US Merchant Marine Veterans Of WW2 Have Waited 75 Years And Counting

American Flag Ship
An American Flag Flying From A US Merchant Ship. Photo By Logra, Shutterstock

A CASE TO SUPPORT American Merchant Marine Veterans Legislature H.R. 5879 & S. 2127

By Capt. Christopher J. Edyvean (AMMV75 years is an enormous amount of time to fathom for most of us. Isn’t ‘seven-plus decades ago’ a time spoken of only by historians and in documentaries? Very few adults who walked Mother Earth then are still alive now. We refer to them as the Greatest Generation, and rightfully so. Let’s focus on one small but critical group of this era.

Do you realize that we still have Merchant Marine Veterans of the Second World War among us? Some like to call them “living history”. But for these Veterans, was it really that long ago? The smell of the salty air; the sounds of waves crashing over the bow; the sensory overload of visiting a foreign city; the comradery with fellow shipmates. Memories of an adventurous young life are still but within arm’s reach.

Now they are in their early 90’s at best, trapped in shells that are only weak shadows of their youth. Children came, then grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. The years and decades passed. But the memories of war, and the fever of saving our great Nation, are just a slight thought away.

“Grandpa, didn’t you tell us you worked on a ship during the war, bringing supplies to Europe?”

Yet there is something disturbing in the thought process of an American Merchant Marine Veteran. Something so faint, yet palpable; elusive; a heart that skips a beat. An anomaly for the ages slowly comes into focus. An injustice was committed to some of the greatest patriots in the history of the United States, leaving them to wonder, “Did our service matter?

Congress took care of our World War II Veterans with the GI Bill. Home and business loans, college educations – all the tools to carve a successful life. But for the Merchant Mariners who served in WWII at a cost of losing 1 in 26 in the line of duty, the fruits of the American Dream would never quite ripen. 

It was not until four decades later – 1988 to be exact – that U.S. Merchant Mariners of WWII finally achieved Veteran status. Stunningly, this came only as the result of a successful lawsuit against their own government.

Let’s do some quick math. An individual who was 18 years of age in 1945 at the end of WWII would have been 61 in 1988. What good could the GI Bill do for those at, near, or beyond retirement age? The best years of their live had already been lived. Too little, too late.

“Sorry, the VFW doesn’t accept the Merchant Marine. You boys are not combat Veterans.”

Not combat Veterans? The horrors of war did not exclude the Merchant Marine. In fact, Merchant Mariners suffered some of the most gruesome deaths of the war. Following U-boat attacks, they were scalded to death in boiler explosions; drowned in icy waters; choked to death ingesting oily seawater. Documented are incidents of German U-boat crews machine gunning survivors clinging helplessly to lifeboats or flotsam; Japanese U-boat crews beheading captured Merchant Mariners; starvation and torture in POW camps alongside other Allied prisoners of various service branches – it seemed the horrors of war featured our Merchant Mariners. Bottom line: 8,421 American seamen were killed, in total, while serving their country. 

In recent years, it is a fact that our Congress has bestowed monetary benefits and the Congressional Gold Medal to non-citizen WWII veterans. Meanwhile, a sincere intention spoken by one of the greatest leaders in American history has been denied yet to this day:

“I trust Congress will soon provide similar opportunities (to the GI Bill) to members of the Merchant Marine who have risked their lives time and time again during war for the welfare of their country.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt

After several sessions of Congress (beginning with the 109th) failed to yield monetary benefits to our WWII Merchant Mariners to compensate for their absence of GI Bill benefits, it appeared that finally the 114th Congress (2015-16) would offer some overdue recognition in the form of the Congressional Gold Medal. The bill (H.R. 2992) passed in a special session of “legislation considered under suspension of the rules”; however, the Senate companion bill (S. 2989) did not garnish enough support. Again, our seagoing heroes of WWII were kicked under the rug. Closure would have to wait for another time.

S. 2127 was introduced in 2017 by Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski as the latest version of the WWII Merchant Mariner Congressional Gold Medal Act. In conjunction with 2018 National Maritime Day, pro-Merchant Marine champion Rep. John Garamendi stepped-up to introduce a companion bill in the House, H.R. 5879.

With efforts to gain compensation for missed GI Bill benefits essentially “dead in the water”, the base of WWII Merchant Mariners and supporters have readjusted to waging recognition battles on much smaller stages, such as seeing the inclusion of the U.S. Merchant Marine flag at local honor parks or appearing in interviews with their hometown TV/radio stations. But the Congressional Gold Medal Act still leaves the door cracked for one last shot at national recognition.

We must capture this opportunity to collectively honor our WWII mariners while a few of them are still living. From a maritime standpoint, we owe this group our support – this is our heritage. From a patriotic view, just consider how the world might be today without their service and sacrifice. Is this not worth a letter or phone call to your Congressional representatives?

H.R. 5879 & S. 2127: Let’s finish the job!

We ask that all Americans readers of gCaptain click HERE to support Gold Medal legislation and HERE to join AMMV. We also ask that all overseas readers support their local Merchant Navy organizations today.