Armed cargo ships already sail for U.S. (9-24-41)

The Pittsburgh Press (September 24, 1941)

Neutrality repeal weighed –

Some now carrying goods to Britain – 125 more can get guns

By Lyle C. Wilson, United Press staff writer

Washington, Sept. 24 –
Armed American-owned merchant vessels are already in the British lifeline and approximately 125 of them can be equipped with guns without changing the Neutrality Act, it was learned today, as President Roosevelt contemplated asking Congress to repeal that legislation.

These 125 ships sail under the Panamanian flag but are owned by Americans – 45 of them by the United States government. But all of them, however, are presently sailing to British ports.

The Navy has enough guns on hand to arm “a great many” of the U.S. merchant ships that are sailing under the flag of Panama and has the money to provide arms for vessels of the present United States merchant fleet, naval and Congressional sources said.

Repeal passage seen

Funds for arming the entire American Merchant Marine have been available to the Navy since April 5 and presumably the long-range program to provide the weapons is underway. But the Neutrality Act must be changed before the guns can be put on American flag ships.

Speaker Sam Rayburn predicted that Neutrality Law revision will pass the House:

…after some fighting and scratching around.

He referred specifically to elimination of the prohibition against armed merchant vessels, but added:

When you take that away, there isn’t much left to the Neutrality Act.

Wilson precedent cited

President Roosevelt told his press conference yesterday that we were headed toward the arming of our merchant marine but said decision whether to ask for repeal or amendment of the Neutrality Act toward that purpose would not be reached until next week.

Mr. Roosevelt referred to President Wilson’s World War I experience as the latest of several precedents establishing executive authority to put the guns aboard vessels. Wilson ordered our merchant ships armed after a Senate filibuster, ending at noon March 4, 1917, blocked legislative authorization. On April 6, 1917, Congress declared a state of war to exist with Germany.

Tough battle promised

Chairman Sol Bloom (D-NY) of the House Foreign Affairs Committee was confident of outright repeal of the Neutrality Act if Mr. Roosevelt seeks it. The best Senate judgment seemed to be that repeal would carry there with a majority of 25 to 30 votes.

But Congressional isolationists in both houses promised the President the “toughest” battle he has had yet if he seeks repeal of the act – which would permit American flag ships to go to British and other ports now closed to them – or merely asks that the prohibition against arming those ships be lifted.

Fish charges trick

Senator D. Worth Clark (D-ID) said:

He will have the toughest fight in Congress he ever had.

Senator Charles W. Tobey (R-NH) said:

Arming merchant vessels would be the first step in breaking down the Neutrality Act – another step leading toward war.

Rep. Hamilton Fish (R-NY) said:

Repeal would put us into the war zones and many of our ships would be sunk. It is just a trick to get us into the war by subterfuge and there will be a tremendous fight in the House.

Immediate action doubled

But there was no indication so far that the administration’s Congressional majority on foreign policy was shrinking although some persons concluded that a battle over repeal of the act or for an amendment to permit arming of ships would be a heated contest.

Chairman Tom Connally (D-TX) of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and some other administration supporters indicated before Mr. Roosevelt spoke of arming ships that repeal was coming in time but not immediately. Others felt that the administration would prefer to feel out Congressional temper with the new Lend-Lease appropriation before raising so tumultuous an issue. On the most recent major question of foreign policy before Congress, the House sustained Mr. Roosevelt by a single vote last August on extension of service of the citizen soldiers.

Nine already armed

If for any reason next week’s decision should be against an immediate request for repeal or modification of the act, Mr. Roosevelt could continue with the program already undertaken of arming American-owned vessels which escape restrictions of the act because they fly the Panamanian flag. At least nine such vessels have already been armed and one of them, the Pink Star en route to Great Britain in a Canadian convoy, was sunk Sept. 20, presumably by a submarine. Those nine were requisitioned Danish vessels.

The Maritime Commission estimates that there are more than 100 additional American-owned vessels, of which 45 are owned by the government and charters to private operators, operating under the Panamanian flag. They could be armed and already may be receiving armament. The nine requisitioned Danish vessels were equipped with guns – presumably United States naval guns – in Atlantic ports.

Lend-Lease funds used

Lend-Lease appropriations authorizing the President to aid any country whose defense he regards as vital to our safety provide the financial means of arming American-owned vessels under Panamanian registry. The merchant ships Sessa and Montana, both requisitioned from Denmark and registered in Panama, were unarmed when they were recently sunk en route to Iceland. It is presumed that the vessels armed so far are trading directly with Great Britain.

There were apparently authentic reports here that some American merchant ships were carrying small caliber machine guns for “target practice.” They would be useless against a submarine but might pink a low flying air raider.