Merchant Marines to mark National Maritime Day
A group of courageous mariners deemed the “unsung heroes” of World War II will mark their annual day of celebration next week in a year that also saw them receive long-awaited honors in the form of Congressional Gold Medals.
The Merchant Marines, an auxiliary to the U.S. Navy in any military conflict and transporters of good in peace times, will celebrate National Maritime Day on May 22.
“It sheds a little light on an industry that remains in the shadows,” said Anthony “Dru” DiMattia, chairman of the Merchant Marine Memorial Committee in Southwest Florida, and a 30-year Merchant Marine in his own right. “It’s nice to bring recognition to an industry of people who work behind the scenes that are a part of a huge network of our society in moving freight and cargo. The U.S. Merchant Marine is a big player in that.”
The Merchant Marine, for instance, plays a vital role in transporting goods on U.S. flagged vessels controlled by mariners, such as grain, other agricultural products and petroleum, to name a few.
The two medical Navy ships that recently came into New York City’s harbor to help with coronavirus patients — Comfort and Mercy — were manned and operated by Merchant Marines.
On March 14 of this year, World War II Merchant Mariners were — after many, many years of efforts — were awarded Congressional Medals of Honor thanks to efforts by the American Maritime Partnership and congressman around the country.
President Donald Trump signed the Congressional Gold Medal Act, recognizing the mariners and their vital contribution to the Allied victory that took place 75 years ago.
“This was a grassroots effort that began years ago,” Di Mattia said. “The fact that the president finally signed this into law speaks so highly to the fact that we’re not giving up.”
Merchant Mariners have been working for recognition of their efforts in World War II for decades. It took Merchant Mariners 43 years to receive veteran status in 1988 for their efforts in the early 1940s. While earning veteran status was a victory, many Merchant Marines from that time were an average age 60, missing out on the G.I Bill and other useful veteran programs.
“It’s taken since (1988) for them to even be recognized with one of the highest medals a government can bestow on a citizen, so look at the time that’s passed,” Di Mattia said.
While the Merchant Marines are civilian mariners, they were, in fact, involved in heavy combat 75 years ago.
The U.S. Merchant Marines was incorporated in 1775 and has participated as the nation’s maritime fleet in peace and every war since.
Their role in World War II was not just of significant importance, but of great loss.
The branch 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 1941after Pearl Harbor.
During World War II, 1 in 26 mariners serving aboard merchant ships died in the line of duty — 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.
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.
Di Mattia was instrumental in the construction of a Merchant Marine memorial at Eco Park that features a Ship’s Bronze Wheel (or propeller), a granite memorial stone, plaque and U.S. Merchant Marine flag.
The granite stone inscripture reads: “A memorial to all who served in the U.S. Merchant Marine and the Navy Armed Guard. ‘In Peace and War.'”
It also details 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.
There are fewer than 1,800 Merchant Mariners from World War II still alive today.
“We applaud this bipartisan action that honors these extraordinary American heroes,” said Mike Roberts, President of the American Maritime Partnership, in a statement. “Since the earliest days of our nation’s existence, America has relied on a strong domestic maritime capability. During World War II, almost 250,000 merchant mariners transported tens of millions of tons of war supplies and more than seven million servicemen under the most challenging circumstances imaginable. Their actions were heroic and courageous yet second nature to them. We all owe these heroes a debt of gratitude that can never be fully repaid.”
While COVID-19 has put a halt to any memorial services at Eco Park in person, Di Mattia hopes in the future to be able to host gatherings as one big tribute to servicemen and women as part of Eco Park’s annual Memorial Day ceremony hosted by Pfc. Michelle Sisco Rosenberger.
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Editor’s Note: The date has been corrected.