Advocates are making a last-minute push to honor the last surviving Merchant Marines who fought in World War II and were denied many of the benefits given to other branches of the military. Bay Area Congressman John Garamendi (D) introduced a pair of bills in Congress that would award each survivor $25,000 and a gold Congressional Medal of Honor. But advocates for the veterans say time is running short.
“Every day we lose more and more Merchant Marine veterans of World War II,” said Christian Yuhas, a current Bay Area Merchant Marine engineer who is helping to lead the effort. “Before they pass away we would love to have a well-deserved thank you in the form of a gold medal from Congress.”
Merchant Marines served in a support capacity delivering supplies and personnel to the Army and Navy during the war. But of the 250 thousand who labored during the war, fewer than 2000 are believed to be still living. Several attempts to pass similar bills in Congress in recent years failed. Yuhas has been making calls and sending emails to Congressional members hoping to get the bills passed this week before Congress goes on recess.
“For a very long time the Merchant Marine force wasn’t considered an armed force,” Yuhas said, “because it was a volunteer group of mariners that volunteered to man the ships at sea.”
For decades after the war, the mariners were denied G.I. benefits afforded to other military branches. It wasn’t until 1988 they were finally awarded the benefits of the G.I. Bill. But some veterans said it was too little, too late.
“By then, the guys were then in their seventies,” said Frank Mendez, a retired Merchant Marine who served in World War II. “The GI benefit wouldn’t do much for education or anything else.”
The war veterans argue even though they weren’t a fighting force, they were subjected to the same perils as the units they supported. They were often called upon to deliver supplies to dangerous war torn beaches in the South Pacific and targeted by kamikaze fliers. Some 800 Merchant Marine vessels were sunk during the war with around 8000 casualties.
“Percentage-wise we lost more percentage than any other service branches,” Mendez said.
Veteran Harold Wagner said the passage of the two bills would mark a significant gesture by the government to recognize the role he and other Merchant Marines played the war. Like Mendez, Wagner joined the volunteer mariner force at the age of 16 — serving at the tail end of the World War II and later in the Korean War. He said often times when mariner’s ships were sunk, they’d be transported back to the U.S. to immediately board other ships headed back to the war.
“I think they were very important,” Wagner said. “They couldn’t have won the war without the Merchant Marines.”
Yuhas said supporters of the bills were racing to collect enough sponsors in Congress to move the bill forward.
“We cannot and will not forget them for the dedicated service they provided our country,” Yuhas said. “A well-deserved thank you would be a wonderful gift to what’s left of the Merchant Marine veterans from World War II.“