KINGS POINT, N.Y. – It is a U.S. service academy situated just outside New York City. Its graduates have fought and died in all corners of the world, and since Sept. 11 have played a key role in bolstering homeland security.
Not West Point — Kings Point. Not the Army or Marines — the Merchant Marine. Even though some midshipmen acknowledge their school is "the redheaded stepchild of the service academies," they are hoping that begins to change on Monday when George W. Bush becomes the first American president to address a graduating class of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.
"I think it's huge that the president is coming here," said Rear Adm. Christopher McMahon, deputy superintendent of the academy, located on an 82-acre campus 20 miles east of Manhattan.
"Anything that raises the level of awareness in this country on what the maritime industry is all about is a good thing," McMahon said. "Because so many people don't understand it is a critical component of our economy."
Kings Point graduates work as deck officers aboard container ships, oil tankers, passenger cruise ships and other vessels. Others remain on land and have become engineers in shipbuilding companies and work in a variety of port operations, including security, while some opt for military careers.
The Merchant Marine Academy was created following a 1934 fire in which 134 people died aboard the passenger ship Morro Castle. Congress acknowledged the need for maritime-training standards and passed the Merchant Marine Act that created the academy in 1936. President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the school in 1943 in Kings Point.
Nearly 60 years later, midshipmen watched in horror along the campus shoreline as terrorists flew jetliners into the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001. Since then, the academy has played a leading role in developing international training standards for maritime security.
"Shortly after 9/11 we recognized the need to enhance and emphasize the security focus in undergraduate education here," said Capt. Jon Helmick, head of the academy's Logistics and Intermodal Transportation program. "Our sense is that you can have all kinds of gee-whiz technology, but if you don't have people appropriately trained to interpret images, to operate the equipment and to appropriately target all these technologies, that you still have huge vulnerabilities."
Graduates receive bachelor's degrees in marine engineering or marine transportation and a merchant marine officer's license. They are required to spend five years in the maritime industry and eight years in the U.S. Naval Reserve as payback for a free college education. About 25 percent satisfy their obligation with a five-year active duty military commission.
About 15 percent of the 950 students are female and Kings Point officials boast that in 1974 they became the first service academy to admit women.
A unique aspect of the education is the so-called "Sea Year" — internships in which students are placed on working commercial vessels — container ships, oil tankers, passenger liners, barges. Students first go out in their sophomore year for about 135 days and then return to sea in their junior year for another 265 days.
"As an 18 or 19-year-old kid, you see the world, but you don't see it as a tourist," said midshipman Paul Morrissey of Sandwich, Ill., who is entering his senior year. "You see a world that tourists never see; what kind of makes the world work."
Ben Lyons, a Kings Point graduate who is now first officer on the Queen Mary 2, called the academy "the best-kept secret in the country."
"I think it's long overdue that a president visits the academy," he said. "The Merchant Marine Academy is not well-known, but it plays such a vital part of commerce and national security and so few people understand that."