This memorial honors merchant mariners, the civilian sailors whose ships were 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 3 over- lifesize 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, 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 a sinking ship. The photo was snapped by a German U-boat sailor as he watched the vessel sink. The figures in the photo didn't survive. (Alas, I’ve been unable to find the photograph on the Net.)
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.
I find looking at this piece 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 the Merchant Mariners’ Memorial. If there were something this grim as a memorial at the World Trade Center, I’d probably avoid the site, and I’m sure many others would as well.
That’s the lesson of this memorial: a memorial should not focus too vividly on death and destruction, or people won't visit it, and it can't function as a memorial.