- Historic Sites
Masters Of The Merchant Marine
We built a merchant marine despite the opposition of the Royal Navy, went on to develop the most beautiful of all sailing ships, and held our supremacy for years. But how do we measure up today?
April/may 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 3
American owners had operated ships under foreign registry from the time of the Napoleonic Wars, though it was never an extensive practice. Nor until World War II began was it ever encouraged by the government. The ships reverted to American control after Pearl Harbor, but a dangerous precedent had been established and would be furthered right after the war, when transfer of war-built merchantmen to Panamanian, Honduran, and Liberian flags was promoted by the Maritime Administration to encourage replacement in America by more modern vessels.
It was obvious from the outset that our need for ships during World War II would far exceed any previous crisis. This time we had a small head start. Emory S. Land, chairman of the Maritime Commission, had begun expansion of our shipyards. A standardized ship, the Liberty, was selected for its ease of construction; labor was assembled and hastily trained; mass-production methods were devised so sizable parts of each ship could be built outside and put together at the shipyard. Hulls were welded instead of riveted.
The eleven-knot speed of the ships, with their old-fashioned triple-expansion engines, dangerously limited the speed of convoys; a total of 195 Liberties were lost. But over 2,700 were launched, and they saved the support lifeline on both oceans.
Once again a frantic need developed for officers and crew to man the merchant ships launched during the war. This time the nation had a slightly better base on which to build. For years Richard McNulty, a graduate of the Massachusetts school ship Nantucket , had been writing and speaking on the need for training of merchant marine officers through a federal academy equivalent to those of the Army, Navy, and Coast Guard. In 1934 the disastrous fire aboard the Morro Castle , a fouryear-old American ship, left the country shocked and the shipping world ashamed of the conduct of some of the officers and crew, which violated all traditions of seafaring gallantry. Despite the opposition of organized labor, new support developed for a national academy, and the Merchant Marine Act of 1936 stated that our ships must be “manned with a trained and efficient citizen personnel.”
Two years later the United States Maritime Service was created, with the mission of training “licensed and unlicensed personnel on American merchant vessels. ” It was swamped with ten times as many applicants as estimated berths. On August 30, 1939, the “Plan for Expansion of Cadet Training” was signed. On September 1 the Nazis invaded Poland.
They improvised: swimming pools were used for abandon-ship drills.
Everything speeded up. Cadet trainees were sent to receiving stations at Tiberon, New York, and New Orleans. Numbers at first were small. When the Japanese attacked in 1941, only 453 cadets were in training, 103 at land bases, the others at sea. The state academies, which had been hoping to expand from two to four years, instead found their curriculum abbreviated to eighteen months.
Meanwhile, a frantic search was under way for shore bases to accommodate the Atlantic, the Pacific Coast, and the Gulf Coast cadet schools. The Atlantic school—with five hundred cadets and thus the largest of the three regional institutions—finally settled on the estate of the late Walter P. Chrysler at Kings Point on the Great Neck peninsula, barely a mile across the western end of Long Island Sound from Fort Schuyler in the Bronx. No more dramatic location could be imagined. The school looked out toward the crumbling stone battlements of Fort Totten, now busy with antiaircraft batteries and searchlights; the Whitestone Bridge framed Manhattan’s midtown skyline; and beyond Steppingstone Lighthouse lay historic Eastchester Bay, where Admiral Howe’s huge fleet had dropped anchor during the Revolution.
Admiral Land had set a goal of ten thousand new merchant marine officers to man his emergency fleet. This meant a fivefold expansion of the Atlantic Coast Cadet School, which was already being called Kings Point.