by Rebecca Weintraub, Archives Fellow, Queens College Graduate School of Library and Information Studies
For many years, a mural depicting the crucial role of the US Merchant Marine in the 1944 Normandy Invasion hung in the lobby of SCI’s headquarters at 25 South Street. The mural served two purposes: (1) it paid tribute to the merchant mariners on ships carrying goods during wartime and (2) served to “honor the memory of their shipmates who gave their lives for their country and their freedom.” Sponsored by Mrs. Gordon Hamersley in memory of her husband Louis Gordon Hamersley, a member of the Institute’s Board of Managers from 1913-1942, the idea for the mural was conceived in July of 1945, just a few short months after World War II officially ended.
In order to select the artist who would both design and paint the mural, the National Society of Mural Painters sponsored a competition, requiring designs to fit within certain parameters. First, the mural had to be realistic, as merchant mariners—known sticklers for accuracy—would instantly recognize anything amiss. Second, the design had to showcase not just the romantic side to life at sea but also the hard life of the merchant mariner.
Edmond James Fitzgerald, who served as a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy during the war, won the $5,000 first prize, as well as the honor of executing the mural. An accomplished painter, some of Fitzgerald’s works already hung in the Seattle Art Museum and even the White House. When asked why he chose the invasion of Normandy as the subject of his design, Fitzgerald gave five reasons, among them that D-Day at Normandy was “the greatest water-borne invasion in history” and that it represented the most symbolic of the Merchant Marine’s crucial roles during the war. Fitzgerald’s fifth and final reason, however, strikes a more personal chord: he had participated in the invasion himself. Mr. Fitzgerald spent approximately six months working on the 37-foot-wide mural and even used SCI staff members and guests at 25 South Street as his models.
The official dedication ceremony took place on October 23, 1947. Installed on the east wall of the 25 South Street’s main lobby, the mural included the following inscription: “In tribute to the Men of the Merchant Marine in WWII, 1939-1945. They made victory possible and were great without glory.” Clarence G. Michalis, President of the Board of Managers, presided over the ceremony. The Rev. Dr. Roelif H. Brooks, Clerical Vice-President, delivered the dedication, while Robert Greenhalgh Albion, author, marine historian, and Professor of History at Princeton University, gave an address to the assembled guests.
Following the dedication of the mural, an open house featured a screening of the SCI-sponsored film “Home is the Sailor,” followed by “America Sails the Seas,” a movie depicting the transportation of American resources by merchant mariners.
Until demolished in 1968, the building at 25 South Street displayed the Merchant Marine mural for thousands of merchant mariners, guests and SCI staff each day as they passed through the main lobby, serving as both a memorial and a tribute to the men who perished while serving their country at sea.