Memorial Day is traditionally a time to honor those who not only served our nation, but those who through their service made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. Sailors, soldiers, marines, airmen, and coast guardsmen bear arms and go in harm’s way because they are the warriors of our great nation.
But there is another important group of men and women who do not wear the uniforms of our armed forces — yet still willingly go in harm’s way for our country, and they have done so since our nation was born.
They are our brave, self-sacrificing men and women of our U.S. Merchant Marine. Each year on May 22, today, we remember and honor these warrior heroes.
More than two centuries ago, the merchant mariners of the 13 united colonies, who sailed as privateers under the orders of Gen. George Washington, led the way to our freedom, capturing the first British vessel in our War of Independence in 1776.
Merchant mariners have been part of our nation’s security and prosperity ever since.
One of the Navy’s earliest heroes, John Paul Jones, began his career as a merchant seaman before he ever commanded a man-o-war.
From the Civil War to World War I, merchant mariners carried war supplies to ground forces, facing enemy ships and the dangers of the sea itself to complete their missions.
In World War II, merchant mariners manned the heavily laden gasoline tankers, troop transports and cargo ships transiting Torpedo Alley in the Atlantic Ocean while hounded by German U-boats. By the war’s end, more than 8,000 men paid with their lives to ensure the success of the armed forces across the globe.
In Korea and Vietnam, merchant mariners traveled to the far side of the world, delivering combat supplies and gear to U.S. and allied troops who were defending the ideals of democracy and self-determination.
Merchant mariners unloaded cargo ships in Kuwait Harbor under the threat of enemy missile attack during the first Gulf War. Today, they support Navy and nation in Afghanistan and the Arabian Gulf, delivering life-saving mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles; Navy patrol boats; fuel and combat supplies to our U.S. forces.
I enjoy the honor of leading our Navy’s Military Sealift Command, the world’s largest employer of U.S. merchant mariners. Our crews are sea-going professionals who continue to willingly go wherever the mission requires them. Part of the U.S. Navy since 1949, Military Sealift Command supports our Navy, Army, Air Force and Marine Corps with afloat combat logistics for the fleet; special missions such as oceanographic survey and undersea surveillance; huge amounts of prepositioned combat cargo for quick delivery in contingency operations; ship towing, rescue and salvage, afloat medical care and other support to Navy combatant ships; and fuel and other Department of Defense cargo for U.S. forces and agencies around the globe.
For 237 years, our nation has benefited from the professionalism and expertise of our U.S. merchant mariners. Whenever — wherever — when duty calls, they deliver, keeping our Navy on station, forward deployed and ready to face any aggressor.
In 1933, Congress set aside May 22 as National Maritime Day, a special day of recognition for the U.S. Merchant Marine. On that date in 1819, SS Savannah steamed out of Savannah, Ga., bound for England, becoming the first steam-powered ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean.
The Navy is proud of civilian mariners, and on May 22 each year, we honor our shipmates who have “crossed the bar” for the last time. In ceremonies held all over the world, we offer our prayers, our respect and our honor to the memory of our departed shipmates, acknowledging the great debt we owe them.
In this month of remembrance, as we honor all who have fallen in service to our nation, please remember the men and women of our U.S. Merchant Marine.