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May 2004

Commander's Perspective
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Merchant Mariners - America's unsung heroes

Vice Adm. David L. Brewer III

As dawn broke over Machias Bay, Maine, on June 12, 1775, forty men armed with guns, swords, axes and pitchforks and led by a revolutionary firebrand named Jeremiah O'Brien brought their private sloop, Unity, quietly around the lee side of Round Island. Their target, the British armed schooner Margaretta, immediately attempted to fire on the unarmed Unity, but Unity was too close. O'Brien commanded his crew to ram the British ship, boarding and engaging in hand-to-hand combat. By the end of an hour, the British captain was mortally wounded, and the British ship had surrendered.

O'Brien and the Unity crew claimed four double fortified three-pounders, fourteen swivel guns and several smaller guns. Unity had become a warship for the soon to be proclaimed United States of America in this first sea engagement of the Revolutionary War.

It was the beginning of American merchant mariners' service to our great nation, but not the last time they would go into harm's way for the ideals of freedom and democracy.

"We stand in reverent tribute to our merchant mariner shipmates who gave their lives. We owe them an incredible debt of gratitude."

This month we celebrate annual Maritime Day to honor the merchant mariners who have served the United States during her 228-year history. We especially remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

During the Revolutionary War, more than 11,000 mariners died in service to our fledgling nation. They were the first to sacrifice their lives, but they would not be the last.

The War of 1812 was fought ostensibly because of the merchant marine. British warships were seizing American vessels on the high seas and impressed over 10,000 seamen into service for the British navy or British merchant fleet. American ships were also being seized or sunk if they did not call at a British port before sailing to Europe. France responded by seizing ships that did stop at a British port. Because the United States had a limited number of Navy ships - 23 - the war was mainly fought with merchant ships or privateers. America had 517 privateers during the War of 1812. These privateers eventually captured 1,300 enemy ships worth nearly $40 million.

"More than 11,000 mariners died in service to our fledgling nation during the Revolutionary War."

In 1847, during the Mexican-American War, America's merchant mariners participated in the first U.S. Army invasion of a foreign territory by sea. During the Civil War, both the Union forces and the Confederates used merchant mariners and privateers, having almost no navies of their own. Even the Spanish-American War in the late 1800s required the use of merchant ships, not only for troop transport, but for collier duty (transport of coal) as the Navy fleet transitioned to steam power and the use of coal to fire the boilers.

From 1915 to 1918, more than 700 merchant ships were damaged or sunk by enemy surface raiders and U-boats as we fought the first great world war - World War I. Lives were lost with those ships: American merchant mariners serving their country with bravery and loyalty. In the dark of the night on August 13, 1918, aboard steamship Frederick B. Kellogg, a 7,127-ton tanker carrying much needed fuel to American forces in Europe, the watch gave the dreaded cry, "Torpedo!" The helmsman threw the rudder hard over, but the speed of the lumbering ship was no match for the speeding torpedo. Twelve miles north of the Barnegat Light off the New Jersey coast, seven mariners were killed and one was wounded as a German submarine claimed another U.S. ship.

"Having no navies of their own, both the Union and Confederate forces used merchant mariners and privateers during the Civil War."

World War II saw American merchant mariners suffering the second highest percentage of casualties in the conflict. Only the U.S. Marine Corps suffered higher per capita losses. More than 6,000 mariners gave their lives during the war. Seventy-five percent of the combat cargo delivered to our armed forces was transported aboard 2,751 Liberty Ships manned by U.S. merchant mariners. These brave Americans were part of the biggest sealift effort the world had ever seen, with Liberty Ships delivering more than 8,000 tons of cargo every hour of every day and every night during the entire war. Our mariners never hesitated, never wavered, never failed to step forward when the need arose.

In Korea, the newly formed Military Sea Transportation Service or MSTS was tested under fire. MSTS would eventually become Military Sealift Command in 1970. America's merchant mariners responded immediately by helping deploy the 24th Infantry Division from garrison duty in Japan to Pusan, Korea, by July 6, 1950, only 11 days after the initial invasion by North Korean troops across the 38th parallel. From July 17 to August 19, 10 MSTS troop transports and 11 cargo ships moved the 2nd Infantry Division from Fort Lewis, Wash., to Korea. Ten of the cargo ships were commercial charters. The crews aboard all 21 ships were merchant mariners. In three years, the mariners of MSTS delivered more than 54 million measurement tons of combat cargo and nearly five million troops and other passengers, mostly civilians being evacuated from danger zones. At the same time, MSTS tankers carried more than 6.8 billion gallons of fuel and other petroleum products.

"The U.S. Merchant Marines were part of the biggest sealift effort the world had ever seen, manning Liberty Ships and delivering more than 8,000 tons of cargo every hour of every day for the duration of World War II."

In Vietnam, MSTS began using roll-on/roll-off and container ships for the first time in a major effort, significantly accelerating the on- and off-loading process. In 1965, an average of 75 MSTS ships and 3,000 merchant mariners were in Vietnamese ports on any given day. Many ports were used. Many were hazardous. A new crew member signing on with MSTS for the first time, was greeted by a sign on the quarterdeck of his new ship listing precautions to be taken prior to approaching the Vietnamese coast and especially before making the 35-mile trip up the river to Saigon:

The list went on for a total of 46 items. Vietnam was not a safe place.

The MSTS chartered cargo ship SS Express Baltimore was tied up at the dock in Da Nang in December 1965. They had just received orders to shift to another location, so Third Mate Stephen O'Laughlin and Ordinary Seaman Ruben Bailon were sent ashore to get the ship's master. They were never seen again, both apparently captured. O'Laughlin's remains were later found in a grave at Hon Gan Point. Bailon is still listed as a prisoner of war or missing in action.

From Desert Storm to Bosnia, from Afghanistan to Operation Iraqi Freedom, America's merchant mariners continue to serve at the tip of the spear with U.S. forces, carrying the combat equipment and supplies needed by our armed forces in the continuing war against terrorism.

We celebrate our shipmates, and we stand in reverent tribute to those who gave their lives. We owe them an incredible debt of gratitude. They have never shirked their duties, faltered in their resolve, never failed to make good on their promise, that come hell or high water, "We will deliver."

God bless,

D.L. Brewer III signature

D.L. Brewer III
Vice Admiral, U.S. Navy
Commander, Military Sealift Command