by Captain John Konrad (gCaptain) The United States Merchant Marine does not have a Medal of Honor or Navy Cross but can issue awards for bravery. Currently, the US Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal is the highest decoration awarded for service by a US Merchant Mariner. The medal can be awarded to any seaman in the U.S. Merchant Marine who, on or after September 3, 1939, distinguished him or herself during the war by outstanding conduct or service in the line of duty.
In honor of American Independence Day gCaptain shares the official of citation of one Distinguished Service Medal recipient, Captain Carl Peter Richard Dahlstrom who served in World War II as master of Steamship Lyman Abbott.
In a port only a few miles behind the actual battlefront, SS Lyman Abbott was discharging explosive war cargo, when the entire harbor area was hit by a devastating air attack. The force of the explosion of a nearby ship nearly capsized the Lyman Abbott, and a hail of wreckage damaged her lifeboats, tore great holes in her deck, and started fires. Though fire hose lay uselessly severed, and fire extinguishers had been blasted to the deck where they spent their charges, Captain Dahlstrom rallied his men to beat and stamp out the flames until another ship, torn from her moorings and ablaze from stem to stern, bore down upon the Lyman Abbott and forced her crew to abandon ship.
By this time the harbor waters were ablaze with burning oil, but he landed his men through the flames in boats so damaged they were only kept from sinking by the buoyancy of their air tanks. But the Lyman Abbott cargo was vitally needed in support of the invasion and she had to be moved from the burning harbor before she exploded. Volunteers from her crew, under the personal leadership of Captain Dahlstrom, all in some degree wounded or burned, immediately responded–took the crippled and still burning ship out of port–and later returned her to discharge her critical combat material.
Captain Dahlstrom’s courageous leadership, in keeping with the finest traditions of the United States Merchant Marine, was the inspiration for a valorous crew which would not yield to defeat.
Admiral Emory Scott Land for the President, 2 December 1943
Unfortunately the last three Commandants of the US Merchant Marine – who also serves as the US Maritime Administrator (MARAD) – have been US Navy officers, not Merchant Mariners, and have mostly discontinued the issuance of awards to today’s brave mariners. Regardless of a lack of decoration and little appreciation, today’s US Merchant Mariners have been serving for two decades at and near the front lines of the War On Terror. They have supplied NATO troops and allied warships working in all of the most contested waters of the globe. They have put their lives at risk sailing old and rusting ships, loaded to the marks with dangerous cargo, into heavy seas.
Today the US Navy and MARAD give little recognition or thanks to US Merchant Mariners sailing in formation with US Navy Carrier Strike Groups with highly explosive cargo or at work preventing famine by sailing alone through pirate waters and into dangerous ports with cargo holds full of USAID grain but their appreciation does not go unnoticed by gCaptain and their fellow merchant mariners.
For those international readers with little interest in American military operations we will leave you with this excerpt from Gregg Easterbrook’s recent book The Blue Age.
“As recently as the 1970s, 50 percent of humanity lived in extreme poverty, according to the World Bank definition. By 2015, extreme poverty was down to its lowest level ever, at 10 percent. Nearly all the decline of extreme poverty occurred in the trade-focused nations of Asia. Max Roser, an economist at the University of Oxford, has noted that China’s trade-based improvement of living standards in the last two decades works out to about 130,000 people escaping poverty each day,” wrote Gregg Easterbrook in his book The Blue Age: How the US Navy Created Global Prosperity. “Water transportation—cheaper than any other form of shipping—is the key to increased global trade and prosperity. The growth in water commerce could not happen unless civilian vessels were unhindered by war on the seas. PEACE ON THE WATERS is both invisible to most of humanity and tenuous. For decades the US Navy has been so strong that no other nation tried to contest its ensign.”
Efficient global trade would simply not be possible without US Navy and allied naval protection and naval protection would simply not be possible without a US Merchant Marine manning US Military Sealift Command ships that refuel and resupply warships at underway at sea and US Merchant Mariners who – right now – are working aboard ships like the Hospital Ship USNS Mercy which is currently on a mission delivering health and peace to nations in the Pacific.
Decades of global peace and prosperity would not be possible without US Merchant Mariners and allied Merchant Navy sailors along with friendly seafarers working “In Peace and War” around the world.
Today Captain Dahlstrom’s actions seem distant and incomprehensibly brave but his lineage continues in the US Merchant Mariners who would sail, if asked, into the Black Sea today or the Taiwan Strait tomorrow with zero expectation of a ribbon for bravery or a top Admiral’s handshake.
To all US Merchant Mariners, we thank you for your service.