Navy – Merchant Marine Memorial – Washington, D.C.

May 24

I recently received an email from Paul Parsons of Darnestown, Maryland suggesting two topics for this blog. Paul’s first suggestion was the bravery and sacrifice of the Asiatic Fleet in the early months of 1942. I briefly covered a small part of that history in a May 2011 post on the HMAS Sydney II and the U.S.S Houston. The Asiatic Fleet deserves much more, however. My next post will begin to rectify that oversight.

Paul’s other suggestion was a post about the Navy – Merchant Marine Memorial in Washington, D.C. Paul noted in his email that the memorial “ beautiful, but in these times so comprehensive; the specifics of sacrifice are lost to most viewers. It’s location also diminishes its meaning or effect.” I agree with Paul’s observations, but with Memorial Day approaching it seems an appropriate time to focus on the memorial and some of the human sacrifice it represents. All photographs in this post are courtesy of Paul Parsons.

The Navy – Merchant Marine Memorial is located in Lady Bird Johnson Park on Columbia Island. It was designed in 1922 by Harvey Wiley Corbett and sculpted by Ernesto Begni del Piatta. It was dedicated on October 18, 1934 as a monument honoring the sailors and merchant seamen of the United States Navy and United States Merchant Marine who died at sea during WWI. Accurate statistics of American WWI deaths at sea are impossible to quantify, mainly due to the fact that the Merchant Marine had no historical office to compile their records. Best estimates are that somewhere between 2,000 and 7,200 American sailors and merchant seamen lost their lives in WWI. One observation can be made, however – none of the hundreds of people who guided and donated the funds required to construct this memorial in the 1930s envisioned the world a decade later. The number of lost souls this monument would honor would grow by a factor of ten by the end of 1945. The seven gulls riding the cresting waves witnessed sacrifice on the seven seas unknown to any previous generation.

The bloodbath of WWII would claim over 47,000 American lives in the war at sea. Thousands more would be wounded or captured. Over 250,000 Americans served in the Merchant Marine during WWII. About 1 in 25 who served were killed. It is estimated that perhaps as many as 1,700 American merchant ships were sunk during the war – victims of torpedoes, bombs, mines, kamikaze attacks, accidents, collisions, and weather at sea. The danger was constant, the sacrifices extraordinary. A statistic with particular meaning to me is that after the formal surrender of Japan in 1945 at least 87 merchant ships were severely damaged (42 sunk) in the ensuing five years, generally by striking mines. The war did not end for the merchant seaman in 1945 – danger and death most certainly continued. Please expand the photograph and read the inscription found on the memorial. I find these words to be most eloquent. On this Memorial Day I hope we all remember the past and present sacrifices of the Navy sailors, the Coast Guard sailors, and the merchant seamen who “have given life or still offer it in the performance of heroic deeds”. 






Seward Mariners’ Memorial – Seward, Alaska

May 2
Posted by Dan Filed in Commercial Shipping, Uncategorized

One of the most satisfying aspects of writing this blog is to hear from people around the world about existing memorials that are new to me and to learn about entirely new memorials nearing completion and dedication. Mike Glaser of the Seward Mariners’ Memorial Committee has been very kind in keeping me advised of the progress of a new memorial in Seward, Alaska that will be dedicated on May 20, 2012. This memorial has taken almost a decade of hard work to bring from concept to dedication – and another 18 months of effort will be required to complete all the aspects of the project design.

It would be difficult to imagine a more beautiful setting for a mariners’ memorial than on this site at the breakwater overlooking Resurrection Bay. The maritime history of Seward began in 1792 and continues through today – whaling, commercial fishing, recreation, and military activities are all woven into the rich fabric of the area. Through the centuries many of those mariners have been lost at sea. The Mariner’s Memorial will become a place where these souls can be remembered and honored. There are also plans to incorporate a section of the memorial in honor of the victims of the 1964 earthquake.

The best way to learn about the memorial is the visit their fine web site at Take some time to read about the design and plans for the site, view the construction project photos and videos, and learn more about several of their dedicated volunteers who made this all happen. If you know of someone who should be honored, then please consider ordering a memorial plaque for permanent display. If not, then please make a donation to this fine cause. As I’ve mentioned in this blog before, it’s not always the design and construction funding that is the most difficult to obtain. Ongoing maintenance and care can often be the larger challenge. Please consider donating to this effort.

My home in California is located a few miles from a state park that contains the home and gravesite of the writer Jack London. A museum within the park displays many of London’s original photographs and writings of his time in Alaska. I am quite certain that he once looked out upon the vistas of Resurrection Bay. In addition to writing about Alaska, London wrote one of the enduring classics of maritime life – The Sea Wolf. One of the early lines of this remarkable story concerns burial at sea and its brutal finality…

“I only remember one part of the service,” he said, “and that is ‘And the body shall be cast into the sea’. So cast it in.”

The new Mariners’ Memorial in Seward will certainly be an appropriate place to contemplate the souls lost off her wild and most beautiful shores…





The “Royal Charter” Shipwreck – Porth Alerth, Wales

Mar 16
Posted by Dan Filed in Passenger Liners, Uncategorized

Todays post is inspired by one of my favorite songs, “Isaac Lewis”, by the brilliant singer/songwriter Tom Russell.

The Royal Charter was a steam clipper built and launched in 1855. Steam clippers were a new type of ship in the mid 1800s – iron hulls, with the lines and sails of a traditional wooden clipper, but also equipped with an auxiliary steam engine which could be used when suitable wind was not available. The Royal Charter was mainly used as a passenger ship between Liverpool and Australia, a trip she could make in under 60 days. She was capable of carrying 600 passengers, with a crew exceeding 100.

In October 1859, the Royal Charter was returning to Liverpool from Melbourne. Aboard were over 370 passengers and a crew of 112. Among the passengers were many gold miners, who were carrying large amounts of gold on their persons, as well as a large consignment of gold carried as cargo. On the night of October 26 the ship was caught in a storm later to be known as the “Royal Charter Gale”. Over 200 ships were lost to this storm. The Royal Charter attempted to anchor offshore of Porth Alerth to ride out the gale, but hurricane force winds caused the anchor chains to snap. Despite cutting the masts and use of the auxiliary engine, the ship was pushed into a sandbar near shore in the early morning hours. Several hours later the rising tide and gale force winds drove her on to the rocks at a point just north of Moelfre on the north coast of Angelsey. The Royal Charter was rapidly battered to pieces by the rocks. One crew member, Maltese born Guzi Ruggier also known as Joseph Rogers, was able to swim to shore with a line. 39 passengers and crew (all men) were able to be rescued. Over 450 others died, many lost at sea.

Monuments to the lives lost on the Royal Charter can be found on the cliffs above her final resting place and in a local cemetery, where the bodies that washed ashore over the next several weeks were buried. It is said that large quantities of gold were thrown up on the beach at Porth Alerth, with many local families becoming wealthy overnight as a result of the tragedy. Many pieces of wreckage of the ship can still be found at the base of the rocks at Moelfre, visible at low tide and to scuba divers.

Stories from shipwrecks often defy imagination. Perhaps few stories are as poignant as the story of Isaac Lewis. Lewis was a young man from northern Wales who sailed to Australia and back, only to die in the Royal Charter wreck. In the last moments of his life he was able to see his father on the headland, and legend says to shout “Oh father, I have come home to die”. Three days after the storm cleared the body of Isaac Lewis washed ashore in Wales, landing less than 100 yards from his father’s front door…

You can view Tom Russell performing his haunting tribute to Lewis by visiting the following link. After that I encourage you to explore more of the work of this truly gifted musician and poet.





Porkeri, Faroe Islands, Kingdom of Denmark

Feb 26
Posted by Dan Filed in Uncategorized

Lost at Sea memorials are found along the coasts of every nation on earth where the oceans batter their shores. One of the joys of writing this blog is the discovery of a memorial in a place new to me. Such was the experience with this post.

Porkeri is a village in the Faroe Islands, a self-governing territory within the Kingdom of Denmark. It is located where the Norwegian Sea meets the greater North Atlantic, approximately equal distance from Scotland and Greenland.

The village of Porkeri dates back to at least the 14th century. Today it has a population of slightly over 300. The local church dates from 1847  and is greatly constructed from material donated by seamen who survived lethal storms on the sea – a tradition known as almissu, to donate to God if they got home alive. It makes me think of the words of Joseph Conrad from “Youth”:

“I see it always from a small boat – not a light, not a stir, not a sound. We conversed in low whispers, as if afraid to wake up the land…. It is all in that moment when I opened my young eyes on it. I came upon it from a tussle with the sea.”

The Lost at Sea memorial in Porkeri contains the names of 65 local seamen who were lost forever to the cold waters of the North Atlantic. The first name dates from 1808. Names have been added in the ensuing two centuries. No doubt more names will be added in the decades and centuries to come – and one has to wonder about the countless unknown souls lost in the centuries before the first record was retained permanently from 1808…


U.S.S. San Francisco Memorial – Land’s End, California

Jan 31
Posted by Dan Filed in Wartime Naval Action

Land’s End is part of the Golden Gate National Park, located on the northwest corner of the city of San Francisco. From this stunning location one can see the entrance to San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, and to the west the seemingly endless stretch of the Pacific Ocean. Hundreds of warships and thousands of men departed on these waters for battle in World War II – many of the ships and men never to return.

On the night of November 12-13, 1942 the U.S.S. San Francisco was part of what has quite often been called “the most savage close quarter naval engagement in history” off the island of Guadalcanal. The entire engagement lasted less than one hour, but numerous ships were lost and thousands lost their lives – many forever lost at sea.

The U.S.S. San Francisco survived that night to fight again in WWII. Many of her crew gave their lives that night, however. One small fact always reminds me of what horror that night must have held for the crew. During all of WWII fifty-seven (57) Medals of Honor were awarded to United States Navy personnel. On this one night alone four (4) crew members of the U.S.S. San Francisco earned the Medal of Honor – over 7% of the total awarded in the entire war. Dozens more earned the Navy Cross for bravery. Virtually the entire crew earned the Purple Heart.

The U.S.S. San Francisco Memorial is located at Land’s End. The memorial consists of various plaques and small memorials attached to an actual surviving section of the ship. The Bridge Wings of the ship (armor meant to protect the bridge) are permanently on display at the memorial. Standing inside the bridge wings and counting the shell holes is a sobering experience. Shells came from every direction – generally entering one side of the bridge wings, going through the bridge itself, and then exiting the other side of the bridge wings. It’s hard to comprehend how any living thing could survive on the bridge – yet they did.

Please visit the web site for the U.S.S. San Francisco Memorial at There you will find a history of the ship, the memorial itself, and best of all many stories of her crew.



Marie Memorial – Santa Barbara, CA

Nov 28
Posted by Dan Filed in Uncategorized

The best part of writing this blog is discovering a memorial new to me that was conceived and brought to reality by the family and friends of those lost at sea. The memorial to the research vessel Marie is such a piece.

In 1960 the research vessel Marie was lost in the Santa Barbara Channel, while conducting experiments on the potential use of underwater infrared technology. Three of the seven men aboard the craft were claimed forever by the Pacific Ocean. The bodies of the other four crew members were recovered within a few weeks of the accident in the waters near Santa Barbara. Forty years later a memorial to the Marie and her crew was dedicated at a site very near where the Marie departed on her final journey.

The story of the Marie, her crew, and the memorial is best learned by visiting the web site devoted to this accident. Please take the time to watch the twenty minute video history that you’ll find when you first visit the site. Please use the link below:

I find the memorial to be simple, elegant and memorable. The very conscious decision not to list the Marie crew members on the memorial, but instead to dedicate the memorial to all those lost at sea, only adds to its timeless quality…









U.S.S. Robalo (SS-273) Memorial – Fargo, North Dakota

Oct 31
Posted by Dan Filed in Wartime Naval Action

This graceful memorial is dedicated to the WWII submarine U.S.S. Robalo (SS-273). Robalo was a Gato-class submarine built in Manitowoc, Wisconsin and launched on May 9, 1943. The memorial is located in Lindenwood Park on Roger Maris Drive in Fargo, North Dakota.

After the end of World War II, the U.S. Submarine Veterans of WWII assigned each of the 52 submarines lost during the war to a state. It was hoped that appropriate memorials would be constructed by each state to their assigned submarine. While most states have not constructed memorials, some have. This is one of my favorites. On the back of the memorial are the names of all the crew members lost at sea on the Robalo. The front of the memorial contains a brief history of the ship, which I quote below:

“USS Robalo SS – 273. In early January 1944, the new fleet submarine Robalo set out to join forces with the ships raging war in the Pacific. Hunting for Japanese shipping west of the Philippines, she damaged a large freighter. Her second patrol was in the South China Sea near Indo-China, where she sank a 7,500 ton tanker, the cargo of which was badly needed to fuel and drive the far flung Japanese war machine. With two battle stars to her credit, Robalo set out on her third war patrol. As she was transiting the hazardous Balabac Strait off Palawan Island on 26 July 1944, Robalo strayed into an enemy minefield. A violent explosion suddenly jolted the ship and she sank almost immediately. Four of her crewmen managed to swim to Palawan Island where they were captured by Japanese military police and imprisoned. A note dropped by one of the men in his cell window was picked up by a US soldier who was on a work detail in the same prison camp. The note recounted the events leading up to Robalo’s tragic loss. On 15 August, the four surviving Robalo crewmen were taken aboard a Japanese destroyer. The destination and ultimate fate of the destroyer are still unknown. The four survivors on board never returned. The circumstances surrounding their deaths remain a mystery, but they joined their 77 shipmates in bravely giving their lives for their country.”

Joining the monument is a marker with the names of the North Dakota submariners and polished stone benches with the names of Commander Harold Wright, Captain Joseph Enright, and Lieutenant Commander Verne Skjonsby, all North Dakota residents who served on submarines during WWII.

This post gives me the opportunity to encourage all readers to visit one of my favorite web sites, On Eternal Patrol:

Contained within this amazing web site is the history of every United States Navy submarine lost during the Second World War, listings of all the crew members lost at sea, photographs of hundreds of those lost, and links to a number of fascinating web sites detailing the history of the silent service. This is a web site not to be missed.

Over 32,000 U.S. Navy sailors were lost at sea from late 1941 through 1945. Over 10% of those were lost on submarines. The U.S.S. Robalo was only one of fifty-two American submarines never to return to port, one of thousands of ships from hundreds of nations on eternal patrol…


Mary Celeste Memorial – Spencer’s Island, Nova Scotia

Sep 23
Posted by Dan Filed in Commercial Shipping

My favorite place in the world is any portion of the shoreline of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia bordering the Bay of Fundy. The rolling hills, trees right down to the waterline, and amazing tides make it an area unlike anywhere else on the planet. It can also be an eerie and strange place at times. Spencer’s Island, Nova Scotia was the birthplace of one of history’s most mysterious maritime events.

The Mary Celeste was launched as the Amazon from the shipyard in Spencer’s Island in 1861. Following an accidental grounding in Cape Breton in 1868, the ship was repaired and renamed Mary Celeste. On November 7, 1872 she sailed from New York to Italy under the command of Captain Benjamin Biggs. Onboard were Biggs’ wife, small daughter and seven crewmen. The cargo is somewhat in dispute – either wines and liquors, or industrial strength alcohol to be used in paint.

On December 4, 1872 Mary Celeste was found 600 miles off Gibraltar, under full sail, with everything in order except for the fact the ship was abandoned. No sign has ever been found of the ten souls who were once aboard Mary Celeste. She is history’s most famous Ghost Ship.

Many theories have been advanced as to what happened to the crew of the Mary Celeste – from piracy, to a below decks fire caused by alcohol fumes, to a rogue wave or an undersea earthquake. All that is really known, however, is that a ship in pristine shape was found sailing on the ocean without a crew – and that the only thing missing was a chronometer. The cargo was untouched, the ship’s log was found with no mention of any trouble in the last entry on November 24 – everything seemed in perfect order.

The Mary Celeste was salvaged by the captain of the ship that originally found her abandoned. She sailed for many years, eventually scuttled about 1884 on the Rochelois Reef in Haiti. The remains of the Mary Celeste were eventually discovered by the writer and salvage expert Clive Clusser.

2004 Tsunami – Indian Ocean

Aug 27
Posted by Dan Filed in Uncategorized

On December 26, 2004 a 9.0 earthquake near the west coast of Sumatra generated a tsunami that slammed into the coastline of 11 Indian Ocean countries, from east Africa to Thailand. By the end of the day 150,000 people had died. The final death toll was 283,000. Many tens of thousands of victims were swept out to sea.

We have all seen the photographs and videos of the 2004 tsunami and its horrific aftermath, as well as the equally similar and tragic event in Japan earlier this year. Words simply are not enough to provide a permanent tribute to such loss. It is humanity’s great gift to have artists who provide lasting memorials for the living and for future generations – static images that somehow come to life in the eyes and minds of the viewer. These memorials are as much a record of the event as the written word, or the photograph, or the cell phone video.

This post contains just a few of these monuments – from India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, the Maldives, Indonesia, and Thailand. Each memorial possesses a different emotional power.


Tablets of the Missing – American Military Cemetery, Manila

Jul 29
Posted by Dan Filed in Wartime Naval Action

A sobering element of any American military cemetery on foreign soil is The Tablets of the Missing – a listing of the dead with no known graves. These listings always include thousands lost at sea.

The American Military Cemetery and Memorial in Manila is the largest American military cemetery on foreign soil. Over 17,000 graves are arranged in a circular layout encompassing 125 acres. Constructed in the middle are two hemicycles, listing a staggering 36,282 names of Americans who lost their lives in the South Pacific during WWII and have no known resting place. I first visited this site in the early 1970s. The scope of the collective sacrifice forever resting within this beautiful and peaceful place took my breath away – an emotion that remains with me today.

On that first visit I randomly jotted down the names of a few men on the Tablets of the Missing, hoping to eventually ‘humanize’ the experience somehow – to learn more about these men and the actions where they lost their lives. Years later I was able to determine that one of the names I jotted down was lost on the U.S.S Mount Hood (AE-11).

The Mount Hood was an ammunition ship that exploded due to unknown causes on November 10, 1944 while anchored in Seeadler Harbour at Manus Island (Admiralty Islands). The explosion killed all 295 men aboard and severely damaged 22 other ships in the harbor. The repair ship U.S.S. Mindanao was alongside Mount Hood when the explosion occurred. 82 of the Mindanao crew also died that day. 371 sailors on other ships in the harbor were injured. An investigation board was never able to ascertain the exact cause of the accident, but it was not due to combat. War is a dangerous business – and all casualties are not due to combat. Whether by combat or accident, the loss is felt just as strongly by family, friends and shipmates.

While researching the history of the U.S.S. Mount Hood, I came across a beautiful YouTube tribute from a niece to an uncle she never knew. Seaman Second Class J.C. McGuire of Alabama died on November 10, 1944 while stationed aboard the Mount Hood. His remains were never recovered. He was eighteen when he died. Please take the time to view the short video. It puts a very human face to a name forever engraved on a marble wall so far from the home he left during WWII.