Opinion Columns & Blogs

Merchant Marines need recognition

How would you like to have risked your life in the service of your country, then to be ignored afterward by the government that relied on your sacrifice during time of war?

Unfortunately that’s exactly what happened to thousands of men who served on Liberty ships as Merchant Marines during World War II.

If you didn’t know about that shameful chapter in our country’s historic record, join the club. George Hale recently brought it to my attention in announcing that he and fellow merchant sailors had formed the Carl W. Minor chapter of the WWII Merchant Marines.

I caught up with Hale by speaker phone in the kitchen of his Atascadero home as he was busy whipping up English muffins for lunch and a dessert for dinner.

The robust 89-year-old explained that each man in the group had served on a Liberty ship during WWII, facing nature’s challenges as well as German torpedoes, Japanese Kamikaze pilots and heavily mined seas.

Historians note that not all of these guys were prime specimens who could enlist in the armed services. Some were only 16 or younger, others may have been missing an arm, leg or eye, had a bad heart or were as old as 75.

Yet why these seamen should have gotten short shrift and denied veterans’ benefits is an ugly mystery. Especially when you consider that 1 in 26 mariners serving aboard a Liberty ship in WWII was killed, a percentage of casualties surpassed only by the Marine Corps.

Before they came home from Normandy, Guadalcanal, Anzio and POW camps, about 9,300 mariners had drowned, frozen or burned to death on the 700-plus Liberty ships that were sunk.

An additional 12,000 were wounded, with many of those suffering third-degree burns from jumping into oily sea fires as their ships sank. Outrageously, the government refused to give them VA benefits, and they had to pay for reconfiguring their burnt faces and arms with plastic surgery on their own dime.

Although FDR recognized the significance of their efforts and promised them the G.I. Bill of Rights equivalent of a Seaman’s Bill of Rights, that was forgotten after he died in office.

Ironically, no one doubts the value of these mariners and what they did; after all, it took seven to 15 tons of supplies to support one soldier overseas for a year, all supplied by mariners who also loaded, transported and unloaded everything from flashlights to locomotives to megatons of ammunition.

Yet when they came home, gossip columnists of the time somehow fixed on the idea that these combat veterans were draft dodgers and that they made more money than regular Navy personnel (they didn’t), which meant they shouldn’t get veterans benefits. Reprehensible isn’t too strong a word for the treatment they received.

It wasn’t until 1988 that President Ronald Reagan recognized their efforts and gave them limited VA benefits.

As we celebrate Memorial Day this weekend, it’s well worth remembering that merchant mariners sacrificed every bit as much as our uniformed members of the armed services and, as such, also deserve our collective gratitude.

Bill Morem can be reached at bmorem@thetribunenews.com or 781-7852.