Heroes Without Privileges

(From the September 1945 Coronet)

His name is Joe, or Bill or Jack. He has been killed in action, he has been tortured by the Japs or thrown into their prisons. He has been wounded and permanently crippled and his outfit has the highest proportional dead and missing rate of the war. But he has no honorable discharge button, he is ineligible for the American Legion, and he comes home from the battlefronts without parades or banquets. He cannot be honored with the flag in burial at sea, his name seldom gets on the home town bronze plaques and for him there is no GI Bill of Rights.

He is the forgotten veteran of the war -- the man of the Merchant Marine. There was actually a period between 1941 and 1942 when any man signing for the North Atlantic run to Murmansk was automatically (a) a hero or (b) a casualty. Convoys starting out from Scotland or Greenland had to creep past Trondheim, where Nazi bombers waited to break them up, and losses sometimes ran as high as eighty percent. For a time the merchant sailor was a national idol but he went into virtual oblivion after Pearl Harbor.

Some months ago a Liberty ship was sunk by a submarine. The U-boat surfaced and sprayed the struggling survivors with machine guns until they were rescued by a Naval vessel. The Maritime Commission was not allowed to release this story, and the entire encounter was subsequently related to the press by members of the Navy gun crew from the vessel with small credit for the wounded Merchant seamen.

The prevailing apathy to the Merchant Marine traceable to two popular but unjust legends; first that the Merchant Marine is loaded with draft dodgers; second, that they are paid fabulous wages with little or no risk.

Actually the bloody record of the war at sea indicates that any man who signed on a Merchant ship for peace and quiet ought to have his head examined -- if he still has his head intact. The War Shipping Administration has issued 343,335 war zone bars, and some 83 thousand men have won combat bars for actual contact with the enemy. There are men who have had their ships shot from under them four times and about eighty percent of all the men who went to sea have been torpedoed at least once.

Other factors overlooked too, are that the man who signs with the Merchant Marine inexorably goes to sea with a 2-B classification and must report to his draft board the day he returns. He has to take furloughs on his own time and he has to pay for his own uniforms, whereas the Navy man draws a substantial clothing allowance. Army and Navy pay increases with the time spent in service regardless of the increase in rank, but the Merchant Marine pay is static and those seemingly stratospheric bonuses apply only in specially designated war zones which were limited to very few. There are countless other cash benefits for the Army and Navy man which are denied to his fellows on merchant ships -- free postage, reduced travel rates, lower amusement prices and lower insurance premiums. Also the seaman has no dependency allowances.

The men of the Merchant Marine are confident the American people will not let them down. They delivered the guns and tanks and planes. They took GI Joe to war and they'll bring him home again.

Source: Off Soundings, USMSTS Avalon, California, August 31, 1945

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