by Salvatore R. Mercogliano, Ph.D. (gCaptain) This Veteran’s Day we remember the thousands of Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen, and Coast Guardsmen who gave their lives in defense of the United States of America. We should also remember the thousands of merchant mariner veterans who set sail under the flag of the United States and exposed themselves to risk and dangers on the high seas in times of war.
In the American Revolution, it was merchant mariners arming their vessels and going to sea as licensed privateers, that interdicted the trade routes of the British Army and helped achieved success in our struggle for independence.
It was Algerian pirates, seizing and capturing eleven merchant ships, that precipitated the creation of the United States Navy with the Naval Act in 1794. It was the capture of 316 American merchantmen by the French that led to the Quasi-War against our one-time ally. It was the impressment of 6,000 merchant mariners that triggered America’s declaration of war against Great Britain in the War of 1812.
In the war against Mexico, American merchant ships transported General Winfield Scott’s army to Vera Cruz. That campaign led to the acquisition of the entire southeastern part of the United States. The first shots of the Civil War were from a South Carolina battery against SS Star of the West as she steamed toward Fort Sumter to relieve the beleaguered garrison. Later, Confederate Navy raiders, and the lack of protection by the United States Navy, led to the near demise of the American merchant fleet.
In 1898, the government hired merchantmen to transport Americans overseas and land them in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Guam, and the Philippines. In World War One, it was the sinking of ten American commercial ships during the period of Unrestricted Submarine Warfare, and the death of 64 merchant mariners, that led President Woodrow Wilson to ask for an American declaration of war. This Veteran’s Day marks the 100th anniversary of the Armistice and during the Great War, the United States lost 197 ships and 629 mariners.
The Second World War witnessed American merchant ships braving enemy fire long before this nation formally entered the war. SS City of Flint, after rescuing survivors of SS Athenia, the first victim of a U-Boat in the war, was captured by the German pocket battleship SS Deutschland. MS City of Rayville was the first ship lost to enemy action when she struck a mine.
As the Japanese launched their attack on Pearl Harbor, SS Cynthia Olsen fell victim to a Japanese I-Boat. SS President Harrison attempted to escape from China but was forced to run herself aground to prevent capture by a Japanese destroyer. The United States lost 733 merchantmen in the war and 9,521 killed.
During the Cold War, the American merchant marine supported military operations against Communism. In operations off Korea, SS Meredith Victory rescued over 10,000 Korean civilians from Hungnam and transported to the south. In Vietnam, American merchant crews braved the Rung Sat and faced over 138 attacks and 11 ships were sunk by Viet Cong sapper attacks in ports. SS Mayaguez, a Sea-Land container ship, was seized by elements of the Khmer Rouge in the final act of the conflict.
In the late 1980s, the Tanker War in the Persian Gulf, witnessed direct attacks on American ships with the mining of MV Bridgeton and Texaco Caribbean, along with a Silkworm missile strike on MV Sea Isle City. In the Persian Gulf War, operations in Somalia, and the Iraqi War, American freighters and tankers once again sailed into contested waters and faced threats from mines, shoreside attacks, and ballistic missiles.
This Veteran’s Day we remember those merchant mariners who gave their lives and exposed themselves to danger. As it states on the flag of the United States Merchant Marine, In Peace and War.
Register now and join Salvatore R. Mercogliano, Captain John Konrad and WWII Merchant Mariner David Yoho at the American Merchant Marine Veterans National Convention in March.