- The import and export of goods to and from the United States is the responsibility of the United States Merchant Marine. The Merchant Marine is a fleet of ships that, while not owned by the government, can be operated by either the government or private individuals or companies. These ships can also be called on in times of war to serve as an auxiliary of the Navy, helping to transport men and materiel into a war zone.
- Although the concept of a merchant marine existed in the United States since the days of the Revolutionary War, the service wasn't formally created until 1936 with passage of the Merchant Marine Act. This act specified the responsibilities of the Merchant Marine, created funding for ship construction and established a training school for officers. It also repealed outdated laws such as the Seaman's Act of 1915 and the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, which regulated shipping between U.S. ports and restrictions on the purchase and sale of fleet ships.
- The sailors of the Merchant Marine are civilians and they are divided into two main categories: deck officers and unlicensed crew. Deck officers are responsible for ship operations such as navigation and engineering, as well as supervising the crew. People who fill these roles are typically graduates of the United States Merchant Marine Academy, which is one of the five federal service academies. Unlicensed crew operate deck machinery, handle maintenance, cooking and sanitation duties.
- With 422 ships in the Merchant Marine fleet, the United States ranks 24th worldwide in the size of its merchant navy. The fleet is made up of a cargo ships, petroleum tankers, vehicle carriers and passenger ships. 84,000 people are employed in the Merchant Marine. Unlicensed crew make an average of $30,000 per year while deck officers average $54,000 per year.
- Although the sailors in the Merchant Marine are civilians, one of the purposes of the merchant navy is to support the Navy during wartime. During World War II, almost all of the ships of the Merchant Marine were nationalized as they were contracted for government service to carry war materiel. Although the crews on these ships faced the same dangers from enemy vessels as sailors in the Navy, it was not until 1988 that these merchant sailors were given veteran's benefits based on their service during the war.