Commander Matt Ransom Coward

Commander Matt Ransom Coward

By Jim Buchanan

Last week we looked at Matt Ransom Coward’s adventures in Veracruz, Mexico during the American occupation of that city in 1914, an event that saw Coward have a baptism of fire. Afterward, he reported he’d received a recommendation for a promotion to Electrician Second Class.

He received the promotion, was discharged and enrolled in the Westinghouse engineering school in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with a friend, Ramsey Buchanan. But it wasn’t long before he felt the tug of the ocean again – and also felt the call to return to service with America’s entry into World War I.

In 1917 at 24 Coward was commissioned as an ensign. With the war over, he chose to enter the merchant service, as most of his routes to promotion in the Navy were blocked by his lack of a Naval Academy background.

It was a good call on his part; by 1925 he had risen to the rank of captain. As Master of the S.S. Westerner he was profiled by a yachting magazine in 1927 and commended for his leadership.

A decade later as war clouds gathered, Coward found himself with the ranks of Commander in the U.S. Maritime Service, Merchant Marine Captain and Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve. He opted to stay in the merchant service, where he’d still be able to command a vessel.

And command he did, leading vessels through dangerous war zones to deliver badly needed war supplies, dodging German submarines and mines. His exploits along the way are too numerous to recount in this space, but included a commendation from the Swedish Military Attache and the War Shipping Administration for the rescue of a Swedish ship’s entire 42-man crew after it had been torpedoed. He was also in command of one of the huge convoys that sailed across the Atlantic, convoys that were the target of German Wolfpacks.

Coward was the first commander of the S.S. John W. Brown, the first armed merchant ship. (The ship was named after Canadian-born American labor union leader John Brown, not the famed abolitionist).

The Brown departed New York in October 1942 with 200 motorcycles, 10 M4 Sherman tanks, a couple of P-40 Warhawk fighter planes, hundreds of tons of ammunition and hundreds more tons of canned lunch meat, all destined for the Soviet Union. The ship joined a convoy in the Caribbean, crossed the Panama Canal and sailed unescorted for Cape Horn, South Africa, then, again alone, to the Persian Gulf. Shipping traffic was so backed up at Gulf ports the ship had to anchor for a month before unloading began, a process that wound up involving two Iranian ports and several weeks.

The return trip included stops to take on war materials for U.S. manufacturers. In all, the U.S.S. Brown’s maiden voyage lasted eight months. That was it for the Brown as a cargo ship; she then became the first Liberty ship to be converted into a “Limited Capacity Troopship.”

If you wonder what life was like aboard the Brown, you can go to Baltimore, Maryland and find out, as she’s preserved as a museum ship at Pier 13, not far from Fort McHenry.

After the war Coward was an executive with the Black Diamond Company, in charge of East Coast shipping. It’s hard to list the marks he made, including marks on canvas (he became an accomplished painter). He organized U.S. Naval Reserve Unit NRCC 6-36 in Sylva.

Along his path Coward became a member of the Lambs, an actors club in New York City founded in 1874. The club had once chartered a ship to sail around the world, pretty much fell in love with its skipper, and forever after kept a sea captain on the rolls. Coward was named that captain in 1936. Notable Lambs members include Cecil B. DeMille, W.C. Fields, Fred Astaire, Will Rogers and Spencer Tracy, to name just a few.

Coward was also a Marine Society member. That organization was founded in 1769, and had a slew of towering historic members in its fold including Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. A plaque with his name on it was placed in the Society’s clubroom in New York City after his passing.

Coward died on Jan. 27, 1955, and was buried in Webster Cemetery with military graveside rites, his journey from Webster to all points of the compass at last complete.