Seven Decades Later, WWII Mariners Still Fighting for Benefits, Recognition

Liberty ship crew. Photo courtesy USMM.org
Liberty ship crew. File pƒhoto courtesy USMM.org

 

By Capt. Christopher J. Edyvean, National President Elect, American Merchant Marine Veterans

It seems wherever you look these days, veterans are in the news. Many employment programs offer preferential hiring to veterans. Social media sites promote thankfulness to our veterans. Even in places such as grocery stores and coffee shops, pictures of local veterans cover the walls to respectfully honor these heroes. For most of our country’s veterans, this is a good thing.

But there is one group of combat veterans who have been betrayed by time. This group still seeks recognition for a job completed seven decades ago. These are America’s WWII era merchant mariners.

Most people even vaguely familiar with the history of the United States Merchant Marine are aware that hundreds of ships were sunk and thousands of American seamen perished in WWII. Hundreds more were captured as prisoners of war. The Axis powers knew that the supplies to Allied forces were carried on the backs of merchant vessels, making these ships and crews the choice targets of U-boat attacks and airstrikes. The result: 1 out of every 26 U.S. merchant mariners was killed.

Veteran status was not established for our mariners following the war as promised by President Roosevelt. In other words, their combat experiences were not acknowledged by our government and in turn some were even drafted into the Korean War. Amazingly, the patriotic service of these men did not end there. Get this: During the Gulf War build-up, the U.S. Merchant Marine suffered a severe shortage of seaman to crew the dozens of ships that were activated (many out of the “mothball” fleet) to deliver the necessary cargo. Guess who answered the call? Filling many of these billets were retired WWII mariners in their 70’s.

The past decade has witnessed many failed legislative attempts to gain monetary benefits for American WWII mariners. Considering veteran status was in fact granted following a lawsuit in the late 80’s, one may wonder just why these veterans believe they are entitled to money from Uncle Sam. The answer is quite simple. When official status was finally awarded four decades after the war, it was far too late in the lives of these mariners to capitalize on any meaningful benefits that would have greatly assisted them had such benefits been immediately available.

On January 27th, Congresswoman Janice Hahn of California introduced H.R. 563, the Honoring Our WWII Merchant Mariners Act of 2015. If enacted, this would provide for a simple one time lump sum of $25,000 to each remaining eligible WWII mariner veteran. Many feel this to be the most realistic piece of legislation written for this cause; if H.R. 563 becomes reality, the government would get off cheap in comparison to past proposed legislation. But progress continues in slow motion for this group. The bill was referred to subcommittee ten days after it was introduced and has received little fanfare since as only a dozen or so co-sponsors have stepped up to the plate.

In a video posted on her Facebook page, an emotionally charged Hahn expresses her disgust following an unsuccessful attempt to add H.R. 563 onto the defense bill in mid-May. But if members of Congress are trying to sweep this issue under the rug, they may be underestimating the willpower and stamina of this group. It would seem that these remaining men would be too exhausted and too few to keep fighting for these rightful benefits, however, their collective message is simple: “We didn’t give up in WWII, and we’re not giving up now.” Energized by the sincere devotion of Congresswoman Hahn, these WWII merchant mariners and their families are rallying from all parts of the country to push for the reasonable provisions set forth in H.R. 563.

Morris Harvey, who sailed with the Seafarers International Union during the war, is the outgoing National President of American Merchant Marine Veterans (AMMV). Morris is wrapping up his four years of presidency by leading AMMV’s “Storm the Hill” efforts, in which a handful of WWII mariners will meet with members of Congress next week to promote H.R. 563. One of these mariners is Charles Mills, President of AMMV’s Lone Star Chapter in Texas. Mills represents the many African-Americans who served in the nondiscriminatory WWII Merchant Marine.

Gabriel Frank, AMMV Edwin H. O’Hara Chapter President, resides in New York. In an 8 minute trailer of the upcoming video production “The Sea is my Brother”, Frank rallies for support of his wartime generation of mariners. It becomes clear in this video clip as to just how uneducated the general public is in regards to the Merchant Marine’s role in WWII. Also apparent is the fact that Frank has struggled in life without having obtained the benefits of the G.I. Bill at a reasonable age.

Orville Sova first went to sea in early 1945, shipping out of San Francisco on the S.S. Granville S. Hall. Sova mournfully recalls the death of President Roosevelt and is quick to explain that WWII merchant mariners would have been treated differently if not for FDR’s untimely passing. As a dedicated member of a St. Louis area AMMV Chapter, he bides much of his time writing letters and emails explaining how mariners of his era have suffered due to lack of proper treatment by our government. His daughter, Sheila, has joined the cause by campaigning daily over social media platforms to support H.R. 563.

Melvin Rogow is one of many WWII mariners who graduated from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, an institution which lost 142 cadets during WWII. Rogow himself survived the sinking of the S.S. Santa Catalina, which was loaded down with explosives. He and his daughter, Deborah, work vigorously to drum up grassroots support of Hahn’s new bill.

Another Kings Point graduate is maritime artist Don Scafidi, who sailed as a cadet during the war years. Shipping is a family tradition for Don and his wife Patti; they are ecstatically proud of their son who graduated from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy 57 years after his father. Thanks to the internet and social media, Patti has met and joined forces with the daughters of Sova and Rogow. The trio is “making noise” by getting the word out on H.R. 563 and educating anyone who will listen about the WWII Merchant Marine.

And there are so many stories to tell.

Take for example William Carlson, who lives along the frigid Minnesota shoreline of Lake Superior. Carlson, who will turn 93 on this 4th of July, was a member of the Armed Guard aboard the duel cargo/passenger vessel S.S. City of New York when it was torpedoed and sunk off the east coast of the United States on March 29, 1942. The survivors of this sinking witnessed life and death as they awaited rescue. Carlson recalls that a female passenger gave birth in one of the lifeboats and explains how a fellow shipmate from his hometown succumbed to the elements.

In the Chicago area resides AMMV Midwest Chapter member Walter Pass. Walter, who faithfully attends maritime memorial services despite his disabilities, explains that his sailing days are not quite over yet. He often talks about a future cruise aboard the WWII vintage vessel S.S. American Victory. On this final voyage, his ashes will be scattered at sea.

Each one of these WWII mariners has a unique story, but they all have one common thread: Time is running out. Fighting for support of H.R. 563 is not about a statistical number of eligible mariners or handing out money to faceless names. It’s about righting an injustice. It’s about true recognition. It’s about the husbands, the brothers, the uncles, the fathers, the grandfathers, and great-grandfathers who did their part to keep this nation free.

H.R. 563: It’s time.

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