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Commercial mariners: key contributors to the war on terrorism

MSC PAO 03-18
May 7, 2003
For more information, contact:
Marge Holtz or Sheree Callahan

Heroism in wartime is usually associated with military soldiers serving on the frontlines. There are, however, war heroes who do not wear military uniforms or even work for the government.

They are commercial merchant mariners, and they have served in every U.S. war since the birth of our nation. During the Revolutionary War, merchant mariners helped capture the first British vessel, Unity. During World War II, merchant ships faced danger from submarines, mines, armed raiders, destroyers and aircraft. One in 26 mariners died while serving in World War II, putting the death toll at 8,380 - second only to the Marine Corps in per capita loss.

"Commercial mariners bring professional experience in ship maintenance, navigation and cargo transportation to the fight," said Mike Neuhardt, Military Sealift Command's Maritime Prepositioning Ships project officer. "Their history of service in prior wars is legendary." MSC, the ocean transportation provider for the Department of Defense, is the largest employer of these U.S. merchant mariners today. MSC's ship missions include transport of defense cargo, underway cargo replenishment and the prepositioning of strategic defense cargo, as well as other direct support to Navy ships at sea.

During normal peacetime operations, MSC has about 120 ships - all crewed by commercial or federal civil service mariners. During the height of Operation Iraqi Freedom, MSC was operating 214 active ships, 167 of which were directly supporting the war. Of these ships, 26 were operated by federal civil service mariners, and 141 - or 84 percent - were crewed by merchant mariners employed by commercial companies under contract with MSC.

Of the 141 ships, 127 ships were carrying combat equipment and cargo from the U.S. or Europe into the theater of operations or were en route to load cargo for the operation. An additional 12 were prepositioning ships loaded with essential military cargo awaiting the call for their cargo or services. Two of the 141 ships were special mission ships that conducted support operations for OIF.

USNS Capella, a commercial-crewed fast sealift ship, delivered portions of the U.S. Army 4th Infantry Division's non-combatant, port-opening cargo to Turkey in February. It was one of the few times the U.S. was allowed to transport supplies there in support of the war. In early March, the Turkish government refused to allow off-loads of weapons and combat equipment in support of the war in the region.

Capella's crew has been eager to assist in the conflict ever since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Getting the chance to participate fulfilled their desire to support the operation said Capt. Tim McKenna, Capella's master. The ship has since been put into a reduced operating status while undergoing maintenance.

"When we went, very few people took vacations," Capt. McKenna said. "It kills us now to stay in port." USNS Bob Hope, a commercially crewed large, medium-speed, roll-on/roll-off ship, or LMSR, also went into harm's way to deliver vital equipment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

LSMRs, such as USNS Bob Hope, have the cargo carrying capacity of about 300,000 square feet, equivalent to almost eight football fields or 3,000 SUVs. A total of 20 were built or converted in the 1990s after a congressionally mandated study by the Joint Chiefs of Staff identified the need for greater sealift capacity in times of war.

In February, USNS Bob Hope and USNS Dahl, both LMSRs, transported portions of the U.S. Army 101st Airborne Division's wheeled vehicles and helicopters to the Persian Gulf.

"We were given the impression that they could not have started the war without the equipment," said Capt. John Kelly, Bob Hope's master. "We were glad we were chosen for the mission."

Vice Adm. David L. Brewer III, U.S. Navy, commander of MSC, said he has been impressed with the expertise, professionalism and assistance that the commercial contract mariners have provided during normal operations and in times of conflict.

"Commercial mariners are also heroes because of their unequivocal willingness to put themselves in possible harm's way to deliver vital military cargo to our war fighters in support of our nation's defense," Vice Adm. Brewer said.

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