The featured honoree at this year’s AMMV event was civil rights leader and US Merchant Marine World War II hero Captain Hugh Mulzac, master of the SS Booker T Washington.
Born in the British West Indies in 1886, Mulzac went to sea after high school, sailing on British vessels. He later attended the Nautical School in Swansea, in the United Kingdom, earning a mate’s license. He sailed as a ship’s officer in World War I, and came to the United States, becoming a citizen in 1918.
By 1920, Mulzac passed the examination as a U.S. shipmaster, but there were no shipboard berths available to a black captain. Although he held a master’s license, which qualified him to be a ship’s captain, he worked for the next 20 years mostly in the steward’s department of various shipping lines. This was the only shipboard work he could find, and he became an expert in foodservice management.
With the outbreak of World War II, Mulzac recognized an opportunity to use his license and command a vessel. At age 56, he was named master of the new Liberty ship Booker T. Washington , christened by legendary opera singer Marian Anderson. Mulzac insisted on having an integrated crew, not the all-black crew that had been planned. The U.S. Maritime Commission relented, and the Booker T. Washington made 22 round-trip voyages with Mulzac at the helm.
After World War II ended Captain Mulzac never sailed as master again because of prejudice enforced by the Master, Mates, and Pilots Union (MM&P).
“In looking back I discovered ours was a history of discrimination based on race, gender, and religion from the founding of MM&P until we were forced to integrate, to open our ranks to all qualified people in the 1960’s.” said MM&P representative Jeremy Hope at the event. “for this we apologize to Captain Mulzacs family and every mariner our policies hurt.”
Congressional Gold Medal
In addition to honoring Captain Mulzac and all merchant marine veterans who served their nations in conflicts as recently as during the withdrawal from Afghanistan… the event also served to mark the end of World War Two Merchant Mariners’ three-quarter-century battle for full recognition as veterans.
On March 3, Congress passed the “Merchant Mariners of World War II Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2020.” Sponsored by Congressman John Garamendi (D-CA) and Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), the bipartisan legislation will award a Congressional Gold Medal to those surviving members of the American merchant marine who served during World War II. This civilian organization was the vital link between the industrial capacity of the United States – known as the Arsenal of Democracy – and the war fronts in Africa, Asia, and Europe, separated by contested seas.
“I am not a cynic but I will not celebrate this long-overdue achievement just yet.” said keynote speaker, bestselling author, and World War II merchant mariner David Yoho told Rita Cosby’s millions of radio show listeners. “I can not until the award is hanging on my neck. I can not because I don’t speak for myself, I speak for the nearly quarter-million Americans who served in the US Merchant Service during World War II who are no longer with us.”
Past US Maritime Administrator Rear Admiral Mark Buzby and acting administrator Lucinda Lessley were on hand to unveil the design and promised to expedite the physical issuance of the award which has been delayed due to COVID. No mention, however, was made by Lucinda as to when Merchant Marine veterans of Korea, Vietnam, and the two gulf wars will receive veteran status.
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