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National Maritime Day

Merchant Mariners to be honored in Cape Coral on Saturday

By CJ HADDAD - | May 20, 2021

A courageous group and military auxiliary that can be referred to as the “unsung heroes” of World War II will mark their annual day of celebration this Saturday.

The Merchant Marine, an auxiliary to the U.S. Navy in any military conflict and transporters of good in peace times, will celebrate National Maritime Day on May 22.

At Cape Coral’s Eco Park Veterans Memorial Area, local Merchant Mariners who served during World War II will be honored, as will the memory of four Merchant Mariners from Lee County who lost their lives in the sinking of the SS El Faro in 2015.

The ceremony takes place this Saturday at 10:30 a.m. under the pavilion. A Merchant Marine monument was dedicated at the veteran area in 2019, joining many others at the site.

“It’s a day where the country comes together to honor and recognize the services of the Merchant Marine past, present, and the future. The Merchant Marine are vital to not only our national, but economic security,” said Dru DiMattia, chairman of the Merchant Marine Memorial Committee in Southwest Florida, and a 30-year Merchant Mariner.

Late Cape Coral Mayor Joe Coviello was instrumental in having the Merchant Marine memorial included at Eco Park, as his two sons, Ross and Alex, are both Merchant Mariners and graduates of the United States Merchant Marine Academy. His wife, Diane, will be in attendance at the event.

“The Coviellos, it’s in their DNA,” DiMattia said. “They understand the Merchant Marine industry, and their commitment to service to country in the Merchant Marine speaks highly of them.”

World War II Merchant Mariners to be honored are Morris Buxton, 97, from Cape Coral; Jim Sciple, 97, from North Fort Myers; George Koch, 97, from Rotunda and Dr. Billie Pennings, 99, from Texas and currently residing in Naples.

Sanibel Mayor Holly Smith will also attend the event, as her father, Capt. Granville Smith, was in the Merchant Marine during World War II.

The four Merchant Mariners who lost their lives in the El Faro incident are Howard Schoenly and Steven Shultz from Cape Coral, Keith Griffin of Fort Myers and Jeremy Riehm of Bokeelia.

The SS El Faro left Jacksonville for Puerto Rico on Sept. 29, 2015 when it eventually encountered Hurricane Joaquin, a Category 3 storm two days later. Reports indicate the ship likely took on swells of 20 to 40 feet and nearly 100 mph winds. On Oct. 1, the ship ceased all communications and the next day was declared missing. On Oct. 5, the ship was deemed sunk and, on the 7th, the search was called off.

The widow of one of the local Merchant Mariners on the SS El Faro will be present at the ceremony, and recently connected with Diane Coviello.

“While National Maritime Day is a time to bring to light the continued service to our country, but at the same time it’s a somber moment when you realize some of the connected tissue that is right here in our neighborhood,” DiMattia said.

The ceremony will include a National Maritime Day proclamation read by Cape Coral City Councilmember Jennifer Nelson. DiMattia also received a proclamation from Gov. Ron DeSantis.

DiMattia was the driving force behind the construction of the Merchant Marine memorial at Eco Park that features a Ship’s Bronze Wheel (or propeller), a granite memorial stone, plaque and U.S. Merchant Marine flag.

The granite stone inscription reads: “A memorial to all who served in the U.S. Merchant Marine and the Navy Armed Guard. ‘In Peace and War.'”

It also details the lost lives of 6,839 Merchant Mariners, as well as the 1,810 lives of Navy Armed Guardsmen, accompanied by an image of a Liberty Ship.

There are fewer than 1,800 Merchant Mariners from World War II still alive today.

“St. Petersburg was the home of a maritime training station that trained over 25,000 during World War II,” DiMattia said.

Merchant Mariners have been working for recognition of their efforts in World War II for decades. It took Merchant Mariners 43 years to receive veteran status in 1988 for their efforts in the early 1940s. While earning veteran status was a victory, many Merchant Mariners from that time were an average age 60, missing out on the G.I Bill and other useful veteran programs.

While the Merchant Marine are civilian mariners, they were, in fact, involved in heavy combat 75 years ago.

The U.S. Merchant Marine was incorporated in 1775 and has participated as the nation’s maritime fleet in peace and every war since and is two days older than the U.S. Army.

Their role in World War II was not just of significant importance, but of great loss.

The Merchant Mariners played the silent role of the first responders of World War II, by assisting the British — who were standing alone waiting for the impending Nazi regime — by sending goods.

These supplies helped the British and Churchill stave off the Germans before the United States “officially” entered the war in late 1941 after Pearl Harbor.

During World War II, one in 26 mariners serving aboard merchant ships died in the line of duty — a greater percentage of war-related deaths than all other U.S. services.

A total of 1,768 U.S. merchant ships were sunk, damaged, captured or detained during World War II.

Originally, Merchant Marine ships were not equipped with weaponry of any kind. It wasn’t until ships began to get taken down in high numbers that the Navy Armed Guard came aboard, giving these vessels a fighting chance in the event on an enemy strike.

On March 14, 2020, World War II Merchant Mariners — after many, many years of efforts — were awarded Congressional Medals of Honor thanks to efforts by the American Maritime Partnership and congressmen around the country. DiMattia is actually part of the design process for these prestigious medals.

“The final design is being decided and should be struck by the end of the summer,” he said.

Then-President Donald Trump signed the Congressional Gold Medal Act, recognizing the mariners and their vital contribution to the Allied victory that took place 75 years ago.

An average of 250,000 Merchant Mariners and 144,970 U.S. Navy Armed Guard — enlisted and officers — served during World War II.

The Merchant Marine plays a vital role in transporting goods on U.S. flagged vessels controlled by mariners, such as grain, other agricultural products and petroleum, to name a few.

Throughout the ongoing pandemic, Merchant Marine ships have played a vital role in transporting goods needed on the front lines. Two medical Navy ships that came into New York City’s harbor to help with coronavirus patients — Comfort and Mercy — were manned and operated by Merchant Marine.

Merchant Mariners also had to endure extensive voyages when ports were shut down due to COVID-19. Many members had to miss births of children or were not able to join family to mourn the loss of a loved one.

The Merchant Marine also was called upon to transport fuel and oil to the lower states when the Colonial Pipeline was shut down after being hacked.

“The Merchant Marine maintains so much industry of the supply chain,” DiMattia said.

The event is free and open to the public. Eco Park Veterans Memorial Area is at 2500 S.E. 24th St.

–Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj