When World War II started, the Merchant Marine was called on by President Roosevelt to help supply our troops that were fighting around the world. They were in every invasion from North Africa, Europe, and to the far reaches of the Pacific with the much needed supplies. The casualty rate was the highest of any service with 1 in 26 paying the ultimate price, with hundreds of ships sunk, sending these seaman to a watery grave. American shipyards were building the much needed ships in record numbers, and men were needed to man them. They came from all walks of life – from 16 to 66 – all volunteers. Maritime training stations sprung up around the country. The largest one was at Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn N.Y.
Trainees were taught the skills of seamanship in rapid order, and found themselves on a ship at sea 2 weeks later. Every ship that left port with a cargo of bombs, trucks, fuel, and other supplies was in a combat zone as soon as they cleared the harbor to join a convoy. German U-boats were waiting in wolf packs sending these ships to a water grave. 1942 was a dreadful year for the Merchant Marine. Records show that some 400 ships were sunk or damaged with heavy loss of life. The war ended when America dropped the atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Japan unconditionally surrendered on August 6th 1945. After the war the Merchant Marine was called on to bring our troops and supplies home from around the world. On a lighter note, many of our troops fell in love while stationed overseas. The Merchant Marine brought back war brides – some with babies – back home. The victorious troops returned home to a grateful nation and made the adjustment to civilian life. To help them, President Roosevelt and Congress enacted the Service Reinvestment Act of 1944 commonly known as The G.I. Bill. This bill was without a doubt one of the largest economic boons in American history.
The bill gave
• job preference,
• low cost home loans,
• health benefits, and a
• college education
to the troops after the war. At one time, college G.I. enrollment exceeded 50%. This produced engineers, doctors, lawyers, and other skilled professionals back into society.
President Roosevelt wanted to include the Merchant Marine veterans under the G.I. Bill, but he died before the war ended. His recommendation died with him. Over the years the Merchant Marine became the forgotten service. It was not until 1988, after a court battle, that they received a watered down G.I. bill benefit. This meant as veterans they could only
• be buried in a national cemetery, or
• accepted in a VA nursing home.
Then in January of 2005 Congressman Filner of California rose on the floor of the House and said “Mr. Speaker I rise today to correct a grave injustice that has been inflicted against the World War II veterans of the Merchant Marine.” He drafted a bill called “The Belated Thank You To The Merchant Marine Of World War II” and introduced it as bill HR 23. This bill would provide a small monthly pension to the some 8,000 remaining merchant seaman to help them in their retirement years. Their average age, in 2005, was 82. This bill would make up, in a small way, all the lifetime benefits never given to these veterans under the original G.I. Bill according to Congressman Filner. This bill passed the house and went to the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs to be released to the Senate floor for a vote to become law. This did not happen. Senator Akaka of Hawaii who was chairman of this committee never released the bill for a floor vote. At that time there were some 68 Senators who were signed on as co-sponsors of this bill. If the bill came to a floor vote it would have surely passed. Why did the senator prevent this bill from being marked up for a floor vote? No one knows but him. That was in 2005.
Today the average age of the 4,400 seaman still living is 93. The bill still remains dormant in Congress after thousands and thousands of letters, phone calls, and contacts from families and friends of these veterans. Most of these W.W.II veterans have perished during the war, or they have died over the years waiting for the government to correct this injustice.
The current bill in the house is HR 563 called “Honoring Our W.W.II Merchant Mariners Act of 2015.”
World War II Merchant Marine veteran and co-author of book “TORPEDOED FOR LIFE”