MEBA MERCHANT MARINE MEMORIAL DEDICATION
Remarks of Ron Davis
October 19, 2005
"What a beautiful day this is for a dedication. Thank you all for coming today. This has been a day that many of us have been waiting for, and I’m happy that it has finally arrived. From the first day we broke ground at the memorial, I have looked forward to its opening and its dedication. It is easy for us to forget the hard work and terrible sacrifices of the mariners and merchant seamen who went before us, but now we have a visible, permanent monument to the men and women who have given so much to their country by sailing aboard the vessels of our merchant marine.
"It is impossible for me to recognize all the special people here today, but I would like to take a moment and recognize a few of the distinguished guests that we have with us today. Easton Mayor Robert Willey, Admiral Richard Behn from NOAA and John Flynn special assistant to the Secretary of Labor and my good friend Larry O’Toole former president of MEBA and the person who came up with the original memorial idea.
"I would also like to recognize the Training Plan Trustees: Bud Jacque, John McCurdy, Don Keefe, Al Camelio, Cecil McIntyre, Lou Marciello, Bill Van Loo, Mike Cameron, Phil Fisher, Sandy Jones, Jack Kraft, Bill Cole, Wally Becker, Jack Sullivan, Ed Handley, and Tom Murphy.
"I also want to give special thanks and praise to the hard work of two individuals who made today possible. If it hadn’t been for the vision and perseverance of our Baltimore Branch Agent Bill Van Loo and our school Director Joyce Matthews, we wouldn’t be here today. They took the lead, handled the planning, the fundraising, and everything else it took to turn this Merchant Marine Memorial into a reality. We owe them all our thanks and they deserve a hand.
"The building of a memorial is a time-honored tradition dating back thousands of years. Whatever form they come in – be it a building, the planting of a tree, a massive stone statue, they mark themselves in our consciousness and are a constant reminder of things that might ordinarily be forgotten in the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives. Thousands of years have passed since the days when Joshua ordered the Israelites to build a memorial of twelve smooth stones from the riverbed to mark their crossing of the Jordan River into the Promised Land. Yet today, we still build monuments to remember those who have gone before us and the impressive deeds that they have done.
"I can think of no organization that has been so fundamentally important to the creation and sustained power of the United States than the American Merchant Marine. And I can think of no organization that has done so much that is as unknown and forgotten as the Merchant Marine. Despite the trillions of tons of cargo we’ve hauled, the tens of thousands of ships we’ve manned, and the untold number of seamen who have sailed, most Americans don’t remember – or never knew – how important we have been to them. That’s something that we hope this memorial will change.
"It’s easy for the average American to overlook the role our Merchant Marine has played in our nation’s history. Even most historians haven’t paid much attention to that role. Probably only the most knowledgeable naval historian would remember that America’s first naval victory of the Revolution occurred off the shores of Maine on June 12, 1775. A small band of mariners from Maine, under the command of Jeremiah O’Brien took control over the small sloop Unity and attacked the British Navy schooner Margaretta – a vessel twice its size. Despite being outnumbered and outgunned, O’Brien’s men won the day, marking the first American victory at sea – not by our Navy, but by the men of our Merchant Marine. And to put the battle in perspective, three days later, George Washington was named commanding General of the Continental Army. Even before America was born, before the declaration of independence was signed, her merchant seamen were on watch.
"Most historians have forgotten Jeremiah O’Brien and his daring fight against overwhelming odds. The reason for that is the same reason that so few remember or understand the vital role that the Merchant Marine has played in America’s national life. Once the war was over, O’Brien went home. He lived his life. He didn’t clamor for glory or try and keep his name in the papers. He didn’t write a book. He simply went back to his life, a quiet, humble hero of America. The Merchant Marine, like its earliest hero, has never sought glory. It has never sought the spotlight. We have done the job, hauled the goods, and asked only for a fair day’s wage and tolerable working conditions. And even when the wages weren’t good, and the working conditions were worse, we kept at it, because we knew how important our job really is.
"In good times and in bad times, the Merchant Marine has stood by, silently ensuring that the steel bridge across the oceans that America needs to sustain its military and its economy would never shut down.
"And in some of the darkest times America has seen, her Merchant Marine had its finest hour. Those of us who grew up in the Merchant Marine will never forget the stories of the old-timers during World War II – long nights in the North Atlantic, wondering if the sun would rise again or if it would be all over in the blast from a torpedo or a salvo from a submarine’s deck gun. We remember hearing the terrifying stories of the Murmansk Run - the frigid cold, the summers where night never fell, and the winters where the sun never shined. And all the while, these men kept sailing. And make no mistake – there was never a draft for the Merchant Marine. These men were all volunteers. They knew what they were getting into. Some hadn’t qualified for military service – they were 4-F. But that didn’t stop them from signing up to serve their country. The Merchant Marine didn’t care if you had flat feet, or if one of your arms was longer than the other. If you wanted to serve, you had a place there. And those men served. And they died. They had the highest casualty ratio of all of the armed services during the war. But that never kept them from doing what they knew needed done.
"These men endured. They endured the torpedoes. They endured the weather. They endured everything that was thrown at them. And because they refused to let anything stop them, they paved the way to victory for America, the Allies and democracy itself.
"They were critical to our nation’s war effort – but that didn’t stop them from being forgotten as soon as the war was over. And it took nearly thirty years of hard work to finally have their status as veterans under the law recognized. I am proud to say that MEBA, along with our research and educational arm the American Maritime Congress, took the lead in that effort. Had it not been for that effort, our World War II veterans would still be unrecognized for the role they played in winning the war.
"And even when mariners weren’t dodging bullets and bombs to carry the goods, the sea has always been a dangerous place, whether in peace or in war. We may never know how many mariners have given their lives on the high seas. But we do know that no matter how dangerous the job was, the men and women of the American merchant marine always did their job. They never gave up, they never ran scared. They were always ready to head up the gangway, or take that pier head jump and head to sea, knowing that there was always a chance they might not come home. We remember their ships. The MARINE ELECTRIC. The EDMUND FITZGERALD. And the Poet, a ship that I almost took on what turned out to be its last fateful voyage disappearing forever beneath the waves for reasons unknown, Remembering them helps to remind us that we can never take the sea for granted – when we do, it rises up in all its power to ensure we never forget. As we all saw recently with the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the tsunami in Asia, and Hurricane Stan in Central America, no matter how powerful mankind may become, we will never match the power of the sea. No one understands that better than a merchant seaman.
"We can never afford to forget, nor to let America forget what those men and women have done for our country. This memorial is a reminder of our duty to those who have gone before us, especially those who have given, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, the last full measure of devotion to their country.
"But we cannot simply build a monument, give a few speeches, and pat ourselves on the back for not forgetting our history. We owe it to the hundreds of thousands of merchant mariners who went before us, the same hundreds of thousands that this memorial is dedicated to, that we will do everything in our power to ensure the continued existence and strength of the American merchant marine. We owe it to them that we build upon what they started. It is no small responsibility, but it is one that all of us who represent merchant mariners accept gladly. And we will do it – we will stand a permanent watch and do whatever is necessary to grow this industry and ensure that the American flag never disappears from the world’s oceans. Yes, we will do it. They built this industry – they built it with their patriotism, their sweat, and their blood. The merchant marine of today will stand as a living memorial to those we remember here. We cannot, and we will not, let them down.
"The good news is that today, more than ever, we have reasons to be optimistic for the future of our seagoing industry. Our merchant marine is growing again, after many years of steady decline. We have returned the US Flag to the cruise ship industry. We have expanded the Maritime Security Program. And we stand poised on the cusp of new leaps forward, from Short Sea Shipping initiatives, to the Liquefied Natural Gas sector, to new technological achievements like ultra-deep sea drilling and offshore natural gas import terminals. As long as we are willing to think outside of the box and grasp onto new opportunities as they arise, we will be honoring the memory of our merchant mariners by keeping our profession and our role in the fabric of American life intact.
"As we walk around this memorial today, we should all pledge ourselves to never forgetting why this memorial is here. Too many have given too much and been ignored for too long for us to allow ourselves to forget the men and woman of the American Merchant Marine.
"Thank you all for being here, and God bless America and the American Merchant Marine."