A Commitment, A pledge and an Outreach

Although the Mariner's Memorial Foundation, formerly the Fishermen's Memorial Association, was founded to build a memorial to local businessman and recreational fisherman Jay O'Brien, it has grown into much more. The Association soon realized that others came before and after O'Brien, and their contribution, love of the sea, and the legacy that was theirs is as important as his and should be recognized accordingly. Now with the help of Rhode Island citizens, the organization hopes to erect a memorial at the site of the Brenton State Park flagpole to honor all men and women, past and present, of Rhode Island whose destiny the sea has influenced.

The memorial will become the perfect platform to pay homage to friends and relatives who in some modest or monumental way sought the sea as sanctuary and savior and whose endeavors can be measured by their contribution to others. The memorial will speak for all those who are not quiet and who wish to be remembered for their love of the sea. It will be a place to honor not only the Mike Plants, the Dennis Brother, and the O'Brien's of the world but also all others who sought the sea in their own way. It will speak for more than the experiences and will announce with authority the simple seaside stroller and the father or grand farther who sat quietly at the seaside and contemplated the indignities of the world. It will be a place where family and friends can come together and regain a moment when the sea made time stand still.

Located approximately 200 feet from Graves Point, the memorial will overlook Narragansett Bay and Rhode Island Sound, an area rich in maritime history. It was at Graves Point where the bodies of two unknown fishermen washed up on to the rocks in the 1700's and were buried next to both their giver and taker - the sea.

But there is a much greater history that swelled up from these waters. The British cruised by Brenton Point State Park in pursuit of revolutionary warships, occupied Newport in 1778, and fought sea battles with American and French forces in Rhode Island Sound and Narragansett Bay; many of the cannons from that time still lie quietly at rest off Brenton Reef.

It was from the sea that Rhode Islanders took much of their sustenance. Fishing is one of Rhode Island's oldest and most honored professions. From Colonial times to the present, Narragansett Bay and Rhode Island Sound have played an important role in the life of Rhode Island's people. In the 1800's, Newport reigned as a whaling capitol. Today, fishermen reap a living from hard shell clams and lobsters that thrive in the rich waters of the bay, one of the earth's richest bodies of water. Although centuries apart, there is a connection here, a common bond that ties the two together- the sea and people's enduring love for it.

People who came to the water's edge found beauty and a sanctity here, but others often found their end. Ships lost in the fog and rough seas of Rhode Island Sound foundered and went to the bottom, often taking passengers and crew with them.

When the passenger liner Larchmont left Providence for New York on a cold February night in 1907, she passed by Brenton Point State Park and into Rhode Island Sound where she found the full fury of the sea as gale winds pushed the waves with relentless fury. In the darkness of night she collided with a schooner off Watch Hill and quickly foundered. Over 300 persons met their deaths that night; many still rest in the encrusted hull of the ship.

In 1807 when the Larchmont met its destiny, the world was at peace. Rhode Island Sound was a place of travel for pleasure and commerce. Almost 30 years later it would be the background for naval warfare as the bitterness of World War II drew to a close.

On a warm spring day in May, 1945, as the merchant vessel Black Point moved through Rhode Island Sound, a German U-boat, the U-853, sent a torpedo broadside and into the stern of the vessel sending her to the bottom and taking part of her crew and her entire cargo of coal with it.

The U.S. Navy would answer the assault with one of their own, trapping the U-853 in the shallows off Block Island and sending a barrage of depth charges down to shatter her hull. She would never see the light of day again, and the steel walls would become a tomb for the entire crew, the last thoughts of their homeland trapped with them in their watery grave. Ironically, Germany would surrender the following day.

In May of 1990, 45 years after the sinking of the U-853, on a deserted beach in Little Compton, Timmy Arruda, a young but fragile boy born with a genetic heart condition, sat quietly in the darkness waiting for a fish to take his bait. For him, the sea was more than just mystery; there was magic in those waters. He saw the water not as a taker but as a giver. He dreamed that one day he would pull from the sea a great fish and in the process steal from it the strength he never had. It was a vision not so unlike others. He was connected by time to all the other scattered souls around him, searching for something only the sea could give. What came here was unexplainable, a question as unanswerable as the origin of the universe. But he was here, and in many ways, connected to all that came before him.

Sometime during the night a striped bass took Arruda's bait and a fight ensued as the fish stripped the line from Arruda's reel. He fought back, tightening the drag in an effort to slow the fish, but it was gaining ground. The real groaned as Arruda tightened his muscles. Behind him, a translucent hand touched his shoulder to lend support; it was a colonial British naval officer cheering him on. A young girl, a Larchmont passenger, gave a word of encouragement. A deckhand from the Black Point wrapped his big, burley arms around Arruda and helped him to keep the hook set. The crew of the U-853 cheered as the fish rolled up on the beach.

The next day, as daylight was starting to crest the horizon, another fisherman found Arruda's body there within yards of his truck. Next to the boy was a 54 pound striped bass. The sea had been both taker and giver as Arruda went to join his friends.

As Jay O'Brien clung to the side of his boat one cold December day, the flame that was his flickered in the wind and then went out, but in its place another flame was ignited, this one as bright as the first. Ironically, O'Brien's death might serve as his greatest accomplishment, bringing to rest the scattered souls of the sea.

Now, the souls of the past and the spirit of the present have come together at the site of the Brenton Point State Park Flagpole. Brought together by common bond, they share the richness they found and still find in the sea.

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