A National Disgrace
The Failure to Compensate the U.S. Merchant Marine of World War II
To: The Honorable Daniel Akaka (D-HI), Chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs
Dear Senator Akaka:
A great travesty of forgotten valor has beleaguered the U.S. Merchant Marine since the end of World War II. Today, recognition and compensation for these veterans languishes in the Veterans Affairs Committee and, as in the past, will soon be forgotten.
Senate Bill 663 will amend Title 38, U.S. Code, and direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to establish the Merchant Marine Equity Compensation Fund to provide benefits to certain individuals who served in the U.S. Merchant Marine (including the Army Transport Service and the Naval Transportation Service) during World War II.
Sir, recall watching the bombing of Pearl Harbor from your high school dormitory and remember how you served this nation during the war. And you were not even a citizen of this nation yet. Think of the young Americans who also joined the service to defend their country, many giving the ultimate sacrifice, including the 8,651 merchant mariners who also died.
These Americans came to serve their nation no matter what branch of service they ended up in, and many were selected to become U.S. Merchant Mariners. When the U.S. entered the war in 1941, the Merchant Marine only had 55,000 members within its ranks and it grew to 215,000. The Army and National Guard had 400,000 and that swelled to 11,268,000; the Navy had 10,923 and it grew to 437,524; and the Coast Guard had 12,000 and eventually 160,000. Over 16,100,000 Americans fought against the Axis tyranny in what became the most horrific global war in the history of mankind.
The National Defense Act of 1920 charged the Secretary of War with the planning of mobilization and procurement for the Defense Department. While the U.S. retreated into isolationism after the “Great War,” it still recognized that it had to take control of the necessary resources for war and did so throughout the 1930s, including the “nationalization” of the Merchant Marine. In fact, by the time of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. had spent more for wartime procurement than it had spent on the Army and the Navy during all of World War I.
In 1940, Congress passed the Selective Service and Training Act because Germany was invading all parts of Europe as were the Japanese throughout Asia. To put a fine point on Asia, the U.S. seized the Philippine Islands in 1898 after Admiral Dewey’s victory in Manila Bay against Spain. From that time and throughout WWII, the U.S. assumed all national defense obligations for the Philippine Archipelago of 7,100 islands and inlets. A few hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese also attacked the Philippines in a similar devastating blow. General Douglas MacArthur and his garrison of 10,000, half of whom were Filipinos, fought valiantly and extracted a terrible toll on the Japanese.
MacArthur’s stubborn defense of Bataan, Corregidor, and the rest of the Philippine islands stood as inspiration for Americans because their heroic efforts demonstrated to the nation that Japanese soldiers were not invincible. I bring this to your attention because Senator Daniel Inouye, with your backing, had vigorously campaigned to gain full recognition for the Filipino veterans of WWII under the Filipino Veterans Equity Compensation Act. Recently, the Senate and the House passed a rider attached to President Obama’s stimulus bill which provides the Filipino veterans of WWII a lump sum payment of $15,000 for each veteran living in the U.S. and $9,000 for each veteran living in the Philippines, with total compensation of $146 million.
Sir, did you realize that U.S. Merchant Marine veterans of WWII were denied veteran status four times by the Civilian Review Board until President Reagan signed the U.S. Merchant Marine Fairness Act in 1988? But the inequity didn’t stop there because the Air Force administrator overseeing their status arbitrarily chose August 15, 1945 as the end of hostilities, which left about 4,000 members without VA status. From December 31, 1946, the official end of WWII hostilities, to the VA budget of 2010, American veterans and their families have received about $1,886 trillion in benefits.
The U.S. Merchant Marine was on the front lines of every critical battle during World War II. In the first six months after the US entered the war, 400 Allied ships were destroyed and 5,000 American, British, Canadian and other seamen were killed. About 2,700 ships of the merchant marine were involved with the first wave of the invasion on D-Day, landing troops and munitions under heavy fire. During the next year, merchant mariners delivered 2.5 million troops and 17 million tons of munitions and half a million trucks and tanks from England to France.
In 1944, the merchant marine delivered 30,000 troops and 500,000 tons of supplies to Leyte during the invasion of the Philippines. During the invasion of Okinawa, the U.S. merchant ships came under fire by 2,000 kamikazes and conventional aircraft. Forty-four merchant ships were sunk during the invasions from Guadalcanal to Iwo Jima. After the end of hostilities, the U.S. Merchant Marine transported the weary combat soldiers, the wounded and the dead back to the U.S., as well as the surrendered armies back to Japan. Tragically, 25 more US merchant ships were sunk before the official end of hostilities.
Today, the Belated Thank-You to the Merchant Mariners of World War II Act of 2009 still sits in committee. This act would provide a “Merchant Mariner Equity Compensation Fund,” which would provide a lump sum payment of $45,000 to all surviving Merchant Marine veterans or a $5,000 lump sum payment for the surviving widows of deceased mariners.
It is time for Congress to put an end to this tremendous travesty because those who served in the U.S. Merchant Marine were not mercenaries. Like all Americans who fought against tyranny, these patriots of WWII did so for a nation that had been attacked, and they stood in harm’s way. World War II ended 65 years ago, and all that remains are the octogenarians and nonagenarians appropriately known as the “Greatest Generation.”
It is incumbent on the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States to finally acknowledge the U.S. Merchant Marine of World War II and extend a hand of gratitude before they all fade away into the final pages of the twentieth century, because “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.