Thank you, Midshipman Vega for that introduction. It’s an honor to address this distinguished group of maritime industry leaders, veterans, Federal employees, and of course, U.S. Merchant Mariners.
I want to thank Acting Administrator Lessley for her leadership, and Reverend Nestlehutt for his moving invocation. Thank you also to General Lyons, Chairman Maffei, Admiral Schultz, Bishop Cahill, and all the other esteemed participants in today’s program.
Today, as the Department of Transportation honors the service and sacrifice of this country’s merchant mariners, I’m reminded of the small bronze plaque that President Kennedy kept on his desk in the Oval Office. Inscribed on it was an old fisherman’s prayer: “God, Thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.”
The storms of the past year—both figurative and literal—have been a reminder of how fragile our way of life truly is.
On land, our dockworkers—who have to work in close quarters every day—have contracted the virus at disproportionate rates.
At sea, some of our merchant mariners were quarantined abroad—far away from home, and from their families.
One chaplain—a 27-year-old from the Seaman’s Church Institute—recalled hearing from mariners who missed the death of a parent, or the birth of a child.
I can only imagine that many of those onboard merchant vessels must have felt, this past year, like the storm would never pass, and land was nowhere in sight.
And yet, at the same time, our merchant mariners and maritime industry workers have helped steer the entire country through these treacherous waters.
In the midst of a global economic crisis, you kept freight moving, helped industries stay afloat, and prevented entire economies from sinking.
In the face of a shortage of medical equipment, you delivered lifesaving protective gear to the frontline medical workers who needed it most.
And in a year that saw one climate disaster after another, you brought critical goods, supplies, and hope to those communities.
Most Americans probably don’t think about how the furniture in their living rooms, the clothes in their closets, or the phones in their pockets got there. They might not think about the ships that carried those goods to our shores, or the mariners who crewed them, or those at the ports waiting to unload.
But for over 240 years, merchant mariners have worked tirelessly to connect the nation, and the world. Today, we honor that service, and the sacrifices that came along the way.
I can think of no better tribute to the merchant mariners and maritime workers we celebrate today than continuing to work to make their jobs better, safer, and more secure.
That’s part of what we hope to accomplish with the American Jobs Plan, which would invest $17 billion in inland waterways, coastal ports, and ferries—all of which mariners need to do their jobs safely.
It also includes a new Healthy Ports program, to mitigate air pollution in the neighborhoods surrounding our ports—which are often home to communities of color.
Our longshore workers, shipyard workers, and other maritime industry laborers have been hit hard by the pandemic. They’ve lost wages, jobs, and lives. We can never repair those losses. But we can rebuild our infrastructure—maritime and otherwise—in a way that puts American workers first.
That’s why the President’s plan guarantees that the goods and materials for infrastructure investments are made in America, and shipped on U.S.-flag, U.S.-crewed vessels.
And that guarantee extends beyond the American Jobs Plan. This Administration is firmly committed to upholding the Jones Act, which President Biden has called the cornerstone of our domestic maritime industry.
For nearly a century, we have used Maritime Day to honor the mariners who protect our economic prosperity during peacetime, and our national security during war. From Dr. Billie L. Pennings, who we honor today for her service in World War II, to the maritime workers who serve now.
But the date itself—May 22—marks another moment in history.
On that day, 202 years ago, the SS Savannah became the first steamship to navigate the Atlantic Ocean. In many ways, that voyage was the first chapter in our nation’s history as a maritime power.
But just three years later, during a bad storm on a night with no visible stars, the Savannah ran aground on a sandbar off Long Island. It was battered by waves for days, and eventually, it sprung a leak and sank.
So what did we do? We built a lighthouse. And for decades after, the Fire Island Lighthouse helped guide transatlantic ships safely to shore. For many immigrants, its light was the first sign that they had arrived in America.
At times like this, when the storm clouds are heavy, and the stars can’t be seen in the sky, we have a duty to protect the mariners and maritime industry workers who have always protected us. To be their beacon in the night, guiding them safely back home.