WJ Editorial

Do Brown Water Mariners Need Their Own Maritime Day?

May 22 is National Maritime Day, which Congress declared in 1933 to commemorate the American steamship Savannah’s 1819 voyage from the United States to England, marking the first successful crossing of the Atlantic Ocean with steam propulsion.

As the Maritime Administration’s website reminds us, during World War II more than 250,000 members of the American merchant marine served their country, with more than 6,700 giving their lives, hundreds being detained as prisoners of war and more than 800 U.S. merchant ships being sunk or damaged. Considered as a branch of the military (which it temporarily was during the war), the merchant marine had a higher casualty rate than any other branch but the Marines.

Shortly before President Franklin Roosevelt died in 1945, he urged Congress to recognize World War II merchant mariners, but it never happened. Those merchant mariners, of whom only a few are left, were not included in the G.I. Bill and never really received their due recognition from the public.

Since that time, the U.S. blue-water merchant marine has shrunk dramatically to 181 vessels, according to MarAd. Most goods arrive on U.S. shores on foreign-flagged vessels.

But the rivers, with about 5,500 commercial vessels, are still as important as they were during World War II, when the “brown-water navy” played such a vital role, ferrying the landing craft and other vessels that were built in inland shipyards to the Gulf Coast.

Today, the brown water merchant marine is still largely invisible to the general public, even more so than the blue-water sector. It is regularly left out, for example, in public debates about the Jones Act. In his ringing defense of the Jones Act on May 9 before the Center for International and Strategic Studies, Adm. Paul Zukunft reminded his audience that if the Jones Act were ever repealed, foreign mariners would be “plying our waters, and our internal waters as well, to conduct maritime commerce, which is a $4.6 trillion enterprise in the United States.”

Would a separate Maritime Day for brown water mariners help increase the visibility and recognition of this vital sector of the U.S. economy? It’s an idea worth considering.

We would suggest January 10, to commemorate the day in 1812 that Robert Fulton’s New Orleans arrived in its namesake city after having left Pittsburgh October 8 of the previous year. It was the first steamboat to make that journey and the one that demonstrated the possibilities of steam commerce on the rivers. That epic journey was arguably as important for the history of commerce as the trans-Atlantic voyage of the Savannah.

It may be too late to give the Greatest Generation merchant mariners the recognition they so richly deserved, but it’s not too late to do the same for the equally brave and capable men and women who continue to perform important and under-appreciated service along our rivers and waterways today.

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