Cambrian: Slice of Life

Merchant Marines, like Vietnam vets, deserve our thanks

Kathe Tanner
Kathe Tanner jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Recently, I watched a short, poignant video on www.moments.org in which a waitress treated a soldier in uniform to a free cup of coffee. After the soldier sat at a table, a young boy and his mom thanked him for serving and asked if they could take his picture … all as a Vietnam vet watched pensively from the restaurant’s counter.

The twist came when the soldier, who had seen the older man’s military tattoo, quietly suggested (off camera) that the child and his mom also honor the older man, which they did with thanks and another photo op. The soldier then walked over, extended his own simple handshake, said “Thank you for your service” and gave a respectful salute.

According to the video, that was the Vietnam vet’s “moment of truth,” a time when he was told and shown that his service was appreciated.

Overdue? You bet, no matter how you felt about that 1960s-era war.

I knew many who served in Vietnam. My family hosted lots of them through a holiday program that linked area residents with young men awaiting orders to ship out.

The servicemen told us how much it meant to share time with us, but also when someone bought them a cup of coffee or a meal, extended a heartfelt handshake or pat on the back, or just simply said “Thanks for your service.”

We heard later from a few of our young guests about the other side of the coin, how much it had hurt to come home after their deployments to be greeted with jeers, denigrating signs and contempt. They hadn’t started the war, but they’d signed on or been drafted to help their countrymen, even though some of them didn’t support the concept of the battles they had to fight.

Some were able to rise above the disrespect and derision from their countrymen. Others never did. Some didn’t survive it.

But many have long been deprived of their just-due recognition and thanks for their dangerous wartime service.

They’re not alone.

Today’s Merchant Marine is a civilian service that handles commercial cargo, as was the case until the mid-1930s.

According to a Nov. 10, 2010, story in The Oregonian (blog.oregonlive.com/oregonatwar/2011/11/the_overlooked_veterans_of_the.html) the Merchant Marine Act of 1936 allowed the service to be converted during wartime to an auxiliary of the U.S. Navy. And during the war, the Merchant Marine provided vital logistical support as allied forces fought on three continents. As then-Gen. Dwight Eisenhower put it, “When final victory is ours there is no organization that will share its credit more deservedly than the Merchant Marine.”

Reporter Mike Francis wrote that during World War II, “merchant mariners played a critical support role for the Navy and other branches during World War II, ferrying fuel, troops and cargo to hot spots where fighting was taking place. Even though merchant vessels didn't have a combat mission, many were attacked and 733 were sunk.

“A year after the war, the government reported that 5,638 merchant seamen and officers were dead or missing and 581 were taken prisoner. In fact, the Merchant Marine death rate was 1 in 26, the highest rate among the services in World War II, according to USMM.org, the Merchant Marine history and advocacy site.”

I’m well aware of that: My husband Richard served during World War II as a Merchant Marine radio officer with stints in Okinawa (during the invasion), Pearl City and Manila.

Despite his service and having been promised veteran status when he signed up, he and his WWII mariner peers weren’t declared to be vets until a congressional action in 1988.

To this day, their veterans’ benefits are few, their acknowledgements rare.

My husband’s first public moment of truth, like the one the Vietnam vet received in the video? It was on a Veterans Day, when a restaurant owner asked Richard if he was a veteran and he was able to say “yes.” The woman then said, “Thank you for your service, sir,” hugged him, took his picture and told him his breakfast was on the house. So was the latte he tried to pay for later in the meal. People applauded, and others came up and thanked him.

That was in 2004.

It wasn’t the meal that mattered most, and he was deer-in-the-headlights stunned by all the attention. What almost brought him to tears was that was that he was being acknowledged by strangers as a vet and thanked by strangers for his service.

So, yes, recognition for the service of Vietnam vets has been a long time coming and long overdue.

But, no, they’re not alone.

Kathe Tanner’s column runs every other week in The Cambrian. Email her at ktanner@thetribunenews.com.

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