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Merchant Marines fight for benefits as veterans
McClatchy Newspapers


December 18, 2005

WASHINGTON - When Fred Lewis and other merchant mariners came home from World War II, they knew some people didn't consider them veterans. Some still don't.

Lewis joined the all-volunteer Merchant Marine in 1944 - at age 17 - and spent five years helping deliver supplies to troops around the world. During the war, he and fellow seamen endured terrible casualties while fighting back against kamikaze pilots, submarines and other attacks.

"They said we weren't part of the armed forces," Lewis said. "Then I don't know what we were doing with all those guns."

For Lewis and others, the battle for veteran status and benefits has lasted decades past the war. Now, mariners such as Lewis are again lobbying Congress to pass legislation that would compensate and recognize them for their service during World War II.




The legislation would give the war's Merchant Marine survivors, or their widows, a tax-exempt payment of $1,000 a month. It would also boost Social Security payments by giving the men credit for the time they had served between Dec. 7, 1941, and Dec. 31, 1946.

"They put their lives on the line just as much as other veterans," Rep.Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., said. "There were tons and tons of ships blown out of the water by German U-boats, and these guys were pretty much sitting ducks."

That is not an exaggeration. The Merchant Marine recorded that 1,554 of its ships were sunk during World War II. While exact figures are elusive, somewhere between 6,800 and 9,400 are thought to have died out of the roughly 243,000 who served.

Still, while facing enemy fire and unquestionably part of the U.S. war effort, the merchant mariners remained civilians. When the war ended, they were left out of the G.I. Bill and other benefits accorded military service veterans.

Even today, while acknowledging their service, politically vocal groups like the Veterans of Foreign Wars resist extending full veterans status to the merchant mariners.

"I don't think the bill is going anywhere," said Dennis Cullinan, legislative director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

With 2.4 million members nationwide, the VFW, along with the American Legion, is a particularly potent lobbying force. Cullinan said the veterans groups, while valuing the wartime service of merchant mariners, want to maintain the distinction. Merchant mariners were paid more, he said; they could walk away from a ship once they were in port, and they were not subject to military discipline.

"It's still fundamentally different from active-duty military service," Cullinan said. "They are not veterans."

The American Legion's deputy director, D. Michael Duggan, said the Legion has not yet taken a formal position on this year's legislation. He noted, though, that the nation's largest veterans group has evolved in its thinking. In the late 1980s, he recalled, the Legion was steadfastly opposed to recognition of the Merchant Marine.

"The thinking was, they didn't have it as hard," Duggan said. "They were paid more, and they were sleeping between clean sheets, so to speak."

Since then, Duggan said, the Legion has come to support some measures like extending honorable discharges; full-fledged health benefits, though, may still face resistance.

Lewis' father, too, served in the Merchant Marine. Growing up in Southern California, he shared an affinity for the sea.

"I always loved ships," said Lewis, now 78. "My dad was a sea captain, my family was all seafaring."

With the Merchant Marine, Lewis once withstood six days and nights of enemy attack aboard the freighter Marcus Daly. Lewis left the service with a letter of gratitude from then-President Harry Truman and a promise he wouldn't be drafted.

That lasted until the Korean War, which broke out in 1950. Lewis received a commission in the Army and served in Korea before heading home for good.

Today, he's a member of the Central California chapter of the American Merchant Marine Veterans. The group has about 40 members.

One is Gene A. Kelley, 77, who joined the Merchant Marine with parental consent in 1944. He was then 16 and living in Southern California.

"Everybody wanted to go someplace," Kelley said in explanation. He spent a year in the Merchant Marine, and traveled around the world at the blistering pace of about 9 mph.

In 1942, Jack Splivalo was 21 and working at the docks around San Francisco when he decided that becoming a merchant mariner was a better choice than the draft. He completed its form of boot camp, spent about six months at sea and then went through the Merchant Marine academy to become an officer.

Splivalo, who finished his service in 1945, said joining the Merchant Marine didn't keep anyone from harm's way.

"Every time they had an invasion, the Merchant Marine were right behind," said Splivalo, now 84.

The three former mariners, now living in the Fresno area, say they often were treated as second-class citizens at home and abroad. For example, Splivalo said when he went to the ration board to ask for the standard 20 gallons of fuel given to servicemen, he was told: "No gasoline for the Merchant Marine."


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