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.
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.
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.
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