One night last fall my wife and I were attending a local Audubon Society meeting with a group of friends, looking forward to a talk by an expert on pileated woodpeckers. During the coffee break, a man who looked familiar came up to me and said, “Are you Capt. Sweeney?” Answering that I was, he responded, “We met several years ago when you gave a talk about piracy to our local naval officers group.” We chatted a bit about that enjoyable evening, and then he continued, “Every year we have a Veterans Day ceremony here in town, and I’m in charge of organizing it. The Coupeville mayor gives a short talk, we have a flag raising, and then a local singing group gives a Veterans Day presentation of patriotic songs. Representatives of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard and Merchant Marine each raise the flag of their particular service, and I was wondering if you would like to participate.” I told him that I’d be happy to help. So, at 1045 hours on Friday, Nov. 11, I stood at the veterans memorial in front of the Island County Courthouse, waiting for my cue to raise the United States Merchant Marine flag.
The crowd was peppered with decorated war veterans, local government officials and members of the island community, many of whom I recognized. When the time came, the mayor began the ceremony. She addressed the attendees, talking about the evolution of Veterans Day from its original incarnation as Armistice Day. A retired naval officer secured the American flag and a POW-MIA flag as the singers gave a rousing rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In succession, representatives of the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard placed their flags in their designated stands. The mayor read a short biography of each individual, after which the men’s chorus sang a song appropriate to the representative’s branch of service. Then it was my turn.
I stood solemnly holding the U.S. Merchant Marine flag, its deep blue background highlighting a bald eagle above a golden anchor, the bird’s talons attached to a red, white and blue shield. Above the shield, the words “In Peace and War” stood out in gold lettering, and below it the date “1775.” I thought to myself, “Amazing, our Merchant Marine is older than our country.” The mayor read my bio and as the chorus broke into a hearty version of “Heave Ho, My Lads, Heave Ho,” I raised our U.S. Merchant Marine flag high in the air, lowering the pole down gently into its metal stand. Seeing the flag in its place behind the veterans memorial, I was filled with pride. Being able to represent the men and women of the U.S. Merchant Marine, the world’s finest in my opinion, made the Veterans Day ceremony even more poignant for me.
I wondered how many people assembled there knew that of the nearly 250,000 civilian mariners who served in the U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II, a greater percentage were killed by enemy fire compared to the other U.S. military branches. More than 1,550 U.S.-registered merchant ships were sunk during the war, many with all hands lost. Hundreds of crewmembers who miraculously survived being attacked at sea were plucked from their lifeboats and taken as prisoners of war.
It took 7 to 15 tons of supplies to support just one soldier for a year. Without our Merchant Marine bringing the troops the food, ammunition and gasoline they needed, Allied forces could not have done their job. After the war ended, the brave men and women who faced the deadly Nazi U-boat wolf packs to “deliver the goods” were denied the veterans’ benefits given to their military counterparts.
I’ve spoken to a number of Merchant Marine veterans groups. One thing I heard over and over again was that those who served as civilian mariners in times of war were not given full recognition for their contribution — something I noticed even in my own family. My father got a free college education for his Navy service in World War II, but my father-in-law didn’t get a penny in post-war benefits from his time on commercial vessels, even though one of the ships he sailed on was sunk by the enemy. Merchant Marine veterans have fought for decades to obtain what was promised them in recognition of their service during the war. Their latest effort is to seek passage of House of Representatives bill H.R. 563, otherwise known as the “Honoring Our WWII Merchant Mariners Act of 2015.”
The Merchant Marine flag says “In Peace and War,” a reminder of our industry’s importance to this country at all times — not just during armed conflict. Domestic shipping contributes about $100 billion annually to the peacetime economy, supporting close to 500,000 jobs. In a typical year, U.S.-flag vessels carry about 100 million passengers and move more than $400 billion in goods between United States ports. Yet, despite this vital contribution to our wonderful country’s economy, the essential role the U.S. Merchant Marine plays is still often overlooked.
After the end of the Veterans Day ceremony, my wife and I walked back to our truck. Turning to look one last time, I saw the Merchant Marine flag in its equal place among the others. As it gently flowed in the breeze, I thought to myself that if we want recognition for our important contributions during peace and war, then it is important for us to get involved in organizations such as the Navy League and Propeller Club, and by contributing to union and/or company political action funds. It is past time for our government, elected officials and the general public to recognize the vital work we do. If they don’t hear about it from us, then who will they hear it from?
Till next time, I wish you all smooth sailin.’
Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans) and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at email@example.com.