Portraits to Puddles, 6: American Merchant Mariners’ Memorial

NOTE: What makes an effective tribute? What makes a memorable memorial? This is the sixth in a series of posts in which I point out the lessons we can learn from half a dozen memorials in Battery Park. Click “Portraits to Puddles” in the Obsessions cloud to see all the posts. The illustrations are from the video, available here. The complete series is also available in print and as a Kindle book: details in this post.

We’re going to look at just one more sculpture in Battery Park: the American Merchant Mariners’ Memorial. It’s just west of the Korean War Memorial, on a breakwater that juts into the harbor in front of Pier A. (That’s the one with the clock tower.) This memorial honors merchant mariners, the civilian sailors whose ships have been pressed or volunteered into service in American wars since 1776. In World War II alone, an estimated 700 merchant ships were lost, with thousands of lives.

The Mariners’ Memorial consists of three over life-size figures on a slanting surface that represents the deck of a sinking ship. One of them anxiously scans the horizon. Another cups his hands to shout for help.

The third figure lies on the deck stretching one arm over the edge. He’s trying to grasp the hand of a fourth man who’s in the water. The desperately splayed fingers of the man in the water miss those of his would-be rescuer by about an inch.

The artist of this work was inspired by a photo of crew members of the USS Muskogee. The photo was snapped by one of the Germans on the U-boat that sank the Muskogee, and was published in a German newspaper with profuse praise for the captain of the U-boat. The figures in the photo all drowned. (Congrats to TurnstileTours.com for finding the original publication of this photo, and publishing a fascinating piece about their search for it.)

You don’t need to know about the German U-boat to get the feeling something bad’s about to happen. The premonition of doom is made visible by the fact that twice every day, at high tide, the man in the water is completely submerged, except for that one splayed hand. Even if you’re not there at high tide, you can tell that from the stains on the rock.

Contrast this with the Korean War Memorial. The sunshine-through-the-head device on Armistice Day does not rouse our emotions. The Mariners’ Memorial is visually explicit and evocative – albeit very depressing.

Lesson #6

I find looking at the American Merchant Mariners’ Memorial like looking at a raw wound, and I usually avoid visiting it. Some submissions in the competition for the World Trade Center memorial were even more grim than this. If the memorial at the World Trade Center were similar to this, I’d avoid the site, and I’m sure many others would as well. That’s the lesson here: a memorial should not focus too vividly on death and destruction. Memorials don’t merely commemorate what happened: they commemorate how we want to remember the people involved.


  • Marisol (Maria Sol Escobar) died in 2016 (report here). I have not been able to contact her heirs regarding permission to publish photos. If the heirs feel that I’m infringing copyright, I hope they’ll contact me.
  • The text of the New York City Parks Department’s historical sign on the American Merchant Mariners’ Memorial is here.
  • This essay was provoked in 2003 by the competition for the World Trade Center memorial. I originally gave it as a walking tour of sculptures in Battery Park and the southern end of Manhattan. Since 2012, it’s been available as a Kindle book: From Portraits to Puddles: New York Memorials from the Civil War to the World Trade Center Memorial (Reflecting Absence). The end of the book has an illustrated, annotated list of 30 memorials in Manhattan dedicated to people whose job is to keep us safe: soldiers, policemen, firemen, and so on. If you want to see other memorials that are both effective and memorable, it’s a great place to start.
  • The parts of the essay will appear as a series of blog posts: click “Portraits to Puddles” in the Obsessions cloud at right to find them.
  • This blog post is available as a video to my Patreon subscribers. (Thank you!)
  • Want wonderful art delivered weekly to your inbox? Check out my free Sunday Recommendations list and my Patreon page (free or by subscription): details here.
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