By MITCH TRAPHAGEN
TAMPA — Carlton Majette learned the value of work the hard way. He had to do his job or die. As an engineer during World War II, there were no sick days and no vacation time to leisurely stroll the deck of his ship. Majette’s job of keeping the propellers turning meant he and his shipmates could live another day. Failure meant becoming a sitting duck, marked for death on the high seas. His baptism by fire into adulthood stayed with him for the rest of his life. Nearly 40 years my senior, he worked almost every day I had known him. And, he worked harder than most people half his age. Carlton Majette was a Merchant Marine.
The Merchant Marine kept the war moving for America and all her Allies. During peace time, they move commercial cargo through the waterways and across the oceans. During wartime, they become a branch of the U.S. Navy, moving troops and cargo into war zones. The history of the Merchant Marine is long and noble.
While not a uniformed service, the Merchant Marine is a civilian auxiliary of the United States Navy.
In 1936, President Roosevelt signed legislation that changed the status of merchant mariners to military personnel during wartime. But their service to the nation long predates that legislation. In 1775, the Continental Congress issued Letters of Marque to privateers, authorizing acts by private citizens to secure enemy ships in order to interrupt the British supply chain along the eastern seaboard during the Revolutionary War. On June 12, 1775, a group of civilians in Maine did just that when facing orders from the British to unload ships or face the consequences. They chose the consequences and subsequently captured a British schooner on behalf of the future United States of America.
Merchant Marine service continued through all of America’s wars. In World War II, the Merchant Marines suffered the highest casualty rate of any branch of service, many losing their lives in battle off enemy coasts. During the Vietnam War, merchant marines were responsible for ferrying 95 percent of the cargo used by U.S. armed forces.
Despite the 1936 legislation declaring status as military personnel, despite their dedication and sacrifice, more than 50 years passed before merchant mariners were formally recognized for their service to the nation. In 1988, President Reagan signed a bill granting veteran status to merchant mariners who served in wartime. Prior to that law, merchant mariners were excluded from veterans benefits given to other members of the armed forces.
Today, the U.S. Merchant Marine fleet numbers more than 400 ships and includes nearly 70,000 members. Each ship in the service is American flagged and staffed, moving cargo up and down rivers, along the coasts and across the oceans. In 1998, that fleet of ships was reduced by one. The SS American Victory was an aging hero at anchor near Norfolk, Virginia, as part of the reserve fleet. At 53 years of age it was determined her service as a veteran of three wars would come to an end in a scrap yard. At the last moment, however, she was rescued, slated for preservation as a museum and a living monument to the service, heroism and dedication of the Merchant Marine. Today, she is berthed at the Port of Tampa. One of only three operational ships of her class remaining in existence.
By the mid-1940s, the United States had ramped-up industrial production for World War II to a level unprecedented in history. On June 20, 1945, the SS American Victory was launched as a merchant vessel to carry cargo into the Pacific theater. She was built in a mere 55 days. A Victory-class ship named for the American University in Washington, DC, her name was also prophetic. At her launching, American victory in the war was nearly assured.
After the war, she changed oceans and began carrying supplies to Europe under the Marshall Plan. She served during the Korean War and then in the Vietnam War, with chartered service for commercial cargo in years of peace.
In the 1960s, she nearly became part of the U.S. Naval Fleet in an ambitious plan to outfit ships with military supplies to be staged around the world near “flash points” in order to enhance global U.S. military readiness. Had that happened, she would have been re-christened as the USNS Carthage. By the mid-1960s the plan had been scrapped and the SS American Victory was eventually placed into an anchorage near Norfolk for reserve fleet vessels, where she would remain for nearly two decades. In 1985, she underwent a $2.5 million refit for restoration to operational readiness. Afterwards, the ship’s log shows she steamed just 26 hours before returning to her anchorage in the reserve fleet.
Through her history, she became a part of the fleet that built America into a superpower. She circumnavigated the world carrying everything from bombs to telephone poles. She successfully fended off hurricanes and, ultimately, the scrap yard to arrive at the Port of Tampa in 1999 as a museum.
Berthed behind the Florida Aquarium, the SS American Victory is open to the public for self-guided tours seven days a week. From stem to stern, her decks are open for roaming at leisure, along with the officers and crew quarters, the galley, mess hall, hospital and other parts of the ship. The American Victory is more than a floating museum, she remains in operational state and thus her engine room and cargo holds are not open to the public, although a good look at one of five holds has been opened for public viewing from one of the upper decks.
In recognition of her service, both in support of America’s military and now as a public resource, Governor Charlie Crist has named Tuesday, July 27, as SS American Victory Recognition Day in Florida. To celebrate this distinction, the American Victory Museum will offer half-priced admission on Saturday, July 31 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The event will also include free cake and coffee, along with frozen treats, and arts and crafts for children.
Former WFLA News anchor Bob Hite has long been a supporter of the SS American Victory and of Tampa’s maritime history. Through his years of reporting on issues surrounding Tampa Bay, he has played a significant role in the renewal of the city’s waterfront. With a U.S. Coast Guard Master 100 Ton license, he is also a member of the Merchant Marine.
“Tampa wouldn’t exist without the port,” Hite said. “For years the city of Tampa turned its back on the bay. It’s great that we now have the Florida Aquarium celebrating the marine environment and right there alongside it is the American Victory celebrating our maritime history. The ship exemplifies our maritime heritage.”
As an operational ship, much of the SS American Victory remains in its original state. As such, stairs are narrow and steep and most doorways contain high thresholds, something non-mariner visitors should keep in mind. Of course that is also what makes up the charm and magic of seeing it. Visitors are able to experience the ship much as the crew did over her long history.
Carlton Majette passed away a few years ago. As I quietly walked the decks of the American Victory and peered into the cabins, I thought about him, a decent man of integrity from Ruskin who became a good friend. Through this ship, I can see a side of him that I had never known. Just before departing, a museum volunteer offered a look inside the engine room. Peering into the cavernous space containing the ships engines and boilers, I could imagine Carlton as a young man, competently working to keep the ship moving, to keep America moving. In my mind I could see him as I looked down through four decks, a proud Merchant Marine working hard to save the world.