A grant received from the Bay and Paul Foundations helps give voice to thousands of United States Merchant Marine veterans, whose service to their country—in times of peace and war—has contributed significantly to the security and prosperity of the nation. The new funding allows the Archives Department of the Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI) to reach out to veterans across the US to create a robust online repository of stories of the sea as part of the American Merchant Marine Veterans Oral History Project.
Last year, SCI announced the launch of an oral history project seeking to capture narratives of merchant marine veterans in audio-recorded interviews. The project salutes thousands of men and women who frequently go unremembered—both in their service to their country and in their service to the world in international trade. To date, SCI’s oral history project has recorded interviews with seventeen mariners and port workers, including twelve veterans of World War II—a war in which, as a civilian organization, the merchant marine suffered a higher casualty rate than any branch of the armed services.
Johnathan Thayer, SCI Archivist and leader of the project, has interviewed veteran mariners in the Port of New York and New Jersey. “Their remarkable tales represent largely overlooked perspectives within American history,” he says. Johnathan recounts the story of John Ludwick, also known as “Kansas,” who, although he survived the crossing of dangerous WWII North Atlantic waters in a convoy that lost 17 of 33 ships, found himself mistakenly imprisoned in a camp at Leningrad. He tells the story of his escape, stealing a Russian snowmobile and riding it hundreds of miles through arctic tundra back to his ship.
Toiling on board ships often months at a time, merchant mariners work out of the public eye, but SCI—since its very beginnings—has endeavored to bring their labors to light. Through its American Merchant Marine Veterans Oral History Project, SCI helps mariners gain recognition and dignity in the historic record through their own words and voices.
SCI welcomes partner institutions or individuals interested in recording interviews or donating digital photographs and other artifacts to the project’s digital repository. If you are interested or know a mariner who would make for a good interview, email SCI Archivist Johnathan Thayer or call +1 917-864-1993.