By Mike Lado
A 2011 article appearing on Oregon Live entitled “Merchant Marine veterans of World War II still waiting for full compensation decades later” by Mike Francis tells the story of the United States Merchant Marine during World War II. The United States Merchant Marine is a group of American flagged, civilian-crewed vessels that played a critical role as an auxiliary of the Navy in the war by transporting much needed war supplies and equipment to Allied forces overseas.
Merchant Mariners’ vessels were often attacked and sunk by German submarines. 5,638 merchant seamen and officers were killed or went missing in the war, according to Francis. An additional 581 men were taken prisoner. After the war, Merchant Marine veterans were denied veterans status and left out of the GI Bill and loan programs that benefited veterans from the Armed Forces.
According to Francis, a Federal court ruling in 1988 officially granted veterans discharge papers and made them eligible for Veteran Administration medical care. Peter DeFazio (D-Cal.), of the United States House of Representatives, co-sponsored a bill that would have paid the remaining Merchant Marine veterans $1,000 a month.
There are only an estimated 10,000 Merchant Marine Veterans left. Overall, World War II veterans are dying at rate of “800 to 1,100 a day,” according to Francis, who cites a Veterans Administration estimate.
DeFazio acknowledged this. “We’re running out of time on the merchant mariners,” said DeFazio, warning that time was running out to act on the bill for the remaining Merchant Mariners.
In a 2013 article in the Press Democrat, author Chris Smith mentions the story of 90-year-old Merchant Marine veteran Hans Skalagard, who told his story and discussed the risks of service in the Merchant Marine. “I made 33 crossings,” said Skalagard, referring to the convoy system that sailed from the United States to England with supplies for the war effort.
Smith said that Skalagard also spent 21 days in the South Atlantic after his ship was torpedoed. Despite the 1988 court ruling that granted Merchant Marine Veteran Administration Medical benefits, they are still left out of the GI Bill.
According to Smith, who explains that some Merchant Mariners started advocating for benefits for their service, “many contend that it is a correctable affront that though the civilian sailors performed with valor and suffered a high death rate, they were left out of the GI Bill that helped their armed comrades to attend college or vocational training, start a business or buy a home.”