National Maritime?Day: Remembering our Past, Focusing on our Future

U.S.-flagged Liberty ship circa 1942 (Library of Congress)

Published May 22, 2018 1:12 PM by Capt. Jim Tobin

On May 22, six days before Memorial Day, many Americans will quietly observe National Maritime Day, a day set aside 85 years ago by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to acknowledge the importance of our merchant fleet and remember mariners who died in service to our nation.

Many Americans are unfamiliar with the work of the Merchant Marine and the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, but it is worth remembering their contributions to our nation’s security and prosperity.

The U.S. Merchant Marine is fleet of U.S.-flagged vessels that carry commercial goods during peacetime and, in times of war, becomes what FDR called “the Fourth Arm of Defense,” delivering troops, supplies and equipment. 

The Merchant Marine has been a critical player in every war since the American Revolution and it is common knowledge among military planners that the U.S. cannot win a major war without a vibrant Merchant Marine. In fact, the Merchant Marine predates the establishment of the U.S. Navy.

When the nation faced its most existential threat in World War II, the Merchant Mariners answered the call. Even before the U.S. entered the war, U.S. flagged merchant ships were carrying vital supplies to the Britain to help them survive the Nazi onslaught. 

After Pearl Harbor, German submarines prowled U.S. and international waters seeking to destroy U.S. merchant vessels carrying vital supplies and troops. Tragically, they had great success sinking ships off the U.S. east coast, the Artic, the South Atlantic, Caribbean and Mediterranean Sea. 

The losses were staggering. Fifteen hundred-plus vessels were destroyed, and more than 9,000 American Merchant Mariners were killed in action. 

With this harrowing backdrop, on September 30, 1943, President Roosevelt dedicated the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) in Kings Point, New York, to “serve the Merchant Marine as West Point serves the Army and Annapolis the Navy.” 

Remarkably, midshipmen at the Academy did much of their training on vessels in the very waters German U-boats were stalking their prey. They were crewing ships, unloading vital cargo in combat zones and navigating enemy-controlled waters to get back to the U.S. mainland so they could do it all over again.  

All told, 142 Academy midshipmen were killed in battle. Of the five federal service academies, the USMMA is the only one to lose students in combat. Today a battle standard bearing the number “142” remains on display at Kings Point, a stark reminder of the price these young men paid in service to the nation.

The tide of the war eventually turned as the U.S. Navy began to anticipate and counter U-boat attacks, and merchant vessels were escorted by Navy convoys. A replenished merchant fleet carried men and materiel to free Europe—and between May 1945 and September 1946, they kept crossing the oceans until all 8 million troops were back home

General Eisenhauer proclaimed, “When victory is ours, there is no organization that will share its credit more that deservedly than the Merchant Marine.”

In the Pacific, the Merchant Marine was equally courageous. Gen. McArthur said, “They have brought us our lifeblood and they have paid for it with some of their own. I saw them bombed off the Philippines and in New Guinea ports. When it was humanly possible, when their ships were not blown out from under them by bombs or torpedoes; they have delivered their cargoes to us who need them so badly. In war it is performance that counts.”

Now in its 75th year, the USMMA continues to produce graduates who stand ready to serve as officers in the Merchant Marine from day one, in both peacetime and war. Like the other service academies, all graduates are obligated to serve their country for eight years.

As we remember those Merchant Mariners who lost their lives in combat, we must be vigilant in ensuring it remains strong enough to counter the challenges of the future.

Captain Jim Tobin is president of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Alumni Association and Foundation.  

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.