Maritime Day Ceremony Recognizes Service Of Today’s Mariners And ‘Greatest Generation’

A virtual National Maritime Day celebration May 22 paid tribute to mariners serving among the essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic as well as those who fought during the World War II era.

The 30-minute video is posted to the Maritime Administration’s YouTube channel and includes remarks from Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao; Rear Adm. Mark. H. Buzby, maritime administrator; Gen. Stephen R. Lyons, commander of United States Transportation Command; and four merchant mariners who served during World War II. It was hosted by Richard Balzano, deputy maritime administrator.

Chao began her remarks by talking about the history of National Maritime Day, established by Congress in 1933 to commemorate the first trans-oceanic voyage of the American steamship Savannah.

“It was a way to celebrate America’s long and deep maritime tradition and the innovation that has powered it from Fulton’s steamship to nuclear ships and beyond,” she said.

She also noted that in World War II, merchant mariners were an essential part of the war effort and that their casualty rate exceeded that of all the other armed forces. On March 14, President Donald Trump signed legislation authorizing the Congressional Gold Medal for surviving merchant mariners who served during World War II. The award is the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. Congress.

“Today we salute the men and women of the American maritime community who have helped ensure that people, supplies and equipment get to where they need to be during times of peace, war and natural disasters,” Chao said. “Our U.S.-flagged fleet is an integral part of our national security, and as we face the COVID-19 crisis of today, the department is doing everything we can to support our country’s maritime sector and ensure that the industry is able to ramp up when the economic recovery begins. As we celebrate National Maritime Day this year, we want to thank our country’s merchant mariners and all those work in the maritime sector for your contribution and service to our country.”

Lyons spoke of the importance of a strong, U.S.-flagged fleet, adding that it is an industry with a long history of military victory.

“Today, just as in World War II, the United States-flagged merchant ships, the mariners who crew them and our commercial sealift industry continue to play a critical role in our nation’s defense by providing sealift ships, mariners and access to global seaport networks,” he said, adding, “That is why, at the end of the day, it is a U.S. flag on a ship with U.S. crews at the helm who remain essential to our national defense.”

Buzby made his remarks from one of the country’s ready reserve force vessels, the Cornhusker State, in Newport News, Va. He noted that the motto of the U.S. Merchant Marine is “In Peace and War,” and that the Merchant Marine flag bears that motto.

“It’s been a part of our industry since before this nation was even a nation,” Buzby said. “It’s what drives all of us who have served at sea and those of us who support those who go to sea, and the idea of we’re going to get through no matter what, whether it’s peace time or war time, no matter what, we’re going to get through.”

He continued, “This industry has persevered through a Revolutionary War, through the Civil War, through two global conflicts, two world wars and any number of regional conflicts. You know, the Merchant Marine has always been there and has never faltered. And now here we are facing a new foe, another sort of global conflict this time, instead of man vs. man, it’s man vs. a virus. And yet here we are, merchant mariners, still persevering through it all.”

He said the merchant marines serving during World War II were very deserving of the congressional award, saying they “persevered in wartime to make sure the Allies had victory in Europe and in the Pacific.”

During the war, facing German U-boats and Japanese kamikaze fighters, American merchant marines had to develop new countermeasures, ways to get the ships through and to complete their missions, Buzby said, mentioning destroyer escorts, air cover and putting guns on ships.

“Well, today, you mariners are facing the same, very great, grave challenges, and we have to do the very same thing,” he said. “We have to come up with countermeasures and things that are going to mitigate that risk and keep our ships sailing, and you’re doing that, whether it’s through personal protective equipment, social distancing, contact tracking, deep cleaning of our vessels, you’re making it happen, and you’re still getting our ships through, and I think that’s a real tribute as much to you in this generation as it was to those who preceded you in other generations who did what you had to do to get those ships through. I think it’s something that you all should be very, very proud of going forward.”
Buzby praised the level of cooperation between labor, ship owners and operators and government entities.

“Going forward, the days are going to be long,” Buzby said. “We haven’t kicked this thing yet. We’ve made great strides, great progress, but it’s going to be with us for quite a while so it’s going to take that same drive, that same perseverance to win through this thing ultimately as well, and I know that you absolutely will. I think in the coming months when we do get this thing behind us, every one of us who had to watch during this time should take a great deal of pride that we, when it was our time, when the nation called upon us, when the challenges were issued, that we all stood tall, did what we had to do and made it happen, in peace and war.”

He concluded by thanking mariners for what they do, saying, “God bless, and sail safe. Carry on.”

The National Maritime Day ceremony included Buzby throwing a floral wreath upon the water following his remarks as well as the ringing of a ship’s bell and the official Merchant Marine song “Heave Ho! My Lads, Heave Ho!” sung by Mike Rowe, host of the long-running television series “Dirty Jobs” and “Deadliest Catch.” His uncle was a merchant mariner.

“Some of my earliest memories were sitting at his feet with my brothers, listening to some of his endless stories, tales, adventures and misadventures of his time in uniform,” Rowe said.

Rowe sent along “virtual tidings of sincere thanks and appreciation.”

The main portion of the pre-recorded program was made up of video comments from four members of the “Greatest Generation,” speaking about their own experiences as merchant mariners during World War II as well as those they fought alongside.

WWII Merchant Mariners Speak Out

In the 1930s and 1940s, the U.S. Merchant Marine included 250,000 volunteers who signed up to serve after President Franklin Roosevelt signed the 1936 Merchant Marine Act. The civilian mariners served on private and government-owned vessels, transporting cargo and passengers in and out of the navigable waters of the United States. They served as an auxiliary to the U.S. Navy, often called upon to deliver military personnel and supplies for the military.

James Monteleone said he joined the Merchant Marine because, “Well, there was a war, and I wanted to do something for my country.”

In his words, however, “It wasn’t no picnic.”

“It was scary,” he said. “Going through the English Channel, I had seen those mines and just was hoping none would break loose. We were just hoping we didn’t get hit by any of those missiles and rockets going over.”

Still, he said, “If there was another war, I would do it again. I’m a little too old now, but I would serve my country again if I had to.”

George Shaw served on the SS Flyway, a C-2 freighter, as part of a convoy. He shared a pleasant memory.

“I want to really commend the captain on that ship because he knew we were going to be in Guam on Thanksgiving and so he had had extra turkeys, cranberries, sweet potatoes and pumpkins put on board, and on Thanksgiving Day the U.S. soldiers that were stevedores for our ship, unloading it, were treated to a first-class, old-fashioned Thanksgiving dinner,” he recalled.

Capt. Hugh Stephens talked about being part of a 100-ship convoy bound for the United Kingdom. His section of 36 ships pulled off and made the first all-American convoy through the Mediterranean during World War II.

“We carried cargo,” he said. “I made about five round trips during the war, on different Liberty ships. In our trip through the Mediterranean, we were attacked by the German Luftwaffe off Crete. We were strafed and shelled. The return trip from Mermansk [in the former Soviet Union] in the Arctic Ocean, we were not only attacked heavily by the Germans, but we had ungodly weather: 125 mile an hour winds, 100- foot seas, and we managed to survive that.”

Stevens, now a professor at the State University of New York Maritime College, opined, looking back on his experience, “America is well worth fighting for, and occasionally one has to do this.”

David Yoho spoke about not only his own experiences but about some of the experiences of World War II that most affected American merchant mariners.

Yoho sailed on a fleet oiler that refueled other ships at sea in the Pacific Theater. He joined the Merchant Marine when he was 14 years old. He is now president of Dave Yoho Associates, a business management consultant in Fairfax, Va.

“I represent those who are still living, less than 2,000 of us, and those of us who have passed the bar, who are no longer with us but who have families that mourn their going,” Yoho said.

In the first seven months of World War II, the U.S. Merchant Marine lost 300 ships—half of its force—because of German U-boats. One out of 26 died, and 663 were held as prisoners of war, Yoho said.

Despite that, he said, merchant mariners were not eligible for the benefits of the G.I. Bill until 1988, 43 years after the war ended. Their pay stopped when their ship sank. They had to pay taxes on all their income, unlike military members who got a $1,500 exemption at a time when $2,500 was a common amount in military earnings.

“We came home scarred, sometimes physically, often mentally,” Yoho said, talking about malaria, ulcers and asbestosis from breathing in asbestos fibers in enginerooms as well as a then-unnamed disease that later was labeled Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“We delivered 15 million tons of goods to the UK and Europe, another 13 million tons to the Pacific, 8 million to the Mediterranean and 5 million tons to Russia, plus we delivered 7 million military personnel and brought them home again at the end of the war,” Yoho said. “Now you’re going to give us the Congressional Medal for that, and we say thank you.”

Yoho asked those listening to remember the stories of the merchant mariners who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country, giving two examples.

On December 2, 1943, in Bari, Italy, a small seaport town of about 200,000, 17 of 30 ships in the harbor were sunk in a German air raid. Eight of the ships were burned beyond use.

One of the ships hit was the SS John Harvey, with 100 tons of undisclosed mustard gas bombs in its cargo hold. When fire reached the hold despite the valiant efforts of the crew, it not only exploded but, as Yoho said, disintegrated with every person on both that vessel and the two adjacent vessels losing their lives. The resultant clouds of smoke and the fog of mustard gas killed 1,000 military members and another 1,000 civilians.
“And many went on with a lifetime of terror,” Yoho said, his voice rising to a shout at times to make a point, at other times breaking when recalling the horror.

In his other example, he told of the catastrophe of convoy PQ-17, which left Iceland June 27, 1942, bound for the then-Soviet Union with supplies, a route called the Murmansk Run. They faced brutal Arctic air temperatures as well as around-the-clock daylight that gave them no cover from the German air and naval attacks.

Initially, the convoy had a strong escort and covering force, but 24 combat ships were pulled away by British Admiral Lord Dudley Pound five days away from their destination after the Allies got word that the Tirpitz, the sister ship to the German battleship Bismark, was sailing to intercept the convoy. The cruisers were ordered to withdraw westward at high speed; meanwhile, the convoy was ordered to scatter and proceed to Russian ports.

“Of those 35 ships, 11, 11, 11, remember the number, 11 made it,” Yoho said, gesturing as his voice once again swelled with emotion. “And the rest didn’t. And this is why you give us this honor. And this is why we get this medal. And this is why I say, biased as I may be, we deserved it.”

Yoho said he wished he could be at an in-person ceremony for National Maritime Day so he could shake the hands of those protecting the country today, “But instead I say to you, when you’re with others, tell them about us and say we gave up our yesterdays for their tomorrows. God bless the United States Merchant Marine. God bless the United States of America, and thank you again.”

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