TORPEDOED FOR LIFE: WORLD WAR II COMBAT VETERANS OF THE U.S. MERCHANT MARINE by Gerry Starnes USMMA class of 1947.
Image from a WWII War Shipping Administration Poster
OK, this one is personal. My late Uncle was a ship's master in the U.S. Merchant Marine in WWII and served in Atlantic, North African, and Pacific Theaters of War from the outbreak to the victory over Japan. He survived being torpedoed, and many unsuccessful torpedo attacks, a serious ship fire, many storms. He lived under para naval discipline subject to the orders of the Chief of Naval Operations via the War Shipping Administration and carried troops and military cargo into and out of the war zone. By law the U.S. Merchant Marine is a naval auxiliary. As a naval auxiliary the mariners who hold U.S. Coast Guard issued merchant mariner credentials get no benefits when not in actual government service such as manning U.S. Navy owned Military Sealift Command transports, Air Force missile range boats, or Army Corps pf Engineers craft as civil servants. Other than these on water and some shore side positions in civil service American Merchant mariners are licensees (officers) or occupational certificate holders ( ratings) of the federal government competing in a free market job market. But when necessary all or part of this labor force can come under the direct control of some part of the federal government, in a declared war, direct control under the Chief of naval operations. During WWII the families of merchant mariners who lost their lives received no survivor benefits. Merchant mariners who became prisoners of war often simply had their pay and benefits stop. For decades after the war they were Ignored by the Veterans Administration. Then finally after the majority of that generation of merchant mariners were dead, the federal government began a program of issuing armed service discharges to those still surviving and to deceased merchant mariners whose families applied. Which service chartered or supervised the majority of vessels that a seaman served on determined the service that issued the discharge. The surviving seamen who applied and received their military discharge became eligible for VA burial benefits. Of course by this time mariners like my uncle and the the majority of his generation had already been buried at family expense. As a formally admitted Maritime Administration Practitioner I took the lead for my family's application for a discharge for my uncle.
As I said I am a formally admitted MARAD Practitioner and have a legal education and have dealt with government programs before. After experiencing the system I'm certain that many, if not most WWII Merchant Marine Vets have never received their discharges. One thing however that obtaining the discharge did was document the campaign medals that my uncle was qualified for. Obtaining even ancient decorations may mean something to families. Most of the remaining veterans are now in their late 80s or 90s and disappearing fast.
Since WWII there have been about 50 books written on the American Merchant Marine in WWII. This may well be the last one by an eye witness. The book is a sort of anthology in which surviving old vets tell their own stories in their own words. The stories include elements of their post war fights with two generations of forgetful politicians for recognition of their military service. By law these vets now enjoy full veteran status, if they can get through the red tape of the application process and produce the required documents more than a half century after the war. We rate this book "RECOMMENDED" for all serious students of naval/military/maritime history, and families of Merchant Mariners. My uncle never lived to see his honorable discharge certificate from the U.S. Coast Guard. The lesson that the subsequent mariners in my generation learned was to keep a uniform in the closet, have a Naval, Coast Guard Reserve, or Reserve of the Army Transportation Corps contract, and pay attention to drills, active duty for training, answer every call to duty and try and keep your government service on the direct government pay role. If the government exercises its authority over the U.S. Merchant Marine tomorrow as a "naval auxiliary", all these decades later, its all duty and obligation on the part of the mariners, their position today no different than it was in 1941. That's how this saying became popular through the years among America's merchant men. "...Yeah, I'm a merchant mariner...but don't tell mom.. she thinks I have a good job ...as a piano player in a cat house"
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