As an historian whose interests and writings have centered on America’s military and maritime past, I am amazed at the number of foundationless myths which over time have evolved into fact.
One such myth surrounds alleged callous treatment during World War II of American merchant mariners by the government. I specifically reference here the erroneous assertion that once a merchant ship was lost by enemy action or marine casualty the pay of its crewmembers stopped, thereby denying these crews compensation while in lifeboats and/or as involuntary guests of the enemy.
This mythology has now become a part of the Congressional Record, the result of a statement made on April 18, 2007, by Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.) when opening the House Veterans Affairs Committee Hearing on HR 23, proposed legislation that would entitle merchant mariners and civil service seamen who served between Dec. 7, 1941 and Dec. 31, 1946, to a monthly payment of $1,000 a month.
In the opening statement, Filner stated that merchant mariners “were only paid when they were working. When their ship was torpedoed or sunk and they were in shark-infested waters in a lifeboat, they were not paid. POW not paid. Wounded, not paid.”
Filner is absolutely incorrect on all of the above.
An American merchant mariner, once his ship was sunk, had his base wage, plus any applicable area war bonus paid until such time that he reached a friendly shore. At that time his area war bonus was terminated, but his base wages continued until he was repatriated to the United States. If he had become a prisoner of the enemy (POW or internee), once landed on enemy territory, his base wages were continued until such point in time that he was repatriated to the United States.
For those men who had disabilities due to injury or illness, their war risk insurance would ultimately have paid out $200 a month until the disability ceased or up to a total of $5,000, whichever came first. After that, should the disability be deemed permanent, an additional benefit would have kicked in to the amount of $100 per month up to a further limit of $2,500. If a crewman died as a result of enemy action or later due to external cause while in captivity, his dependents would have received a flat sum of $5,000.
The undeniable fact is that merchant seamen serving aboard U.S. flagships, whether employed either by the War Shipping Administration (WSA) or by private operators, were compassionately protected in the fiscal sense throughout the entirety of World War II. The agency which saw to that, and regulating war zone, attack and port bonuses, as well as compensating the loss of personal effects, was the Maritime War Emergency Board, which was established on Dec. 19, 1941.
A history of the board, as well as its decisions, is contained within a monograph entitled History of the War Emergency Board, prepared under the direction of the United States Department of Labor by Francis B. Goertner, former secretary and counsel of the board. This document can be obtained through the records office of the U.S. Maritime Administration, as well as through the Library of Congress.
I trust that this will place into accurate perspective the fiscal benefits afforded American merchant mariners during the period of World War II.
Charles Dana Gibson is a World War II veteran who served in both the U.S. Merchant Marine and the Army Transport Service. He is also a maritime historian. His research was largely responsible for the award in 1988 of veteran status to the oceangoing Merchant Marine of World War II.