Sunday, February 1, 2009

U.S. Merchant Marines Bring the Bread, Butter and Bullets to Servicemen and Women

On January 27th the Merchant Marine Academy was mentioned on the BlogTalkRadio show Your Military Life that I co-host, and I have to admit I hadn’t known that the U.S. had a Merchant Marine Academy or even what the U.S. merchant marine does. And then two days later I unexpectedly got an email from Joseph Schwartzstein, Captain, U.S. Merchant Marine, LTJG, USNR/MMR, thanks to my new project Operation Support Jews in the Military.

I immediately asked Captain Schwartzstein to write for this blog about the history of the merchant marines, what responsibilities the service has today, and his own personal experiences. The first part of his response is below.

The picture above is of Captain Schwartzstein using a sextant. The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy still teaches celestial navigation as this navigation system is used on merchant ships for daily work at sea.

I always get asked "So you're in the Marines?" Which I reply actually it's the Merchant Marines, I'm a merchant mariner, the next response is "What is a merchant mariner?"

Which is always kind of funny to me because the U.S. is a maritime nation and 90% of all cargo travels by ship. But not many people know what the Merchant Marine is or what I as a mariner do.

Oh, and I'm Jewish, which usually gets "Jews don't do that!" In fact, on a recent trip to Israel during the High Holidays, I was sitting in shul (synagogue) next to an Israeli and he asked me what I did for a living. I told him I was a chief mate (first officer) aboard an oil tanker. He looked at me and said "I think you are the only one in the world," which struck me as odd to even hear in Israel where everyone wears a uniform.

So what is the merchant marine, and how did a "nice" Jewish boy end up being a merchant marine and graduating from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, (Yes, there is an academy and five state maritime schools, just like West Point, Annapolis, the Air Force Academy, and the Coast Guard Academy.)

Civilian licensed officers and crew

The merchant mariners are the civilian licensed and/or documented officers and crew aboard commercial and military vessels. These vessels can range from tankers, car carriers, containerships, cable layers, survey vessels, tugs, ferries and anything else on the water! We bring the bread, butter and bullets to our servicemen and women all over the world in addition to the gas you put in your car, the car you drive or anything that might be in your house that comes from anywhere but where you live.

We have served in every war. In fact America's first naval officers were merchant mariners! That's right. Commodore John Barry and the famous Captain John Paul Jones (who is buried at the Naval Academy) all started as merchant mariners. In fact, during WWII, the merchant marine had the highest casualty rate out of any other service. The rate was 1:26 as compared to the next closest one, the Marines, which was 1:34.

What is licensed or documented? All mariners have to be licensed (officers) and documented (crew) by the U.S. Coast Guard. In order to sail on ships you have to meet certain educational and training requirements set by the U.S. Coast Guard. Once you meet these standards you are given a series of exams.

You "sit" for the exams, and once passed are given your "Merchant Mariners Document" or Z-Card, which is your unlicensed rating, such as able seaman, QMED (qualified member of the engine department), oilier, fireman, wiper, ordinary seamen, or food handler to name a few. If you are an officer you "sit" for your officer's license exam, and each time you want to move up you have to take another exam.

I have to mention that most people either go deck or engine, i.e. you either sail as a third mate to work your way to captain or you sail third engineer to work your way to chief engineer. (If you are wondering, I was one of the weird guys at the Merchant Marine Academy and went dual, meaning I got both my third mate's and third engineer's licenses. Not many do it because it's hard.)

What is the Merchant Marine Academy?

The next question is what is the Merchant Marine Academy and where is it? Is it in New London? No, that's the Coast Guard Academy, our rival. The Merchant Marine Academy – "America's best kept secret" – is located in Kings Point, NY. (West Egg for all you "Great Gatsby" fans.) It is a four-year federally funded education just like our sister service academies.

We do have a service obligation too. You have to obtain a congressional appointment to attend just like West Point or Annapolis. You have to pass a navy physical because at graduation you get a commission as an ensign in the reserves.

However, you can go active duty in any branch of service. When you graduate from the Merchant Marine Academy you either have to go into the merchant marine and also take a commission as an officer in the reserves or go active duty in any branch of the service. I have classmates serving in the army, navy (as pilots, submariners and surface warfare officers), air force (a classmate is a bomber pilot), or Coast Guard (a classmate is a helicopter pilot).

I always tell people that, if you want to go navy flight, don't waste your time at the Naval Academy, go to Kings Point. My first class year the school had so many flight and NFO (naval flight officer, the men or women who sit in the back like "Goose" from the movie “Top Gun”) slots that announcements were made for anyone who wanted to go flight to report to naval science.

Stay tuned for the second half of this guest post from Joseph Schwartzstein, Captain, U.S. Merchant Marine, LTJG, USNR/MMR.

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