National Maritime Day, which falls on May 22 each year, was officially declared to commemorate the first successful passage of a steamship from the U.S. to England. Yet, the holiday incorporates so much more than that in these modern times. It celebrates the sacrifices that merchant marines made during World War II and the benefits that American ports bring to the economy.

The U.S.S. Savannah: The first steamship to cross the Atlantic

On May 22, 1819, a steamship left from its home port in Savannah, GA, headed to Liverpool, England. The ship reached its destination in 29 days and four hours, according to the Maritime Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation. Although the ship's sails did the majority of the work, the steam engine had no failures, and the successful voyage launched a new era of U.S. technological leadership and showed the world the power of steam.

Congress declared May 22 National Maritime Day via a joint resolution passed May 20, 1933. 

" … the President is authorized and requested annually to issue a proclamation calling upon the people of the United States to observe such National Maritime Day by displaying the flag at their homes or other suitable places and Government officials to display the flag on all Government buildings on May 22 of each year," the resolution read in part.

President Donald Trump upheld this request in 2017, asking for U.S. citizens to fly the flag and for boats to dress ship. It's likely he will do the same this year. 

During World War II, merchant marines transported nearly 270 billion tons of cargo for servicemembersDuring World War II, merchant marines transported nearly 270 billion tons of cargo for servicemembers

Merchant marines during World War II

U.S. shipyards and merchant marines were integral to the Allies' World War II victory. They were the first to enter the war, as their ships were captured or sunk before the U.S. officially entered the conflict. They were also the last to return, using their ships to bring servicemembers home.

Merchant ships were the only way the U.S. Armed Forces could fight in Europe, as they were needed to carry supplies ranging from food to tanks. As such, these marines sailed across the three major oceans and the Arctic Circle. They carried nearly 270 billion tons of cargo during the war, averaging a delivery rate of 17 million pounds an hour in 1945. 

For all their valor, merchant marines also sacrificed much during the war. Nearly one in 30 didn't return home, and the marines suffered the highest casualty rate of all U.S. military branches. Over 6,000 sailors and more than 700 ships were lost in the war.

Unfortunately, the survivors weren't given veterans benefits at the time, nor were the dead recognized for their service. For years, merchant marines were excluded from all celebrations commemorating the Armed Forces. Finally, the group won some veterans' rights and privileges after a long court battle that ended January 19, 1988. They gained additional rights 10 years later during a congressional ceremony recognizing Persian Gulf War veterans. Merchant marines were also commemorated at various national monuments, including the U.S. Navy Memorial and the World War II Memorial, both in Washington, D.C. The flags at the latter display the seals of the five services of the military: the Army, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the Coast Guard, the Army Air Corps and the Merchant Marines.

Celebrating National Maritime Day

The holiday is celebrated in many ways across the nation. As Maritime Executive noted, May 22 is not just a time to think of the history of the merchant marines but also to recognize how the nation's ports bring jobs and economic development.

"America's seaports support 23.1 million jobs, annually generate more than $321 billion in federal, state and local taxes, account for over a quarter of the U.S. economy and handle more than 2.2 billion metric tons of international and domestic cargo," said Kurt Nagle, president and CEO of the American Association of Port Authorities, to the publication. "From these statistics alone, it's clear that ports play a vital role in supporting our national economy, jobs, tax resources and their communities."

This year, Americans can acknowledge this day of remembrance by flying the flag, attending local events and learning more about the history of maritime merchants during World War II.