United States Navy 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.
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
The assignment as an Armed Guardsman was often dreaded because of the constant danger. Merchant ships were slow and unwieldy despite being priority targets for enemy submarines and planes. Furthermore, merchant ships were among the last to receive updated equipment. Early on in the war, some ships only had a few machine guns installed, so the crews painted telephone poles to imitate the barrels of larger guns. The most common armament to be installed on merchant ships during the war were the MK II 20mm Oerlikon autocannon and the 3"/50, 4"/50, and 5"/38 deck guns.
Cross-training for crew members
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.
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
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-caliber 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.
The 1943 film Action in the North Atlantic, featuring Humphrey Bogart, Raymond Massey, and Alan Hale, illustrates the importance of the Naval Armed Guard and how it interfaced with the Merchant Marine officers and crew.