WASHINGTON -- Merchant seamen were the lifeblood of U.S. forces in World War II, suffering more combat deaths proportionally than any branch of the military except the Marines.
Yet, it took 40 years for the government to officially recognize merchant seamen as veterans.
Though the Pentagon's January 1988 decision technically extended to merchant mariners the same benefits enjoyed by other veterans of the war, it came so late that its actual effect was minimal. Most of the seamen were in their mid-60s or older by then, and it was too late for them to seek education funds, low-interest home loans and the like.
Nevertheless, nearly 78,000 applications for veterans' status have flooded the military since then -- a number that dwarfed expectations and probably represents the bulk of wartime merchant seamen still alive.
For most, the quest has far more to do with the 8-by-10-inch discharge certificate they receive than any remaining benefits it might bring. Those benefits may include health care for those who are impoverished or have service-related disabilities, but more often are limited to a flag-draped casket and a headstone in a military cemetery.
Two former merchant seamen from Maryland were recognized in October 1988 in a special ceremony in Washington to symbolize the government's effort to grant benefits to the civilian sailors.
Clarence Bartholomew, 84, of Baltimore and Henry E. Thomason, 77, of Fort Washington were presented with honorable discharges at Coast Guard headquarters.
"The vast majority simply wanted that piece of paper that gave them an honorable discharge. . . . The recognition just meant everything to them," says Gloria Rudman, legislative director for the American Maritime Congress, an advocacy group for U.S. shipping interests. Rudman was a key player in the federal suit that forced the Defense Department to grant veterans' status to the merchant seamen.
"It was such a feeling of elation after fighting for 11 or 12 years to finally succeed in court," she says. "They [the mariners] had to live with a feeling that they'd done something wrong, that they didn't do something honorable in the war. . . . They were lucky to be survivors."
Documents in the court battle, which followed years of unsuccessful lobbying by the seamen and various unions and mariner groups, showed that German U-boats sank 145 merchant ships in the first three months of the war alone. By the war's end, 733 merchant vessels had been sunk by the Axis powers.
The Marines had the highest rate of combat deaths of any branch of the military during the war.
Of the 669,100 Marines who saw duty, 19,733 -- 2.9 percent -- were killed in action. Some 5,662 merchant mariners were killed in action -- roughly 2.3 percent of the approximately 250,000 men who served.
Merchant mariners were crew members on military and commercial ships that ferried virtually all U.S. troops and supplies to foreign shores, prompting Adm. William King,
wartime chief of naval operations, to say, "Without this support, the Navy could not have accomplished its mission."
The Defense Department and several major veterans organizations, the American Legion included, opposed the effort recognize the mariners as veterans. They argued that the civilian seamen had limited military training, were not under the same obligation as enlisted personnel to serve mission after mission, and were better paid than were Navy sailors.
"It is important to those who are veterans and to the continuing national security that the term 'veteran' should be jealously guarded by those who have the responsibility and authority to bestow it," James P. Dean, then-national commander of the American Legion, wrote in a 1987 letter urging the Pentagon to deny the seamen veterans' status.
A veteran, he added, is someone "who served in the active military."
But U.S. District Court Judge Louis Oberdorfer in Washington ruled that the department's arguments for denying seamen's requests for veterans' status "did not adequately support its conclusion" and ordered the Pentagon to change its position. The Defense Department subsequently granted veterans' status to seamen who sailed on a U.S.-flagged merchant ship between Dec. 7, 1941, and Aug. 15, 1945.
The January 1988 decision was a major but incomplete victory for merchant seamen. Advocacy groups contend the cutoff date is arbitrary and capricious, because the end of 1946 is used in determining war duty for those in other services. They have had no luck, however, in having the years of eligibility extended for the mariners.
Rep. Jack Fields, R-Texas, has tried to get Congress to correct the discrepancy, but failed to push through legislation to change the cutoff date, which would make another 2,000 or so seamen eligible.
Nevertheless, the merchant mariners hail the judge's ruling as key to dispelling what they say is a widespread misconception that merchant seamen were largely draft-dodgers or unqualified for military service.