Background: The Voyage of the Savannah
On May 22, 1819, the SS Savannah left its home port of Savannah, Georgia on its way to Liverpool, England. The ship “put to sea with steam and sails” and reached Liverpool in 29 days and four hours, becoming the first steamship to cross the Atlantic. While the steam engine performed faultlessly, it was not the only means of propulsion; historians have estimated that the Savannah was under sail 80% of the time. Nonetheless, it was an impressive achievement, one that signaled the beginning of the era of steam, and American technological leadership. There are several web sites with more information on the SS Savannah; one of the more complete pages is on the Historic Speedwell site.
1933: Congress Declares May 22 to be National Maritime Day
By a Joint Resolution passed on May 20, 1933, Congress declared May 22nd to be National Maritime Day. This is the text of the resolution:
“Whereas on May 22, 1819, the steamship The Savannah set sail from Savannah, Georgia, on the first successful transoceanic voyage under steam propulsion, thus making a material contribution to the advancement of ocean transportation: Therefore be it Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That May 22 of each year shall hereafter be designated and known as National Maritime Day, and the President is authorized and requested annually to issue a proclamation calling upon the people of the United States to observe such National Maritime Day by displaying the flag at their homes or other suitable places and Government officials to display the flag on all Government buildings on May 22 of each year.”
Presidential proclamations and other recognition of National Maritime Day may be found at this site:
World War II
The merchant marine and American shipyards were crucial to victory in World War II. Then, as now, the United States Armed Forces could not fight a war overseas without the merchant marine and commercial ships to carry the tanks and torpedoes, the bullets and the beans. In World War II the ships also carried troops across the ocean. Merchant mariners and their shipmates of the Navy Armed Guard sailed across the Atlantic, the Pacific, through the Indian Ocean, across the Arctic Circle to Murmansk. They carried nearly 270-billion long tons of cargo–the average rate of delivery in 1945 was 17-million pounds of cargo every hour. They had been the first to go to war; merchant ships were being captured and sunk even before the United States officially entered the war. And they were the last to return; it was ships sailed by merchant mariners that brought the GIs home.
None of them had to go sea. They were all civilians, and they could have had other jobs in the booming wartime economy. Yet they went. Some were in their seventies, some were in their teens.
It was dangerous work. Nearly one in 30 of those who served in the merchant marine did not return. More than 6,000 American seafarers and more than 700 U.S. merchant ships fell to enemy action. No branch of the Armed Forces, save the Marines, suffered a higher casualty rate. None suffered a higher death rate. There are many good sources of information on the role of the merchant marine in World War II. One such web site is http://www.usmm.org.
A classic book on the subject is A Careless Word. . .A Needless Sinking, by Captain Arthur R. Moore, published in 1983. A more recent book is Forgotten Heroes, by Brian Herbert, published in 2004. A more offbeat account of service in the merchant marine in World War II, is Woody, Cisco, and Me, an account of author Jim Longhi’s service with folksingers Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston.
“When final victory is ours, there is no organization that will share its credit more
deservedly than the Merchant Marine.” -General Dwight D. Eisenhower
National Maritime Day Becomes the Merchant Marine Memorial Day
In spite of their service and their sacrifices, merchant mariners were not accorded veterans’ benefits, and for many years were excluded from celebrations of Veterans’ Day, Memorial Day, and other days recognizing members of the Armed Forces. One merchant marine veteran who felt the exclusion very keenly was Walter Oates, who became Public Affairs Officer at the Maritime Administration. The Maritime Administration is the successor agency to the War Shipping Administration, which oversaw the shipbuilding and merchant marine operations in World War II. Mr. Oates was a wartime graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, the only one of the federal service academies to send its students into war before graduation. One hundred forty-two of those students were killed in the war, and one of them had been Mr. Oates’s roommate.
In 1970, at the instigation of Mr. Oates, the Maritime Administration sponsored an observance of Maritime Day, a solemn ceremony honoring veterans of the merchant marine, and those who gave their lives in service to the United States. That observance has been held every year since then.
After a long court battle, merchant marine veterans were accorded some rights and privileges of veterans on January 19, 1988. Ten years after that, in 1998, in recognizing veterans from the Persian Gulf War, Congress included more rights and privileges for veterans of the merchant marine. The U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C., dedicated in 1987, integrates recognition of the U.S. Merchant Marine: www.navymemorial.org. At the dedication of the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., in 2004, Maritime Administrator William G. Schubert represented the merchant marine as chief of service. The flags at the entrance of the World War II Memorial have on them the seals of five services: the Army, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the Coast Guard, the Army Air Corps, and the United States Merchant Marine. More about the National World War II Memorial may be found at http://www.wwiimemorial.com.
Maritime Day Today
Today, Maritime Day is observed in a variety of ways. Many ports have open houses and special celebrations. Propeller Clubs all over the United States hold special luncheons. At Merchant Marine Memorials, such as the one in New York City, and the one in San Pedro, California, memorial observances are held. In November 2005, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted to make National Maritime Day a Day of Prayer and Remembrance for Seafarers and People of the Sea. National Maritime Day is a day to pay special tribute to the merchant marine and to the benefits that the maritime industry provides this country and to all who live here.