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Honor Unto Whom Honor is Due
A Veterans Day Salute to the U. S. Merchant Marine and Their Indispensable Role in Winning Wars
I thank God for the United States Merchant Marine this Veterans Day.
A strong American Merchant Marine supports the naval power of the United States of America. A powerful Navy ensures the vitality of the Merchant Marine. These two forces are intertwined, sharing a common purpose: to keep the seaways open for commerce, provide the freedom, prosperity, and security of the American people, and, if necessary, be ready to transport men and materials to counter foreign aggression. Operating under the Department of Transportation in peacetime, the Merchant Marine, like the Coast Guard, transfers to the Department of Defense during wartime.
The U.S. Naval Institute succinctly summarized the Merchant Marine’s role: “The Merchant Marine is charged with carrying supplies and troops for the Department of Defense (DoD) during wartime and cargo for the world during peacetime.” The Merchant Marine’s logistical mission forms an indispensable link among all military and naval services when activated. While this fact may be taken for granted, it can never be ignored.
Along with Great Britain and Australia, our nation entered a formal alliance in 2021 known as AUKUS, specifically for projecting a robust naval presence in the Indo-Pacific region. This alliance was a response to repeated provocations by China (PRC). Those underestimating the deteriorating Sino-AUKUS relationship should note the PRC’s response in The Guardian (16 September 2021), which included ominous threats against Australia. There is no ambiguity in their response: “Thus [because of AUKUS], Australian troops are also most likely to be the first batch of Western soldiers to waste their lives in the South China Sea.”1
Amidst discussions of existential threats to America, such as climate change, we cannot ignore the explicit threats from China. The Communist Chinese naval forces are formidable, and their merchant navy’s growth signifies an increasing menace to the free world. This demonstrates the power a strong merchant marine confers in terms of naval force projection. Regrettably, this scenario belongs not to us but to our adversary, who has declared their evil intent towards us.
So, “No, it’s not the weather. It’s the Communist Chinese.”
The threat seems to grow more severe with each passing hour. The events of October 7, 2023, where Hamas attacked Israel, marked a new low in global hostility. China, along with its allies—Iran, Russia, and North Korea—endorsed Hamas’s brutality. This situation has reset the countdown to war, appearing much later than we imagined. The phrase “Be Prepared” seems more relevant than ever. Are we?
From WWI to the Persian Gulf War, the activation and full participation of the Merchant Marine were essential. The first vessels under the U.S. flag were from the Merchant Marine, deployed for war by Jefferson. With its federal academy and distinguished schools and programs, the Merchant Marine continues to be a pipeline for maritime leaders. Effective sealift capabilities are crucial for successful military operations. Yet, are we adequately investing in this area? Are sufficient naval war education and sealift training happening? Is the government pressing for more maritime defense initiatives? The Brookings Institute’s findings on these questions are concerning:
Yet today, the agency in charge of managing our nation’s maritime sealift capability, the Maritime Administration (or MARAD), is woefully underfunded and managing an aging fleet of vessels that may not be up to the job of moving and sustaining our Armed Forces in an increasingly competitive Asia-Pacific theater of operations. Let’s remember that any conflict in the Pacific will not be sustained by the Navy alone. Our land forces rely on military and civilian sealift capability to fight abroad, and it is not clear that we could sustain a land force in the Pacific with our current sealift capability.2
Let that last sentence simmer for a while. What are the consequences of inaction? We have no alternative but to focus the training of all of our sea services on the increasing likelihood of war.
This Veterans Day, let us remember the U.S. Merchant Marine for their past heroism and sacrifice, their present role, and our indisputable need for their gallant service in the future, for there will be no victory without a strong Merchant Marine. There never has been.
In 2020, the President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, signed the Merchant Mariners of World War II Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2020.3 The Merchant Marine lost more men than any branch of service in WWII.
My father was a commissioned naval officer, a Coast Guard Commander, who served as the captain of a Merchant Marine ship. He was at sea from “Lend-lease” through the end of WWII. He graduated from the U. S. Maritime Officer School in New London (after 1946, the officer’s academy of the U. S. Maritime Service was enfolded into the Coast Guard Academy and the Merchant Marine Academy). Like so many other Merchant Marine officers and sailors, he experienced the harrowing mission through the enemy-infested, icy waters of the infamous North Atlantic route from New York to Liverpool. Commander Jesse Ellis Milton, USCG, USMM, experienced the terrorizing effect of the German U-boards. A U-boar hit his ship on the west coast of Africa. He spent six months recovering in a British hospital in Cape Town. Then, it was back to New York, loading troops, beans, and bullets, and back to the icy “milk run” through German wolf packs to England.
My father died when I was five years old. Among my last memories of my father are watching him drop to his knees, praying, in the sawdust of a little country chapel. I can smell the pine sawdust. I can hear his muffled weeping. War follows a man throughout all of the days of his life.
Last year, we received the Congressional Gold Medal for his WWII service with the Merchant Marine. My wife placed the gold medal in the matted frame with his letter from President Trump. I’m proud to honor him and all of our great Merchant Mariners this Veterans Day weekend.
Indeed, I pray God to bless all our Veterans. Honor unto whom honor is due (Romans 13:7).
Helen Davidson and Gavin Blair, “China Warns US-UK-Australia Pact Could ‘Hurt Their Own Interests,’” The Guardian, September 16, 2021, sec. World news, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/sep/16/cold-war-mentality-china-criticises-aukus-us-uk-australia-submarine-pact.
Jeremy Greenwood, “Op-Ed: The U.S. Needs More Merchant Ships to Counter China,” MaritimeExecutive.Com, 2023, Online, https://maritime-executive.com/editorials/op-ed-the-u-s-needs-more-merchant-ships-to-counter-china.
American Maritime Partnership, “President Trump Honors World War II Merchant Mariners with Congressional Gold Medal” (Washington DC: American Maritime Partnership, March 13, 2020), https://www.americanmaritimepartnership.com/press-releases/president-trump-honors-wwii-merchant-mariners-with-congressional-gold-medal/.