In 2020, Congress passed the Merchant Mariners of World War II Congressional Gold Medal Act to recognize the merchant mariners for their courage and contributions during the war.
“In World War II, U.S. Merchant Mariners and their shipmates of the U.S. Navy Armed Guard sailed in harm’s way to deliver what was needed to prevail not only across the Atlantic and Pacific but through the Indian Ocean, and across the Arctic Circle,” Rear Adm. Michael Wettlaufer, Commander, Military Sealift Command stated at the ceremony. “This Gold Medal recognition acknowledges the strategic advantage American mariners brought to the fight in linking domestic production and the fighting forces overseas.”
World War II era Merchant Mariners crewed the nation’s Liberty Ships, which were used to transport critical war-time vehicles, weapons equipment, ordinance and supplies to the European and Pacific Theaters.
"[President Franklin D. Roosevelt] called their mission the most difficult and dangerous transportation job ever undertaken," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at the ceremony.
Many of the Merchant Mariners who served during World War II never came home as their ships were sunk by enemy forces while traveling to their overseas destinations.
“The price of victory was extraordinary,” declared Wettlaufer. “Of the 250,000 members of the American Merchant Marine who served our country during the war, 12,000 were wounded in action and over 9,000 perished at sea, including 142 cadets from the United States Merchant Marine Academy in King’s Point, New York, who were killed during the conflict. Their personal sacrifice was great and commitment to our nation’s freedom unparalleled.”
Dave Yoho, a 94-year-old World War II era Merchant Mariner, spoke at the ceremony. Yoho said it was his role to speak at the ceremony for the Mariners of World War II who cannot speak for themselves.
"I'm speaking for 248,500 guys that are already dead," he told those who attended the ceremony. "One out of 26 of us died, but thousands of us came home deprived of a part of our life.”
“That's probably one of the least-understood missions that ever was accomplished in modern warfare," he said of the merchant mariners' role in supporting the U.S. military.
Yoho urged those in attendance to share the story of the World War II Merchant Marines so that future generation can learn from their sacrifices and dedication.
"And, so, when you're with others, say to them of what we did; urge them to read about us and find out about us,” Yoho stated. “Greet us today if you can [and] then say to those, 'we gave up our yesterdays for your better tomorrow’."
Between 1939 and 1945, 9,521 merchant mariners lost their lives, a higher proportion than those killed in any military branch, according to the National World War II Museum.
The Gold Medal Ceremony included remarks from Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, Congressman John Garamendi (D-CA), Congressman Joe Courtney (D-CT) and United States Armed Forces Chiefs.
“Nearly eight decades after World War II, Americans owe our Merchant Mariners an enormous debt of gratitude,” said Pelosi. “Just as your service and courage brought luster to our country and to our nation. May this medal serve as an expression of the American people’s profound respect and gratitude; gratitude to you (the World War II Merchant Marine).
The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest expression of national appreciation which the U.S. Congress can bestow for distinguished achievements and contributions. Each medal honors a particular individual, institution, or event, according to the U.S. House of Representatives’ website.
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