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(Pictured above: CAM Ship, or “catapult aircraft merchant ships,” which would accompany merchant marines on convoy trips and when faced with danger, launch a single-man attack plane in the air to provide assistance.  However, with no landing strip other than the ocean, an extremely dangerous job for the pilot was made nearly impossible).

Every time I have to write an essay or do historical readings for a class, I put in a pair of earplugs.  Where I normally used them to just dampen sound at various rock concerts I attended, now they are as essential a study tool as Microsoft Word. In that sense, doing work for the Prizker Military Library, where everyone is committed to the silence of diligent work, it is like a historical research paradise.  No distracting TV or music from roommates computers, no loud discussions on “classwork” at our school’s Information Commons, just pure, focused silence.

My second day at Pritzker began with the knowledge I would start in on my original goal; to compile summaries and relevant library documents on various topics for the Pritzker Website, filed under “Discovery Pages.”  This way, people viewing the website can narrow down their search better than a few keywords.  My first topic was of Merchant Marines, or mariners who acted under the U.S. flag for commerce in peacetime, but for the Navy during wartime.  Since their true realization as a group and largest field of action was during WWII, I chose to focus my research on that time period.

What I found, not surprisingly, was a very underrepresented,  but vital, segment of the Armed Forces.  After being formally organized by Pres. Roosevelt in 1936, their mission of recommissioning and renovating trade ships from the first World War quickly changed with the onset of the second World War.  They began churning out thousands of ships, used for troop transport, supply delivery, and everything in between.  The Merchant Marines were present at every major invasion of World War II.  As such, they faced extreme danger, and not always purely because of the Germans.  When ships left the U.S. in the early years of the war, they were provided with no defensive guards, and the coastal city lights made their outline visible out far enough for German U-Boats to quickly size them up.  Some reports tell of people on the Eastern Seaboard witnessing naval battles of Merchant Marines and German U-Boats.

This danger, multiplied infinitely by Germans constantly roaming the North Atlantic, made them the military branch with the highest casualty rate, nearly 1 in 24.  To me, that blatant disregard for their safety by their own government was astonishing.  Even a movie based on the Merchant Marines, 1943’s “Action in the North Atlantic” starring Humphrey Bogart, has the main crew’s ship sink right from the get-go of the movie, and their second vessel nearly sink after making it all the way to Russia.  And if that wasn’t enough, the mariners were denied any sort of veteran status by the U.S. for their extreme bravery.  To me, this is the value of such historical research: not only learning about segments not popularized in class textbooks, but by doing so learning of such travesties.  In that, as always with history, we can begin to learn.

My research couldn’t have been done without, again, help from another great Pritzker intern.  Andy, who works at the main stacks reception desk, gave me a crash course in the Library of Congress organization system, something no poster on other library bookshelves could’ve done.  After a brief (but personally intense) test over how to re-shelve books, I felt ready to go.  Now that I’ve gotten into the nitty gritty of my research, the noise back on campus seems deafening, where the silence that the Pritzker Military Library provides is well-worth it.

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