by Johnathan Thayer, Archivist
Earlier this month I gave a presentation entitled “The Seamen’s Church Institute’s American Merchant Marine Veterans Oral History Project: An Archival Intervention,” on a panel about digital public history at the 2015 annual meeting of the American Historical Association in New York. The gathering of historians, graduate students and academics from across the country provided an excellent opportunity to share work on the Seamen’s Church Institute’s (SCI) American Merchant Marine Veterans Oral History Project, a digital repository of oral history interviews surpassing 50 interviewees and 800 audio clips available online.
My presentation focused on the role the American merchant marine played during World War II, during which mariners carried a large burden of the war effort. Operating under the federal subsidies of the 1936 U.S. Merchant Marine Act, and benefiting from massive government contracts to expand the merchant fleet, American shipyards began producing merchant vessels known as “Liberty ships” at assembly-line speeds. To man these vessels, the United States Maritime Service opened the Sheepshead Bay Maritime Service Training Center in Brooklyn, NY. Some 30,000 mariners trained for work at sea at Sheepshead Bay each year during the War. Gabe Frank was one of them:
Carrying the cargo that represented the lifeblood of the American war effort abroad, merchant vessels became high priority targets for German raiders and submarines operating in the Atlantic. Despite their civilian status, 8,300 merchant mariners were killed at sea during the War. Another 12,000 were wounded—at least 1,100 of whom died from their injuries. Six hundred sixty-three mariners were taken prisoner—66 of whom died in camps. All told, one in 26 American merchant mariners died in the war—a rate higher than any branch of the armed services.
Hear Miles MacMahon, a radio operator during the War, describe the anti-submarine net in New York Harbor.
Despite the enormous sacrifices of the merchant marine, the federal government left them out of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (more commonly known as the G.I. Bill). Upon signing the Bill on June 22, 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “I trust Congress will soon provide similar opportunities to members of the Merchant Marine who have risked their lives time and time again during war for the welfare of their country.” Congress never acted on FDR’s recommendation, and with his death the fate of the merchant marine seemed sealed. This decision would affect the lives of mariners for decades to come, leaving them exempt from college tuition waivers and subsidized mortgages that enabled many veterans of the War to return home and start building a life for themselves and their families.
Today, the American Merchant Marine Veterans Association (AMMV) carries on the fight for official recognition and compensation from the U.S. government. The AMMV earned a significant victory in 1988 when the federal government granted veteran status to some mariners who sailed during the War. This allowed them access to Veterans Administration hospitals and the right to a proper veteran’s burial. The battle in D.C. is now for just compensation. Every year (for the past several years) a bill has been introduced in Congress that would provide monetary compensation to merchant mariner veterans of World War II. Most recently, Rep. Janice Hahn (D-California) took to the House floor to introduce a bill “Honoring Our WWII Merchant Mariner Act of 2013.” Each of these bills stalled in sub-committee, and they were eventually killed. Congresswoman Janice Hahn introduced a new bill on Wednesday, January 28, 2015.
Unfortunately, the merchant mariner veterans of World War II remain an overlooked and marginalized part of American history. Their status was clearly illustrated this past November, when Gabe Frank traveled to Kingsborough Community College to deliver the keynote address at a Veterans Day ceremony held on the campus where the Sheepshead Bay Maritime Service Training Center once stood. As college students passed by, Gabe wondered aloud who among them knew just what had happened on that site during the War, and whether the memory of the mariners who never made it back home would ultimately be forgotten.
In my presentation at the American Historical Association, I talked about the power oral history can have in correcting oversights in both popular memory and the historical record. It is for this reason I refer to SCI’s AMMV Oral History Project as an “archival intervention.” Given the lack of support they have received in the past and their continued struggle, the stories from merchant mariners of World War II are at risk of being forgotten. SCI’s oral history project seeks to make sure this does not happen. SCI hopes to preserve these personal histories for the future and to raise awareness of the AMMV’s fight for recognition in the present.