- 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
A program that required the resident student body to expand by ten times within six months, and by thirty times in another year, led to a maelstrom of activity: all existing buildings, including greenhouses, were put to use; Civilian Conservation Corps buildings were trucked in and slapped up; streams of new cadets and new instructors somehow got received, housed, fed, and put to work on a curriculum that had to evolve as it came into effect. Scrounging for equipment was continual. Swimming pools were used for abandon-ship and survival-at-sea training. An odd assortment of former yachts and workboats plus a venerable bark gave atmosphere to the basin. The Coast Guard, which had taken over officer licensing, reduced the standard three-years-at-sea requirement to sixteen months. By mid-1943, the cadet corps was 7,338 strong, with half the men being taught at sea. On September 30 the Kings Point Academy was officially dedicated, and a congratulatory letter from President Roosevelt seemed to promise a permanent institution: “This academy serves the Merchant Marine as West Point serves the Army and Annapolis serves the Navy. … War has proved to the American people that a strong Merchant Marine manned by courageous, capable, well-trained officers and crew is as necessary to the nation as a powerful Army and Navy.”
The Kings Point standard shows a circular compass rose under the academy’s seal, with the numerals 142—the number of cadet midshipmen lost in action during the war. Hundreds of others endured air and submarine attacks; some suffered repeated sinkings. Virtually all came under enemy fire, especially early in the war, aboard the slow-moving Liberties.
The wartime cadet midshipmen wanted to see Kings Point become a fully accredited academy and they began to accumulate the appropriate informal evidence: a school paper, mascot (a black Persian ram), an alma mater hymn, an alumni association, even intercollegiate athletics. With the end of the war the four-year academic course was reinstated, and in 1951 the first Bachelor of Science diplomas were awarded, along with licenses as third mate or third assistant engineer, plus Naval Reserve commissions as ensign.
But it was not until 1956—after a good deal of squabbling between Kings Point and the state academies—that Congress finally established a permanent U.S. Merchant Marine Academy after eighty-two years of hit-or-miss federal efforts. Kings Point was home safe.
This would seem to have happened just in time, too, for in the mid-fifties the shipping industry stood on the threshold of enormous changes that would create a demand for continuing education at every level of the maritime industry. Freight-carrying ships became longer, faster, more specialized, more complex, more expensive, more dangerous than ever before in history. It was not an orderly evolution but, again, a spurt. Passenger ocean liners disappeared, to be replaced by cruise ships.
Political events, as always, had potent effect. The closing of the Suez Canal in 1967 led to ever larger oil tankers. During World War II a sixteenthousand-ton tanker was a big ship. Now a few tankers approach six hundred thousand tons—and will carry as much oil as thirty-five of those earlier “giants” for a fraction of the cost per barrel. The Arab oil embargo of 197374 not only brought worldwide depression but also proved to the industrial nations how dependent they were on imports.
Container ships, first used to combat pilferage, took over most of the premium cargo in giant vessels capable of keeping up with the Atlantic blueribbon holders of the recent past. Queer-looking vessels were designed and built to carry chemicals, natural gas, foodstuffs, ores, automobiles. Acronyms like Ro-Ro (roll on, roll off) LOLO (lighter on, lighter off), OBO (ore/bulk/oil), LNG (liquefied natural gas), VLCC and ULCC (very large crude carrier and ultra large crude carrier), and PAN-A-MAX (maximum size for Panama Canal) were invented. Automation, computerization, and electronics now perform most of the traditional critical seagoing functions except docking and undocking, which is fine as long as the computers and automatic controls work. Evolution of these controls still continues; officers and crewmen are constantly forced to update their education and techniques. The bridge of a modern ship holds a multiplicity of electronic controls, some of them temperamental; radio direction finders, radar, collision assessment systems, Decca and Loran, Omega, Transit satellite, Doplar sonar, and others. Oh yes, and a compass. Those are navigation instruments; most of the engineroom, cargo-hatch or -tank, firefighting, and other controls also lead to the bridge.
Special training facilities sprang up, some run by equipment manufacturers, some by shipping companies, some by the Maritime Administration, and some by the unions. For decades the Cinderellas of the labor movement, maritime unions finally had achieved power and acceptance beyond the dreams of the early organizers. Ship’s officers, who once were watchful to fire or avoid hiring a union member, formed unions of their own.