By MarEx 2015-06-18 16:35:37
A delegation of World War II Merchant Marine veterans is “storming the Hill”, visiting with members of Congress in the Capitol as they seek to raise awareness and gain greater recognition of their important service as part of the “the fourth arm of our defense”.
Now in their 80s and 90s, the men might not move as quickly or have the strength they did more than 70 years ago during their wartime service, but they remain just as patriotic and are fiercely determined in advocating on behalf of the surviving Merchant Marine veterans.
Military and political leaders including Eisenhower, Churchill, and MacArthur praised their service and credited the Merchant Marine for their important role in the Allied victory.
They risked their lives, facing attacks by U-boats and enemy planes and traveling through mined waters. As many as 9000 mariners were killed – and thousands more maimed and injured – during the war. In fact, the casualty rate among the Merchant Marine was higher than for any branch of our armed forces in World War II.
However, despite their dedicated wartime service to our nation, Merchant Marine veterans were not eligible for the benefits others received under the G.I. bill. This means they never received the college tuition subsidies, the home loan guarantees or other provisions of the G.I. Bill that helped millions of veterans transition seamlessly into civilian life and lifted many of their families into the middle class.
Merchant Mariners were even excluded from Veterans Day and Memorial Day events.
Only in 1988, following a class-action lawsuit, were they recognized as veterans, entitling them to care at VA hospitals.
On Tuesday morning, the group met with Congresswoman Janice Hahn (CA-44), who has introduced the Honoring Our WWII Merchant Mariners Act of 2015 (H.R. 563) and has been a leading advocate for them in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Congresswoman Hahn said, “I am honored to advocate on behalf of these great Americans. The World War II Merchant Mariners are true heroes, and after meeting this group and hearing their compelling stories, I am even more determined to pass legislation that would provide them with recognition and honor they have long been denied as well as compensation for their wartime service and vital role in our military victory.”
The men shared stories of how they and their colleagues transported vital supplies and equipment to troops overseas, of their ships being sunk by torpedoes and their fellow Mariners who never made it home. They also talked about the indignity and injustice they experienced over the many years after their service, not being credited for their work and the risks they endured and not being recognized as veterans, unlike those whom they served alongside and supported.
Clint Quirk, 91, from Arizona, said, “Like many, I couldn’t pass the physical, but I wanted to help with the war effort.” He dropped out of college and joined the Merchant Marine. At one point, he wound up manning the gun on his ship and serving as the shooter, despite not being enlisted in the military or having combat training.
Charles Mills, from Texas, who will celebrate his 95th birthday while in Washington, DC, explained that the Navy assigned 16 gunners per ship, not enough to man all the guns, so commanders assigned mariners to those duties. “Merchant Mariners became part of the gun crew and therefore combat veterans but didn’t receive combat pay or benefits.”
Eugene Barner, 89, from Kansas, recalled being anchored at Okinawa preparing invasion forces when the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan and later sailing into Tokyo harbor and going ashore seeing the devastation. (His mother was like Rosie the Riveter, working in a Kansas plant where B-25 bombers were produced.) He is proud of his service and the role he and other Merchant Mariners played during the war and hopes H.R. 563 will pass into law. “Recognition would be very important,” he explained. “We were denied veteran status for forty years.”
Charles Mills agrees, adding, “Merchant Mariners were promised to be part of the G.I. bill. I expected to be able to rely on the G.I. bill to go to college. But we weren’t included.” Decades after this disappointment, he explains that by supporting H.R. 563, “We are trying to get benefits we feel entitled to from the government in lieu of what we lost. And we also welcome the respect this would bring us.”
He notes that unlike the U.S., our allies including Great Britain, France and Canada compensated maritime veterans or gave them pensions.
Gabriel Frank, 87, from New York grew up in group homes after his mother died when he was 6. While in high school, he shined shoes and worked in factories. Virtually penniless, hungry and without a home, he got permission to join the Merchant Marine when he was 16 and served a total of twenty three years including during both World War II and the Korean War. He thanked Congresswoman Hahn for introducing legislation to honor WWII Merchant Mariners, telling her “You have a lot of compassion.” He added, “Our shipmates never came home. H.R. 563 will rectify the injustice that has faced the Merchant Marine.”
Morris Harvey, a Florida resident who serves as president of the American Merchant Marine Veterans, said, “Many of our members are living on very low incomes. They have outlived their savings and now live off of Social Security. H.R. 563 would go a long way in helping these men and their families. It would provide a one-time payment of $25,000 to the qualified surviving WWII Merchant Marine Veterans, an estimated five thousand veterans. And it would provide recognition long denied the Merchant Marine Veterans who served proudly and patriotically.” He added, “The cost of this legislation shouldn’t even be an issue as it would have cost much, much more – billions of dollars – if the Merchant Marine Veterans had received benefits after the war equal to other veterans.”
In addition to meeting with Congresswoman Hahn and other Representatives and Congressional staff, the group attended an event on Capitol Hill held by a veterans organization and a Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation subcommittee hearing and were introduced and acknowledged warmly at both events.
A film crew accompanied the group during their Capitol Hill visit for a forthcoming documentary called The Sea is My Brother. (The trailer for that film can be viewed at https://vimeo.com/117332721 )