National Maritime Day was established by the U.S. Congress in 1933. It is observed on May 22, the date in 1819 that the American steamship Savannah set sail from Savannah, Georgia, on the first ever transoceanic voyage under steam propulsion.
FreightWaves Classics missed the 2022 celebration of National Maritime Day. While the United States is the world’s largest importer of goods via ocean carriers, and also exports huge quantities of agricultural and industrial products via ocean shipping, it is now a nation with very few ships of its own. In fact, if it wasn’t for the Jones Act, many wonder if there would be any U.S.-owned ocean-going cargo vessels.
At one time, the United States had one of the largest fleets of ships in the world. Today, however, three shipping alliances control 86% of the world’s ocean container shipping. None of the companies in the alliances are U.S.-owned. By contrast, OPEC controls just 40% of the world’s crude oil supply.
The United States is almost entirely dependent on ships owned by: the 2M Alliance (AP Møller-Maersk and MSC); the Ocean Alliance (CMA CGM, APL, COSCO, OOCL and Evergreen); and THE Alliance (Hapag-Lloyd, ONE and Yang Ming).
However, a review of the state of U.S. shipping will be held for another day. Instead, this FreightWaves Classics article will focus on another group of unsung heroes of World War II.
Recognition of service during World War II
Earlier this week FreightWaves Classics posted an article about the anniversary of D-Day, the invasion of Nazi-occupied France on June 6, 1944. FreightWaves Classics once again salutes the soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen who helped to liberate the world from fascist tyranny.
In addition, more than 250,000 members of the American Merchant Marine served their country during World War II. Of that all-volunteer group of men, 9,521 merchant mariners lost their lives between 1939 and 1945 – a higher proportion of those killed than in any military branch, according to the National World War II Museum. In addition, hundreds were detained as prisoners of war and nearly 2,000 U.S. merchant ships were sunk or damaged by enemy fire. Flashback Friday, this author’s precursor to FreightWaves Classics, featured an article recognizing the service of the Merchant Marine in World War II.
What FreightWaves Classics missed, however, was that former President Donald Trump signed legislation passed by Congress (the “Merchant Mariners of World War II Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2020”). The legislation was signed into law on March 14, 2020. The Act awarded “a Congressional Gold Medal, collectively, to the United States merchant mariners of World War II, in recognition of their dedicated and vital service during that conflict.” The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. Congress.
At that time, the following information was provided: “Awarded by the U.S. Congress, the Congressional Gold Medal is presented to honor those whose dedication, heroism, and public service has created a lasting impact on American history. The United States Mint will design and strike the medal that will honor World War II merchant mariner veterans. This medal will then be awarded by the Speaker of the House of Representatives.”
Retired United States Navy Rear Admiral Mark H. Buzby was the Administrator of the United States Maritime Administration (MARAD) when the legislation was passed. He said at that time, “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. 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.”
Gold Medal awarded
FreightWaves Classics also missed the Congressional Gold Medal award ceremonies to the U.S. Merchant Marine, which occurred more than two years after the Gold Medal was authorized. If it had not been for a conversation with a new friend of FreightWaves Classics – Ed Gor of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance – this article would not have been written. Thanks, Ed!
The Congressional Gold Medal was awarded on May 18, 2022, to the U.S. merchant mariners of World War II, who played crucial roles in the country’s war effort.
During World War II, U.S. merchant mariners and the ships they sailed plied dangerous seas that were far too populated by enemy vessels. The merchant marine’s job was to help maintain the vital supply lines fueling the worldwide effort to liberate the world. Known as the nation’s “fourth arm of defense,” U.S. merchant mariners delivered nearly 270 billion long tons of cargo to the armed forces of the Allied Powers. That equates to an average of 17 million pounds of cargo every hour.
At the ceremony, which was held in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall, Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi said, “[President Franklin D. Roosevelt] called their mission the most difficult and dangerous transportation job ever undertaken.”
The American Merchant Marine Museum in Kings Point, New York, is where the Congressional Gold Medal will be displayed. Also, each of the surviving merchant mariners (now estimated to be no more than 12,000 of the more than 250,000 that served during World War II) are eligible to receive a bronze replica of the Congressional Gold Medal.
Two of the merchant mariners who served during World War II – Charles Mills, 101, of Baltimore, Maryland, and Dave Yoho, 94, of Vienna, Virginia – attended the ceremony to represent their fellow mariners.
According to a Defense Department interview, Yoho enlisted in the merchant marine when he was only 15 years of age. He became a civilian merchant mariner at 16. Once he was a member of the U.S. Merchant Marine, he passed his basic training and then worked in the boiler room of a refueling tanker, which served ships in the South Pacific.
Yoho said it was his role to speak at the ceremony for the World War II mariners who can no longer speak for themselves. At the ceremony, Yoho said, “I’m speaking for 248,500 guys that are already dead. One out of 26 of us died [during the war], but thousands of us came home deprived of a part of our life. That’s probably one of the least-understood missions that ever was accomplished in modern warfare,” [speaking of the merchant mariners’ role supporting the U.S. military].
By 1943, the merchant marine had more ships than men because of the rate of loss. The age requirement for mariners was dropped to 16 to fill the manpower void, and Yoho was among those accepted. “In World War II, we had 130 million people in the United States. We put 16 million into uniform – 12.5% of our population,” he explained in an interview.
“We brought home the scars of war,” Yoho said. “[We] delivered millions of tons of war materials to five continents.”
About merchant mariners
During World War II, the civilian merchant mariners served as part of the U.S. military while delivering supplies and armed forces personnel by ship to nations engulfed in the war. What few know is that during wartime or a national emergency, the U.S. military can call the merchant mariners into service to transport personnel and supplies to wartime theaters.
The merchant mariners became eligible for benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs in 1988. As noted above, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy is the mariners’ federal-service school and is similar to those of the U.S. military branches. In his academy commencement speech in 2018, then-Defense Secretary James N. Mattis said the United States needs its merchant mariners for commerce and, when “storm clouds gather.”
Remarks honoring the mariners
During the recent Gold Medal ceremony, MARAD Deputy Maritime Administrator Lucinda Lessley said, “The Medal is an inspiring depiction of the resolve of the mariners who sailed into harm’s way for our Nation when, more than 80 years ago, America became what President Roosevelt called the ‘arsenal of democracy.’
“As the United States and our allies fought tyranny, it was Merchant Mariners who delivered this arsenal – and many of the soldiers who fought with it – to shores around the globe.
“Performance of this essential mission came at great risk. With reverence and gratitude, we remember the thousands of Merchant Mariners who were lost. We also honor and thank the more than 240,000 Merchant Mariners who served during World War II.
“Finally, as I close, I note that just as it was during World War II, our Merchant Marine remains vital to the movement of the cargoes and supplies on which our military depends. I thank the American mariners sailing today who support our defense and our economic success.”
Receiving an award
The following information is given to those who served in the Merchant Marine or are their relatives.
MARAD announced eligibility criteria for duplicates of the Congressional Gold Medal awarded to World War II merchant mariners. Eligible World War II merchant mariners, or their surviving next of kin, will now be able to request duplicate medals from MARAD.
The Merchant Mariners of World War II Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2020 authorizes MARAD to award duplicates of the medal to individuals who, between December 7, 1941, and December 31, 1946, were members of the United States Merchant Marine, or other related services. If a qualified individual has passed, MARAD is authorized to issue medals to the next of kin.
Inquiries can be emailed to Katrina McRae, Maritime Awards Officer, at email@example.com.
To those who served, and those who are serving in the merchant marine, thank you for your service!