Maritime Education: WWI to Simulator Training

Mar 2, 2011

by Lauren Robinson, Digitization Assistant

In February 1916, retired sea captain Robert Huntington headed up SCI's Navigation and Marine Engineering School. Instruction was given in nautical astronomy, navigation, marine engineering, mathematics, seamanship, and signaling. The school targeted seamen hoping for career advancement as well as those who dreamed of going to sea, encouraging many young men to enlist in the Navy: "Any person who wishes to follow the sea should join the United States Navy.... The fact is that if any young man has the right kind of American push in him the Navy is the best place to bring out and develop all the good points that are in him," one school circular proclaimed. For those already enlisted in the Navy, the school offered preparation for the Naval Academy's highly competitive entrance exam. "Out of the large number of applicants only the top one hundred (100) obtain appointments, so that every candidate should prepare himself to pass the best examination possible," read the brochure.

The entry of the United States into World War I in April 1917 required a trained maritime fleet, and Capt. Huntington responded accordingly by advertising the school aggressively. "SEAMEN WANTED as Officers for the New Merchant Marine" announced one advertisement, promising a shortcut from the forecastle to the quarterdeck. "The United States Shipping Board has established Free Schools of Navigation to teach naturalized or native American Seamen to become Mates... Now is the Chance to Better Your Condition and Help Your Country at the Same Time" the ad further delineated. In April 1918, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was then Assistant Secretary to the Navy, wrote to SCI Director Rev. Archibald R. Mansfield and thanked SCI for "taking into the Navigation and Marine Engineering Schools, ‘without money and without price,' the junior officers attached to the mine sweepers.... It might interest you to know that the Navy Department appreciates the fact that in doing what you have done you have filled a need which has caused us no little concern.... May I ask you to say to Captain Huntington that we feel under deep obligation to you all?"

By December 31, 1918, 1,679 students had enrolled in the school, but the end of World War I precipitated a depression in the shipping industry that would last for years. SCI turned its attention to assisting seafarers in finding employment. By 1925, enrollment in the newly renamed Merchant Marine School had dropped to 91 students. In 1930, Rev. Mansfield wrote to Capt. Huntington: "My patience is nearly exhausted with the financial and statistical conditions that have prevailed in the School and unless I have your immediate, sympathetic cooperation that will bring order out of the too long existing chaos I shall be inclined as I indicated a few weeks ago, to recommend that the School be discontinued." Alas, the school was not closed, and Capt. Huntington continued on as its Principal until his retirement in 1942.

The school saw increased enrollment again during World War II as well as the predictable slump following the war. By 1960, Merchant Marine School staff had formulated a standard response to the numerous inquiries from eager young high school men about seafaring possibilities: "As you are probably not aware, entrance as a wage earner in the Maritime Field has a pre-requisite sea-going experience in the field. This may seem a paradox; but it is due to an overcrowded situation in the field that does not for the forseeable [sic] future hold any promise for a high school graduate." The school did help men already employed at sea, however, by offering candid advice, or by sending course materials to study for career advancement, including those who were unable to attend local merchant marine schools because of racial discrimination. In 1961, Gilbert Antonecchia, Chief Engineer and Instructor of the Merchant Marine School, received a letter from a young African American man in New Orleans asking for help. Antonecchia promptly sent him course materials to study on $125 credit. The man responded: "Thanks a million... I know at least a half dozen colored fellows who wish to obtain a license but the doors are closed in New Orleans & Texas for us."

Visit the CME webpage to read about what SCI's Center for Maritime Education is up to these days, including information about SCI-developed and USCG-approved courses and simulator training at our Paducah, KY and Houston, TX locations. Be sure to check out the "History of Training" feature for more historical background on SCI's Navigational School.