REMARKS BY U.S. CONSUL GENERAL CHRISTINE ELDER
CEREMONY OF HONOR FOR DON E. KENNEDY OAM
RECIPIENT OF THE MERCHANT MARINERS OF WWII CONGRESSIONAL GOLD MEDAL
CONSULATE GENERAL OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for joining us on this special day. I thank our Chief of Protocol for opening this event and acknowledging esteemed guests here to honor Mr. Kennedy. I’d also like to add my acknowledgement of the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and pay respect to elders past and present.
Today, we salute all who fought for freedom, from Australia or the United States; those in uniform, as well as those who contributed to the war effort as Merchant Marines, health care workers, workers in redirected civilian industries, even farmers and sugar cane diggers who interred thousands of U.S. fallen service members from the Pacific campaign resting peacefully in lovingly tended Australian soil until they could be returned to families. We acknowledge today those here in uniform, as well as U.S. and Australian veterans, including Don’s wife, Wynne Kennedy, a nurse. We appreciate your protection of our essential freedoms and remain in your debt.
Eighty years ago yesterday, 16-year-old Don Kennedy from Manly, Australia, became a merchant mariner because he was ineligible for military service. Casualty rates for commercial mariners were one in eight — far greater than in the armed services. It was a bold and brave choice in what was to be the last, bloody year of World War II.
By the time Don Kennedy cruised out of Sydney Harbour two days later, past the heads on the Norwegian vessel MT Seirstad, the historical backdrop was that the Germans had just won the Battle of Cisterna in Italy as part of the Anzio campaign, and launched the six-month Battle of Narva in Estonia on Europe’s eastern front. The Battle of Narva, which barely registers among significant battles, saw well over 100,000 Soviet soldiers die and another 380,000 wounded in fighting German forces.
At this time, General MacArthur was still running the Pacific campaign from his headquarters in Brisbane. With hard won gains by U.S. and Australian forces fighting in New Guinea, MacArthur focused on plans for a ground invasion of the Philippines, while Admiral Nimitz’s naval forces cut across the central Pacific and Mariana Islands to the Philippines – a stunning collaboration among land, sea, and air forces.
While Allies largely had the southwest Pacific under control, the fate of the central Pacific remained uncertain. Two weeks after Don Kennedy went to sea was the invasion of Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshall Islands, where U.S. Marines and Coast Guardsmen wrested control from the Japanese.
Just 16 weeks after Kennedy set sail with Norwegian Merchant Marines came the D-Day Operation on Normandy’s beaches, while simultaneously, U.S. Army Air Force B-29 bombers stationed in India ran bombing raids over western Japan. The war was everywhere, and so were the Merchant Marines who transported and supplied oil, troops, munitions, food, and materiel that sustained the Allied war effort. Being a Merchant Marine in a war zone remained a dangerous 24/7 job.
After 17 long months at sea, Don disembarked in Brisbane and then reunited with family in Sydney. But two weeks later, he went to Melbourne to join a U.S. Army Transport Corps ship, the USAT Point San Pedro, a ship acquired in July 1944 by MacArthur’s War Shipping Administration in Brisbane. En route to New Guinea with ammunition and provisions for Australian forces, news came of the war’s end. But it was not the end of the Mission – there was a lot of work required to wind down a world-wide war effort. Guns were removed from Don’s USAT Point San Pedro ship in Subic Bay, Manila, before it continued to Shanghai, where it was sold in April 1946 to the Chinese Supply Commission, renamed SS Hai Chien, and reflagged as a Chinese vessel.
Don was issued a discharge from the U.S. Army on April 17, 1946, in Shanghai, where we effectively abandoned him and sold off his ride home! He ultimately returned to Australia via the Philippines, after being stranded in Shanghai for months. After five years that included 17 wartime months transporting fuel to Allied tanks, troops, ships, and planes in the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Ocean theaters, he planted his feet on New South Wales soil once more, and began a long career of public service on land.
What is the Congressional Gold Medal?
The three highest honors one can receive in/from the United States are:
~ Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is bestowed by the President.
~ Medal of Honor, a military decoration of extreme bravery in action.
~ Congressional Gold Medal, which is what we celebrate today.
The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. Congress, and honors those whose dedication, heroism, and public service have created a lasting impact on American history. It is by far the rarest of the three medals because it requires each instance of the award have a corresponding piece of legislation co-sponsored by two-thirds of members of both the House and Senate before their respective congressional committees. If legislation is passed, the U.S. Mint designs a medal absolutely unique to each recipient or occasion.
The U.S. Congressional Gold Medal was first awarded in 1800 and is awarded rarely — only 184 times in 224 years. While there is no requirement for U.S. citizenship, it is almost always bestowed upon distinguished Americans with exceptional service to the United States.
The only non-U.S. citizens I remembered hearing about were Nelson Mandela, Pope John Paul III, Raul Wallenberg, Mother Teresa, and the Dalai Lama. Not trusting my memory, I did some research, and found there were just nine more over the 224 years: Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, Nathan Sharansky, Aung San Suu Kyi, Muhammad Yunus, Tony Blair, Simon Peres, Anwar Sadat, Filipino WWII Veterans, and the Canadian Ambassador in Iran who helped free U.S. hostages in Tehran; … and now, Don E. Kennedy from Australia, for his service in support of the Allied effort in the Merchant Marines and in the U.S. Army Transport Service.
Through legislation passed in March, 2020, Don was among those recognized as a group of primarily American Merchant Mariners whose honorable deeds played a critical role in World War II. I remain curious whether there were any other non-U.S. citizens among those awarded this Congressional Gold Medal, and will soon contact the Maritime Administration at the U.S. Department of Transportation to seek additional information.
The original gold medal for the Merchant Mariners of WWII was presented by the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives on May 18, 2022, in a ceremony long delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Act, House Resolution 5671, authorizes the Maritime Administration to award duplicate medals to individuals who, between December 7, 1941, and December 31, 1946, were members of the U.S. Merchant Marines, or other related services, and met defined criteria. The original gold medal is in the American Merchant Marine Museum in New York.
Why it matters
Most Allied governments, starting with my own, were slow to recognize the immeasurable contributions of merchant seamen, despite 40,000 having lost their lives during WWII. Merchant mariners’ commitment to fighting for freedom and peace was equal to that of those in the armed forces; though they were less trained or equipped for the job.
The British government ultimately issued campaign medals like those awarded to other services, to those who met set criteria. Australia’s RSL extended membership to merchant seamen with wartime service abroad, and granted government benefits extended to ex-service personnel. Mr. Kennedy has been recognized in Australia, both for his wartime service, and service since to his community. He is a recipient of the Order of Australia.
It took time for the U.S. government and the public to fully acknowledge the vital role played by Merchant Mariners. That changed in 2020 with the passage of H.R. 5671, the Merchant Mariner of World War II Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2020, recognizing Merchant Mariner sailors for shipping supplies to the Allies.
The Act was signed into law by the President in March 2020, just as COVID-19 brought the world to a halt. Plans to award surviving WWII veterans medals at their annual Mariners convention were upended several times by the pandemic. Finally, in 2022, a ceremony was held in Statuary Hall in Congress, and the same year 21 WWII Merchant Mariners met in Baltimore aboard the S.S. John Brown, one of only two operational Liberty ships. 11 of 21 Merchant Mariners present were older than 100.
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration is honored to present the
Merchant Mariners of WWII Congressional Gold Medal to
Don E. Kennedy
The Congressional Gold Medal, which is the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. Congress, honors those whose dedication, heroism, and public service have created a lasting impact on American history.
On March 14, 2020, legislation was signed into law authorizing the Congressional Gold Medal for American Merchant Mariners whose honorable deeds played a critical role in WWII.
The Merchant Mariners of WWII Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2020 authorizes the
Maritime Administration to award duplicates of the medal to individuals who, between December 7, 1941, and December 31, 1946, were members of the U.S. Merchant Marine, or other related services.
This country will always be grateful to the many thousands of merchant mariners
for their gallant support of our country.
It is hard to find words adequate to conclude this program, but perhaps I could humbly offer:
Don Kennedy – thank you for your support of the Allied effort, for your life of service, and for giving us the opportunity to come together today to be reminded of our long, shared history of mateship and sacrifice.
Americans and Australians have always been there for one another. And we always will be.
Thank you all.