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Who were the U.S. Navy “Armed Guards” and what did they do?

Joseph Forbes,
Pittsburgh, PA

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Formed as the United States was entering the war, the U.S. Naval Armed Guard was a contingent of personnel charged with defending American and Allied merchant ships from attack by enemy aircraft, submarines and surface ships. Contingents of this—gunners, signal men, and radio operators—served aboard every troop, cargo, and other merchant vessels on all fronts. If a U-boat’s periscope was spotted amid a North Atlantic convoy, if a Junkers Ju-88A made a dive-bombing attack on the Murmansk run or a kamikaze tried to take out an auxiliary off Okinawa, it would find a Naval Armed Guard fighting back at the deck gun. Among the most famous actions occurred when the German disguised raider Stier, accompanied by the blockade runner Tannenfels, encountered the Liberty Ship Stephen Hopkins in the South Atlantic on September 27, 1942. Called to surrender, Stephen Hopkins‘ crew chose to fight, pitting its one 4-inch gun and 37 mm anti-aircraft guns against Stier‘s six 5.9-inchers and Tannenfels‘ machine guns. When Lt (jg) Stephen Willett and his Naval Armed Guard members were cut down, merchant seamen, including Cadet Erwin J. O’Hara, took their place at the guns until Stephen Hopkins inevitably succumbed. Two hours later, Stier‘s crew abandoned and scuttled their own burning ship. Of Stephen Hopkins‘ 57-man crew, 15 survived to see their lifeboat make landfall in Brazil. Not until they met in reunions long after the war could the Germans be convinced they had not been victims of a special, heavily armed Allied Q-ship. Willett was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, while O’Hara and Stephen Hopkins‘ Captain Paul Buck received posthumous Distinguished Service Medals.

The Naval Armed Guard was disbanded with the end of World War II, though it wouldn’t be a bad thing to revive for merchant vessels currently playing the Red Sea. More on the subject can be found at



Jon Guttman
Research Director
World History Group
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