Commander, U.S. Pacific Command
U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Battle Standard Dinner
Kings Point, New York
April 11, 2016
As Prepared for Delivery
Ladies and gentlemen, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy is a special place where the world’s foremost technical experts in your fields train the maritime leaders of tomorrow. I’m a huge fan of this Academy... as well as all of our academies. We must never take for granted the national treasure that is the American Service Academy.
Beyond the obvious function of developing leaders vital to our nation's defense, these institutions underpin the American ethos that there are things worth fighting for... and leaders worth developing.
As I look around this room, I sense the powerful spirit you all bring to the fight. The heritage and tradition of our entire Joint Force are richer and deeper because of the service of graduates from Kings Point.
This is something the 142 Cadet-Midshipmen who lost their lives during World War II knew all too well. Merchant Mariners were at the front the moment they left port, slugging it out alongside the Army and Navy and Marine Corps in both the Pacific and the Atlantic. Subject to attack by enemy submarines, surface raiders, mines, bombers, and kamikazes, your predecessors not only manned battle stations, but also delivered something every warfighter appreciates -- logistics.
Your forebears did this at tremendous cost. Amongst the services, the Merchant Marine had the second highest casualty rate during World War II.
Motivated by duty to country, the men and women of the U.S. Merchant Marine valiantly risked their lives to provide supplies central to the war effort, including food, ammunition, tanks, boots, bombs, airplanes, fuel and raw materials. As the ending verse of the Merchant Marine song “Heave Ho” powerfully states:
“Give us the goods and we'll deliver,
Damn the submarine!
We're the men of the Merchant Marine!”
As a Navy P-3 sub hunter for most of my career, I particularly like that second line.
So tonight, we salute our World War II heroes and remember individuals like 18-year-old Edwin Joseph O’Hara. Despite the certain demise of his vessel from multiple enemy attacks, he manned the ships' lone 5-inch gun. O’Hara was mortally wounded and was posthumously awarded the Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal.
One need only view the magnificent painting of O'Hara onboard the S.S. Stephen Hopkins – which graces the entrance of O'Hara Hall – to appreciate the heroic nature of those who wear the title "Merchant Mariner."
Tonight, the ghosts of the 142 – the fighting spirit of those who marched to glory on the oceans – move about us... reminding us that courage transcends generations.
Now, I'm no preacher man... but there's a passage in the Good Book that highlights for me the courage of the men and women who volunteer to don the cloth of the nation.
One day God was searching for the right person to embark on a perilous mission and go into a dangerous land: "Whom shall I send? Who shall go for me?”
And the prophet Isaiah responded, “Here am I, Lord, send me.”
Here am I, send me. Powerful words. When our nation was attacked nearly 15 years ago on 9-11, Lady Liberty called out in her pain and anguish: “Whom shall I send? Who shall go for me?”
And everywhere, Merchant Mariners, Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen called out: “Here am I America, send me.”
“Here am I America, send me.”
America remembers well how this Academy sprang to action on 9-11. Within hours of the attack, Midshipmen, faculty and staff assisted in the evacuation of civilians from lower Manhattan as well as the transportation of first responders and supplies to and from Ground Zero.
Kings Point ran to the sound of the guns... not away from them.
This tradition is infused in your D.N.A. – and it’s this heritage that the 9-11 generation of recent graduates who fought in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi freedom passes to each of you.
It’s the legacy that U.S. Army 1st Lieutenant Aaron Seesan carried with him when he ventured from these halls to serve his country... and who, in 2005, while serving with the 73rd Engineers, was mortally wounded when an improvised explosive device detonated near his Humvee in Iraq. When medics arrived on scene, Aaron was conscious and selflessly directed them to attend to the other men in his unit.
It’s the legacy that U.S. Navy Seabee Lieutenant (J.G.) Francis Toner IV carried in 2009 when he died protecting a Navy nurse from an Afghan guard who turned on them in Afghanistan. At his posthumous Silver Star ceremony, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen spoke movingly of Toner’s heroism and sacrifice.
It’s the legacy that U.S. Marine 1st Lieutenant William Donnelly IV carried in 2010 when he was killed on Thanksgiving Day during dismounted combat operations with the 5th Marines in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. As his sister Melissa so eloquently said, “he lived to serve his country, and he refused to just sit on the sidelines.”
To the families and loved ones of these Merchant Marine graduates, and others, who gave the last full measure of devotion to our nation... I hope you find some comfort in knowing how honored we all are to be brothers and sisters in arms with these heroes.
Indeed, around the base of the Roll of Honor in your chapel are these words which speak to us... from them: "Tell America we died for her, and we rest content."
These accounts vividly remind us of the meaning behind the Merchant Marine Academy motto... “Acta non Verba” – Deeds, Not Words. When you look at your class rings... as I look at mine every single day... know that freedom is a concept worth fighting for. That America is a country worth dying for. Acta non Verba, indeed.
Everywhere I look today, I see proof that this newest generation of Merchant Mariners is continuing the legacy of those who went before you – I’m proud of you and I look forward to serving with you.
Kings Point is not an easy life. It's not for the faint of heart. The Merchant Marine is a demanding profession, but an absolutely critical one to ensure America's national interests are served at sea.
All of you possess an interest in the “dangerous edge of things”…my favorite line from the poet Browning... along with a profound patriotism, unrelenting courage and supreme confidence. Our nation desperately needs your talents because it’s a fast-changing, dangerous world out there. You’ve chosen to sacrifice much to ensure America remains protected... and that's a noble choice.
Today in the Indo-Asia-Pacific --which Secretary of Defense Ash Carter calls "the most consequential single region for America's future" -- I see first-hand accounts of what our maritime professionals do and I’m impressed. Keeping oceans open to trade during peacetime and supporting military operations during contingencies and war are hard work... but juice worth the squeeze.
The men and women who graduate from this incredible institution will bring superior skills to the maritime environment... and I feel secure in predicting that every Midshipman in this room will make a difference for our country. Some will wear the cloth of our nation. Some will wear civilian togs. Some will become ship masters, while others chief engineers. But because of where you've trained and what you've learned and who you are, I'm certain that you'll continue to carry on the great legacy of the U.S. Merchant Marine.
President Truman... who, by the way, had the coolest first name of any President in history... did a great thing by signing a 1956 bill making Kings Point a federal academy. From the founding days of our nation, to the recent conflicts in the Middle East, to rising tensions in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, a strong maritime industry is a vital resource that's critical to the U.S. position as a global power.
Alfred Thayer Mahan -- the great man himself -- advocated that a strong U.S. Merchant fleet is critical to the U.S. being a great power.
That’s why I’m troubled by the tea leaves I'm reading. In recent testimony before Congress, Mr. Jaenichen said the merchant industry faces a very aging work force, a shortage of merchant mariners, and a fleet of aging ships.
This disturbs me, because, simply stated, our national security depends on a vital Merchant Marine. Ask any officer from any of the Services who has had the opportunity to serve on a Joint Task Force in the myriad of hot spots around the globe... just ask any of them if the U.S. merchant marine is important to their operations. You will not only get a “yes.".. but a resounding “yes-and-can-we-have-more!”
So while we do everything we can to help our leaders in D.C. pay attention to the gravity of what Mr. Jaenichen said:
"You Midshipmen in this room must do your part – be exceptional, and apply your talents to ensure our maritime tradition remains strong."
Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve talked too long. I see some of you reaching for your long knives.
So I’m reminded of the baseball story where the home team – say, New London – is getting pounded in the first inning. The manager walks up out of the dugout directly to the mound... where he takes the ball away from the pitcher.
The pitcher protests, “Coach, I’m not tired.” The manager says...
“Yeah, son, I know... but the outfielders sure are.”
So for all you outfielders out there, let me close with this thought.
The Merchant Marine Academy is especially unique. Here, you blend the profession of arms with the profession of the sea.
Here, you don't graduate to become Captains of Industry – though some of you will. Rather, you graduate to become Captains of ships... "Master after God.".. as the Dutch refer to their ship captains. At sea, where accountability is absolute, so too must be your resolve, your fortitude, and your integrity.
The Wall Street Journal once editorialized that the Captain of a ship is... "given honor and privileges and trust beyond other men. But let him set the wrong course... let him touch ground... let him bring disaster to his ship or men... and he must answer for what he has done. No matter what, he cannot escape."
Kings Point prepares you well for that auspicious task... as it has done for over half a century. Here... “They who go down to the sea in ships.".. is not a pithy phrase... it’s a proud destiny.
Today, you stand on the shoulders of giants who preceded you into greatness. Their names sound the roll call of courage and dedication... O'Hara of the 142... O.E.F and O.I.F. warriors Donnelly, Seesan and Toner... Astronauts Elliott See and Mark Kelly... Nancy Wagner, our nation's first female harbor pilot... Vice Admiral and former 5th Fleet Commander Kevin Cosgriff... Rear Admiral Buz Buzby who commanded both Guantanamo Bay and the Military Sealift Command... Rear Admiral Phil Greene who was the Superintendent here...and Rear Admiral Johnny Wolfe, currently head of the Navy’s Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense program.
That roll call continues in the Fleet today by officers like my new Executive Assistant, Captain Lance Scott, class of ‘91, who has joined us here this evening.
Men and women who selflessly dedicated their lives to preserve our freedoms and advance our nation's maritime heritage. Soon, you will become part of that long, unbroken line of patriots willing to take up arms and sail the seas to defend America's interests. "Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep," indeed.
And when you do, I hope you always remember the beauty, and the strength of Kings Point – the wellspring of America's preeminence as the world's greatest maritime power.
So on behalf of the Joint Forces spread across half the globe in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, THANK YOU! Thank you for what you do – and what you are about to do – for this institution and for our nation as you prepare to go out into a world that desperately needs your leadership.
"Acta non Verba." As relevant today as yesterday. As relevant tomorrow as today.
May God bless all of the veterans who came before us. May God bless the warriors in this room. And may God bless the United States of America – which, thanks in no small measure to the U.S. Merchant Marine – will always be the land of the free, and the home of the brave.