Each year Americans rightly take time to honor many things, our nation’s independence, our famous presidents and our veterans. But lesser known to some is the observance of Maritime Day, which was first declared by Congress in 1933 to recognize the important contributions of those serving the U.S. Merchant Marine and is celebrated every May.
To mark the occasion, President Obama issued a statement this month honoring US merchant mariners, noting that “for 237 years, the men and women of the United States Merchant Marine have risen to meet our country's call. They have strengthened our economy and our security in times of calm and conflict, connecting our service members to the supplies they need and transporting our exports into the global marketplace. On National Maritime Day, we pay tribute to all those who have served and sacrificed on our waterways and around the world.”
Some might ask, why is our industry and those who serve it given this unique honor? Is it because the U.S. Merchant Marine was founded during the American Revolution in June of 1775 – predating the founding of the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Coast Guard? Or because merchant mariners have made key and often unheralded contributions to our nation’s security and prosperity since 1775?
Members of the US Merchant Marine are honored because they have helped protect our nation’s economic and security interests for more than 200 years. As the president pointed out, civilian merchant mariners play an essential role as part of our national defense strategy – transporting US exports and U.S. government cargoes during times of peace, while providing strategic sealift and readiness to ensure that essential equipment, supplies and food aid are delivered safely and cost-effectively during times war and natural disaster.
The US Merchant Marine fleet is able to support America’s national security and economic interests in large part due to the Maritime Security Program. That program ensures the maintenance of a modern U.S.-flag fleet engaged in the foreign trade that provides military access to vessels and vessel capacity, as well as a total global, intermodal transportation network. This network not only includes vessels, but logistics management services, infrastructure, terminals facilities and U.S. citizen merchant mariners to crew U.S. government reserve vessels.
Recently, the brave men and women of the US Merchant Marine provided critical support as the ‘Fourth Arm of Defense,’ safely and cost-effectively delivering ground forces and essential supplies during times of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, the U.S.-flag commercial fleet was responsible for delivering over 90 percent of all military cargo to Afghanistan and Iraq.
Earlier this month, civilian merchant mariners were part of an historic voyage as they helped deliver the last piece of military cargo to leave Iraq as part of the U.S.’s withdrawal of military activities– a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle (or MRAP). The U.S.-flag vessel Ocean Crescent, which is commercially managed by Louisiana-based Intermarine, LLC, delivered this last MRAP to Beaumont, Texas, on May 7, where it was then transported to the First Cavalry Division Museum at Fort Hood.
As our troops return home or are assigned to other missions, US merchant mariners will continue to always be there to support our nation’s security interests, providing critical sealift readiness and capability whenever and wherever needed.
The US-flag commercial fleet also has delivered and continues to deliver vital U.S. food aid across the globe to safe and hostile harbors. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that there are more than 95 million people with too little to eat and that at least 12 million metric tons of commodities are needed each year to fill food gaps in the 70 most food insecure countries.
The US-flag maritime industry and its civilian merchant mariners are proud of their role, delivering this critical food aid support around the globe on U.S.-flagged vessels.
We should always be reminded of one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s last public statements – in which he was addressing the role US merchant mariners in World War II, “They have delivered the goods when and where needed in every theater of operations and across every ocean in the biggest, the most difficult and dangerous transportation job ever undertaken.”
This was true when his words were spoken on September 19, 1944 and it is still true today. U.S. merchant mariners stand ready to serve and deliver no matter the destination.
James Henry is the chairman of USA Maritime