KINGS POINT, NY – November 17, 2015. This year’s fall training cruise aboard the United States Merchant Marine Academy’s (USMMA) Training Vessel, T/V Kings Pointer, was unlike any other. The midshipmen, officers and crew aboard became part of history when they delivered a binnacle from the SS Mayaguez to the Pentagon for a future exhibit.
The binnacle which was previously on display at The American Merchant Marine Museum, on the grounds of USMMA, will be installed in the Vietnam 50th Commemoration in 2016. The U.S.-Flag SS Mayaguez was captured and recovered in 1975 in what later became known as the “Mayaguez Incident,” the last battle of the Vietnam War.
On November 1, T/V Kings Pointer, under the command of Capt. Adam Donohoe, got underway with 27 cadets, 8 professional mariners and 3 Navy Reservists aboard, many not yet aware of the historic cargo that they would offload in Baltimore. Midshipmen took turns conning the vessel under supervision of the licensed crew.
The next day Delaware River Pilot Joseph Morrissey (coincidentally a Kings Pointer, Class of ‘91) brought the vessel upriver, and halfway through the C&D Canal. At Chesapeake City, a Maryland pilot boarded and guided the vessel the rest of the way, to Clinton Street Pier 1, astern of another historic vessel, the SS John W. Brown, a Liberty Ship from WWII.
On the morning of November 3, midshipmen and crewmembers delivered the SS Mayaguez flying bridge binnacle to Mr. Eric Marr, of the United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration Commission, for further transport to the Office of Secretary of Defense Historical Exhibits Curator, Albert Jones. Midshipman 1st Class Austin Neuman said, “I built the crate for it, and a few others took part in loading and discharging it. It was very cool to take part in moving a big piece of history.”
The SS Mayaguez was built in 1946 as a C-2 type vessel for Grace Lines and was originally christened Santa Eliana. She was converted to cargo container ship in 1964. In 1966, she was purchased by Sea-Land Services and renamed the SS Mayaguez. The vessel, crewed by U.S. Merchant Mariners, actively supported military operations throughout the Vietnam War. On May 12, 1975, Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime attacked and seized the vessel in international waters. The crew was captured and were held as prisoners. The U.S. Military located the vessel at anchor near Koh Tang, an island approximately 50 miles off the coast of Cambodia near the border of Vietnam. President Gerald Ford declared the seizure “an act of piracy” and ordered military action. Although the entire crew was released and the vessel was recovered, the battle that followed resulted the loss of 41 Marines and Airmen who were killed or missing in action, and 50 wounded.
Dr. Joshua Smith, Interim Director of the American Merchant Marine Museum, explained the significance of the binnacle. “This binnacle helps commemorate the fact that merchant mariners were deeply involved in the Vietnam conflict, from 1945 all the way to 1975. As always, they delivered the goods to the best of their abilities, despite sniper, rocket attacks, limpet mines, and the threat of capture and torture. American merchant seamen were and remain a vital part of defending American interests overseas.”
Smith said, “as a part of the Maritime Administration, the American Merchant Marine Museum is really pleased to see that the civilian mariner contribution to the Vietnam conflict is being so prominently displayed in the Pentagon. And I'm really excited that Capt. Donohoe, the officers and crew of the T/V Kings Pointer, and the midshipmen were willing to work so hard to deliver this priceless relict to Baltimore."
The Vietnam 50th Commemoration is still in the planning process. Exhibit details will be announced at The United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration website.
By Veronica Cassidy Barry, with contributions from Capt. Adam Donohoe, Midshipman 1st Class Austin Newman, and Midshipman 3rd Class Nathan Miller.