Over the past 15 months, as the world grapples with COVID-19, the United States has been forced to question the fundamental assumptions that underpin our economic and military strength. This is most clearly seen in our maritime presence.
On Maritime Day, after a year marked by sacrifice and perseverance, efforts to understand our vulnerabilities must also not neglect our main strengths: American merchant seamen. Too often, the dedication of our sailors is overlooked and underestimated. Nowhere is this role more important than at the heart of the national maritime industry, shaped in part by the merchant navy itself more than 200 years ago.
Then, as today, maritime transport was at the heart of our economy. And in the first decade of the 19th century, with Europe ravaged by the Napoleonic wars, the United States, aided by their skilled sailors, ruled the sea trade. So much so, in fact, that in eight years, between 1792 and 1795, US exports have doubled.
Sadly, in a world where freedom of the seas was more ambitious than real, the United States – and its merchant navy in particular – was caught between the superpowers of the day, France and Britain. The Royal Navy, desperate for manpower to serve its naval juggernaut, resorted to boarding American ships looking for suspected British subjects in order to capture them and “impress” them in the service.
In 1812, with an estimate 15,000 American sailors seized, the United States saw no alternative but to declare war. This marked the start of what is often referred to as our Second War of Independence.
Britain, containing a large navy but a small army, decided to starve the United States, blocking Chesapeake Bay. And the United States, with a standing navy of only 15 ships, turned to the merchant ships in his defense.
As in the Revolution, the government commissioned private merchant ships, called corsairs, to attack the enemy’s maritime trade. It was the classic story of David versus Goliath. And while the US Navy warships captured 250 ships during the war, American privateers captured more than 2,000 British merchant ships. As the US Naval Institute noted, “Privateer warfare against the enemy was the only way America could retaliate against the British Empire.”
But it was August 24, 1814, at the battle of Bladensburg, that our sailors would undergo their ordeal by fire and present the Chesapeake as the focal point of our maritime infrastructure. On that day, a hastily assembled flotilla of sailors, merchant seamen and privateers became the last line of defense between the British and Washington, DC.
And although ultimately defeated, like their ancestors at Bunker Hill, these brave sailors managed to take a heavy toll on the invaders and won precious government time to evacuate.
Such acts of heroism and sacrifice may seem distant, if not unrelated to modern sensibilities. But the truth is service and sacrifice are as ingrained in our merchant seamen now as they were then. Whether it was the War of 1812, World War II – in which they suffered a higher casualty rate than any branch of service – or today, with 200,000 men and women stranded at sea For over 20 months to keep global commerce moving in the midst of a global pandemic, the United States Merchant Navy has been vital to our strength and prosperity.
In 1943, Congress formally recognized the continuing need for highly skilled merchant seamen and ordered the establishment of the US Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA), thus creating the fourth of five federal service academies, with all graduates from each academy engaged. to serve their country. Among the casualties of merchant seamen during World War II, 142 USMMA students were trained aboard merchant ships. In fact, USMMA is the only federal academy to have lost students in combat.
When a conflict arises, as with Desert Storm, when more than 350 ships have made more than 500 voyages to support the operation and delivered an average of 42,000 tonnes of cargo per day, the Merchant Navy must transport the personnel and equipment necessary to support any military campaign. Today, this crucial component is coordinated by the Military Sealift Command (MSC) and supported by the USN Reserve Strategic Sealift Officers Force (SSO), the vast majority (over 80%) of which are USMMA graduates.
As a proud graduate of USMMA and President and CEO of its alumni association and foundation, I can confidently say that our nation’s ability to prevail in the future – economically or militarily – relies on a viable merchant fleet and skilled seafarers.
For the first time in decades, supply chain and maritime trade issues have become a general awareness. Maritime Day, celebrated on May 22 each year, provides a perfect opportunity to honor our maritime heroes, both recognizing past service and recognizing how important that service will continue to be in the future.
Captain Jim Tobin is President of the United States Merchant Marine Academy Alumni Association and Foundation.