Founded in 1939 under the auspices of the U.S. Maritime Commission, the Cadet Corps replaced an older system of cadet maritime training on U.S. flag mail ships. Although storm clouds were already gathering in Europe, the immediate impetus for expanded merchant marine training in the United States was not the anticipation of war but a series of accidents involving passenger liners, including the infamous SS Morro Castle disaster. These disasters were made worse by the actions of incompetent ships’ officers. In this era, before transoceanic air travel, ships were the only lifelines linking Europe and Asia with the Americas; disasters at sea had a profound resonance in the United States.
The Cadet Corps was initially a sea-based operation in which 99 cadets were placed on merchant ships for training under the ship’s officers. In addition to shipboard work assigned by the officers, the cadets also worked on correspondence lessons that they completed on board ship. The lessons were then mailed to supervisors at the ports of New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans for grading.
The Maritime Commission also had a Cadet Officer Program whereby graduates with licenses from state maritime academies or schoolships could be assigned as excess billet Cadet Officers on board ships owned by companies receiving government subsidies. These officers would be evaluated and promoted to licensed officer positions on the ships of those companies. The majority of these Cadet Officer appointments were made in the 1939-1940 time frames when permanent jobs were difficult to obtain. All of these Cadet Officers were a component of the Maritime Commission Cadet program just as were the Cadets at Kings Point. Those Cadet Officers who died during the War were memorialized on the Academy monument facing Long Island Sound just as the Kings Point Cadet-Midshipmen and graduates were memorialized.
By 1941 the cadet complement had grown to 425 cadets. With growth came change in the sea-based component of the program. Regulations published by the Maritime Commission in October 1939 specified a four-year training course, of which three years would be spent at sea working on merchant vessels and one year of shore training. Administrators in Washington set in motion plans to establish a shore-based Officer Training School on each of the three coasts. However, by the fall of 1941, only temporary facilities had been acquired for the New York, California, and Louisiana schools.
On the Gulf Coast the Maritime Commission began training in Algiers, LA. Cadets were assigned to live in the large white Naval Base Commanders House. Jim Risk ’42 reported there in January, 1942. The Quarters were dubbed the ‘Country Club House’ by Cadet Paul Snider ‘44 who reported there in September 1941. Each room had four midshipmen, two double deck bunks and a large study hall table with four chairs. Later they were moved to the M/V North Star, a large private yacht previously owned by Dr. Mayo of Rochester, MN. It was large enough to berth all the cadets; they went from four to a room to two in a room but they still ate at the officer’s mess. The North Star was later moved to the Maritime Commission Basic School at Old Spanish Fort, Bayou Saint John, New Orleans, where land was leased to berth the North Star and a 120-foot houseboat according to John Woodrow ’44. He said old Civilian Conservation Corps buildings were reassembled on the site.
On the West Coast, before San Mateo was opened the Maritime Commission made arrangements with the California Maritime Academy to send the first four cadets in 1939 to the T/S California State but that ended when the training ship went on its annual training cruise in January 1940. Under a new arrangement with the U.S. Navy, cadets for basic training were sent to Treasure Island, CA, where they were berthed on board the floating naval barracks Delta King and later to the sister ship Delta Queen. Bill Figari ’42 said naval personnel trained him at the adjacent base.
On the East Coast, the Maritime Commission made arrangements with the New York State Maritime Academy for federal cadets to live there; the first cadets were assigned in October 1939. Due to the need to make new arrangements when the T/S Empire State took all cadets and staff on a training cruise, a brief arrangement was made with the Admiral Billard Academy in New London, CT, to act as a receiving station for cadets until the operation would return to Fort Schuyler where it remained until the move to Kings Point.
Many graduates and cadets got their start at Fort Schuyler. In October 1940, J. Richard Kelahan ‘42 was ordered to Fort Schuyler; he said that Maritime Commission Cadet Officers who graduated from California Maritime School were also there. Tom King ’42 reported to Fort Schuyler in January 1941; after some basic training he was assigned to merchant ships for cadet training. In November 1941 Tom King returned to Fort Schuyler for Naval Science training, a prerequisite for Midshipman commission. In June 1941, Joe Mahoney ’43, was sent to Fort Schuyler for Prelim training and from there was assigned to his first ship.
The attack on Pearl Harbor immediately intensified the search for new quarters on each coast. Within months, permanent facilities were established in New York, California and Mississippi. The New York school found a home on the late Walter P. Chrysler’s former estate which comprised 12 waterfront acres and several buildings in the village of Kings Point, on Long Island’s northern shore. In January 1942, 20 acres of land on the rocky Coyote Point outcropping of San Mateo Point was acquired for the California school. In August 1942, the Louisiana school located a permanent home at a 40 acre former resort in Pass Christian, Mississippi.
Within nine months of Pearl Harbor, the Maritime Commission could proudly point to three Officer Training Schools ready to begin the deadly serious job of training wartime merchant ship officers and Naval Reserve Officers.