Oft-overlooked, the civilian Merchant Marine of the United States has faced just as many dangers at sea as the Navy, the Coast Guard, and the Marine Corps. Dating back to the birth of the Republic, unarmed and lightly-armed Merchant Mariners have, throughout history, faced down enemy naval ships and submarines dedicated to destroying the supply lifelines of the United States.
Forcible impressment of American Merchant Mariners into the British Navy was one of the key causes of the War of 1812. Merchant Mariners were the preferred targets of Barbary Pirates and remain the target of Somali Pirates even today. During the Civil War, Confederate Commerce Raiders seized and sank scores of Northern Merchant Marine vessels. During two World Wars, Merchant Marine vessels faced sinkings at the hands of German U-boats in the Atlantic and Japanese I-boats in the Pacific.
The American Merchant Marine Memorial lies just offshore of the Staten Island Ferry Slip in lower Manhattan. Based on a World War II photograph, it captures, with disturbing realism, several doomed seamen atop a sinking vessel: one shouts for help, a second kneels in shock, a third reaches down not quite far enough toward the hand, extending out of the water, of a drowning mate.
The scene, according to the statue's plaque, was "inspired by [an enemy] photograph of the victims of a submarine attack" in World War II. "Left to the perils of the sea, the survivors later perished."