Most Americans consider Pearl Harbor Day the start of World War II, but for the U.S. merchant marine, the war started long before.

On Oct. 9, 1939, an American ship was commandeered in mid-Atlantic by the German pocket battleship Deutschland.The unarmed SS City of Flint, clearly marked as neutral, was carrying general cargo from New York to Great Britain when, with the battleship's guns trained on it, it was ordered to stop. Norwegian commandos eventually freed the ship and crew. Within two weeks, the U.S. ordered many ships reflagged in order to support our Allies while skirting neutrality laws.

The first U.S. ship sunk during the war was the MS City of Rayville, which struck a German-laid mine off Australia on Nov. 9, 1940, killing one mariner. The toll of men and ships continued: the SS Charles Pratt, Robin Moor, Steel Seafarer, I.C. White, Lehigh, Astral, Sagadahoc.

On Dec. 7, 1941, the SS Cynthia Olson, chartered to the U.S. Army Transport Service, was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. Its crew of 33 and two Army men went down with the ship. A Japanese cruiser trapped the SS President Harrison that same day at the mouth of the Yangtse River below Shanghai. The captain ran the ship aground at full speed. The crew of 167 were among the first of 604 mariners held as prisoners of war.

The merchant marine suffered its own ''Pearl Harbor'' at Bari, Italy, on Dec. 2, 1943. A German air attack sank 17 Allied merchant ships in the harbor with a loss of more than 1,000 lives. The SS John Harvey, which carried a secret cargo of 100 tons of mustard gas bombs, was one of five American ships destroyed that day. Many mariners, Navy Armed Guards and civilians died from the effects of poison gas.

During the invasion of Mindoro, Philippine Islands, more mariners lost their lives than did members of all the other armed services combined. Among them were the entire crews of the Liberty ships SS Lewis L. Dyche and SS John Burke who died when Japanese kamikaze suicide planes vaporized their ammunition-loaded ships. The merchant marine participated in every landing operation by the U.S. Marine Corps from Guadalcanal to Iwo Jima, suffering the highest casualty rate of any service during World War II, with one in 29 killed in action.

Merchant mariners were on the front lines the moment their ships left U.S. ports, subject to attack by submarines, surface raiders, mines, bombers, kamikaze and land-based artillery. At least 8,651 mariners were killed at sea, and an estimated 11,000 wounded. Of those killed, 84 percent were listed as ''missing in action.''

About 1,500 ships of various sizes were sunk. It took 15 tons of supplies to support one GI for one year at the front. Mariners remained in war zones long after the fighting troops came home to enjoy the benefits of the GI Bill. In September 1946, a mine set by German saboteurs damaged the USAT Edmund B. Alexander. It was one of 48 U.S. ships sunk or damaged by mines after VE or VJ Day.

Mariners ''delivered the goods when and where needed in every theater of operations and across every ocean in the biggest, the most difficult and dangerous job ever undertaken,'' according to President Franklin Roosevelt.

Mariners were the first to go, last to return.