by Johnathan Thayer, Archivist
Maritime Education During Word War II
Here in the archives, the latest “project in progress” consists of a series of oral history interviews with veterans of the United States Merchant Marine, some of whom were active during World War II. Their stories have brought into focus a remarkable period of American maritime history. Researching the World War II-era records in the SCI archives has uncovered a wealth of materials that put the War years into context from the perspective of the New York waterfront.
One such insight is the story of SCI’s famous “flying bridge,” a pilothouse built atop the Institute’s 13-story headquarters in Lower Manhattan. Constructed in October of 1942 at 212 feet above sea level, amid the peaks of the growing patch of Manhattan skyscrapers, SCI’s Merchant Marine School used the flying bridge to train the city’s rapidly expanding Merchant Marine recruits.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the United States’ declaration of war against Japan one day later, the nation needed to increase its Merchant Marine personnel and a raise production output from U.S. shipyards in order to provide supplies and transport for the War effort overseas. Calling the new conflict a “war of transportation,” Administrator of the newly formed War Shipping Administration Emory S. Land asked for 70,000 new recruits in May 1942. By that time, U.S. shipyards were producing one new merchant vessel per day, many of which were of the new Liberty Ship model, designed to be constructed quickly and cheaply.
By 1942, SCI’s has operated its Merchant Marine School for 26 years, training recruits since the First World War to operate the nation’s merchant ships. The newly constructed rooftop pilothouse measured 74 feet in length and was equipped with the latest in navigational equipment and technology. Its open-air environment and height lent a certain amount of realism to drills and practice sessions, with trainees having to contend with the elements while honing their skills. As a further touch of authenticity, the bridge was designed according to the specifications of the United States liner America, a vessel used for troop transport during the War. According to Annual Reports, from 1942-1945, attendance at SCI’s Merchant Marine School lectures totaled 180,483, while new enrollments from 1942-1944 totaled 11,527.
Maritime Education at SCI looks a lot different today. Simulator training at SCI’s Paducah, KY and Houston, TX facilities rely on computer programming to create a detailed replica of the environment and conditions that mariners face on the nation’s inland waterways. While SCI no longer has to go to the extremes of building on top of skyscrapers in Lower Manhattan, the Institute does construct specialized pilothouses for teaching, and SCI’s instructors remain committed to training the nation’s mariners to safely and effectively operate merchant vessels.
As for the Merchant Marine of World War II, we continue to look back at their vital and often overlooked contribution to the War effort, as well as SCI’s role in assisting the fleet during those years of international crisis.