June 12, 1776, was a warm summer day in the port town of Machias, Massachusetts. Because there was a food shortage, the townsfolk were angry. And even worse, sorely needed supplies were just sitting in the harbor. The British Royal Navy warship, HMS Margaretta hoarded food on board. The officers had given the townsfolk an ultimatum. Until they loaded lumber needed to construct British forts, they would not be given food.

But then, some news came in. American militiamen at the towns of Lexington and Concord had taken up arms. Then they fought and basically beat the British Army. The hungry, angry, American sailors that lived in Machias liked this idea. They loaded a ship with lumber, and sailed out into the harbor. But they also snuck axes, pitchforks, knives, and hammers with them.

They caught the British sailors and Marines off guard and captured Margaretta. June 12, 1776 is now marked as the official founding date of the United States Merchant Marine. Officially it is older than the US Coast Guard (1790) and the US Navy (1797). Even though its birthday is June 12, it is May 22 that is National Maritime Day. This was declared in 1993 to commemorate the history and the importance of the US Merchant Marine and the mariners that make up its ranks.

“In Peace And War”

“What’s the Merchant Marine? Are you part of the Marine Corps?” These are two questions that are asked of mariners fairly regularly. In short, no, the Merchant Marine is not part of the Marine Corps. The Merchant Marine are the sailors who operate the giant freight ships and tankers that keep the world economy functioning. The official duties of the USMM are large and varied. During peacetime, they are tasked with transporting imports and exports across the world. During times of war, mariners act as auxiliaries to the US Navy and also carry supplies and military personnel wherever they are needed.

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Merchant vessels in the Port of Seattle harbor

The United States has been a heavily maritime society since before it was a nation. Back when it was just 13 colonies of Britain, the economy relied upon merchant sailors carrying exports and imports between the colonies and the rest of the British Empire. This reliance on shipping continued after independence was achieved. Mariners fueled the American economy and saw their role grow as the world became increasingly connected. By the late 1800s, food, coal, oil, raw materials, and manufactured goods were carried on American merchant ships across the entire globe.

Their Finest Hour

American mariners were no stranger to conflict. They had often been called upon to act as privateers (basically semi-legal pirates) or auxiliaries to the Navy since the Revolutionary War. But this familiarity with fighting was expanded with the World Wars, especially World War II. While movies and shows like Band of Brothers, Memphis Belle, and Saving Private Ryan focus on the heroism and sacrifice of various military branches during the war, people don’t really think of the merchant mariners when they think of war-winning people.

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Merchant ship torpedoed by a U-Boat

Every American soldier, Marine, gun, tank, truck, bullet, medical kit, tin of food, and gallon of fuel was carried to the war, across the vast stretches of the Atlantic and Pacific, by merchant mariners. And they were targets for it.

Submarines, airplanes, and warships attacked US merchant vessels with regularity. While there are no exact numbers, about a quarter of a million men and women served in the US Merchant Marine during WWII, and of those, about 9,500 were killed. 1,554 American merchant ships were sunk, and 214 more were damaged or captured. Statistically, the Merchant Marine was most dangerous branch serve in. About 1 in 26 mariners were killed.

While National Maritime Day honors the heroism of all mariners, it was these numbers that were in mind when the day was initially declared.

Out of sight, out of mind

Merchant sailors and the risks they endure remain out of sight and mind for most people. This is another reason that National Maritime Day remains important. Beyond the standard dangers involved in working with lots of heavy machinery, there is always the simple fact that the sea is exceedingly hazardous. This was most recently illustrated in October 2015, when the American merchant ship El Faro was caught by Hurricane Joaquin in the Caribbean. The ship partially flooded, lost power, then sank with all 38 crew.

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Important as ever

Despite the massive rise of air travel and air cargo, the global economy remains dependent upon merchant ships and the mariners who crew them. If you live in coastal cities, especially port cities, it is a bit easier to be reminded of the importance of the maritime economy. Even if you are inland, maybe hundreds of miles away from an ocean, many, possibly most, of the materials and objects you use daily were brought there initially by ship. It is with these sacrifices as well as the importance of mariners in mind that we remember National Maritime Day and encourage you to do the same.
Celebrate the lives, heroism, and accomplishments of mariners, and have a happy National Maritime Day!

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Cranes offloading hundreds of shipping containers from merchant vessels in Seattle

If you are curious about the types of metal used in ship construction, or generally want to know what metals are best suited for marine environments, check out our post on Marine Grade Metals!

Also, the great podcast 99 Percent Invisible did an episode back in 2015 about the creation of those big shipping containers and refrigerated shipping containers (called reefers), their history, and how they changed the world. They also talk about the importance of shipping to the modern world and how the industry functions in another episode in April 2017.

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