Normally when someone thinks of the various military academies in the United States, they immediately recite the names West Point, Annapolis and the Air Force Academy. However, there are two others as well – both of which, like their larger siblings, meet the task of preparing young men and women to take their places in safeguarding the United States. These schools are the United States Merchant Marine Academy and the United States Coast Guard Academy.
From the time of Ulysses S. Grant, the United States government had sought to train citizens for merchant marine service. One need only glance at the map to understand why.
The United States is very much a maritime nation. Bordered on the east and west by oceans, a large gulf to the south, grand sized lakes to the north and a large number of rivers cutting through vast amounts of the land area, the nation’s maritime exposure is vast. Each day that passes witnesses the arrival and departure of numerous ships. A fleet of oil tankers, cargo ships, tug boats and barges fill the various waterways on a continuous basis. The U. S. merchant marine is composed of the vessels among this collection which operate under the American flag.
During World War II, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz stated with more than 4,000 miles of sea lanes across the Pacific, the merchant ships which sailed the waters played a vital role in the US offensive against Japan. He felt the war emphasised the need for a strong, sound merchant marine working as an auxiliary of the Navy and Army during wartime, in addition to the tremendous job they did for the country during peace time.
Few people are aware of what it takes to handle the ins and outs of this immense flotilla. The ships which come and go affect both the national economy and security of the United States. On average, the US imports approximately one-third of the world’s goods on an annual basis. Roughly 99% of these imports arrive via the merchant marine fleet.
While at sea, a ship is not a country unto itself. The entire operation, from start to finish, is monitored. Many of the well-educated and dedicated men and women who oversee this important task begin their careers at either the U. S. Merchant Marine Academy or the U. S. Coast Guard Academy.
Located in picturesque Kings Point, NY on Long Island’s North Shore, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy was dedicated on September 30, 1943 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. During the dedication, FDR stated, “The Academy serves the Merchant Marine as West Point serves the Army and Annapolis the Navy.”
Prior to the opening of the academy, most maritime training took place aboard schoolships and during internships at sea. In 1934, a catastrophic fire took place aboard the SS Morro Castle, resulting in 134 lives being lost. The disaster woke Congress to the need for standardized training. In 1936, the Merchant Maritime Act was passed and two years later, training of the first cadets began at temporary facilities set up prior to the construction of the permanent campus in Kings Point.
As with West Point, Annapolis and the Air Force Academy, a cadet’s admission to the US Merchant Marine Academy requires nomination by the candidate’s US Representative or Senator. On Acceptance Day, the candidate is classified as a midshipman after taking an oath of office into the U. S. Navy Reserve. Following graduation, the options available to USMMA cadets are different from those of West Point, Annapolis and the Air Force Academy. Rather than going directly into active duty service in their school’s military branch, a USMMA graduate has the option to fulfill his/her service obligation as a licensed officer aboard US flagged merchant vessels or as a civilian in the maritime industry. They may also elect to receive a commission as an active duty officer in any branch of the United States armed forces. Those who elect to work on the civilian side are required to both maintain a Naval Reserve commission for a minimum of eight years and serve in the maritime industry for a minimum of five years following graduation.
During World War II, the academy’s program was altered and all its resources dedicated toward meeting wartime needs of merchant marine officers. Rather than the normal four year course of study, instruction time was cut to 24 months at the academy, with continuous training following aboard ship. By the end of the war, 6,634 officers had graduated.
The academy is now recognized as one of the world’s leading institutions for maritime training. As with the other military academies, enrollment was originally open only to male students. In 1974, the US Merchant Marine Academy welcomed its first female midshipmen – a full two years before the other four military academies.
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Located in New London, CT, the United States Coast Guard Academy is the smallest of the five U. S. military academies. The role of the Coast Guard Academy is to prepare fleet-ready officers for the U. S. Coast Guard. Graduates move from the academy directly into positions of leadership.
As with the other four military academies, honor is the foundation on which a cadet’s time at the academy is based. It plays a major part in all relationships on campus – cadet-to-cadet, cadet-to-officer, and officer-to-officer. Complete trust and integrity are vital for this close-knit society.
One of the highlights of a cadet’s training at the academy takes place aboard the U. S. Coast Guard Cutter Eagle, known as ‘America’s Tall Ship.’ The largest tall ship to still fly the Stars and Stripes, Eagle was built in Germany in 1936. Aboard Eagle, the cadets receive unparalleled training at sea for professional development and leadership. Classroom training in professional theory, navigation and engineering are put to use while character, teamwork and leadership skills are honed through the challenges confronted while living aboard.
Upon graduation, cadets receive commissions as Ensigns in the United States Coast Guard.