In our industry, we’ve been blessed with so many great merchant mariners, who have given us high standards to live up to. Some of these men and women have
achieved recognition in popular culture, and some haven’t. But these famous merchant mariners have carved out a legacy that makes us proud to have the privilege of sailing the high seas.
As your ‘seasource’ to the world, it’s our duty at Out2Sea.com to share their stories.
1. Charles Fryatt
While seldom given the recognition he deserves in America, Captain Charles Fryatt tops our list of famous merchant mariners you should know. He served as captain of the British merchant ship Brussels during one of the most precarious time periods in the history of the shipping industry — World War I.
While journeying from Britain to Holland in March of 1915, Captain Fryatt’s ship came under attack by a U-boat. Rather than give up his ship, Fryatt attempted to ram the attacking U-boat. His decision likely saved his crew from capture or death. Unfortunately a year later, Fryatt found himself surrounded by German destroyers and forced to surrender his cargo.
He was taken captive and later executed for the “crime” of attempting to sink an attacking German submarine. The event sparked international outcry at the time, and Fryatt went down in history as a martyr.
2. Anna Shchetinina
Women continue to play a decisive role in the merchant marine. But Anna Shchetinina made our list of famous merchant mariners for being the first known woman to serve as captain of a merchant vessel. Also serving during a precarious time, Shchetinina worked in the frozen Baltic sea during World War II. In her role, she transported war cargoes for the Soviet Union.
She first assumed the role of captain well before the war, at the young age of 27. Years after the fighting ended, she became an instructor at Leningrad Marine Engineering College and quickly rose to the level of dean. Over the years, she received many distinguished honors. She even published a book, titled On the Seas and Beyond the Seas. There still stands a monument, in Vladivostok, Russia in her honor.
3. Hugh Mulzac
Hugh Mulzac will forever be remembered as the first African-American ship captain. His activism against the racial prejudice that dominated the industry at the time has also earned him significant recognition.
After receiving training in Britain, Mulzac passed the U.S. shipmaster exam with a perfect score of 100 in 1920. This qualified him to serve as a captain in the U.S. merchant marine. However, because of his race, he was relegated to the role of cook until the outbreak of war a couple decades later. The U.S. merchant marine suffered immense casualties at the hands of German submarines during the war, creating a shortage of qualified sailors.
But when they finally asked Mulzac to captain a vessel, they told him he needed to have an all-black crew. Courageously, Mulzac refused. His stubbornness attracted the attention of the NAACP who helped pressure the Maritime Commission to rescind their segregation requirement.
In 1942, Mulzac became captain of a ship with an integrated crew. Throughout his years as a captain, he earned the utmost loyalty of his crew members.
4. Edwin O’Hara
One of the most famous merchant mariners in U.S. history, Edwin O’Hara died well before his time. But in so doing, he saved the lives of many fellow crew members. O’Hara was a young sailor who had graduated from the Merchant Marine’s Cadet Basic School in 1942, soon after the U.S. entered World War II. After his basic training, he received a placement aboard a ship called the SS Stephen Hopkins.
The ship was tasked with transporting military cargoes in the South Atlantic. O’Hara had the misfortune of encountering the horrors of the war on one of his first voyages. While on the way to Suriname, the Stephen Hopkins was intercepted by two German surface ships — a cruiser and a raider. When the Stephen Hopkins refused to surrender, both German ships opened fire, inflicting heavy losses on the American crew.
With the ship catching fire and sinking, the remaining crew members began clamoring to get in the lifeboat. However, they came under machine gun fire from the Germans. With very limited training in gunnery, Edwin O’Hara made his way to the 4-inch gun on board the Hopkins and unloaded the remaining five shells into the German cruiser, dealing it a fatal blow.
O’Hara was hit by German fire himself and mortally wounded — but he provided the cover for 19 of his friends to escape in the life boat. Months later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt posthumously awarded O’Hara a Merchant Marine Cadet Corps Distinguished Service Medal for his extraordinary bravery.
Can you think of any famous merchant mariners we may have missed? Let us know in the comments below!