12 Sep Merchant Mariners’ Memorial at Battery Park
This sculpture at NYC’s Battery Park is a hauntingly powerful depiction of sailors drowning after a Nazi U-Boat attacked their American merchant ship during World War II.
Demonstrating that reality is more powerful than fiction, the bronze sculpture was inspired by an actual photograph taken by the German attackers as the American marines clung to their sinking vessel. “Left to the perils of the sea, the survivors later perished,” reads the plaque.
Located offshore from the north end of New York City’s Battery Park near Pier A, the monument stands on a rebuilt stone breakwater in the harbor.
An unsettling realism captivates the viewer. The sculpture seems neither still nor silent, because the prow of the boat sticks out of the water at a sickening angle. Atop the boat are three figures: One, a man on his knees, appears dazed, frozen by hopelessness; the second, a man standing in a near-crouch position, yells for help through cupped hands; the third is sprawled out along the edge of the sinking ship, reaching down toward the water.
At first, the viewer can’t tell what he is reaching for, but then a shocking image appears after a wave curls away from the pier… It’s a man overboard, reaching up for the other man’s hand. Only his head and arm can be seen above water.
The viewer must look very closely to see – with a sinking heart – that there is a fraction of space between the two man’s hands. They cannot touch. They cannot be saved. The next wave submerges the drowning man’s head.
Honoring All Merchant Mariners
Though specific in its imagery, the monument honors the thousands of merchant mariners who have died at sea throughout our nation’s history. “This memorial serves as a marker for America’s merchant marines resting in the unmarked ocean depths,” reads its plaque.
In 1976, the American Merchant Mariners’ Memorial Inc. was commissioned to commemorate the thousands of merchant ships and crews pressed into military service since the Revolutionary War. In World War II alone, an estimated 700 American merchant ships were lost, claiming the lives of 6,600 mariners.
Sculptor Marisol Escobar developed a series of studio sketches from the Nazi photograph, then fashioned a clay model as her winning design proposal for the monument. The work was dedicated on October 8, 1991.
There is so much to see at Battery Park, it is possible to overlook the American Merchant Mariners’ Memorial, which hearkens to an earlier war waged generations ago. But it’s just as powerful as the Ground Zero memorials which characterize New York City today. Both are timeless tributes to human sacrifice in the face of war.