Honoring the service and sacrifice of U.S. merchant mariners

By Paul Doell
National President

The following remarks were made during a National Maritime Day event in Dania Beach, Fla.

May 22 is set aside each year by Presidential Proclamation to celebrate the extraordinary, unrivaled service of the civilian men and women of the American merchant marine to our country in peacetime and in war.

I am proud to note – and the record confirms – that the U.S. Coast Guard-licensed marine engineers and deck officers we represent in American Maritime Officers are well in the lead, having set a unique standard of professional excellence on diverse commercial and military cargo transportation routes on four U.S. coastlines and worldwide.

I am pleased as well to announce that STAR Center – where AMO members train to maintain, upgrade and expand their Coast Guard credentials, is itself a “Center of Excellence” as determined by the Maritime Administration at the U.S. Department of Transportation in Washington.

Our host, Graeme Holman, is always happy to provide tours of this expanding campus, which draws many, many visitors each year to Dania Beach, Broward County’s First City.

It is always good to join Steve Nickerson, the executive director of our union’s membership benefit funds and services, including the comprehensive, innovative training here at STAR Center at the hands of Captain Jerry Pannell and Mr. Holman.

Steve and his superior staff at every level serve the professional and personal interests of AMO members and their families extremely well, and I, for one among many, am grateful for the work they do each day. They CARE, and we on the union side across Federal Highway appreciate that.

While National Maritime Day honors American merchant mariners for everything they do in support of the U.S. economy, its principal focus is on what these brave men and women do in support of national security.

The prevailing focus of the day is what American merchant mariners did to secure victory for the U.S. and American allies in Europe and in the Far East in World War II.

The Presidential Proclamation traditionally centers briefly on what American merchant mariners accomplished in the War to End All Wars, but I ask your patience as I provide much more specific and most important detail.

Today, we celebrate the history and the heroics, the spirit and the substance, of the thousands who answered our nation’s call for service at sea in support of our Armed Forces following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the rise of Nazi rule throughout Europe.

These mariners – many of whom were unable to join the military because of what today would be considered minor health issues or impairment – were encouraged in significant part by a widespread recruiting poster from the U.S. Maritime Service.

Here was a somewhat burly man in a watch cap and peacoat, a heavy duffel bag slung across his shoulder, his face expressing purpose and determination beneath the vow: “You bet I’m going back to sea!”

It was common in the United States at the time – especially during blackouts in major cities – for families to go to the nearest ocean shoreline, where they could see U.S. merchant ships laden with defense cargoes or jammed with U.S. soldiers bound for Europe blasted from the sea by German U-Boats in U.S. coastal waters, the flashes and the smoke obscuring the near horizon and leaving shoreside spectators stunned into silence as they returned to their darkened homes.

For them, the war was within a few miles, and for the merchant mariners whose ships had been targets, the thought was an even more determined “You bet I’m going back to sea!”

My father, Ray Doell, was a World War II merchant mariner whose ships were torpedoed three times in the Atlantic. He spoke of these experiences rarely if ever, but I will never forget his telling me about running through walls of fire to reach a lifeboat, or that he and others were adrift until they were rescued by a British convoy.

These were among the real risks accepted freely by every American merchant mariner who “turned to” in World War II.

In this war, the U.S. lost more than 700 cargo ships and troop transports to enemy action in the Atlantic and the Pacific. This was 10 times the number of ocean-going U.S.-flagged merchant ships operating today in international trade markets.

The only U.S. military force to suffer greater combat casualties than our merchant mariners was the U.S. Marine Corps.

More than 600 civilian American merchant mariners were held as prisoners of war on the European and Asian fronts, and several of these POWs in Japan were killed during the forced Death March to Bataan.

Despite this tragic record, our World War II merchant mariners were denied military veteran status and benefits until the Reagan administration.

Nevertheless, our post-war mariners continued to serve boldly and honorably – in Korea, in Vietnam, in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan.

In May 2018, California Congressman John Garamendi – one of many solid Capitol Hill friends of the maritime industry and of seagoing labor – addressed the bureaucratic bungle that had left our World War II merchant mariners without veterans’ status. He unveiled the World War II Merchant Marine Congressional Gold Medal he had secured through legislative effort.

“Throughout the Second World War our armed forces relied on the merchant marine to ferry supplies, cargo and personnel into both theaters of operation, and they paid a heavy price in service to their country,” Congressman Garamendi said at the time.

“The casualty ratio among merchant mariners was the highest of all branches of our armed forces – an estimated 8,300 mariners lost their lives, and another 12,000 were wounded, to make sure our service members could keep fighting. Incredibly, these brave men and women who put their lives on the line were not even given veteran status until 1988.”

Congressman Garamendi’s point was profound even in its simplicity – NEVER FORGET.

Today, persistent tensions with China, emerging threats of new conflict in the Persian Gulf, Middle East and Southwest Asia, the war between Ukraine and Russia and the continued existence of terrorist organizations raise the specter of new conflict – and new need for U.S. cargo ships and loyal, reliable civilian American mariners.

Foreign interests and international provocateurs who believed the lessons and the legacy of the World War II American merchant mariner had faded away were proven wrong in subsequent conflict.

During Operation Desert Shield, the 1990 Defense Department mobilization to Kuwait in response to Iraq’s invasion of that country, there was what was called the eight-mile “Steel Bridge” of U.S.-flagged cargo ships – powered and driven by civilian American merchant marine officers and crews – hauling defense cargoes to the Middle East.

During the war to free Kuwait – Operation Desert Storm in 1991 – these ships delivered the goods when and where required, without incident or casualty, despite the daily threat of Russian SCUD missiles flying too close for comfort overhead.

When U.S. victory became certain, it was an AMO member serving as Captain aboard one of these ships who became the first American civilian to reach the liberated U.S. Embassy in Kuwait, having hitched a ride aboard a military jeep racing through burning oil fields.

This example of the sustained spirit bequeathed to contemporary civilian American merchant mariners by their World War II forebearers applied as well in the U.S. response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks believed at the time to have been plotted in Iraq by Saddam Hussein.

In this war – Operation Iraqi Freedom and in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan – it was the privately owned and operated U.S. merchant fleet and its complements of civilian American merchant mariners that delivered 90 percent of the defense cargoes to U.S. military personnel behind the lines.

The U.S. merchant mariners participating in each of these wartime triumphs were inspired by the lessons left to them by our World War II mariners, the “will do, can do” motivation that defied German U-Boats and Japanese air strikes.

There may not be much public discussion about the American merchant marine or the wartime character of the American seafarer, but this instructive history stands where it matters – in the hearts of licensed and unlicensed civilian seafarers, and in the minds and consciences of public figures who develop defense strategies in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill.

Meanwhile, the annual Congressional wrangling over federal laws and programs that sustain U.S. maritime wartime capabilities continues even as we speak. The only certainty at this point is that, if called, our civilian merchant marine officers and crews will respond without hesitation and without fear.

Before I present the 2023 National Maritime Day Presidential Proclamation, I have a brief but relevant side note.

Ten days ago, our union marked its 74th Anniversary. The union we now know as American Maritime Officers was founded by labor legend Paul Hall – then Vice President of the Seafarers International Union – and a handful of other World War II merchant marine veterans, including Ray Doell.

Hall – a prizefighter who went to sea during the war at age 15 – chartered the Brotherhood of Marine Engineers as an affiliate of the SIU on May 12, 1949.

How and why AMO moved its headquarters and its membership benefit funds from Brooklyn, New York to Dania Beach some 35 years ago is a long story, but we intend to become an even greater positive presence in the Dania Beach community, and we will continue to provide all possible moral and financial support of the humanitarian services provided to overseas mariners by Seafarers House of Port Everglades.