Wednesday, March 14, 2012
The Merchant Marine Cadet Corps
In the first century of US history, every merchant mariner in the United States came “up the hawespipe,” working his way up the chain of command from the lowest ranks on the ship. By the end of the nineteenth century, as the Age of Sail faded into the Age of Steam, demand for trained officers increased, leading Congress to step in. Starting in 1874, the Navy was authorized to lend ships to ports that wanted to train young men in “navigation, seamanship.” Schools in New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts were set up to take advantage of the new law, followed by institutions on every coast. Many of these schools remain merchant marine academies today.
Soon the schools were working with shipping companies to fill the demand for trained officers. Under the 1891 Postal Aid Law, ships accepting government mail contracts were obligated to take on a cadet for each 1000 tons of a ship’s weight. The program was a mixed success: many cadets got little real training, being treated a free menial labor instead. On the other hand, many cadets used the program as a free ride to Europe or elsewhere and abandoned their ship once it reached a suitably exotic port.
When the US entered World War I, the Shipping Board set up a six-week program to train officers for the “Emergency Fleet,” the concrete-hulled ships built due to a shortage of steel. The program was so successful that soon its graduates were manning other ships, and by the time the program was phased out in 1921 it had produced nearly 11,00 officers.
The success of the World War I program, the failure of the Postal Aid Law, the disastrous fire on the Morro Castle, and the looming need for more mariners as Europe girded for war yet again, convinced the Roosevelt Administration that a direct federal hand was needed in providing America’s merchant vessels with officers. On March 15, 1938, the United States established the Merchant Marine Cadet Corps.
The first 99 cadets in the program trained on government-subsidized but privately-owned vessels in various ports. The Coast Guard took over running the program briefly after Pearl Harbor, then the War Shipping Adminstration. The war effort made apparent for a more centralized school with a permanent home, and in September 1943 the United States Merchant Marine Academy was established in King’s Point, New York. Schools were also established in San Mateo, California and Pass Christian, Mississippi, but both of those schools were closed with a few years.
Concrete Ships.org: The World War I Emergency Fleet
Popular Science (on Google Books): New School to Train Ships Officers