U.S. Celebrates Over 200 Years of Merchant Mariners

US Merchant Marines

By Kathryn Stone 2015-05-26 00:39:35

On May 22 the United States will honor the men and women of the merchant marine who toil at sea to boost the U.S. economy and who have been instrumental throughout history in upholding American liberties.

National Maritime Day traces its history back to 1933 when President Franklin Roosevelt, with Congressional support, set aside May 22 as National Maritime Day. The date was chosen to coincide with the departure of the steamship SS Savannah from its homeport in Savannah, Georgia to Liverpool, England.  According to MARAD, “[The ship] was an impressive achievement, one that signaled the beginning of the era of steam, and American technological leadership.”

In the later part of the twentieth century, the day has overwhelmingly become a celebration of the Merchant Marine. Following WWII, the merchant marine coming back from the war were not given veteran’s benefits and were excluded from veteran memorial celebrations. 

However, the accomplishments of the merchant marine in the war were tremendous. MARAD has commented that, “the merchant marine and American shipyards were crucial to victory in World War II. Then, as now, the United States Armed Forces could not fight a war overseas without the merchant marine and commercial ships to carry the tanks and torpedoes, the bullets and the beans.”

 Over the course of the war, the U.S. Merchant Marine carried over 270-billion tons of cargo, which in 1945 averaged out to 17-million pounds of cargo per hour. The Merchant Marine were the first to go to war, with merchant ships sunk even before the U.S. officially entered combat. They also were the last to leave the war effort, transporting the final troops back home after the war. Around one in 30 Merchant Marine died serving their country, with a higher casualty rate than any of the Armed Forces except for the Marine Corps. MARAD has termed National Maritime Day as Merchant Marine Memorial Day because of the unsung sacrifice of so many in the Merchant Marine. 

Commercial Maritime Now

Currently, there is much on the horizon for the U.S. commercial maritime industry. Around ninety percent of global commerce take place by sea. Additionally, the United States is one of the largest importers and exporters of goods and is set to become an even larger maritime power with the opening of the expanded Panama Canal in 2016. A recent study of transportation methods has found that marine freight carriers greatly outpaces both truck and rail transportation in efficiency.

In President Barrack Obama’s 2015 National Maritime Proclamation he praised over 200 years of merchant mariners by saying,

“Our Nation is forever indebted to the brave privateers who helped secure our independence, fearlessly supplying our Revolutionary forces with muskets and ammunition.  Throughout history, their legacy has been carried forward by courageous seafarers who have faithfully served our Nation as part of the United States Merchant Marine -- bold individuals who emerged triumphant in the face of attacks from the British fleet in the War of 1812, and who empowered the Allied forces as they navigated perilous waters during World War II.  Today, patriots who share their spirit continue to stand ready to protect our seas and the livelihoods they support.”

National Maritime Day will be observed across the country in a variety of ways. Many ports host open houses and special celebrations and Propeller Clubs all over the United States hold special luncheons. At Merchant Marine Memorials, such as the one in New York City, and the one in San Pedro, California, memorial observances are held.

The president has also called upon people in the United States to display the U.S. flag at their homes and communities and has requested that all ships sailing under the American flag dress ship on that day.