America Celebrates National Maritime Day, Honoring Our Fallen Heroes From Our U.S. Merchant Marine

The following blog was written by Rear Adm. T.K. Shannon, Commander, Military Sealift Command. On May 22, America celebrates National Maritime Day, honoring our fallen heroes from our U.S. Merchant Marine. Shannon talks about the history of Maritime Day and what it says about our mariners.

On May 22, 1819, the SS Savannah left its home port of Savannah, Ga., on its way to Liverpool, England. The ship “put to sea with steam and sails” and reached Liverpool in 29 days and four hours, becoming the first steamship to cross the Atlantic and signaling the beginning of the steam era.

More than 100 years later, on May 20, 1933, Congress declared May 22 to be National Maritime Day in honor of SS Savannah’s maritime accomplishment.

U.S. Merchant Marine officer recruiting poster

U.S. Merchant Marine officer recruiting poster

Merchant mariners and American shipyards have been crucial to American independence since our nation began. Our U.S. armed forces could not fight a war overseas without our mariners and their ships to carry combat equipment, fuel and supplies.

In World War II, our merchant mariners and their shipmates of the Navy Armed Guard sailed across the Atlantic, the Pacific, through the Indian Ocean, and across the Arctic Circle to Murmansk. They were being sunk by enemy U-boats even before we officially entered the war, and they were the last to return, bringing our GIs home.

None of our mariners “had” to go to sea. They were all civilians, and they could have taken other jobs in the booming wartime economy. Yet they went. And many paid the ultimate price.

As the war was reaching its final moments, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower said for all the world to hear, “When final victory is ours, there is no organization that will share its credit more deservedly than the Merchant Marine.”

World War II recruiting poster

World War II recruiting poster

Yet, in spite of their service and their sacrifices, our merchant mariners were not accorded veterans’ benefits, and for many years were excluded from celebrations of Veterans’ Day, Memorial Day, and other days recognizing members of our Armed Forces. One merchant marine veteran who felt the exclusion very keenly was Walter Oates at the Maritime Administration, a wartime graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point.

In 1970, at the instigation of Mr. Oates, the Maritime Administration sponsored an observance of Maritime Day, a solemn ceremony honoring veterans of our merchant marine, especially those who gave their lives in service to our United States. That observance has been held every year since.

In 2005, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted to make National Maritime Day a Day of Prayer and Remembrance for Seafarers and People of the Sea.

Today, the expertise and experience of our merchant mariners help support our U.S. economy and the tenets of our Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, as our mariners help our Navy protect and defend America (warfighting first), support our Navy’s deployment around the world (operate forward) and help our Navy maintain its capability to respond at a moment’s notice (be ready).

U.S. Navy's Military Sealift Command operated forward around the world

U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command operated forward around the world

On May 22, as we bow our heads in silent memorial to our merchant mariner shipmates who crossed the bar for the final time this past year, we also lift a salute to our future – those bright young American women and men from our maritime academies and union schools who have stepped forward to carry on our U.S. Merchant Marine tradition, “We’ll deliver.”

Thanks for your service.

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America Celebrates National Maritime Day, Honoring Our Fallen Heroes From Our U.S. Merchant Marine