Recognition Sought by Heroic Wartime Merchant Marine Veterans
by Daniel Horodysky
San Francisco Examiner, April 21, 1997
(Distributed by several wire services and appeared in many newspapers throughout the country)
WE WERE at Normandy on D-Day. We were at the invasion of North Africa. We were at Italy, Guadalcanal and the treacherous Murmansk run. In the Philippines, Gen. Douglas MacArthur ordered us into the foxholes.
We delivered troops, ammunition and supplies to all fronts in World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf.
We are by law "a naval or military auxiliary in time of war . . ."
Of the 215,000 merchant mariners who served in World War II, more than 100,000 received combat bars. And 6,795 - one in every 32 - lost their lives.
When we were needed, political and military leaders recognized the critical role played by the U.S. Merchant Marine.
Slow, lightly armed Liberty ships versus the U-boat resulted in the highest casualty rate of all the services, slightly higher than that of the U.S. Marines.
More than a thousand cargo ships and tankers were sunk; 31 were lost without a trace.
Merchant mariners also served in combat zones in Gulf war, Korean war and Vietnam war. On San Francisco's Embarcadero near the Bay Bridge are memorials to merchant seamen who perished in these wars - including seven men in the engine room of the San Francisco-based SS Baton Rouge Victory. It was mined and sunk en route to Saigon. Nonetheless, we're only second-class veterans.
And we don't have even that hard-won limited status unless we were in ocean-going service between Dec. 31, 1941, and Aug. 15, 1945.
This status is routinely and cruelly denied to the thousands of men and women who have served in harm's way in America's wars since Aug. 15, 1945.
In "Battle For The Atlantic: America's Forgotten Heroes," a 1993 article in American History had this to say: What the bureaucrats in Washington did to the merchant mariners was reprehensible. They treated them like second-class citizens, and worse."
In 1944, as he signed the GI Bill, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said: "I trust Congress will soon provide similar opportunities to members of the Merchant Marine who have risked their lives time and time again during war for the welfare of their country."
It didn't happen.
The crusade for military veteran status went nowhere.
And then, in 1977, the Women Air Service Pilots found a champion, then-Sen. Barry Goldwater, who was a general in the Air Force Reserve.
His legislation won veteran status for the WASPS and, strangely, named the Secretary of the Air Force as administrator of procedures for granting veteran status to all other applicants.
Ten air-related groups have received this status since 1979. *
Not until 1988 did the U.S. Merchant Marine's World War II sailors get limited veteran status, and then only after an expensive court battle.
The judge remarked: (The) Secretary of Air Force abused its discretion. However, the record contains unrefuted evidence that merchant seamen were trained in weaponry. . . . The record is silent . . . as to the military training of dietitians, telephone operators and other successful applicants . . . the denials were arbitrary and capricious . . . and contrary to law. . . ."
At that point, the Air Force Secretary, Edward Aldridge Jr., "declared" Aug. 15, 1945, as the end of World War II for merchant mariners.
It wasn't the end for the casualties on 13 ships that were sunk by mines between that date and the formal declaration of peace proclaimed as Dec. 31, 1946, by President Harry Truman: "Although a state of war still exists, it is at this time possible to declare . . . that hostilities have terminated."
Congress set that date into law. The Dec. 31, 1946, date is recognized for all the other services and by the Veteran Affairs Department.
Bills in Congress to grant veteran status to merchant mariners have gone nowhere, largely because of Air Force opposition. In a 1996 letter to a Senator, one Air Force official chose to relegate the U.S. Merchant Marine to a "subculture."
Today the Air Force is said to be in the "process of reconsidering" the 1945 cutoff, but that begs the point.
The president should change it by executive order before it is posthumous for most of us.
We're not looking for the VA benefits that might have helped us in the last half century. But now we're too old for the GI Bill and the VA loans. We just want recognition.
President Roosevelt said, referring to the Merchant Marine, "As time goes on, there will be greater public understanding. . ."
He was wrong.
President Clinton proclaimed in 1994, "Their sacrifices were crucial to victory."
The men and women of the U.S. Merchant Marine are waiting today for understanding and recognition of their sacrifices.
[Examiner contributor Daniel Horodysky enlisted June 1945 in the U.S. Maritime Service. He also served in the Merchant Marine during the Vietnam War.]
*Two more air-related groups received veteran status early in 1998.