The Federal Maritime Commission Newsroom


Chairman Blust's Maritime Day Remarks

May 19, 2005

Good afternoon and thank you for the introduction. It is an honor to be here today, and a privilege to speak to this esteemed audience while recognizing Maritime Day.

The maritime industry has played an important role in shaping our Country. Since the founding of our nation, the men and women who have manned our merchant ships, loaded and unloaded their cargo, and constructed, repaired, and supplied services to the ships have made great contributions and sacrifices to protect and serve our nation.

Beginning with Jeremiah O’Brien’s valiant efforts in Machias, Maine in 1775, the U.S. merchant marine, and everyone who has helped support their efforts, have played a vital role in supporting and defending our great Nation.

This year we recognize the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, during which our maritime industry made great contributions. I would like to tell a few sea stories to illustrate the merchant marine’s contribution to the war efforts. Early in the war, while the U.S. remained neutral, it supported England with supplies and equipment which were carried by U.S.-flag vessels manned by U.S. crews. These ships and their crews were placed in harm’s way as they transited the North Atlantic at great peril from the German U-boats. In 1941, the German U-boat campaign was intensified as Germany moved their boats to the U.S. coasts in order to hunt down U.S. merchant vessels. The area around the North Carolina coast soon became known as ‘Torpedo Junction’ as the U-boats preyed on the unprotected ships passing though the North Carolina coastal waters enroute to New York and Europe in support of the war effort. The initial success of the U-boats was often referred to as the ‘Second Pearl Harbor.’

On the morning of January 30, 1942, the tanker Rochester and its crew of 35, were eighty-five miles east of the Chesapeake light, while enroute from New York to Corpus Christi, Texas. While the Rochester was steaming on a zigzag course, U-l06 (Rasch) maneuvered into an attack position, and fired a torpedo which struck aft in the engine room. The explosion killed the officer and two men on watch below, stopped the engines, destroyed communications, and damaged the rudder and propeller. Orders were immediately passed to muster at the lifeboat stations and when the submarine surfaced nearby, the master ordered the crew to abandon ship. U-l06 readied its deck guns for action but waited for the life boats to clear the ship. The submarine fired eight rounds at the tanker from a range of about 500 yards. With the Rochester still afloat, U-l06, fired a second torpedo that hit amidships and sunk the ship. The USS Roe (DD-418) rescued the thirty-two survivors off the Virginia Capes after they had spent three hours in the lifeboats, and landed them at Norfolk Navy Base the next morning.

On March 12, 1942, The SS John D. Gill was 25 miles off the coast of Cape Fear en route from Texas to Philadelphia, PA, with a load of crude oil. At 2110 on March 12, a torpedo struck the starboard side of the #7 tank near the area of the main mast. The tanker was immediately engulfed in flames when a life ring with a self-igniting carbide lamp hit the water. The ensuing explosions and fire destroyed all but the #2 and #4 lifeboats. Many of the crew were lost when pulled underwater by the still turning propeller. The #2 lifeboat was successfully launched with 15 crew members who were later picked up by the SS Robert H. Colley and taken to Charleston, SC. At 0600, on March 13, the Coast Guard found 11 survivors (8 crew members and 3 Naval Armed Guard) floating on a life raft. The #4 life raft had been released by able body seaman, Edwin F. Cheney, Jr., who then guided injured and burned shipmates to the raft and safety. Cheney was later awarded the Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal by President Franklin D. Roosevelt for his heroic actions that fateful night. The citation awarded to Mr. Cheney by President Roosevelt read: “he released and launched a life-raft from a sinking and burning ship and maneuvered it through a pool of burning oil to clear water by swimming under water, coming up only to breathe. Although he had incurred severe burns about the face and arms in this action, he then guided four of his shipmates to the raft, and swam to and rescued two others who were injured and unable to help themselves.” Ultimately, the occupants of the raft were taken onboard the USCG Agassiz and taken to Southport, NC. Twenty three of the ships complement of 42 crew and 7 Naval Armed guard were killed.

Unfortunately, these stories are not unusual. Along our east coast, 172 ships were sunk during World War II, with another 45 ships sunk in the Gulf of Mexico, and 180 ships in the Caribbean. According to the War Shipping Administration, the U.S. Merchant Marine suffered the highest percentage of casualties of any service in World War II, with almost 7,000 merchant mariners making the ultimate sacrifice. Officially, a total of 1,554 ships were sunk worldwide due to war conditions, including 731 ships of over 1,000 gross tons.

For every tragic event, there are dozens of accounts of courageous acts of our unsung heroes. One such account is the story of the SS Seatrain Texas. In the summer of 1942, with German General Erwin Rommel pushing the British Eighth Army back toward the crucial Suez Canal, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, General George C. Marshall, offered the British the use of the 2nd Armored Division. In desperate need of replacement tanks and material, the British asked that the Americans ship them to Egypt via the Cape of Good Hope to avoid German aircraft and U-boats in the contested Mediterranean Sea. In July 1942, Convoy AS-4 departed from New York with six ships, but a submarine sank SS Fairport of Waterman Steamship Company loaded with 250 Sherman tanks. Marshall made an additional 250 tanks available and the Seatrain Texas sailed at the end of the month, without an escort, to catch up with the convoy. At a time when German U-boats prowled our waters, the merchant mariners were willing to take the risk of sailing unescorted so that their precious cargo could reach the front lines in time. She completed the voyage in one month and five days and her cargo proved crucial to the Allied victory at El Alamein. These Sherman tanks, the first Allied tanks which matched the German Mark IV Panzer in firepower, were a decisive factor at the battle of El Alamein which began on October 23, 1942, and resulted in an Allied victory. We are honored to have one of the USMMA cadets who sailed on this voyage with us here today, Mr. Bernie Willborn from the class of 1943. The heroic efforts of the officers and crews who continued to man our merchant vessels despite the dangers of being attacked by German U-boats will never be forgotten.

To provide sufficient tonnage to support the war effort, an emergency program was created to build 2300 emergency ships totaling 23 million deadweight tons. The Liberty Ship initiative resulted in the largest shipbuilding effort in U.S. history, with shipyards forming on all U.S. coasts, utilizing innovative new technologies such as welded hulls and modular construction to increase productivity and output. The average time to build a Liberty Ship was 40 days.

On June 19, 1943, the Liberty Ship SS Jeremiah O’Brien was launched in Portland, ME. After 4 transatlantic trips to England, the O’Brien participated in the 1944 Normandy invasion, making 4 trips to the Omaha Beachhead and an additional 7 to the Utah Beachhead carrying troops, explosives and armored vehicles. She subsequently worked in the Pacific before being retired in Suisin Bay. In 1978, the O’Brien was declared a National Monument and placed on the National Register as an historic Object.

The only two remaining liberty ships, the Jeremiah O’Brien and the John Brown, float as a monument and a tribute to the men and women who built the ships, the shoreside support organizations, the longshoremen who loaded the ships, the mariners who manned them and the almost 7,000 mariners who made the ultimate sacrifice with their lives, in support of our great country during WW II.

War Against Terror

This same dedicated service can still be seen today through the truly outstanding efforts of the maritime industry in the war against terror. The herculean task of conducting the war against terror around the world has been made possible by your support of our troops in providing the necessary supplies to make their missions successful.

During Operation Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom:

  • Approximately 8,000 U.S. citizen merchant mariners sailed aboard U.S.-flag ships;
  • 1,500 merchant mariners crewed our Ready Reserve Force (RRF) ships;
  • 101,000 containers, and 6.5 million tons of breakbulk cargo were transported for the Surface Deployment and
  • Distribution Command since September 2001;
  • 7 billion gallons of fuel, and 76 million sq/ft of cargo have been transported by the Military Sealift Command; and
  • The vast majority of the cargo sent to the region was transported by U.S. merchant mariners aboard U.S.-flag ships.

As we celebrate Maritime Day, we owe a debt of gratitude to many different segments of the industry:

Maritime Trades - All of the planning and preparation in the world won’t load or unload a ship, or sail it across the ocean. For this, we rely on the maritime trades. The longshoreman and the dockworkers are committed to getting the ships underway when the time comes. Today’s sophisticated cargo and loading equipment requires a highly trained force able to safely and efficiently load and unload the vessels. We also owe a critical debt of gratitude to the shipboard crews who place their lives in harms way - the cargo handlers, the pilots, tug operators, line handlers, ship chandlers and the repairman who make sure everything runs smoothly while in port, and underway. Fortunately, we have come to rely on the maritime trades to get the cargo moving, to get it to its destination, and to safely bring the ship and its crew home.

U.S. Merchant Marine Academy - Very seldomly do we recognize the efforts and sacrifices of our cadets at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. During times of war, members of the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard engage in combat, but the cadets at their respective service academies do not. However, the midshipmen of the USMMA receive an integral part of their training at sea. In the Second World War, USMMA midshipmen often found their lives in peril as they sailed through enemy-controlled waters or unloaded precious cargo in overseas combat areas. In WW II, 142 Merchant Marine cadet-midshipmen made the ultimate sacrifice serving their nation aboard U.S. merchant ships during exactly these types of missions. Even today, cadets are still being put into action during their studies. Not only are they training to become tomorrow’s leaders, but they stand ready to put themselves in harms way in service to our Country. For that, we owe them a debt of gratitude.

U.S. Transportation Command - The Department of Defense’s USTranscom oversees intermodal transportation across the spectrum of military operations. Its oversight and coordination allows our military to know that its supply lines are open, cargo is moving, and their equipment is on the way. It is only with their management that the rest of the system can work. I applaud their efforts at creating a system with such massive capabilities.

Military Sea Lift Command - Military Sealift Command’s on-the-water capabilities are invaluable as our country stages troops and equipment overseas, and it is committed to bringing everyone, and everything, back home safely. Thank you Admiral Brewer for all of your efforts.

Surface Deployment and Distribution Command - The Surface Deployment and Distribution Command plays a critical role in managing military supply lines around the world during peace time and war. SDDC works hard to ensure that the right equipment gets to the right place.

Coast Guard - Just as the Coast Guard stood watch over our shores in World War II by manning watch towers and rescuing our sailors, today they continue to play a vital role in protecting our shores from a variety of threats. It is not a role without risk or sacrifice. The Coast Guard provides security where it is needed the most - at our front door.

Last, and certainly not least - The industry - Shipyards, Vessel Operators and Shippers - It is all of you who allow the process to work - from the shipyards who build our vessels, to the vessel operators who pledge their vessels to ensure that the needs of the public and private sectors are met, and the shippers who move the cargo to keep the ships busy. The services you offer provide our Nation with the security of knowing it will be ready and able to perform its role within the international community.

Through all of your efforts, the U.S. forces overseas and the commercial cargo interests at home are able to depend upon a U.S.-flag fleet being ready, willing and able to meet their responsibilities anywhere in the world. All of you help to ensure that the U.S.-flag fleet is able to fulfill its mission. Thank you for your patriotic efforts.

Role of the FMC

The FMC also has an important role in ensuring the viability of the U.S. shipping industry. The Commission works to secure fairness in international maritime commerce. Doing so creates a market-based industry allowing the industry to compete on a level playing field.

The United States Government, recognizing the vital importance of open ports and fair shipping practices, created the Federal Maritime Commission's predecessor agency in 1916 to regulate international waterborne commerce. In 1920, that agency was tasked with ensuring that our trading partners maintained open and fair systems for oceanborne trade. The Commission's mandate is to ensure that this freedom is maintained, as it is vital to the smooth flow of international commerce.

The Commission is charged with addressing restrictive or unfair foreign shipping practices. Because of the great tradition of openness of the sea trade, and the general understanding of the Commission’s authority, most restrictive or unfair practices can be remedied without the need for the Commission to invoke its authority.

For over 80 years, this system has been a success. Our trades have been liberalized while still allowing us to take sufficient steps when our interests are compromised. The ability to take action benefits the entire transportation supply chain by creating stability and enhancing shipper confidence in the transportation industry.


In closing I would like to read an inscription that can be found on the The High-Rollers Chapter United States Merchant Marine Memorial, located in the Southern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery just east of Las Vegas:

“Dedicated to the American Merchant Seamen who, in times of national crises, have rallied to battle enemy mines, submarines and planes while building a "steel bridge" of supplies across the seas to our troops and their Allies. In World War II alone, there were 731 merchant ships sunk by enemy action with 6,839 merchant mariners and over 1,800 Navy Armed Guard killed or missing from relatively small forces. May their Supreme Being Bless, Care for and Comfort them!”

Thank you for inviting me to share some time with you in recognition of Maritime Day, and thank you for all of your efforts in support of the maritime industry.