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Maritime Leaders Celebrate U.S. Shipping Heritage on National Maritime Day

National Maritime Day
National Maritime Day is an opportunity to celebrate America's maritime heritage, especially the contribution of its brave mariners to victory in World War II. At peak, American shipbuilders and mariners delivered and crewed 66 Liberty Ships every month,

Published May 22, 2024 12:47 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Wednesday, the American maritime industry celebrated National Maritime Day, the annual opportunity to recognize maritime's contributions to the economy and to national defense. American mariners, shipbuilders and operators have kept the nation safe and prosperous "in peace and war" since the days of the Founding Fathers, and that tradition continues. 

Congress declared National Maritime Day in 1933, and selected May 22 to commemorate the voyage of the Savannah from the United States to the UK. It was the first steamship crossing of the Atlantic, and remains a symbol of American maritime ingenuity. 

In Washington, the White House issued a proclamation of recognition, and the Maritime Administration held a ceremony to celebrate American maritime's traditions and discuss its future. First on the agenda, organizers welcomed the attendance of a surviving member of the U.S. merchant marine of World War II. During the war, 243,000 American mariners braved Nazi U-boat attacks to deliver arms and supplies for the fight for freedom. More than 9,500 perished – four percent, a higher fatality rate than that of any U.S. armed service branch during the war. "Truly, they are the greatest generation," said Seafarers International Union President David W. Heindel. 

The focus of this year's National Maritime Day is on "safety first," starting with thorough training and continuing through lifelong safe work practices. Heindel put a new emphasis on work-life balance as an essential component of safety and employee retention, including "proper rest, sensible schedules, and time on the beach" - challenges that are familiar to all seafarers. Adequate work-life balance "makes mariners more efficient, more productive, and more likely to stick around in the industry . . . certainly for the next generation," he said. 

Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost (USAF), head of U.S. Transportation Command, emphasized the need to recapitalize and properly man America's sealift fleet, "because we will need every one of these ships in a global conflict." Sealift is her command's highest-capacity asset by tonnage, but MARAD and TRANSCOM both warn that it will be difficult to "surge" the government-owned fleet in time of need - both because of the material condition of the ships, and because of the limited availability of professional mariners. 

"The linchpin is the American merchant mariner population that can man the RRF and meet our commercial demands," said Van Ovost. "Without these vital teammates, we cannot deliver at a time and place of our nation's choosing." 

Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro noted the vital importance of civilian mariner-crewed sealift in supporting the national interest in the Red Sea, the Pacific and in Ukraine. At the strategic level, he noted the rise of a competing full-spectrum maritime power, and the need to revive America's comprehensive commercial and naval maritime strength. He said that thanks to multi-agency efforts to raise awareness of the problem, the White House is paying high-level attention to rebuilding American shipbuilding and U.S.-flag shipping capacity. "America has been a leading shipping and shipbuilding nation before, and as Secretary of the Navy, I am determined to work alongside you to restore this vital strategic industry," he said.  

Efforts to rebuild the national maritime workforce are under way in industry as well. Huntington Ingalls Industries has just released a new national hiring campaign, aimed at raising public awareness of maritime careers and the critical defense contributions of shipbuilders.

"I view this job as my way of serving our country," said Stan Brazell, manager of quality receipt and inspection at Ingalls Shipbuilding. "While I may not be wearing combat boots, I do wear work boots, and those boots have allowed me to contribute to building freedom."

The Port of Baltimore also held a National Maritime Day celebration at the Canton Marine Terminal, home of the Liberty Ship John W. Brown and the nuclear-powered NS Savannah. The port had much to celebrate this year: with the removal of the damaged boxship Dali this week, its economically-vital maritime businesses have regained access to seaborne trade for the first time since March.