Lost At Sea

One of my favorite public art pieces in New York City is probably familiar to anyone who has ever waited in line for the Liberty Island Ferry. Located on the west side of Battery Park, the American Merchant Mariners’ Memorial is a haunting tribute to commercial seamen who lost their lives, for whatever reason, on the water.

The memorial, designed by artist Marisol, was based on a true event during World War II, in which a Nazi U-boat attacked an American merchant marine vessel. While the marines held on to their sinking vessel, the Nazis photographed the victims, then left. The memorial is directly inspired by one of those photographs.

Mariners 01

As you can see above, two men are desperately crying for help while a third tries to pull a victim from the water. I can’t tell you how moving this is at high tide, when the water laps at the man.

Mariners 02

Mariners 03

Mariners 04

Mariners 05

There is an unbelievable desperation in the piece, as the man struggles, veins practically bursting out of his arm, to grab hold of the seaman above and salvation as the merciless ocean tries to drag him down.

It’s all the more disturbing when you read the final line of the memorial’s plaque: “Left to the perils of the sea, the survivors later perished.” Despite their valiant efforts, they were dead from the start.

-SCOUT

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51 comments

  1. I am an amateur photographer, however, that is not the reason that I write this comment to you. My father was a Merchant Marine during World War II. He spoke of times when German subs followed his ship in the waters near Russia. Your photograph made me think of my father and the wonderful
    man–and father that he was.
    Thank you !

  2. Normally I find a vast majority of modern sculpture to be lacking in interest, but this is a good piece. Using the tide and location to benefit the piece like this is a great move.

  3. sources please, what ship, which U-boat, why ‘Nazi U-boat”? Why not Kriegsmarine?
    despite this sloppyness an interesting piece of artwork and rather powerful

    • Capt. George W. Duffy

      Gordon:

      Long story. I found photo in German newspaper on board German warship on which I was a prisoner of war in 1942. Paper is in my possesion (rather the worse for wear) but have also excellent print received from u-boat commander in 1987(?).

      Cordially.

      Captain George.

  4. Great pictures and awesome story.

    Gordon:

    I’d imagine that he used the term Nazi U-Boat because a NAZI U boat sunk the ship. You sound as if you’re offended by the term Nazi. Are you?

  5. I’ve been to NY a couple of times but I’ve never seen this before! I’ll put this in my must see list. :)

  6. I think nazi u boat would suffice….leaving folks to die like that was a trait of the nazi’s…beside who else had u boats? we didn’t fight kriegsmarine, we fought the nazi’s, gordon. with a bit of effort I am sure you can track down the sources gordon, the nazi’s documented everything.

    great pictures, thanks for sharing

  7. Thanks for photos of this amazing piece of passive kinetic sculpture. Great photos, but, as always, even greater story.

  8. Very moving piece… I was wondering, if anyone knew where I could find the original photograph that this was supposedly inspired by? Just curious. Anyways, one of the few very powerful sculptures I’ve seen in a long time.

  9. My father was also a proud Merchant Marine during WW II….if he were alive I wish I could show him this photograph. Now I really miss my father. Thank you for sharing this site.

  10. [Kicking Self] Arghh. I lived in or around NY for a couple of years and am amazed at all of the stuff that I missed. Thanks for bringing it back. Now to figure out what I’m missing in the Queen City of the West before I move on. Thanks for sharing your finds/treasures.

  11. Thanks for posting this. I didn’t know about this memorial, but now I can’t wait to see it.

  12. My dad was a Merchant Marine, as well–he signed up in June 1944, right out of high school (17 years old!!). He’s still around, and will turn 82 this June. My grandmother, God bless her, saved all his letters home. I recently shared them with the rest of my family. One of the stories he has told is about being in the North Sea, and picking up a sailor that had had three ships shot out from under him in the course of 24 hours. What brave boys they were–and they literally saved Western Civilization!!!

  13. What a sad story, but such a neat and wonderful memorial. I would love to see it in person.

  14. Ahhh, now this is something I have seen many times. I always show anyone I take to the Statue of Liberty/Battery Park this sculpture because it is just so evocative…

  15. Scout,
    this is an amazingly moving sculpture. The thoughts it provokes are extraordinary. good on you for taking the time to put it out there for the rest of us to see.
    Thanks

    Gordon: nah, can’t be bothered, it is spelled “Sloppiness” by the way.

    Scout, keep it up.

  16. FYI -

    You’re completely missing the point of this installation if you’re focusing on the Nazi aspect. It’s supposed to be a timeless monument to merchant marines lost at sea for ANY reason, not a monument intended to remind us that, say, Germany is the root of all evil. To think that any country is above committing the atrocity described is naive, and the piece should be a reminder that what is in question is basic humanity.

    Any comments continuing the Nazi debate will be deleted.

    -SCOUT

  17. Okay Okay, I’ve got your game Scouty….lure me in with the cute cat piccy’s and I’m now hooked…You have a cracking eye, especially where you live. It’s hard to see the wonder in your own back garden. (I drive past Stonehenge everyday) Fantabulously enjoyable and interesting photo’s & info.
    Thanks for sharing.

  18. The story of the Merchant Marines during WWII can never have enough justice done to it. This statue is an amazing and emotional piece of art.

    Thank you for sharing it.

  19. I wish I was the sculptor who made this work…… this is public sculpture at it’s very best .

  20. Oh wow…love this…it reminds me of Venice’s “Monumento alla Partigiana”…great blog!

  21. Well, this is a fantastic description, perhaps less becoming a scientist than a poet. ,

  22. Subba Rao Chaganti

    A very moving sculpture indeed! I have never been to New York. I am planning a trip shortly and this is a must on my trip. The sculpture represents, reminds and reinforces human values

  23. That looks really interesting, but it is a little creepy too.

  24. When is the best time of the day to view this exhibit? When is it low tide? I would like to see as much of it as possible without the lower portion of the artwork being covered by water. Thanks!

  25. I live in Lower Manhattan and walk this area a lot. I stumbled upon this a while back and had forgotten it until seeing this photo. Almost all the sculpture down in the “Battery” remembers World War I or II and being so near the sea, it really makes you grasp the horror both of naval battles and war. And, forgive me, but Hitler’s Nazi’s were the ones using U-Boats and sinking ships. Let’s not forget that. I’m a 9/11 survivor and I will remember who sent the planes (not all Muslims) but one man: Bin Laden and his thugs.

  26. why are people still talking about the nazi’s? german soldiers were not nazi’s. the german naval forces were not nazi’s. german military was by rule independent of politics. soldiers were not supposed to be fighting for politics. the only exception was the SS, who were not part of the traditional military. german soldiers fought for germany, not the political party ruling their country. do our soldiers fight for the democrats or republicans? haven’t we killed people during war? this memorial is awesome, and bringing politics into the discussion seems to do its universal message no favors.

  27. This was such great artwork. It should be shown everywhere. Wonderful pictures of the guy crying for help…

  28. My dad had two ships take out from under him by u-boats while sailing in convoys taking supplies to Europe. 1 in 26 mariners serving aboard merchant ships in World WW II died in the line of duty, suffering a greater percentage of war-related deaths than all other U.S. services. Even though they were an official, uniformed, armed service (created by the Merchant Marine Act of 1936) and were promised veteran status, they didn’t receive a chance to have veteran status until 1988. Great site that talks about the Merchant Marines in WW II: http://www.usmm.org/ww2.html

  29. Thank your for posting this. My husband is a Chief Engineer in the U.S. Merchant Marines. We met on a ship 30 years ago when he was an oiler and I was a messman. He has worked his way up through the ranks and it has been a tough way of life, but an important job! I am going to NYC this week and cannot wait to see this memorial. Again, thank you for sharing!!!

  30. I too had a father that was a merchant marine cadet then officer during WW2. Once torpedoed in the warm waters of the South pacific and survived. He mentioned the Jappanese were only interested in killing us (as compared to his other torpedo incident in January of 1943 in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic) whereas the Germans wanted to murder us (they surfaced and sprayed the survivors with machine gun fire–the Jappanese did not they just moved on to the next target). Great blog thank you!

  31. I stumbled upon this memorial site during my first visit to New York last weekend. I was so moved by it, as my father was a Merchant Marine during WWII. My dad’s ship was sunk off the coast of New York on his first voyage out…which would have been around 1942. He said the ship was struck (I think he said a submarine, but could have been a U-Boat), he said he didn’t have his life vest, so ran back to get it & when he came back the lifeboats were gone. He said he floated in the oily waters for hours until finally a boat came to his rescue. The sculpture is of four men, but a photo of 7 men was used for inspiration… I have to wonder if one of those men is my father. I wish he would have known about this Memorial before he passed away last year.

  32. Extremely moving tribute to the unsung heroes – the Merchant Marines. My dad was one and I always felt bad that this service wasn’t accorded the recognition and honors the other branches of the military did. I am making a point of visiting this work of art that I didn’t even know existed until reading this by Scout. Many thanks for shining a light, Mr. Scout!!!

  33. Capt. George W. Duffy

    I am the person who found the original photo in a German news paper when I was a prisoner aboard one of their warships in 1942. The seven men were among several survivors of an American oil tanker on its way from Venezuela to Halifax when it was torpedoed by the U-123. The tanker was the S.S. Muskogee owned by a New York, N.Y. company. The men on the raft and others were never seen again.

    Eventually, the Germans took me and 46 of my shipmates all the way to Java in the old Dutch East Indies, where we were handed over to the Japanese. Almost three years later, 28 of us survived and returned to civilization.

    Capt. George W. Duffy.

  34. Wow, that is amazing. I especially love the effect with the tides.

  35. After living in the Seaport for a number of year I finally saw this work. I couldn’t agree more how powerful this work is. What an amazing tribute to the men and women who have lost their lives.

  36. To Capt. George W. Duffy, Thank you, from the bottom of my hart, for your service. I salute you sir.

  37. What Chris said.

    We will be in town next month – I want to see this. Where exactly in the park is it, and when is the best time to see it (I assume at times its not visible due to the tide?) What a haunting, beautiful memorial.

  38. For anyone who’s interested, here’s a web page pertaining to the event:
    http://uboat.net/allies/merchants/1464.html

    “At 17.56 hours on 22 Mar, 1942, the unescorted and unarmed Muskogee (Master William W. Betts) was hit by one torpedo from U-123 in the engine room and sank by the stern within 16 minutes about 335 miles north-northeast of Bermuda. The ship had been missed by a first G7a torpedo from a stern tube at 17.06 hours. Ten survivors managed to climb on two rafts and were questioned by Hardegen and also photographed before the U-boat left the area. However, none of the seven officers and 27 crewmen survived.”

    There is a photo here, but it is not like the sculpture:
    http://ransomman.com/tag/ss-muskogee/

  39. It’s a fitting, and moving tribute to the men of the Merchant Marine.
    Few remember, and sadly, perhaps fewer care, that over 130,000 Merchant Marine Seamen died in WW2. More, on a per capita basis, than any branch of the military.
    In short, your chances of dying while crewing a cargo ship across the Atlantic were greater than a US Marine in the Pacific, or a Bomber crewman over Europe.
    These men were never accorded the well-deserved Honors or Glory bestowed upon our military veterans, because the Merchant Marine, are civilians.
    Yet, these were the men who gave their lives to build the “bridge of steel” across the seas, and who never once wavered, despite a merciless onslaught of Nazi torpedoes and bombs.
    God bless every one of them, then and now.

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