August 1942. The island of Malta, a strategic supply point for the Allied forces fighting in Italy and North Africa, was under siege by Axis forces. Malta was desperately running short of supplies and fuel, so Winston Churchill ordered Operation Pedestal, a convoy of 14 merchant ships escorted by aircraft carriers, battleships, destroyers and heavy cruisers.
The most important of these merchant ships was the S.S. Ohio, the world's biggest and fastest fuel tanker, on loan to the British for the war. On its way to Malta, the Ohio was torpedoed and repeatedly hit from the air. Its crew was forced to abandon ship. As other ships towed the Ohio toward Malta while under fire, two American merchant marines from the S.S. Santa Elisa and four British sailors boarded the Ohio. They were able to repair the anti-aircraft gun to help protect the ships from further attack, and the Ohio was able to deliver its precious cargo of fuel to Malta before breaking apart.
For "heroism above and beyond the call of duty," the two merchant marines, Midshipman Francis A. Dales and Junior Third Mate Frederick A. Larsen, Jr., received the Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal. Their story is told in At All Costs by Sam Moses.
United States merchant marines served all over the world during World War II and some of their stories are told in Heroes in Dungarees by John Bunker. More details about the merchant ships they served on, and what became of these ships, can be found in the reference book The Merchant Fleets, 1939: The Particulars and Wartime Fates of 6,000 Ships by Roger Jordan.
For more stories about American merchant marines in wartime, read The U.S. Merchant Marine At War, 1775-1945, edited by Bruce L. Felknor, and The Forgotten Heroes: The Heroic Story of the United States Merchant Marine, by Brian Herbert.