The United States Merchant Marine is the fleet of U.S. civilian-owned merchant vessels, operated by either the government or the private sector, that engage in commerce or transportation of goods and services in and out of the navigable waters of the United States. The Merchant Marine is responsible for transporting cargo and passengers during peace time. In time of war, the Merchant Marine is an auxiliary to the Navy, and can be called upon to deliver troops and supplies for the military.
Merchant mariners move cargo and passengers between nations and within the United States, operate and maintain deep-sea merchant ships, tugboats, towboats, ferries, dredges, excursion vessels, and other waterborne craft on the oceans, the Great Lakes, rivers, canals, harbors, and other waterways.
As of 2006, the United States merchant fleet numbered 465 ships and approximately 100,000 members. Seven hundred ships owned by American interests but registered, or flagged, in other countries are not included in this number.
The federal government maintains fleets of merchant ships via organizations such as Military Sealift Command and the National Defense Reserve Fleet. In 2004, the federal government employed approximately 5% of all American water transportation workers.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, various laws fundamentally changed the course of American merchant shipping. These laws put an end to common practices such as flogging and shanghaiing, and increased shipboard safety and living standards. The United States Merchant Marine is also governed by several international conventions to promote safety and prevent pollution.
The merchant marine is a civilian auxiliary of the U.S. Navy, but not a uniformed service, except in times of war when, in accordance with the Merchant Marine Act of 1936, mariners are considered military personnel. In a time of “national emergency”, the President can permanently seize any merchant marine vessel in return for fair compensation, or commandeer it for temporary use with no compensation if returned in reasonable condition.
Mariners are well represented in the visual arts. Merchant seaman Johnny Craig was already a working comic book artist before he joined up, but Ernie Schroeder would not start drawing comics until after returning home from World War II. Seaman Haskell Wexler won two Academy Awards, the latter for a biography of his shipmate Woody Guthrie.
Merchant sailors have also made a splash in the world of sport. Drew Bundini Brown was Muhammad Ali’s assistant trainer and cornerman, and Joe Gold went made his fortune as the bodybuilding and fitness guru of Gold’s Gym. In football, Dan Devine and Heisman Trophy winner Frank Sinkwich excelled. Seamen Jim Bagby, Jr. and Charlie Keller played in Major League Baseball. In track and field, seamen Cornelius Johnson and Jim Thorpe both won Olympic medals, though Thorpe did not get his until thirty years after his death.
Writers Richard Henry Dana, Jr., Ralph Ellison, Herman Melville, and Jack Vance and were merchant mariners, as were prominent members of the Beat movement: Allen Ginsberg, Herbert Huncke, Bob Kaufman, Jack Kerouac, and Dave Van Ronk. Peter Baynham, the coauthor of the film Borat, and Donn Pearce, who wrote the movie Cool Hand Luke, were formerly merchant mariners. Filmmaker Oliver Stone won multiple Academy Awards.
WWII-era merchant mariners played well-known television characters. The list includes Raymond Bailey (who played Milburn Drysdale on The Beverly Hillbillies); Peter Falk (who played the title character on Columbo); James Garner (who played Jim Rockford on The Rockford Files); Jack Lord (who played Steve McGarrett on the original Hawaii Five-0); Carroll O’Connor (who played Archie Bunker on All in the Family); Denver Pyle (who played Uncle Jesse Duke on The Dukes of Hazzard); and Clint Walker (who played Cheyenne Bodie on Cheyenne).
Songwriter and lyricist Jack Lawrence was a mariner during World War II and wrote the official United States Merchant Marine song, “Heave Ho! My Lads, Heave Ho!” while a young lieutenant stationed at Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, in 1943.
Writer/businessman Robert Kiyosaki claimed to have been a mariner.
Paul Teutul, Sr., the founder of Orange County Choppers and Orange County Ironworks, was a merchant mariner during the Vietnam War.
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