Opinion: Honoring America’s undersea battlefields and Merchant Mariners

Last week, all American Merchant Mariners who served in World War II were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal during a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol. The bipartisan law that directed this was unanimously passed by Congress and signed by former President Trump in 2020, but the ceremony was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is not widely known that the U.S. Merchant Marine suffered the highest casualty rate of any branch of U.S. military during WWII. Of the 243,000 mariners that served in the war, 9,521 perished. The Merchant Marine played a key role in the war effort, risking their lives to transport soldiers, supplies and vital equipment. These brave mariners were not even provided veteran status until 1988, over 40 years after the war ended.

This week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Global Foundation for Ocean Exploration (GFOE) will be concluding its Valor in the Atlantic Expedition off the North Carolina Coast. This 10-day effort is the latest in a series of scientific research cruises to document, preserve and share with the public knowledge about underwater cultural heritage (shipwrecks) around the world. These include Merchant Marine vessels sunk by German U-boat submarines during the Battle of the Atlantic ( video from the Remotely Operated Vehicle of the wrecks will be livestream until May 25).

My service on an aircraft carrier during Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, my participation with ROV dives of USS Independenceand my leadership of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), have solidified a deep appreciation for maritime heritage and the underwater archaeology of shipwrecks. That passion is furthered by NOAA’s current expedition off North Carolina.

The NOAA expedition is led by Tane Casserly, an accomplished underwater archaeologist and technical diver. Casserly also serves as the Superintendent of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, where he oversees the preservation, education and research regarding another storied Navy shipwreck — the Civil War era ironclad USS Monitor, which also rests on the seafloor off North Carolina. Casserly was a member of the extraordinary team of NOAA and Navy saturation divers who recovered the ship’s iconic turret, an impressive artifact at the Mariner’s Museum in Hampton Roads Virginia, where it is being restored.

In 2019, Casserly guided me on a scuba dive to one of the most interesting shipwrecks off North Carolina — the German U-boat U-352, which was sunk by U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Icarus in 1942. During our dive, I imagined the scores of Merchant Mariners who courageously sailed above such sinister and unseen threats to carry out their critical supply missions. Those thoughts stayed with me after the dive and led me to champion an initiative to honor the U.S. Merchant Marine. Beginning in 2016, NOAA solicited public input on a proposal to expand Monitor National Marine Sanctuary to include nearly 90 additional shipwrecks. Many of these wrecks are WWII Merchant Marine ships, making the expansion America’s first underwater battlefield, analogous to those at Yorktown and Gettysburg.

Despite our best efforts, we were unsuccessful in securing interagency support for this proposed expansion. Paradoxically, the only agencies that blocked our proposal were the Maritime Administration and the U.S. Navy — whose very history and heritage we were trying to preserve.

Now, in the wake of the Congress’s Gold Medal, the Biden administration can do its part to memorialize the U.S. Merchant Marine. Newly appointed Maritime Administrator Rear Admiral (ret) Ann Phillips and Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro have the opportunity to call for re-opening the sanctuary expansion process with NOAA. This would establish instant trust and credibility with one of their most important stakeholders, and it would make a major contribution to the administration’s America the Beautiful Initiative, which aims to conserve 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030.

In sharp contrast to the feckless disregard that Russian battlefield commanders are demonstrating for their war dead in Ukraine, the U.S. has a rich tradition of recognizing the valor and sacrifice of the fallen. The shipwrecks that will be preserved by the expansion of Monitor National Marine Sanctuary are the final resting places for nearly 1,700 Merchant Mariners lost during the Battle of The Atlantic. By designating the expanded sanctuary as America’s first undersea battlefield, we will honor them in the same way we have honored other service members who have paid the ultimate price for our freedom.

Rear Admiral (ret.) Tim Gallaudet, Ph.D., is a former acting undersecretary and assistant secretary of commerce, acting and deputy administrator of NOAA, and oceanographer in the U.S. Navy. He is the CEO of Ocean STL Consulting, LLC and a fellow at The Explorer’s Club.

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