Congressional medal to honor sacrifice of WWII merchant mariners


Plans to award a Congressional Gold Medal to the American merchant mariners who sacrificed so much in World War II are moving ahead after President Trump signed an authorization bill.

Following the March signing of the Merchant Mariners of World War II Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2020, the medal is being designed by the U.S. Mint in consultation with the U.S. Maritime Administration (MarAd), the Citizens Coinage Advisory Commission and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. Once the design is approved by the secretary of the treasury, the single collective medal will be struck by the mint. Then, the speaker of the House of Representatives will present the medal to a representative of the merchant mariners.

The Congressional Gold Medal is presented to honor those whose dedication, heroism and public service has created a lasting impact on American history.
In the meantime, on Maritime Day on May 22, the U.S. Department of Transportation and MarAd honored the men and women who serve the industry in peace and war, while paying a special tribute to the World War II merchant mariners.

“Congress and President Trump’s awarding of the Congressional Gold Medal to World War II merchant mariners is a fitting tribute to those who served with valor and distinction,” said Maritime Administrator Mark Buzby. “With the memory of the sacrifices of World War II merchant mariners always with us, we honor their patriotism and service on this and every Maritime Day.” 

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Allied victory in World War II. During the war, American merchant mariners sailed seas prowled by enemy submarines and surface warships to maintain the vital supply lines fueling the worldwide effort to defeat the Axis powers. 

Known as America’s “fourth arm of defense,” more than 215,000 merchant mariners delivered nearly 270 billion long tons of cargo to the armed forces — an average of 17 million pounds of cargo every hour, according to MarAd. In the process, the merchant marine suffered a higher per-capita casualty rate than any of the U.S. military branches. Nearly 2,000 American cargo vessels were sunk during the war, and more than 9,500 members of the all-volunteer force died.

A recruiting poster reflects the need for new volunteers to deliver materiel for the Allied war effort.

Courtesy United Kingdom government/Imperial War Museums

World War II merchant marine veterans and the organizations that represent them have been lobbying for recognition ever since the fighting stopped. It took decades to get veterans’ benefits for those who served on commercial vessels. The pending honor has been praised by the veterans and their advocates.

John Pitts, president of the nonprofit American Merchant Marine Veterans, said after the bill signing that “our heartfelt thanks are bestowed on all the dedicated members, friends and supporters of the American Merchant Marine Veterans who have worked so diligently, for so many years, to provide long-overdue recognition for the service and sacrifice of the unsung heroes of WWII, the United States merchant mariner. Bravo Zulu!”

Pitts singled out for praise bill sponsors Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, along with the president. 

Dru DiMattia, vice president of the veterans group and a member of the MarAd design committee for the medal, said the process will take a year. “There are plans for a big event next year,” he said.

The medal issued to honor every American merchant mariner from the war will be displayed at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, N.Y. Copies will be available for about $50. Veterans groups are planning to purchase copies for surviving World War II veterans, who now number about 2,000.

According to the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee, Congressional Gold Medals have been issued since the American Revolution as “the highest civilian honor … (for) national achievement in patriotic, humanitarian and artistic endeavors.”

Since 1776, the medal, which initially was bestowed only on military leaders, also has been given to civilians including Winston Churchill, Bob Hope, Robert Frost, Joe Louis and Mother Teresa.

By Professional Mariner Staff