Memorial Day Ceremony pays special tribute to Merchant Marines

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Robert Perea, The Fernley Reporter

More than 250,000 Americans served in the U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II and suffered more casualties proportionately than all other branches of the armed forces.

Monday, the Nevada Veterans Coalition and a crowd of more than 2,000 paid tribute to the Merchant Marine as part of the annual Memorial Day Ceremony at Northern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery.

Kevin Tokarski, the Associate Administrator for strategic sealift for the U.S. Department of Transportation, Maritime Administration, said the legacy of service and patriotism of the Merchant Marine predates the founding of our nation and continues to this day as they serve a critical ongoing role supporting America’s national security and economic prosperity.

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That role was vital to the cause of the Allied Nations during World War II, Tokarski said.

“Maritime transport was the jugular vein of the United Nations war effort,” Tokarski said, quoting War shipping administrator, Real Admiral Emory S. Land in a message to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1946.

Tokarski said a total of 5,638 Merchant Marine seamen and officers were lost at sea and 581 were made prisoners of war.

“Through the first part of 1943, casualties amongst the seagoing force were greater proportionally than in all the armed services combined, and unreported thousands were injured, under attack or waiting rescue,” Tokarski said.

To recognize the role the Merchant Marine played in World War II, and subsequently in Vietnam, Korea, southeast Asia, Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. Sen Dean Heller, Rep. Mark Amodei and Gov. Brian Sandoval’s office made special presentations to a pair of World War II Merchant Marine officers, Bill Lepore and Charles Montanaro.

“In his address to Congress the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, president Roosevelt spoke about the American people’s righteous mind, and he said ‘With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph, so help us God.,’” Heller said. “And we did, thanks to the brave men like Bill and Charles.”

Heller said contribution of the Merchant Marines allowed for the Allied victory during World War II, but their commitment didn’t come without grave losses.

“The inspirational journey of our state and our nation would not have been possible without the courage of countless sailors, soldiers, airmen, marines, Coast Guard, and Merchant Marines, whose legacies are felt every day, here at home and around the world,” he said.

Because the Merchant Marine lacked the centralized record keeping, there is no official casualty rate for Merchant Marines and that is why they’re often referred to as the forgotten, or unsung heroes, of World War II.

“But we haven’t forgotten their sacrifice or lost sight of their critical role in the second World War and the pivotal role they continue to play in the defense of our nation,” Heller said. “Bill and Charles, thank you for being here to remind all of us of it.”

Tokarski said throughout our nation’s history, our armed forces have relied on our Merchant Marine to enable a projection of power overseas and to resupply our forces for sustained combat operations. “These civilian mariners and the commercial U.S. flagships they sail provide a strategic advantage for our war fighters,” he said.

Master of Ceremonies Fred Wagar, Deputy Director of Benefits and Services for the Nevada Department of Veterans Services, said those in attendance showed that they understand the true meaning of Memorial Day.

“Memorial Day is a wonderful day to spend with families and friends, but the day means so much more than time off to go do a barbecue or just hang out,” he said. “It says to those who have served and those who have given all in service that their sacrifice will always be remembered. Not only those that died in combat, but those that served behind the lines, providing support for those in combat and those training here at home.”

Following his speech, Tokarski presented the Nevada Veterans Coalition with an encased set of all the Merchant Marine medals and ribbons earned for service from World War II through Korea, Vietnam, southeast Asia, Iraq and Afghanistan. A special display case will be built for the collection.

Heller capped his keynote speech by paying tribute to the Nevada families who have lost loved ones in service to our country.

“These families have paid a price beyond measure, but because of their sacrifice, we remain an extraordinary and free nation,” Heller said. “Today we reflect on the lives of all the men and women who rest here in Fernley and we’re reminded that freedom is not free. So may God bless our troops and our great country, a country that is so great because of all those that have served.”

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