By Clay Maitland
Every year, the cadets and faculty of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy hold a dinner, known as the Battle Standard. It commemorates the cadets who have lost their lives in various American wars, while on active service. Primarily, it memorializes the 142 who died on duty during the Second World War. The most famous of these was Edwin J. O’Hara, who won the Distinguished Service Medal, and gave his life, firing on the heavily armed German raider STIER from his sinking Liberty Ship, STEPHEN HOPKINS. Today, there is an O’Hara Hall at King’s Point. O’Hara’s medal was presented to his mother. Beginning in 1943, the names of Cadet Corpsmen who died in service began to be honored with the assignment of their names to Liberty Ships; five cadet-midshipmen and at least two graduates were so recognized. The EDWIN JOSEPH O’HARA was the first such memorial. Today, the memorial Liberty Ships, bearing the names of the very young King’s Pointers who gave their lives in the Pacific, and the Battle of the Atlantic are long gone. The Battle Standard, inscribed with the number 142, and the shield and emblem of the Academy is displayed at King’s Point to represent their sacrifice. The school, of course, is the true memorial of the regiments of cadets that have passed through its doors, in service to the United States.
The true value of the United States Merchant Marine Academy lies in its essential nature: what the late Senator Russell Long described as a “permanent internationally-respected professional institution”. Others have called it “the University of the Sea”.
No sooner had the Second World War ended, than rumors began to circulate that the school would be abolished. In the nearly 70 years since, these rumors have continued to reappear from time to time. A faithful body of alumni has always rallied to the cause, and despite the United States government’s lack of concern for things maritime, the school has endured and even flourished. What has not, however, blossomed with the passage of time has been the government agency in charge of supporting and maintaining King’s Point. It is startling to see photographs dating from the mid-1950s of units of cadets drawn up in Rockefeller Plaza, at the site of the famous skating rink, to commemorate National Maritime Day – then sponsored by the American Merchant Marine Institute. These dress parades were joint efforts of King’s Point and Fort Schuyler, the State University of New York Maritime School just across the Sound. The thought of reviving a cadet muster in the heart of Manhattan, to advertise the two academies, and the fact that we have a merchant marine, seems to have occurred to nobody.
At the present time, the Academy is losing its training ship, the KING’S POINTER; when a replacement will be obtained, if one ever is, is a matter of speculation. The United States has for many years evaded a commitment to the training of merchant mariners. We are told that budgets are tight, and the campus itself could be put to better use. Much of the problem seems to lie in the fact that maritime policy is framed by political appointees who have no previous experience or connection with seagoing commerce. If King’s Point disappears, it will have been a victim, along with many other maritime assets, of a political culture that has turned its back on the sea. Maritime awareness can be revived, but it will take leadership.
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