AOS Featured Stories: A Faith Filled Life on the Sea
Capt. John D. Smith
US Merchant Marine Veteran
Mobile Bar Pilot, LLC
I joined my first ship as deck cadet aboard the S.S. Green Wave, then under MSTS charter, which departed from my home port of Mobile, Alabama, with a full load of supplies for our US troops serving in Vietnam and South East Asia. Multiple visits were made to Hawaii, the Philippines via the San Bernardino Straits, South Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia, from the US Gulf and West coasts. I happily completed the balance of my sea year sailing with Lykes Lines aboard the SS Louise Lykes, the SS Jean Lykes calling on countries in the Mediterranean Sea, including Spain, Italy, Lebanon, Turkey and Greece.
Upon graduating from the US Merchant Marine Academy, I shipped out of the hall with the International Organization of Master's Mates and Pilots, serving as third mate to chief mate with a number of US flag shipping companies including Sea-Land, U.S. Lines, AMOCO, and Lykes Lines out of New Orleans LA.
I was married in 1978 to my lovely wife Valery at St, Mary's Church, Manhasset, LI, New York, thus beginning a beautiful merchant marine family, filled with the joyful blessings of two boys, John Jr. (Jay) and Stephen, and one girl, Tara. Over the subsequent decade in my life as a merchant mariner, my supportive wife and extended family network helped fuel my life at sea with joy and strong emotional support during the trying times at sea away from home - in war and in peace.
During my seagoing career I was fortunate to visit some 63 countries over 5 continents. Seeing the world for free as a mariner led to my love of adventure travel that has subsequently led me to climbs of Green Mountain on Ascention Island, Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, Mount Sinai, Egypt, Machu Picchu, Peru and peaks in Montana.
The happiest voyages I made in the U.S. merchant marine were in the "missionary service" of the United States, delivering humanitarian goods to many underdeveloped nations in Africa, South America and the Far East. At the time, some 100 US-flag commercial cargo ships were engaged in this silent service for many decades. Tens of thousands of tons of sacks of flower, wheat, lentils, beans, and tins of cooking oil were delivered worldwide. I was proud that my ship mates also adopted an orphanage in the port of Mombasa, Kenya, and helped to feed the
needy in the streets of Maputo, Mozambique, Batumi, Republic of Georgia and other ports with private crew contributions on top of US government consignments to those ports as well.
While commanding the SS Elizabeth Lykes during Operation Desert Storm, I founded the Save Our Ships Campaign, together with Betty Coerber of the Adopt-A-Ship program from Fond du Lac, WI. The campaign grew from the initial support of my crew and Betty’s classroom of 5th grade school children into a national grassroots campaign of some 30,000 Americans in support of enabling legislation to save the core of our vanishing US-flag commercial shipping fleet and jobs under the threat of extinction. The Maritime Security Act of 1996 was finally passed after 6 years of national educational campaign, walking the halls of Congress, the White House and the Pentagon, working together with many US. maritime organizations, media, maritime academies, advanced training institutes, organized labor, families, ships at sea and the Apostleship of the Sea of the USA.
Today, about a fleet of about 70 large multipurpose US flagships, supporting the critical mass of our US fleet, US seafarer pool and their families, are currently enrolled in the nation's Maritime Security Fleet (MSF) program. The MSF forms the heart of a robust US Flag fleet of some 1000 ships in the domestic, international and reserve fleet capable of serving the humanitarian, military and commercial needs of the nation.
During the Save Our Ships Campaign years, I became a personal friend with Fr Sinclair Oubre, a passionate Catholic Priest, and President of the Apostleship of the Sea of the USA, and his many colleagues who linked up with our grassroots coalition to advocate for seafarers’ jobs and safe working conditions for all merchant mariners. Even today, the fight to preserve the "Jones Act Fleet", the Maritime Security Fleet Program, Cargo Preference Laws, and our US maritime academies, maritime Labor, and our advance maritime educational research and development programs must continue unabated, in order to advance US economic and national security.
After becoming a marine pilot with the Mobile Bar Pilots, at Fr Oubre's request, I accepted the position as mariner representative on the Board of the Apostleship of the Sea of the USA (AOSUSA) in 2003. During subsequent years I was proud to see the AOSUSA successfully launch the Cruise Ship Priests program, to minister to passenger and crew serving in the US passer ship trade.
As an offshoot of my association with AOSUSA, I have been honored to minister in small ways to seafarers of many nationalities and them to me, while serving as a Mobile Bar Pilot. I am even more strengthened and edified by the many good crews of many flags now, working under extreme hardships, with smiles and positive attitudes, who find themselves far away from home to provide financial support for family and loved ones and service to nation. Since September 11th, stringent new regulations in many US ports combined with economic restraints have unfortunately made seafarers’ visits ashore for shopping, phoning home, and attending religious services in US seaports more difficult than ever.
These are issues that need attention and resolution over the months and years ahead. This is where AOS, state and local authorities must come together for common sense solutions to better serve our many merchant marine visitors to US seaports every year. The valued service seafarers provide to our communities, national economy, and global trade needs to be recognized as well.
That is why it is so important that the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance for seafarers and all people of the sea is celebrated in the USA every May 22nd. We should never forget their sacrifices, lives lost in war and in peace, and their continuous contribution as merchant marines to their families and nation, as we seek to overcome the new dangers, including piracy, wars, natural disasters, economic privation, and political unrest and hot spots around the oceans of the world in which they navigate.May God bless and protect all in the merchant marine, in the service of the sea, ashore or afloat, and keep them in our prayers on National Maritime Day this year and every year.