Archive for Thursday, May 27, 2004

The forgotten service: Merchant Marines are veterans, too’

May 27, 2004

"During World War II, as they did since the American Revolution, Merchant Mariners 'delivered the goods' to every front.

"But once the war was won, what the bureaucrats in Washington did to the Merchant Marines was reprehensible. They treated them like second class citizens, and worse."

-Excerpts taken from the Merchant Marine Website at www.usmm.org

It's a sunny but slightly overcast Saturday morning inside the quiet Woodsonia residential neighborhood in western Shawnee. Outside the home of Eugene and Beverly Barner, a light breeze blows America's stars and stripes back and forth.

Inside, in the couple's living room, pictures of family members and friends adorn the walls. A scrapbook, littered with old news clippings and black and white photographs, rests on the floor.

Somewhere in between the wall decorations and the scrapbook is a life Eugene Barner, a member of the U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II, will never know. It was a life that could have been, had the proper steps been taken 60 years ago to provide Merchant Marines like him with the same benefits as other veterans.

"There's an upside and a downside to that," Barner said. "At that time, I probably would have gone to college. The downside is I might not have the family I do.

"I guess you just never know what might have been."

Saturday, May 22, was National Maritime Day, a day dedicated to mariners servicing America's war efforts. In addition to delivering the tools of war -- tanks, airplanes and ammunition -- to soldiers, the Merchant Marines, a service branch of the U.S. Coast Guard, also delivered mail, raw materials, rations and medical equipment among an almost-infinite amount of other items.

Yet, today, on a day dedicated to their memory, there will be no parade for the men and women of the Merchant Marines. Although the weather outside is ripe for a celebration, there will be none for this service branch.

"It sits wrong with me," said Barner, who along with the American Merchant Marines Veterans' Heart of America Chapter is lobbying Kansas lawmakers to support House Resolution 3729, a bill in Congress that would help rectify some of the slights Merchant Marines have endured throughout the years.

Paul Lamp, a former Merchant Marine and comrade of Barner's in the veterans organization, echoed similar sentiments.

"It's always going to be there," Lamp said. "It's a stain. We're always going to be forgotten."

The contributions and sacrifices the Merchant Marines made to winning World War II cannot be doubted.

More than 250,000 volunteer Mariners delivered 85 percent of all material used in fighting the war on all fronts. They were present at every invasion in the Second Great War, including D-Day.

Barner said without Merchant Marines, "England would have ended up as Germany west."

President Franklin D. Roosevelt said Merchant Marines "delivered the goods when and where needed in every theater of operations and across every ocean in the biggest, the most difficult and dangerous transportation job ever undertaken."

While doing so, the Merchant Marines suffered the highest casualty rate of any branch serving during World War II.

Nine thousand Mariners were killed, 11,000 injured and 600 taken as prisoners of war.

One in 26 mariners were killed, according to statistics. By contrast, one Marine for every 34, one Army soldier per every 48 and one Navy sailor in every 114 died during the war.

Enemy vessels sank more than 1,500 ships. One in eight mariners lost their ships due to torpedoes, mines, bombers or Kamikaze attacks.

U.S. Army General Douglas MacArthur, like other military leaders, praised the efforts of the Merchant Marines.

"With us they have shared the heaviest enemy fire," McArthur said according to records. "I have ordered them off their ships and into fox holes when their ships became untenable targets of attack. At our side they have suffered in bloodshed and in death.

"I hold no branch in higher esteem than the Merchant Marines."

Barner, who traveled the globe as a Merchant Marine, joined the volunteer service in November 1943. He was among the fortunate sailors to make it through the war unscathed.

"I was one lucky S.O.B. to put it plainly," he said.

That doesn't mean he didn't stand in harm's way on occasion, though. While docked in Okinawa, a staging area for a planned invasion of Japan, the ships suffered nightly Kamikaze attacks.

While Barner made it out alive, many did not. Soon after, the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Japan and the war was over. Many soldiers were able to return home, but not the Merchant Marines.

After the war ended in 1944, the government asked Merchant Marines to "stay on and your benefits will be enhanced," as Lamp said. It was a promise never quite fulfilled.

Benefits given to regular military personnel like the G.I. Bill, lifetime disability benefits and low interest home loans were not available to the Merchant Marines. Though they died more, life insurance coverage given to Merchant Marines was half that given to Army and Navy soldiers.

Legislation in 1945 and 1947 proposed giving Merchant Marines the same benefits as other veterans. The proposal failed both times and it would be decades later, in 1988, before the government even recognized Merchant Marines as veterans.

Roosevelt, perhaps the sailors' biggest supporter, died before he could fulfill his vow of affording Merchant Marines with the same benefits as other military service men and women.

"President Roosevelt hoped for the Merchant Marines to be given similar benefits but he died before this could all come about," Barner said. "There were efforts throughout, but nothing happened until 1988."

By then, Merchant Marines were eligible for the G.I. Bill. Both Barner and Lamp, like so many other mariners, were already retired from their careers and attending college no longer appeared on their radar.

It's a sticking point with Merchant Marines like Barner and Lamp.

Barner, who on this Saturday is seated on a nearby foot-stool emblazoned with a Kansas Jayhawk, is resigned to being a KU fan instead of an alumnus. Lamp, who attended his granddaughter's graduation at KU last weekend, said he was reminded of what could have been while watching seniors collect their diplomas.

"If I had the G.I. Bill, I could have done that," Lamp said. "But, here we are . . ."

Neither Barner nor Lamp are upset with the lives they've led. Both are reasonably healthy and happy and are able to share time with their families. They, however, aren't the focus of their lobbying efforts in Congress.

A 91-year-old Merchant Marine veteran living in a low-rent apartment complex in Riverside, Mo., is the focus. He is an example of the conditions some Merchant Marines, just as patriotic as other World War II veterans, are going through today and without much help from a country they once protected.

"As far as going back 60 years and changing things, that's not possible," Barner said, "but (H.R. 3729) would mean a lot.

"I'm getting along fine but a lot of guys I see could really use it," he added.

If passed into law, H.R. 3729 would provide $1,000 a month to Merchant Marines and their families. With the average age of mariners being 81, and with escalating costs for medical treatment and prescription drugs, the 91-year-old veteran, like so many others, could use the $1,000 a month stipend, Barner said.

So far, the bill has 63 co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle in the House of Representatives. That's not nearly enough, Barner said.

"This is not a political thing," he said. "We need help from both sides. We feel the stronger our co-sponsors are, the easier it will become."

Barner and Lamp, their local veterans organization, and 70 to 75 other chapters around the country, will continue to lobby lawmakers to support the bill. They said they will maintain a campaign of steady letter writing, telephone calls and whatever else necessary to ensure the bill is approved.

They are also asking the public to contact local Senators and Representatives in hopes that politicos will support the bill. They ask the public to call the Capitol switchboard toll free at 1-877-762-8762 to speak to their representative.

"It's going to take a real strong effort and we need all the help we can get," Barner said.

They also ask that next week, on Memorial Day, the public remember not only the soldiers who fought bravely and spilled blood on foreign lands, but also Merchant Marines who shared those same losses on the high seas.

"We're veterans, too," Barner said. "We were right there along with everybody else."

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