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Artists Making Waves: The American Merchant Memorial Statue

This Memorial serves as a market for America’s Merchant Mariners resting in the unmarked ocean depths.

The American Merchant Mariners Memorial statue, built by Marisol Escobar and dedicated in 1991, is tucked away in Battery Park south of Pier A. The statue portrays a striking image: four men on a sinking ship, calling for help clinging to life. This image is based on a true event, developed from a photograph, and has come to represent thousands of lives lost. How can one piece of art represent a chapter of history?

On March 22, 1943, an American ship called the SS Muskogee was hit by a torpedo and sunk by a Nazi U-Boat on its way from Venezuela to Halifax. The ship was transporting petroleum and carrying a crew of 34 men, led by Captain William Betts. 10 mariners held tight to their sinking ship. The German soldiers in their submarine photographed the group, and the mariners plead to be taken aboard as prisoners but they were told there was no room. The crew members of the US Muskogee were never seen again. The photograph, however, has survived to today.

When Marisol submitted a proposal for her monument, she developed sketches based on the photograph. Marisol had developed a reputation over the previous decades for her sculpted figures and her art’s commentary on American society. In this piece, one of the four men hangs off the side trying to reach his comrade’s hand. Each time the tide comes in, this figure gets completely submerged, metaphorically drowning twice each day with only his fingertips above the water, just out of his friend’s reach. Though the faces of these men are specific, they represent the thousands of lives lost at sea during World War II.

The Merchant Marine was the first American service brought into World War II, transporting resources and fuel to ally countries. The local recruiting effort was massive and intense; thousands of young men joined the Marine, and even retired members came back to support the war efforts. The Marine, unlike the Navy, could accept sailors with physical ailments and conditions, and those who were too old or young for military service, and as Marine service grew in important, it grew in both danger and size.

It is estimated that one of every 26 mariners during World War II never came home. More than thirty ships vanished (and to this day have not been found), and Merchant Mariners were lost at a higher and faster rate than in any over American service during the second World War. Over 8,000 were killed at sea, at least 12,000 were seriously wounded, and hundreds were taken captive or prisoner. Dozens more died aboard prison ships while being transported between camps. This statue honors, as the inscription states, thousands of lost lives in the “unmarked ocean depths.”

The American Merchant Mariners Memorial statue at the southern tip of Manhattan tells more than one crew’s story. Every day, New Yorkers and visitors line up to experience this statue in person and honor the lives taken at sea. But if you’re at Battery Park and you’re not looking for this statue, you may miss it entirely.

Should more attention be called to the statue, or does the inconspicuous nature of its location keep it poignant and special? If you were tasked with creating a piece of art to represent a chapter of history, where would you start? What makes images matter?