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Newspapers and lifeboats

Lists of U.S. Merchant Seamen Lost in WWI, 1914-1919

By Constance Potter

"Without the merchantmen's skill, courage and loyalty the war could not have been won."
-- Admiral William Snowden Sims, USN, Commander, U. S. Naval Forces in European Waters, WWI

The United States merchant marine is comprised of the cargo ships and other vessels carrying commercial cargo around the world under the American flag. It is not directly affiliated with the U.S. government or military, but during wartime becomes a naval auxiliary that delivers troops and war material. Merchant marine vessels traditionally are organized along military lines; licensed merchant mariners serve as officers aboard ship, while unlicensed merchant mariners are the equivalent to enlisted men.

The Marine and Seamen’s Division of the Bureau of War Risk Insurance created lists of U.S. merchant seamen lost in WWI. Congress passed the War Risk Insurance Act in 1914 to provide insurance for shipping vessels and cargoes. In June 1917, Congress amended the act to extend life insurance coverage to include United States merchant marine sailors. These lists may not be complete.

The information includes:

  • The vessel the seaman was serving on at the time of the incident.
  • The owner of the vessel.
  • The name of the officer or seaman. Often just the first initial rather than the full first name is listed.
  • The person’s nationality. In some cases, it includes a notation indicating a person was a naturalized American citizen.
  • The position the person served in on the vessel.
  • The person’s home address; sometimes just the country is listed.
  • The nature of the casualty.

The lists comprise 5 “schedules:”

Schedule A: Officers and Seamen in the U.S. merchant marine who were killed, wounded, or captured while serving on U.S. merchant vessels. This list contains the names of all the seamen who were insured under seamen’s insurance, as well as the names of others who were not insured because their casualties occurred prior to the passage of the law providing such insurance.

Schedule B: Civilians not employed by the merchant marine, who were killed, wounded, or captured from the date of the American declaration of war on April 6, 1917, through November 15, 1918 four days after the Armistice. Such civilians were working aboard merchant vessels owned and operated by a department or agency of the United States government. These Federal employees were covered by the Employees Compensation Act of September 7, 1916, for compensation for wages lost due to job-related injuries.

Schedule C: Enlisted personnel under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Navy serving on merchant vessels who were killed, wounded, or captured.

Schedule D: Crews of vessels insured by the Government, but whose losses were not due to marine or war risks (for example, disease) and therefore no insurance was payable.
On the final page of Schedule D is a list of the number of merchant seamen who died at marine hospitals or other stations for the fiscal years ending June 30, 1915-19. For the fiscal years 1915-1918, no men are listed as having died of influenza although many death recorded as pneumonia may have been influenza. For FY 1919, at the height of the influenza pandemic, 245 died.

Schedule E: Officers and seamen of the merchant marine lost or disabled by marine hazards in each of the fiscal years, July 1, 1914 through June 30, 1919. No insurance was payable because the insurance covered war risks only. In some instance no insurance was carried at all.

The SS Antilles, USACT [U.S. Army Chartered Transport] sunk after being attacked by a German U-boat on October 17, 1917. Men from 10 countries outside the U.S. made up the crew: Canada, Chile, Cuba, Denmark, England, Finland, Ireland, Norway, Portugal, and Spain. In some cases the list gives the seaman’s exact address overseas. William Slattery’s father, “J” lived at 55 Julia Street, Quebec, Canada.

Antilles snip

Chief Engineer, Charles Erickson, a naturalized American citizen, probably drowned. His widow, Isabella, of 839 55th Street, Brooklyn, N.Y., survived him.

Erickson snip

Most men either “died at sea” or “drowned,” and many died of influenza. Davis A. Donnahos, however, was “accidentally shot and killed by W. B. Jones while sleeping in bunk.”

Donnahos snip

Sometimes the ships had only incomplete information on the names of the crew; for example, several men were listed as “unknown” on this page.

Unknown snip

These records are available on Ancestry. They are from the Records of the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation, 1774-1982 (Record Group 41), Entry UD 255.

To find the database on Ancestry, type in the phrase “U.S. Merchant Seamen” at view all in the card catalog to get to “U.S., Lists of Merchant Seamen lost in WWI, 1914-19.” The database is searchable by the name of the person, the month and year of the casualty, the place of the incident (at sea, the country, or the city and state in the United States), and the name of the vessel.

Next article: Casualty index cards

Constance Potter is a retired reference archivist. She worked at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, DC for more than 30 years.

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