Editor’s note: This article was submitted by the United Seamen’s Service, which has an office within the SIU hall in Jersey City, New Jersey.
The year was 1942. “Casablanca” was the Oscar-winning film, Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” was the top song, and the Dow bottomed out at 92. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt announced a national economic policy stabilizing wages, farm prices, and rents, and urged rationing scarce essential commodities.
The Second World War raged in both the Atlantic and Pacific, and in the midst of such historic events, the United Seamen’s Service (USS) was born with the mission providing services abroad for American seafarers. Within a short time, we did so at 144 global locations.
Now, 75 years later and in light of the technological events that have impacted shipping, vessels and the role of American seafarer along with globalization, our agency continues in fewer locations. But the services provided – nearly 200,000 each year – are still necessary.
It was FDR and the maritime unions who felt the urgency to provide assistance to the exhausted, battle-traumatized, wounded and vulnerable merchant seafarers – strangers in unsavory or small, run-down ports far from home where they would stay for weeks on end. Thus, the USS was founded. The founders would never recognize those harbors today: clean, sprawling and run by computers with some ships that if stood on their end, would exceed the height of the Empire State Building. Nevertheless, the USS services are still vital in six strategic locations across the globe.
America’s seafarers were the first casualties of World War II. In harm’s way as they manned the vessels that carried supplies to U.S. troops. The U.S. War Shipping Administration recognized a need and developed the idea of the USS, recommended it to FDR and on August 8, 1942 the agency opened its doors around the world.
The centers were a home away from home where, as a safe haven, they provided hearty meals, medical attention, hotel-like facilities, recreation and personal amenities among the many services that were available. Rest homes for the convoy-weary and even gift shops for the mariners wanting to bring mementos back home provided additional needed, and desired, services.
The war ended and while the needs for more than 100 centers abated, USS services focused on a changing commercial and political world. In 1950, the Korean War outbreak meant that Asian ports were busy and looking to the USS for help in meeting the needs of those seafarers manning vessels carrying supplies and munitions for the military. At the same time, the Italian government offered the agency rent-free space to open a center in Naples, and the USS opened seven facilities in the Middle East to serve the needs there.
The Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS), predecessor to the Navy’s Military Sealift Command, developed a relationship with the USS in 1950 and over the years has rendered invaluable assistance to our agency’s mission. The USS serves all American seafarers who deliver military cargo worldwide.
In 1965, our agency opened its first center in Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam. Many of the USS staff were the last to leave Saigon in 1975, including our present Executive Director, Roger Korner. Throughout our 75-year history, the USS has opened and closed centers as needed; virtually every experienced American seafarer can recall a stop at “the seamen’s center” in a harbor they have visited.
The USS is also in the book business, providing reading materials to seafarers. The American Merchant Marine Library Association (AMMLA), founded in 1921, became a USS affiliate in 1973 and has endeavored to make life at sea more enriching and entertaining for the crew by installing sea-going libraries on USNS, Ready Reserve Force, and U.S.-Flag commercial vessels worldwide.
In 1970, USS efforts in Congress resulted in a law signed by President Richard Nixon authorizing the Department of Defense to provide USS support “whenever the President finds it necessary in the interest of United States commitments abroad.”
As military conflict goes on, American merchant mariners continue to work to support U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and elsewhere. The delivery of services to U.S. prepositioning crews and U.S. Fleet Sailors continues to be a priority for the USS. Our centers in Diego Garcia (a small atoll in the Indian Ocean opened in 1981), Okinawa, Busan, and Bremerhaven work closely with military commands in these locations to meet the needs of all seafarers. Other locations are in Casablanca and Yokohama.
Throughout our history, the USS has striven to improve the seafarer’s quality of life by delivering necessary services to mariners from our port centers around the world. Over the years, we have had to adjust our course to keep our programs relevant; with the help of labor, management, and U.S. and allied governments, we have succeeded. In today’s complex transportation system, such cooperation is crucial.
Thus, within this context we are writing on behalf of the USS Board of Directors and the seafarers we serve to request your support in maintaining USS services worldwide.
Donations to the USS are tax deductible. They may be sent to United Seamen’s Service, 104 Broadway, Jersey City, NJ 07306 or donate through our crowd funding website: www.youcaring.com/ussrising or you may donate through the Combined Federal Campaign (CFC). Our CFC Donor Number is 12086.
SIU Secretary-Treasurer David Heindel recently noted, “If you have sailed into Bremerhaven, Germany; Casablanca, Morocco; Okinawa and Yokohama, Japan; Busan, Korea; and on the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, these centers are a home away from home for all seafarers. Many mariners have visited USS centers throughout their 75-year history and I am sure have many fond memories of them and their staff.
“The USS has been struggling to keep these centers open and needs our help,” he continued. “If you’re in a position to make a donation, in any amount, it would go a long way in assisting this organization to reach their goal in capital funding to maintain these facilities. Please visit their funding website and make your donation today.”
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