America's merchant mariners are unsung heroes, then and now

America's merchant mariners are unsung heroes, then and now
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Over the past 15 months, as the world has confronted COVID-19, the United States has been forced to question the fundamental assumptions that underpin our economic and military strength. This can be seen most clearly in our maritime presence.

On Maritime Day, after a year marked by sacrifice and perseverance, the efforts to understand our vulnerabilities should not overlook our core strengths as well: America’s merchant mariners. Too often the dedication of our mariners is overlooked and under-appreciated. Nowhere is this role more important than in the heart of the nation’s maritime industry, shaped in part by the Merchant Marine itself over 200 years ago.

Then, as now, maritime transport was key to our economy. And in the first decade of the 19th century, with Europe ravaged by the Napoleonic Wars, the United States, facilitated by its skilled mariners, ruled the commerce of the seas. So much so, in fact, that over eight years, between 1792 and 1795, U.S. exports doubled twice

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Unfortunately, in a world in which freedom of the seas was more aspirational than actual, the U.S. — and its Merchant Marine, in particular — was caught between the superpowers of the age, France and Britain. The Royal Navy, desperate for the manpower to serve its naval juggernaut, resorted to boarding American ships in search of suspected British subjects in order to seize and “impress” them into service.

By 1812, with an estimated 15,000 U.S. sailors seized, the U.S. saw no other alternative but to declare war. This marked the beginning of what is often referred to as our second war of independence.

Great Britain, containing a large navy but small army, moved to starve the U.S. into submission, blockading the Chesapeake Bay. And the U.S., with a standing navy of just 15 ships, turned to merchant ships for its defense.

As it had in the Revolution, the government commissioned privately owned merchant ships, called privateers, to attack the maritime trade of the enemy. It was the classic story of David v. Goliath. And while U.S. Navy warships captured 250 vessels over the course of the war, American privateers captured upward of 2,000, British merchant vessels. As noted by the U.S. Naval Institute, “The privateers’ war on the enemy was the only way America could strike back at the British Empire.”

But it was on Aug. 24, 1814, at the Battle of Bladensburg, that our mariners would have their trial by fire and showcase the Chesapeake as the focal point of our maritime infrastructure. On that day, a hastily assembled flotilla of sailors, merchant seamen and privateers became the last line of defense between the British and Washington, D.C..

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And while eventually overcome, like their forebears at Bunker Hill, these brave mariners managed to inflict a heavy toll on the invaders and gained the government precious time to evacuate. 

Such acts of heroism and sacrifice may seem remote, even irrelevant to modern sensibilities. But in truth, service and sacrifice are as embedded in our merchant mariners now as it was then. Whether the War of 1812, World War II — during which they suffered a higher casualty rate than any branch of service — or the present day, with 200,000 men and women stuck at sea for more than 20 months to keep world trade moving amid a global pandemic, the United States Merchant Marine has been vital to our strength and prosperity.

In 1943, Congress formally recognized the enduring need of highly trained merchant mariners and ordered the establishment of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA), thus creating the fourth of five federal service academies, with all graduates from each academy committed to serving their country. Among merchant mariner casualties in WWII were 142 USMMA students undergoing training aboard merchant vessels. In fact, USMMA is the only federal academy to have lost students in combat.

When conflict arises, as with Desert Storm, when over 350 ships made more than 500 voyages to support the operation and delivered an average of 42,000 tons of cargo each day, the Merchant Marine must transport the personnel and materiel necessary to sustain any military campaign. Today, this crucial component is coordinated by the Military Sealift Command (MSC) and supported by the USN Reserve Strategic Sealift Officers Force (SSO), the vast majority (over 80 percent) of whom are USMMA graduates.

As a proud graduate of the USMMA and the president and CEO of its alumni association and foundation, I can say with confidence that our nation’s ability to prevail in the future — economically or militarily — is predicated on a viable merchant fleet and qualified mariners.

For the first time in decades, the issues of supply chain and maritime trade have moved into mainstream awareness. Maritime Day, celebrated on May 22 each year, offers a perfect opportunity to honor our maritime heroes, both by acknowledging past service and by recognizing how important that service will continue to be in the future.

Capt. Jim Tobin is president of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Alumni Association and Foundation.