The American Merchant Mariners’ Memorial

Apr 9, 2013

by Anne Hilker, MA Student, Parsons The New School for Design

Rendered in cast bronze with green patina, the American Merchant Mariners’ Memorial in Battery Park depicts the stranded seafarers of the torpedoed S.S. Muskogee as they balance atop a sinking lifeboat. A desperate seafarer, hands cupped around his mouth, shouts into the void. Another leans over the side of the boat, arm outstretched, not quite grasping the hand of a companion still in the water. Torso submerged, his head alternately sinks below and rises above the water line as the tide ebbs and flows. Loosely based on a photograph taken by the captain of the German U-boat that sank the Muskogee in 1942, the American Merchant Mariners’ Memorial captures the last moments of these men’s lives. They would soon all be lost at sea.

A group of Merchant Marine veterans initiated the effort for a Memorial in 1976, working with Merchant Marine Rear Admiral Thomas A. King and United States House and Senate representatives, chaired by Lane Kirkland, then head of the AFL-CIO and himself a merchant marine veteran. The Rev. James R. Whittemore, then Director of the Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI), served on the Memorial’s Executive Committee. In 1988, the year the Memorial design competition opened, Congress passed legislation granting limited veteran status to merchant mariners wounded in war—although many equivalency issues remain today. The competition for the Memorial’s design attracted more than 200 entries, with the committee finally selecting the artist Marisol’s design.

Governor Mario Cuomo officially dedicated the Memorial “in recognition of the merchant seamen whose bravery and sacrifice it will commemorate.” He issued the following written proclamation:

“In the pages of our nation’s history, merchant seafarers have occupied an honored place. On October 8, 1991, the American Merchant Mariners’ Memorial will be dedicated as a fitting tribute to the memory of those merchant mariners who gave their lives both in peacetime commerce and in service to their country in wartime. New York Harbor was chosen as the site of the memorial in recognition of its stature as one of the world’s finest and most important seaports, and the many thousands of mariners who have shipped from its waters.”

About one and one-half times life-size, the figures meet a tipped planed surface. This boat has no hollowed hull, and it will offer no protection. Their shirts are rumpled and damp. They wear flattened life vests. They already look like shadows of men, their eyes set deep in their skulls. It looks as if the sculptor dragged her fingers through wet clay to shape their gaunt faces and hands. The submerged man’s upstretched arm and face, flush against the boat’s side, appear so lean as to be skeletal. These men know their impending fate. Sets of twin pilings give the appearance of a small dock around the platform of the stark sinking boat. The tide’s high water line has painted a blackened stripe above the head of the figure in the water, confirming that the harbor water covers him at high tide. 

The Memorial’s small pier housing lies just out of reach beyond the railing at the southwest tip of Battery Park, immediately south of Pier A. Hurricane Sandy added to the drama of the site. Situated on its isolated pier, the Memorial now acts as a kind of lookout, among the first man-made structures to receive rising ocean flood surges at Manhattan’s lowest and most exposed point. 

One of the most visually dramatic structures in Battery Park among about a dozen memorials, primarily war-related. Tour operators single it out as both notable and unnoticed. Bloggers appreciate its interaction with the shoreline tide as well as the story of Marisol’s inspiration from a photo of the survivors on their makeshift raft. Yet mainstream popularity eludes it. Situated within sight of Pier A, its visibility will increase when the pier’s renovation as a visitor attraction gets underway. The more awareness people gain of the contributions and sacrifices of the US Merchant Marine, the better SCI can serve all mariners and merchant marine veterans.