WASHINGTON. — For most veterans of World War II, the war that began on Dec. 7, 1941 ended on Dec. 31, 1946. President Harry Truman fixed that cutoff date for veterans' benefits, and that, as they say, was that.
But in the process of disbanding the armed forces in the immediate post-war period, the government fell into an act of indefensible unfairness: members of the Merchant Marine were denied veterans' status. More than 40 years elapsed before that was corrected. After a prolonged court battle against the Department of Defense, the mariners in January 1988 won the same general rights others had enjoyed all along. They became officially ''veterans.''
This belated act seemed too good to be true, and as it turned out, it was. On Jan. 17, 1988, in a shamefully vindictive response to the court decree, the defeated Defense Department imposed a further act of unfairness on the surviving old sailors. The secretary of the Air Force, to whom the responsibility strangely had been delegated, arbitrarily fixed the seamen's cutoff date as Aug. 15, 1945, instead of Dec. 31, 1946.
Relatively speaking, only a handful of men were affected by the cutoff decree of 1988. Fewer than 2,500 reportedly are still alive. That is all. These are the survivors of 20,000 merchant seamen who were still in training when hostilities ended on Aug. 15, 1945.
To treat them fairly now, in 1991, would amount largely to a symbolic act -- a flag for their coffins and a marker for their graves. The old salts long ago passed an age at which GI college benefits might have helped them. Few would be candidates for guaranteed GI loans. The cost to the taxpayers could be measured in nickels and dimes.
Rep. Jack Fields, R-Tex., has been trying for three years to rectify the injustice. The House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries unanimously approved his fairness bill a year ago, but the measure ran into a stone wall named Sonny Montgomery, D-Miss., chairman of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs, and there it died. I tried to get Montgomery's side of the story, but he failed to return repeated calls.
Now the Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries has again unanimously endorsed Fields' bill. Unfortunately for the aging merchant seamen, the Defense Department and the Department Veterans Affairs oppose the bill. The sailors are too few in number to be bothered with. Only an appeal to fair play seems likely to move the measure to enactment.
The opponents' principal objection is that after Aug. 15, 1945, merchant seamen were no longer subject to military control. The answer to that is yes and no.
All through the war the mariners occupied an anomalous status. Technically they were still civilians, but were subject to the full panoply of military discipline. Their pay, as the U.S. District Court concluded, was ''approximately comparable'' to the pay of men in the Navy. Adm. Chester Nimitz described the Merchant Marine as ''an auxiliary of the Army and Navy in time of war.'' The court found that 5,662 merchant seamen lost their lives to enemy action; another 600 were taken prisoner; their casualty rate almost exactly matched the casualty rate of the Marine Corps.
It was not until the end of August 1946 that the War Shipping Administration went out of existence. Over the ensuing four months, awaiting Truman's proclamation that ended the state of war, the merchant seamen remained subject to Navy discipline. It is difficult to understand why they should not receive the same benefits accorded other members of the armed services.
In the enormous bag of congressional concerns, Representative Fields' bill is small potatoes. The events that led to the unfairness happened a long time ago. Those who were in their 20s then are in their 70s now. They are motivated chiefly by personal pride. In the teeth of German U-boats, they transported million soldiers and uncounted tons of supplies and ammunition.
These few survivors ask only to be treated as other veterans have been treated. They ask for fair play.
James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.