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MSTS serviced all branches of the military, including the Navy, Marine Corps, Army, Air Force and Coast Guard:

  • Navy.  MSTS and the Merchant Marine were instrumental in transporting aviation fuel and oil to support operations by the Navy fleet in Vietnam.  In addition, MSTS delivered all manner of construction equipment – including steel, cement, bulldozers and cranes – for the Navy Seabees, members of the Navy’s construction battalions.
  • Marines.  The Marine Amphibious Force Logistic Command was located in Da Nang harbor.  The Command maintained all the supplies needed to support the 81,000 Marines serving in Vietnam. MSTS transported 96% of the materials and equipment distributed by the Command, including aircraft, tanks, ammunition and food.
  • Army.  MSTS sealifted 19 million tons of cargo for the Army in 1968.  MSTS also kept the USNS Corpus Christi Bay, which carried an Army aviation-maintenance battalion, in position along the Vietnam coast to provide aircraft maintenance services when required.
  • Air Force.  From 1965 to 1967, MSTS operated the SEA Express program that transported Air Force supplies all the way from Oakland, California to Saigon in an average time of 23 days.  All told, MSTS moved 7.6 million tons of supplies for the Air Force between 1965 and 1969.  About half the supplies went straight to the Air Force in Vietnam; the rest were delivered to staging areas in the Pacific.  MSTS also assisted by transforming a number of its 19 ammunition ships into floating warehouses anchored offshore close to combat areas in an effort to reduce storage problems the Air Force was having.
  • Coast Guard.  In 1965, MSTS sealifted U.S. Coast Guard Squadron One to the Philippines for duty in Vietnam duty.

Between 1965 and 1973, MSC transported more than 40,000 U.S. and allied troops along with 99 percent of the fuel and ammunition and 95 percent of the vehicles, supplies and construction materials delivered to the Vietnam combat theater.  At the very height of the Vietnam War, MSC operated a fleet of 527 vessels, including reactivated World War II ships and chartered private commercial vessels.  MSTS had an average of 3,000 merchant mariners on 75 different ships in Vietnamese ports at any given moment.  The Navy’s sealift effort and the U.S. Merchant Marine worked together to ensure that our nation’s half-million troops in the region were well-armed and well-supplied.

Until early in 1970, the reactivated WWII Victory-class ships were the primary vessels used to transport ammunition to Vietnam.  But in April, 1970, those ships were retired from service.  Less cargo was being transported and there were sufficient commercial merchant ships available to handle the job.

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MSC continued its service in the region until the end of the Vietnam War.  In the spring of 1975, the Navy relied on MSC to help get civilians and friendly Vietnamese troops out of the central and northern regions of Vietnam.  In March, a fleet of ten cargo/transport ships, six barges and five tugs started the rescue of civilians and soldiers from Danang.  By the tenth of April, MSC had transported 130,000 American and Vietnamese refugees to Phu Quoc.  When the South Vietnamese Army gave way at the end of April, MSC ships carried over 50,000 evacuees. At the very end, the MSC vessels set sail with the Seventh Fleet contingent and a flotilla of Vietnam Navy ships carrying 30,000 Vietnamese sailors with their families, bound for the Philippines.

Merchant Marine in Vietnam War

At the peak of the Vietnam War, the MSC was operating a fleet of over 500 ships.  Some vessels were chartered commercial ships.  Others were MSC vessels built in the 1950s and 1960s.  Still others were reactivated Liberty and Victory ships built for Merchant Marine use during World War II.  What follows is an incomplete list of the MSC ships that served in the Vietnam War:

  • SS Aloha State
  • SS American Hawk
  • SS American Racer
  • SS American Victory
  • SS Amiee Lykes
  • SS Arizona State
  • SS Badger State
  • SS Baton Rouge Victory
  • SS Bengal Mail
  • SS Benjamin Chew
  • SS Berea Victory
  • SS Cornell Victory
  • SS Cuba Victory
  • SS Del Sol
  • SS Empire State
  • SS Enid Victory
  • SS Eugene Lykes
  • SS Express Baltimore
  • SS Express Virginia
  • SS Fairland
  • SS Fairland
  • SS Fred Morris
  • SS Green Bay
  • SS Hyria Shell
  • SS Jefferson Davis
  • SS Lafayette
  • Merchant Marine Ships Filled with Asbestos Put Men at Risk for MesotheliomaSS Lane Victory
  • SS Lorinda
  • SS Madaket
  • SS Margaret Brown
  • SS Maury
  • SS Meredith Victory
  • SS Neva West
  • SS Ocean Cloud
  • SS Ocean Evelyn
  • SS Pioneer Myth
  • SS President Buchanan
  • SS Robin Grey
  • SS Santa Clara
  • SS Seatrain New Jersey
  • SS Seatrain Texas
  • SS Swarthmore Victory
  • SS Transcaribbean
  • SS Transglobe
  • SS Tulane Victory
  • SS U.S. Defender
  • SS U.S. Explorer
  • SS U.S. Tourist
  • SS Venus Victory
  • SS Washington Bear
  • SS Whittier Victory
  • SS Young American

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USNS Vessels

  • USNS Corpus Christi Bay, Merchant Marine vessel insulated with asbestosUSNS Barrett
  • USNS Breton
  • USNS Card
  • USNS Core
  • USNS Corpus Christi Bay
  • USNS Croatan
  • USNS Darby
  • USNS Fentress
  • USNS Geiger
  • USNS Gordon
  • USNS Greenville Victory
  • USNS Kula Gulf
  • USNS Lt. Robert Craig
  • USNS Patch
  • USNS Pendelton
  • USNS Petrarca
  • USNS Point Cruz
  • USNS Truman Kimbro
  • USNS Upshur
  • USNS Windham Bay


  • Dredge Davidson


  • Tug Michael
  • Tug Patrick

Merchant Marine asbestos & Vietnam War

$30 Billion For Asbestos VictimsFrom the 1940s through the 1970s, Navy and Merchant Marine ships and commercial vessels were heavily contaminated from asbestos insulation.  The steam pipes running throughout many of the large vessels were all insulated with asbestos.  Asbestos fireproofing was commonly used to reduce the risk of fire.  The men aboard ship wore asbestos gloves when they were required to handle hot items in the boiler, engine and fire rooms.  Asbestos gaskets and packing were used in the many pumps, valves and flanges on the ships – materials that all had to be chipped off and replaced over time.  n short, Merchant Marine asbestos exposure was quite substantial.

When the asbestos products on these Merchant Marine ships were dislodged, damaged or replaced, tiny asbestos fibers were released into the surrounding air.  If you were working on or near asbestos insulation in the tight quarters of a Merchant Marine vessel, the chances are that you were exposed and inhaled some of the asbestos fibers into your lungs.  Asbestos fibers are sharp like tiny needles; they can embed themselves in your lungs or other tissue in your body.  If this happens, then your exposure to asbestos many decades ago in the Vietnam War could cause you to develop mesothelioma all these years later.  The symptoms of mesothelioma ordinarily are not apparent for many, many years after your first exposure to asbestos.

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