America’s ‘greatest asset’ honored on National Maritime Day


(WASHINGTON) — The contributions of U.S. shipping as well as past and present mariners were recognized across the country on Monday during the annual National Maritime Day observance.

This was the 90th celebration of Maritime Day, which was established in 1933 to commemorate the May 22, 1819 trans-Atlantic crossing of SS Savannah. Captained by Moses Rogers, the sidewheel steamer departed Savannah, Ga., on that day using steam propulsion – though it mostly relied on sail power for that voyage. The vessel arrived in Liverpool, England, on June 20, 1819 and was met by cheering multitudes.

An observance at the Department of Transportation honored the day on Monday with the theme of “Mariners Move the Nation: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow.” Adam Vokac, president of the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association and several other MEBA members and staffers attended on behalf of the union.

Homeward bound after a supply voyage to Murmansk, a Liberty ship in a convoy sails through heavy swells in the Arctic Ocean in February 1945. United Kingdom Government/Imperial War Museums photo

At the observance, Maritime Administrator Ann Phillips applauded the valuable contributions of mariners pointing out that they are “our greatest asset.” But she noted, “We are short the number of mariners needed in the event of a full mobilization exceeding four to six months – which is a very real scenario in a large-scale deployment.”

Other speakers, including Federal Maritime Commission Chairman Daniel Maffei, pointed out that the “silent workforce” has always been vital to the nation’s national and economic security, and mariners proved how crucial they are, yet again, during the COVID crisis, despite extended assignments, restricted shore leaves and many other challenges and uncertainties.

The commander of the U.S. Transportation Command, Adm. Jacqueline Van Ovost, said that mariners are a vital aspect of our nation’s force projection. “We cannot achieve success without merchant mariners,” she said. They are the “difference between victory and defeat.”

“Mariners are patriots,” she continued. “They are people of deeds, not words. They will be there for us when we need them. And when they are called, they will rise to the occasion taking cargoes to the four corners of the world, across contested seas, in support of our national defense.”

In Vero Beach, Fla., a new World War II Merchant Marine Veterans Memorial was unveiled and MEBA members, including Tampa branch agent Nicole Greenway along with several MEBA retirees, were on hand for the ceremony. A handful of Florida-based World War II mariners were presented with the Congressional Gold Medal for their service, and MEBA retiree Dru DiMattia, who is the president of the American Merchant Marine Veterans, was a featured speaker.

The Los Angeles Maritime Day festivities were held at the Merchant Marine Veterans Memorial in San Pedro, Calif. The well-attended event took place at the memorial statue under slate gray skies. The observance was attended by MEBA members and retirees including L.A. branch agent Rich Doherty.

The Military Sealift Command hosted a Maritime Day celebration aboard the hospital ship USNS Comfort, crewed with engineers represented by the MEBA. The event began with remarks from MSC Commander Rear Adm. Michael Wettlaufer and featured keynote speaker Dave Yoho, a World War II merchant marine veteran.

“The Department of Defense depends on the merchant marine to support 90 percent of our sealift requirements in national emergency, crisis or conflict,” said Wettlaufer. “Long serving as our nation’s ‘fourth arm of defense,’ American mariners bravely faced combatants and pirates, pandemics and natural disasters. They answer the call to serve their fellow Americans in ways and in places many of our fellow citizens don’t know about.”

During his speech, Yoho recalled his experience as a young mariner during wartime. “We were in great trouble when the war started. We were outmanned, outmaneuvered, out-gunned and outfinanced, but we took a collective stand,” he said. “I was a fireman water tender. I (asked an officer), ‘Sir, what’s the best way to get out of here if we take a hit?’ He said, ‘Kid, if we take a hit, you don’t get out of here.’ That’s the first time I realized we could get killed.

“The merchant marine had the highest mortality rate of any of the services. One out of 26 of us died,” said Yoho. “I bring you my story in hopes that you will tell others. Tell them about (mariners), and say we gave up our yesterdays for their tomorrows.”

President Joe Biden issued a Maritime Day proclamation leading into the weekend. Among other things, he noted, “My administration remains steadfast in its support of the merchant marine as well as the Jones Act, which ensures American workers see the benefits of our domestic maritime industry. … The United States merchant marine underpins our nation’s prosperity and upholds our nation’s highest principles — freedom, liberty and dignity. Today, and every day, we honor merchant mariners’ service and sacrifice and renew our commitment to stand by their side, from sea to shining sea.”

– Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association

By Rich Miller