Monday, February 2, 2009

U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Graduate Always Gets Asked If He Has Any Tattoos

Here’s the second part of the guest post by Joseph Schwartzstein, Captain, U.S. Merchant Marine, LTJG, USNR/MMR. If you haven’t already, read the first part of his U.S. Merchant Marine guest post.

Kings Point (as the Merchant Marine Academy is better known) was created due to the Merchant Marine Act of 1936 to standardize training for merchant marine officers. Two years later the merchant marine cadet corps was created and given a temporary home in 1942 at Kings Point, NY. (Not so temporary now.) The school was needed to create officers to sail on all the cargo ships for the war.

What does this academy do to make merchant marine officers? At the school there are really three basic majors (out of those three there are sub-variations but there are really only three). You either study marine engineering (design, shipyard management or straight engine, which we called sweat hogs) or you study marine transportation (straight deck, logistics or operations with a minor in engineering) or dual (dualies have the joy of completing both programs in four years, i.e. doing everything an engineer does and a deckie does in the same amount of time).

The curriculum focuses on making you the best ship's officer you can be. You spend 11 months of a year in class -- that's right, 11 months a year in class. And you spend one year at sea as a cadet aboard actual merchant vessels. I spent six moths my 3rd class (sophomore) year at sea and six months my 2nd (junior) class year at sea.

During WWII the program was two years: they spent six months at school, one year at sea and then six months at school. Due to this 142 cadets died in combat during WWII.

We are the only academy to send their students into war and combat zones prior to graduation. As I am writing this there are Kings Point cadets going into the Persian Gulf, sailing into Iraq, Bahrain, Qatar, and the Gulf of Aden. We are the only academy to have a regimental battle standard! Our midshipmen have served in every war since WWII.

Visited 12 countries by age 19

As a midshipman at Kings Point, by the time I was 19 I had been to 12 countries and seen most of the world. By my second sea year I had the privilege of serving aboard a naval destroyer and a navy oilier (which made me realize that I really didn't want to go active duty in the navy).

One of the things about going to the Merchant Marine Academy was going to a place that seemed forgotten about. We were always told we were the fourth arm of defense but we felt more like the forgotten service. No one seems to care about merchant mariners or the academy.

We are not the "sexy" or "hot shot" service or academy. We always did and do with less. I remember my plebe year at the school when Vice President Al Gore came out with a report to shut down the school. That was a heart breaker. You work so hard to be at the school you wanted to go to and then you hear something like that happening.

I give our alumni a lot of credit. They fought this hard, and then Al Gore came up with the idea of charging tuition. However, our alumni got even smarter and put out the idea that, if you charge tuition at Kings Point, then you have to charge tuition at the other service academies. That fired up a lot of people and the rest is history.

Personal background – from a military family

How does a nice Jewish boy end up doing this job? I come from a military family. My grandfather, a veteran of WWII, served five years as an officer in the U.S. Army with 2 1/2 years in China as a military advisor to the Chinese. My father is a West Point graduate, who was an airborne ranger serving in the 82nd Airborne. So I always wanted to go to a service academy and serve in the military.

I also had a love and appreciation of the ocean. I worked at a dive shop as a teen and always wanted to do something on the water. When I was in high school, my father suggested the Merchant Marine Academy, the Coast Guard Academy and the five state maritime academies. Kings Point became my choice after a high school visit to the school.

I remember walking into Fulton Hall (the engineering building) and seeing the diesel engine lab and steam boiler lab. These were actual engines that students used for class! I then heard about the sea year and how could you pass up a year of adventure? So I decided that Kings Point is the place I wanted to go!

As for me, after graduation I went on active duty in the U.S. Army. Shipping in the merchant marine was tight when I graduated and it was hard to get a deep sea job. When you called up Military Sealift Command, the unions or companies to ask about a position, most of the people just laughed at you. In 1996 there weren't many third mate or third engineer jobs to be had aboard ship. You could get a job as an able seaman or oiler, but not many of us wanted to sail as unlicensed.

So I got commissioned as a second lieutenant in the army transportation corps. I knew the army had boats – in fact the army has more floating platforms than the navy – and that the boats were set up very similar to merchant ships. The army gave us "army mariners" an army license to sail aboard army watercraft. It was an opportunity for me to sail and in a somewhat familiar environment.

Why you might ask I didn't go in the navy? After being on a navy destroyer as a cadet and having a dozen people on the bridge -- an officer of the watch, a junior officer of the watch, combat information center calling you every two minutes updating you on radar contacts, five lookouts and a ton of other guys -- it wasn't for me. (On the bridge of a merchant ship there’s the watch officer and a lookout or two.)

Also, you might say what about the Coast Guard? When I graduated in 1996 the only thing you could do was marine inspection and that wasn't for me. Now, however, Merchant Marine Academy graduates are doing anything and everything in the Coast Guard.

However, I ended up resigning my commission as a lieutenant (army lieutenants don't serve as officers on army watercraft). In an army boat unit commissioned officers are REMFs (rear echelon mother f***s) and then, due to a really obscure army regulation, I became an army warrant officer. Why a warrant officer? Because in the army, warrant officers serve as deck and engine officers aboard army watercraft. I served as mate and vessel master aboard a variety of army watercraft for four years.

I always get asked as a mariner do I have any tattoos. I have four, which is odd for a Jew. But what is even odder is that one is the Star of David over my heart and the second is the Shema on my right arm.

About practicing religion on the ship: I always take a pocket siddur (prayer book) with me so I can daven (pray) on the ship.

As with regards to diet, you have to be careful. A good example is that the first assistant engineer was saying how much he loved the pancakes on the ship and that he was always on his wife to make them just like the ship but could never find out why his wife’s pancakes never tasted as good as shipboard pancakes. So one morning we asked the chief steward what he did to make his pancakes so good. The answer was simple – he fried them in bacon fat!

After four years, shipping in the merchant marine started to pick up. I left the army to go back into the merchant marine. I couldn't wait to get back aboard a merchant vessel – as a dualie I’ve had the chance to sail on both my licenses as a deck officer and an engineering officer – and I’ve been doing it ever since.


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