Mariners deserve recognition for risking their lives in wartime

May 19, 2009 12:00 AM

I believe that a strong merchant marine, with U.S.-flag ships and boats manned by American merchant mariners, is fundamental not only to the economic security, but also to the national security of our nation. Since 1775, our military has relied on the merchant marine to bring the food, equipment, ammunition, weapons, and troop reinforcements needed at the war fronts. Without that vital support, our military could not do its job, but supplying this support has taken a terrible toll in merchant mariner lives.

Kings Point historian Capt. Arthur Moore's book A Careless Word states that one in 26 U.S. merchant mariners died in World War II — the highest percentage of any one of the services. The German U-boats (submarines) knew that if they destroyed the merchant marine supply line, they could stop the military of the United States and its allies, so merchant ships were attacked mercilessly throughout the war. Despite the great odds that they faced, over 200,000 civilian merchant mariners carried military cargoes across the oceans throughout the war. By the time World War II ended, 200 million tons of ammunition, equipment and food; 64 million tons of liquid cargo; and over seven million troops had been carried to support the war effort by the heroes in the U.S. Merchant Marine. After World War II ended, merchant mariners returned home to find a government that largely ignored their service.

My late father-in-law served as an assistant purser in the U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II. Twenty-five years ago he told me how a number of ships he was on were attacked in convoy. One ship blew up after being bombed, and he was lucky to escape with his life. He never received any compensatory benefits for his service to our country. On the other hand, my father, who served in the Navy during World War II, was given a lifetime disability payment from the VA for a partial loss of hearing due to an explosion on a destroyer he was on. After the war he returned home and also secured an inexpensive VA loan to buy a house, received employment preference for a manager's job at a factory, and used his GI Bill benefits to pay for four years at Carleton College in Minnesota, earning a degree in English. Knowing both of these men personally, I think that the difference in how they were treated after the war exemplifies the unacceptable lack of government benefits and recognition for merchant mariners who served our country in World War II.

A successful federal lawsuit and decades of effort from organizations like the American Merchant Marine Veterans finally convinced our government in 1988 to give veteran status to merchant mariners who risked their lives for our country during World War II. Unfortunately, 43 years after the war ended, most of the benefits offered had little practical value for men and women who were by that time 60 or older. Today, 64 years after World War II ended, H.R. 23, the Belated Thank You to Merchant Mariners of World War II Act is an attempt to show appreciation to the merchant mariners who served our country during that war, by providing them a $1,000-per-month benefit. The minimum age of a World War II merchant marine veteran in 2009 would be at least 80 years old. Along with industry leaders like Seafarers International Union President Mike Sacco, I urge you to contact your representative in Congress to support passage of H.R. 23.

Since World War II, U.S. merchant mariners have served our nation during armed conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, Operation Desert Shield, Operation Desert Storm, Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom — often at the cost of serious injuries and lost lives. In 1991, the U.S. Merchant Marine accomplished one of the largest sealifts in our country's history during Operation Desert Storm. (Sealift is a term used to describe the large-scale transport of military supplies, weaponry, and equipment in support of a military deployment). This pre-invasion supply buildup was four times the amount for the Normandy invasion in World War II, with thousands of civilian merchant mariners and hundreds of vessels making the 8,000 mile journey to "deliver the goods." I believe the U.S. Merchant Marine's contributions during the above conflicts should be fully recognized by our government. In 2004, the U.S. Merchant Marine was included on the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. I would like to see the Korean War Veterans Memorial and Vietnam Veterans Memorial include the names of the merchant mariners who died in those military operations as well. I also believe that merchant mariners who died in service during wars and armed conflicts should be officially honored each Memorial Day along with their military counterparts — something our government has so far chosen not to do.

Finally, I think that merchant mariners who served in war zones during the Korean War, Vietnam, Operation Desert Storm, Operation Desert Shield, Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom should also receive some compensatory benefits from our government, officially and fully acknowledging the pivotal role they played — while in harm's way.

U.S. merchant mariners have proudly crewed vessels supplying our troops overseas in the past, and will always continue to do so. As I write this column, I think of my father-in-law risking his life to bring gasoline to the Army in Europe, or my friend Mike who was on a ship carrying armored personnel carriers during the first Gulf War. For merchant marine veterans to wait 50 or 60 years for official government recognition of their service is unacceptable. I sincerely hope that the passage of H.R. 23 will lead our government to give U.S. merchant mariners the respect, consideration and benefits they deserve for their role in keeping our country safe and strong. Till next time I wish you all smooth sailin'. •



Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at captsweeney@ professionalmariner.com.

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