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Ground broken for Merchant Marine memorial

By Staff | Feb 20, 2019

Ground was broken at Eco Park in Cape Coral Tuesday afternoon for the newest addition to the array of military monuments along Veterans Memorial Parkway.

The United States Merchant Marine Veterans – Southwest Florida Chapter is teaming up with the Southwest Florida Military Museum & Library to design, construct and install a WWII Merchant Marine and Navy Armed Guard Memorial to honor all of those who served during a tumultuous time in our nation’s history.

“During World War II, there were quite a few Merchant Marine servicemen and women who lost their lives in supplying our troops,” said Cape Coral Mayor Joe Coviello, whose two sons are graduates of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. “Every time there’s a conflict in any war, the supply line is what keeps everybody going and it’s all driven by the Merchant Marine.”

The U.S. Merchant Marine was incorporated in 1775 and has participated as the nation’s maritime fleet in peace and every war since.

Its role in World War II was not just of significant importance, but of great loss.

The group even played the silent role of the first responders of World War II, by assisting the British – who were standing alone waiting for the impending Nazi regime – by sending goods.

These supplies helped the British and Churchill stave off the Germans before the United States “officially” entered the war in late 1941 after Pearl Harbor.

“One of the reasons it’s near and dear to my heart, is the United States Merchant Marine Academy is the only federal service academy that carries that U.S. battle standard during World War II they lost 142 cadets, or students during war time. They’re the only service academy that’s lost cadets during war time. I find it great that we’re putting this memorial here in our city to go along with all these other wonderful memorials for our veterans and for our citizens to come and enjoy and understand our history regarding the military,” said Coviello.

It was here in Cape Coral, in 1983, that a group of World War II Merchant Mariners sought out veteran status for their war efforts. Just a year later, the same group incorporated a non-profit for the Merchant Marines in Lehigh Acres.

Finally, in 1988, the Merchant Marine veterans of World War II were granted veteran status.

While earning veteran status was a victory, many Merchant Marines from that time were average age 60, missing out on the G.I Bill and other useful veteran programs.

During a September 1944 speech, President Franklin D. Roosevelt stated that the Merchant Marine had “delivered the goods when and where needed in every theater of operations and across every ocean in the biggest, the most difficult, and dangerous transportation job ever undertaken. As time goes on, there will be greater public understanding of our merchant fleet’s record during this war.”

During World War II, 1 in 26 mariners serving aboard merchant ships died in the line of duty – a greater percentage of war-related deaths than all other U.S. services.

A total of 1,768 U.S. merchant ships were sunk, damaged, captured or detained during World War II.

There are fewer than 1,800 Merchant Mariners from World War II still alive today.

One of those Merchant Marines, James Sciple, is still enjoying his life in Southwest Florida, as he was born in Fort Myers in the 1920s.

He sailed in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans during his time served, and said he was fortunate that he only had one ship go down while performing his duties.

“It’s taken a long, long time. It is deserved. I think people will finally appreciate it,” Sciple said. “It was quite a few years before we were recognized as anything at all. The memorial is something to be proud of.”

Originally, Merchant Marine ships were not equipped with weaponry of any kind. It wasn’t until ships began to get taken down in high numbers that the Navy Armed Guard came aboard, giving these vessels a fighting chance in the event on an enemy strike.

An average of 250,000 Merchant Mariners and 144,970 U.S. Navy Armed Guard – enlisted and officers – served during World War II.

The memorial in Eco Park will feature a Ship’s Bronze Wheel (or propellor), a granite memorial stone, plaque and U.S. Merchant Marine flag.

The granite stone inscription will read: “A memorial to all who served in the U.S. Merchant Marine and the Navy Armed Guard. ‘In Peace and War.'”

It will also detail the lost lives of 6,839 Merchant Marines, as well as the 1,810 lives of Naval Armed guardsman, accompanied by an image of a Liberty Ship.

These pieces, along with engineering and site design, were all donated by local businesses.

“What a tremendous amount of community support we’ve had today from our (Cape Coral) Parks & Recreation, Cape Coral Mayor, Director of the SWFL Military Museum- we had a World War II Merchant Marine Veteran here today and it just shows that the community is strong in regards to efforts of patriotism and remembering what occurred during World War II,” said Anthony “Dru” DiMattia, chairman of the Merchant Marine Memorial Committee, and 30-year Merchant Marine in his own right. “It means everything.”

Other than DiMattia, the Merchant Marine Memorial Committee is made up of Missi McComis Lastra, director of Operations, Southwest Florida Military Museum & Library; George Colom, Iwo Jima Restoration Team-Purple Heart Monument Team; Gary Bowler, president, Veterans Midpoint Memorial Trust, Purple Heart Monument Team and Nick Napolitano, secretary treasurer, Southwest Florida Museum & Library.

Padgett Swann Machinery, Fort Myers Memorial Gardens, Blot Engineering and Houchin Construction all played a role in making this a reality.

General contractors for the project – who will be donating their time, labor and necessary materials – will be JHS Builders and Christopher Allen Homes.

DiMattia’s goal is to have the memorial complete by the end of May.

In a letter to President Harry S. Truman from War Shipping Administrator E.S. Field, in January of 1946, Field said, “The United States was a member of a fighting team of the United Nations that won the greatest war in history. There were three major players who represented that team; Our fighting forces overseas, the production army here at home, and the link between them – the United States Merchant Marine.”

Project completion is slated for the end of May.

Eco Park is at 2500 S.E. 24th Street.

-Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj