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Giving Merchant Mariners their due

Published July 13. 2014 4:00AM

A year after World War II ended, the government reported the death toll for each of the armed forces during the war and the numbers ranged from 318,274 for the Army to 1,917 for the Coast Guard.

Listed separately were the 5,662 killed in the Merchant Marine, along with 4,780 others missing, but presumed dead. This amounted to one in 24 merchant seamen killed in action, higher than the mortality rate of any of the regular armed forces. Many of them were killed aboard the hundreds of vessels sunk by German submarines.

The Merchant Marine dead were segregated from the other forces after the war because their ships carried war cargo but did not have what they called an official combat mission. As a result, their crews were not recognized as veterans until a federal court ruled they were in 1988 - if they could prove they had served in the war.

And therein lies the problem. Some of these veterans never had records of their service from the ships they sailed on or they misplaced them over the years. Many of the government records concerning those who served on merchant ships were lost in a fire in the 1970s.

The lack of records is especially a problem for merchant mariners who served aboard the tugs and barges that carried supplies for the war to along the coasts of the United States. These seamen - and women and sometimes children - were a motley crew. A group of more than 1,000 from these barges and tugs was identified by a Merchant Marine advocacy group and found to include 84 with women's names, 47 under the age of 17 and 525 over the draft age. They were men rejected by the draft for physical disabilities. They ranged in age from 10 to 78.

Tug boats and barges were often operated by members of a single family in peacetime and the practice continued during the war, which accounts for the many crew members disqualified for normal military service or the draft by virtue of their age and gender or physical disability. But this didn't prevent them from risking - and sometimes losing - their lives in their country's service.

They were the people cited by President Franklin Roosevelt in a Fireside Chat during the first year of the war when he warned, "We shall be compelled to use older men and handicapped people and more women and even grown boys and girls wherever possible." He later said those on merchant ships had "the most difficult job ever undertaken."

Now the few hundred surviving crew members with inadequate credentials are trying to gain the recognition long denied a a few benefits that include care in a veterans' hospital, eligibility for medals and the right to be buried in military cemeteries.

A bill introduced in the Senate last year by Connecticut's Richard Blumenthal and Christopher Murphy and Republican Susan Collins of Maine and in the House by 2nd District Congressman Joseph Courtney and others from both parties would allow these elderly men and women to qualify through time logs, Social Security records and affidavits from those who witnessed their service.

A 2011 bill, passed by the House, would also award these survivors $1,000 a month for the rest of their lives, mainly because they are no longer likely to use benefits like education or home loans that were available to other veterans for decades.

The bills haven't passed because relatively few pieces of legislation have been acted upon in this polarized Congress. There is some opposition from veterans groups who argue the merchant seamen and women who operated the barges along the coast didn't fight, but that's also true of 38 percent of the all the World War II members of the military who served in essential, rear echelon jobs. And the sinking of a merchant ship off Fishers Island, with the loss of a dozen crew members on May 5, 1945, three days before the war in Europe ended, indicates service along the coast also came with risks.

"When final victory is ours," Gen. Dwight Eisenhower wrote at the height of the war, "there is no organization that will share in its credit more deservedly than the Merchant Marine."

It's time for the last of them to share in that credit.

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