Remembering the Bravery and Sacrifice of the U.S. Merchant Marine

By Tony Munoz 2012-11-21 11:05:00

Each year National Maritime Day is celebrated on May 22nd across the United States. While the date was fixed by a joint Congressional resolution in 1933 for the 1819 Atlantic crossing by the steamship “Savannah,” it has become much more to the U.S. Merchant Marine and their families. 

Many of our national holidays such as the upcoming Memorial Day have lost their meaning to much of the American populace and have simply become three day weekends of barbecues and lounging about. But, if it were not for bravery of the merchant mariners and soldiers and sailors who fought and perished for the liberty and freedom for this country, it would surely be a different world.

The Yankee Privateers

Yankee Privateers provided security of the coastal waterways and rivers in colonial times. When the 13 Colonies declared independence from England, its naval forces were pitiful in comparison to the might fleet of Great Britain whose flaming broadsides ruled the seas. The Colonial navy had fewer than 31 ships and 1,200 cannons, and many of these ships were diminished by capture or blockades. The Founding Fathers called upon the merchant privateers with over 1,700 ships that were immediately equipped with 14,900 cannons to fight the British.

While Washington’s ragtag army retreated more than it fought, it was the Yankee privateers that dealt the greatest blow to Britain and its maritime prestige much more so than the Spanish, Dutch and French were ever able to levy against them. The Colonial privateers inflicted tremendous damage to the enemy’s warships and captured 733 British merchant vessels while imprisioning more than ten thousand British mariners when England solely needed them for their navy.

The Yankee privateers are the forefathers of today’s Jones Act mariners. They built America’s economy sailing in ketches and sloops while transiting the harsh Atlantic coast in the hazards of fog, shoals and lee shores. The merchant marine and its deepwater fleet, known for the Yankee schooner, were soon seen in every port throughout the world trading and building American diplomacy.

Forgotten Valor

The U.S. Merchant Marine has been an important part of every war the United States has fought in, and the U.S. Merchant Marine of World War II contribution is considered one of the most valiant and courageous efforts in American history. However, the merchant marine veterans were denied VA status four times by the Civilian Review Board until President Reagan signed the U.S. Merchant Marine Fairness Act of 1988. But, the inequity didn’t stop there because the Air Force administrator overseeing their status arbitrarily chose August 15, 1945 as the end of the hostilities, which left about 4,000 members without VA status. From December 31, 1946, the official end of WWII hostilities, to the VA budget of 2010, American veterans and their families have received about $1,886 trillion in benefits.

In the first six months after America entered WWI, 400 Allied ships were destroyed and more than 5,000 American, British, Canadian seamen were killed. The U.S. merchant marine supported General McArthur’s stubborn defense of Bataan, Corregidor and the rest of the Philippine Islands, and it stood as an inspiration for Americans because their heroic efforts demonstrated to the nation that the Japanese soldiers were not invincible. In 1944, the merchant marine delivered 30,000 troops and 500,000 tons of supplies to Leyte during the invasion of the Philippines. During the invasion of Okinawa, the U.S. merchant ships came under fire by 2,000 kamikazes and conventional aircraft. Forty-four merchant ships were sunk during the invasions of Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima.

About 2,700 U.S. merchant marine ships were involved in the first wave of the invasion on D-Day, landing troops and munitions under heavy fire. During the next year, merchant mariners delivered 2.5 million troops and 17 million tons of munitions and half a million trucks and tanks from England to France. After the end of hostilities, the U.S. Merchant Marine transported the weary combat soldiers, the wounded and the dead back to the U.S., as well as the surrendered armies back to Japan. Tragically, 25 more U.S. merchant ships were sunk before the official end of hostilities.

Like all Americans of the era that fought against tyranny, the U.S. Merchant Marines were not mercenaries as the Congress has treated them. They were patriots who fought for their nation that had been attacked, and they stood in harm’s way. The United States has taken too many decades to extend a hand of gratitude and too many of these veterans have faded away into the final pages of the Twentieth Century.

Today’s U.S. Merchant Marine and Jones Act Mariners

While the U.S. Merchant Marine of modern times have supported U.S. Military conflicts around the globe and most recently in the Middle East, it’s fleet and personnel have suffered cutbacks and drawdowns.  Foreign lobbyists and anti-Jones Act proponents often say the US Merchant Marine cannot compete in global commerce due to construction and mariner costs. But, how can the US industry compete when foreign countries offer health care and benefits to its citizens while US maritime companies bear those costs? Furthermore, many countries do not tax income from shipping operations of their flag companies. Consequently, the advantages of foreign operators are lower corporate taxes and predictable liabilities each year.

The Shipping Act of 1916, the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 and the Merchant Marine Act of 1936 tried to support the US maritime industry. But, after World War II, unfavorable tax laws and Reagan’s end of subsidies stopped the industry’s growth and it struggled beyond the Jones Act. Today, the only funding schemes for the industry have been for supporting the US military via the Maritime Security Act of 1996. The Maritime Security Act of 2003 reauthorized fixed payments from the Department of Defense (DOD) and expanded the program from 47 US flagged ships to 60 ships. It also increased annual payments totaling $174 million or $2.9 million for each of the 60 ships. And, the 2011 authorization will increase the MSP to $186 million until it expires in 2015.

In 1975, the world’s fleet consisted of 22,872 commercial ships and by 2008 the amount grew to 52,944 ships, which is a 221 percent increase. Meanwhile, during the same period of time, the US merchant marine fleet declined 89 percent. And, by 2009, the US fleet transported only 1.5 percent of US imports and exports transported by water aboard registered ships to the US.

As we remember the U.S. Merchant Marine and its support mechanism of the Jones Act mariners on this National Maritime Day, let’s not forget that this country was built on its coastal and inland waterways, and it became a great nation because of its maritime sector. The Obama Administration and future administrations should be cognizant of this nation’s maritime heritage, and look beyond the skyscrapers and concrete jungles of congested highways and air-polluted cities to the U.S.'s coastal and inland waterways, which are, in fact, America's  economic salvation.MarEx
Tony Munoz can be reached at tonymunoz@maritime-executive.com

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.