America honors merchant mariners, without whom we could not win wars

America honors merchant mariners, without whom we could not win wars
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In 2020, the nation will commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II and the many harrowing battles that made it possible. Regrettably, this will be the last major tribute to the greatest generation of aging American soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen who saved the nation — and the world — from a bleak totalitarian future.

There is one group who served — and also sacrificed — who often are left out of the commemorations: the more than 200,000 American merchant mariners who commanded and crewed the U.S. Merchant Marine fleet of cargo ships that literally made victory possible.

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The president’s signature establishing the World War II Congressional Gold Medal Act will recognize the contributions of courageous merchant mariners who braved the globe’s most dangerous waters and suffered the highest casualty rate of any branch of service: More than  8,600 died — 1 in 26 — and 733 merchant vessels were lost at sea.

Although generations of Americans largely are unaware of the merchant mariners’ contribution, wartime leaders were keenly aware of their value. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “When final victory is ours there is no organization that will share its credit more deservedly than the Merchant Marine.” 

In the Pacific, Gen. Douglas McArthur said, “They have brought us our lifeblood and they have paid for it with some of their own. I saw them bombed off the Philippines and in New Guinea ports. When it was humanly possible, when their ships were not blown out from under them by bombs or torpedoes, they have delivered their cargoes to us who need them so badly. In war it is performance that counts.”

Most Americans, especially today, are understandably unfamiliar with the work of the Merchant Marine, which is made up of commercial vessels crewed by merchant mariners. In times of war, however, America’s merchant fleet and its mariners become what President Franklin D. Roosevelt called “the Fourth Arm of Defense,” delivering troops, supplies and equipment.  

While participating in every landing operation by the U.S. Marine Corps, from Guadalcanal to Okinawa, merchant mariners died in great numbers. Their quiet heroism provided the bulk tonnage of material necessary for the invasion of Normandy, an invasion which, according to a 1944 New York Times article, would not have been possible without the Merchant Marine. 

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Even before the U.S. entered WWII, U.S. flagged merchant ships were carrying vital supplies to the British to help them survive the Nazi onslaught. 

After Pearl Harbor, German submarines patrolled U.S. and international waters pursuing and destroying U.S. merchant vessels carrying troops as well as vital supplies and equipment.

On Sept. 30, 1943, President Roosevelt dedicated the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) at Kings Point, N.Y., to “serve the Merchant Marine as West Point serves the Army and Annapolis the Navy.” 

While it may seem shocking today, midshipmen (students) from the new academy did much of their training on vessels in the very waters patrolled by German U-boats. They moved precious cargo to combat zones around the world; they navigated enemy-controlled, near-freezing waters to get back to the U.S. mainland so they could load up and do it all over again.  

One-hundred-forty-two USMMA midshipmen were killed in battle. Of the five federal service academies, the USMMA is the only one to lose students in combat. Today a battle standard bearing the number “142” remains on display at Kings Point, a stark reminder of the price these young men paid in service to the nation.

The tide of the war eventually turned as the U.S. Navy began to anticipate and counter U-boat attacks, and merchant vessels were escorted by Navy convoys. A replenished merchant fleet carried men and materiel to free Europe and the Pacific theater — and between May 1945 and September 1946, they kept crossing the oceans until all 8 million troops were brought back home safely.

The Merchant Marine has been a critical player in every war since the American Revolution, and it is common knowledge among today’s military planners that the U.S. cannot win a major war without a vibrant Merchant Marine.

For the dwindling ranks of today’s WWII merchant mariners, the honor bestowed by the president and Congress this month is a fitting recognition to their remarkable, quiet bravery performed so long ago. 

Capt. James Tobin is president of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Alumni Association and Foundation. He is a 1977 graduate of the academy.