“I hold no branch in higher esteem than the Merchant Marine …” That is a quote from Gen. Douglas MacArthur, supreme Allied commander of the Pacific in World War II. That one sentence sums up National Maritime Day. For if it were not for our glorious Merchant Marine, we might not even be a country at all.
National Maritime Day is the day we honor our American merchant mariners for protecting our freedom and for their dedication to promoting American commerce together with the accomplishments of the U.S. maritime industry. Most importantly, on National Maritime Day we especially honor those gallant mariners who served during times of war and those mariners who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation. We celebrate National Maritime Day each year on May 22, as this was the day in 1819 in which SS Savannah sailed on the first transoceanic voyage under steam power. It is notable because it was the first crossing of any ocean with steam propulsion, in its case via a side paddlewheel.
Savannah was a hybrid sailing/steam ship, but it was historic for it brought about the age of the steam ship and proved steam propulsion to be the future of shipping. Savannah completed its crossing some 19 years before SS Great Western, the first purpose-built steam ship to make the voyage. Great Western was British, but Savannah, the first, was purely American and operated by the American Merchant Marine. This is not a minor fact in the the context of history; the Savannah crossing was only a few short years from the War of 1812, when the British had been impressing our merchant mariners. For the United States, a country less than 50 years old, to outdo the greatest maritime nation, England, by achieving a maritime first was quite an accomplishment for our young maritime industry and the U.S. Merchant Marine.
Congress officially declared National Maritime Day on May 20, 1933 to be celebrated annually on the anniversary of SS Savannah’s departure. Each year on National Maritime Day, the president makes a proclamation and there are numerous celebrations throughout the country.
Interestingly, the first U.S. Navy was our American Merchant Marine, and they were called "privateers." In 1776, that famous signatory of the Declaration of Independence, John Hancock, as the president of the Continental Congress, signed a bill authorizing commanders of private merchant vessels to capture British vessels and their cargoes under the flag of the United States.
Along these same lines, it may be interesting to know that the two men who share the moniker of "Father of American Navy" were both merchant mariners. John Paul Jones and John Barry were both merchant mariners before they were naval officers. Jones was first a merchant mariner and was master and commander of the British brig John prior to immigrating to the colonial United States and joining the then-fledgling Continental Navy. Barry immigrated to the U.S. as a second mate and was eventually the first and only master of the U.S. ship Black Prince before it was sold to the Continental Navy and renamed Alfred. Of course, their naval careers are well documented, but it is important to note they were merchant mariners first. As anyone who serves in the Navy from admiral to seaman is a sailor, similarly anyone who serves in our Merchant Marine, from master to ordinary seaman, is a mariner.
Alfred T. Mahan, the author of "The Influence of Sea Power Upon History," a book that has shaped much of our naval strategy, states clearly that a true sea power must have a vibrant merchant marine. Throughout history, world leaders and generals on both sides of any conflict have known that supplying the fighters was critical to success. We now call this logistics. This was never more demonstrated than during the Second World War, whereas our Merchant Marine brought "the fire to the fight." Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, supreme Allied commander in Europe, knew this when he said, “Every man in this Allied command is quick to express his admiration for the loyalty, courage, and fortitude of the officers and men of the Merchant Marine. When final victory is ours there is no organization that will share its credit more deservedly than the Merchant Marine.” One of the greatest generals in history and the future 34th president of the United States, no less, acknowledged the absolute critical contribution of the U.S. Merchant Marine in the winning of the war. Just as MacArthur had done so, Eisenhower put the Merchant Marine on equal footing with all other services.
Moreover, in referring to the Second World War, one must also recall the great sacrifices of our Merchant Marine. In pure numbers, the U.S. Merchant Marine lost more lives, by percentage, than any other service — 3.9 percent or a ratio of one out of 26 mariners perished during the war. That is a greater percentage than the U.S. Marines! Think about it — 243,000 mariners served, 1,614 ships were sunk, 9,521 mariners were killed, and 712 mariners were held as POWs.
With this in mind, I would like to relay to you a very personal story about one of those gallant World War II Merchant Mariner veterans. It was 1943, and my father was a third assistant engineer on a Liberty ship, which had departed from San Francisco bound for the Far East loaded with munitions. His ship was part of a 50-ship convoy and unfortunately, for him, his vessel was assigned the dubious position in the convoy at one of the ends, known in the parlance of the mariners of as "coffin corner." This is due to the fact that the ships on the ends were normally the first attacked by Japanese submarines. Normally the convoys would be assigned U.S. Navy escort ships, usually small frigates, or "tin can" destroyers as they were known. These escorts would patrol forward of the convoy and then steam up and down the sides of the convoy. Realize that the Liberty ships' speed with their submarine nets down was approximately 5 to 7 knots, thus making very easy targets for the Japanese navy.
One early morning just past midnight, my father had just finished his 2000-2400 watch and went up on deck to have a cigarette. All of sudden the ship was hit by two torpedoes and he was thrown overboard into the Pacific Ocean. His ship went down fast, as the torpedoes scored a direct hit in the engine room with the boilers exploding. My father grabbed some floating debris and held on for his life, kicking and paddling away from the area where the ship went down as not to be sucked down by the sinking vessel. The crew was comprised of 55 men, but only half made it into the water. The engineer who had just relieved my father not some 30 minutes prior had perished instantly.
Next, in the dark with the bunker oil burning on the surface, the survivors huddled together. They had hoped the radio officer had sent out the distress call so a U.S. Navy escort ship would pick them up. Within another 30 minutes, they began to see a silhouette of a vessel coming at them at low speed. At first my father was overjoyed as they were to be rescued, but that soon turned to dread as it was the Japanese submarine that had just blown their ship from under them. One by one, with a machine gun pointed at them, they were plucked out of the water.
The Japanese lined up my father and his fellow mariners on the after deck of the submarine. There they stood for what seemed like hours until dawn. Next, my father told me, a Japanese lieutenant approached the first mariner in the line. My father said he would never forget that the Japanese officer spoke perfect American-style English with no accent. The officer started questioning the mariners. He asked the first mariner, what was the cargo? The mariner answered with his name, his position and his Z-card number. My father said the Japanese officer was getting angry and asked again, this time about where was the convoy heading. Again, the mariner answered with his name, his position and his Z-card number. At this point, my father said, he knew they were doomed, as the Japanese were known not to take prisoners, but rather kill them instead. Sure enough, as soon as my father thought this to himself, the Japanese lieutenant looked at a Japanese sailor holding a rifle with bayonet fixed and started yelling in Japanese. Almost instantly, the Japanese sailor charged at the mariner being questioned with his bayonet and plunged it all the way into the mariner's stomach. Then in one motion, with the mariner still attached to the bayonet, the Japanese sailor flung him into the sea. My father said, the man was still alive, although mortally wounded and suffering terribly.
Without missing a step and while listening to the death throes of the mariner in the water, the Japanese lieutenant started questioning the next mariner in line. The same questions and the mariner, knowing he faced the same torturous fate as the man before him, gave the same answers: name, position and Z-card number. With that, the Japanese sailor with the bayonet charged him and impaled him as well in the stomach, and again in one motion flung him over the side. This continued on to the next man and then to the next. The brave men watched their fellow mariners face a horribly painful death, but remained steadfast in their courage and commitment to their country.
After the 10th man was brutally bayoneted, the Japanese sailor stopped and looked up. My father turned, looked up and smiled — he saw smoke on the horizon and knew it was a U.S. Navy "tin can" pouring on the coal to rescue them. More importantly, he knew the U.S. Navy would sink the Japanese submarine. The Japanese sailors quickly forgot about the remaining U.S. mariners and started preparing to dive, with the men on deck! My father and the remaining survivors started to jump overboard knowing that they had to get away from the sub as it started to dive. My father said he heard one of his fellow mariners yell to the Japanese sailors, “You’re going to the bottom, that’s the U.S. Navy coming to get you.” Once in the water, my father said they faced a new threat — sharks. That’s right, there were 10 men bleeding to death and filling the surrounding area with blood. Therefore, the survivors swam away from their hero shipmates. Next, my father said, the Navy destroyer was upon them, they were picked out of the water and taken to sick bay. There were about 15 survivors. My father said he remembered hearing the depth charges as he lay in sick bay. He was told they got the sub. Two days later, the U.S. Navy tin can with the survivors on board arrived in New Caledonia and my father got right back on another Liberty ship. You bet he was going back to sea!
This was just one of the stories of bravery, heroism, loyalty and patriotism of U.S. Merchant Mariners during World War II. Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt heralded the Merchant Marine in the war, during signing of the GI Bill on June 22, 1944, he was quoted, “I trust Congress will soon provide similar opportunities to members of the Merchant Marine who have risked their lives time and time again during war for the welfare of their country.” Unfortunately, Congress did not sign any such bill for our mariner veterans. There were no parades, no veteran benefits after the war, no help for school or for housing, not even a thanks. More wars came and went, again the Merchant Marine received nothing, but when they were needed these brave mariners took up the fight. Korea and Vietnam and then finally in 1988, veteran status was granted to most Merchant Marine veterans of World War II — some 43 years later, when most of these men were in their 70s or older.
One would surmise that from that time forward all U.S. merchant mariners who served in the following wars would have immediate veteran status, the GI Bill, and be entitled to all the privileges and benefits as any other service veteran, including admission into the Veteran of Foreign Wars, which will not accept veteran mariners. Even recently, in Operation Iraqi Freedom, standing side by side on the same ship with a U.S. Navy sailor or U.S. Marine, there was no veteran status for the U.S. Merchant Marine. Same ship, same mission, same risk, no recognition. It will only take a concerted effort by citizens to demand that their congressional representatives grant veteran status and all the benefits to U.S. merchant mariners for all wars declared, equal to the other armed and uniformed services.
So on every National Maritime Day, please remember, as the U.S. Merchant Marine song “Heave Ho! My Lads! Heave Ho!” follows, “We will cross any ocean, sail any river, give us the goods and we will deliver. Damn the submarine! We're the men of the Merchant Marine!”
Capt. Sean P. Tortora, USMS, is a master mariner with 25 years of sea experience. He currently serves as an associate professor in the Department of Marine Transportation at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and is the author of "Study Guide for Marine Fire Prevention, Firefighting, and Fire Safety," published by Cornell Maritime Press.